Harvard Business Review

Five Tips for Leading Campaigns for Change


Posted on Harvard Business Review: May 17, 2010 11:00 AM

Everyone agrees that culture is the hardest thing to change, whether ethics in the financial system or the eating habits of individuals. That's because change is not a decision like appointing a new CEO, nor is it an event like winning an election. Change is an ongoing campaign.

Even in a hierarchy, top officials can declare a new policy or restructure by fiat, but they can't change behavior without a campaign to win hearts and minds. If culture change is difficult within a company, it is even harder in looser systems such as communities and countries. In his book, All Deliberate Speed, Charles Ogletree examines the 50 years after the Supreme Court passed Brown v. Board of Education ordering the desegregation of U.S. public schools; yet decades later schools remain de facto segregated. If laws don't produce change, then leaders must become adept at campaigns to change behavior.

The best campaigns for change have five elements:

• Memorable messages. Campaigns, like brand marketing, start with a clear, succinct, easy to repeat, emotionally compelling message. The designated driver campaign, spearheaded by Jay Winsten at the Harvard School of Public Health 21 years ago, reduced fatalities from drunk driving by 25% in its first four years alone using the slogan "The designated driver is the life of the party." The message plays off of "life of the party" to signify that the party will be fun, while reminding people that "life" depends on a driver who doesn't drink. Similarly, playful yet compelling images animate Dr. Hugo Tempelman's campaign to stop HIV/AIDS in South Africa. The campaign features billboards with a cartoon condom and slogans accompanied by a soccer ball that start with the line "Men with balls..." and complete the sentence with safe sex behavior.

• Stories. Narrative is a powerful tool for campaigns. People remember other people and stories better than numbers. First Lady Michelle Obama is leading a campaign against obesity by getting Americans up and walking. Personal testimonials motivate people, particularly when they see that those they admire take new actions. For big media campaigns, celebrity stories catch attention. Actor Dennis Quaid, who almost lost his twin children to medical errors, stars in a made-for-TV movie about patient safety, Chasing Zero, produced by Dr. Charles Denham, a physician/entrepreneur and an Advanced Leadership Fellow at Harvard (a program I'm involved with). Chasing Zero has aired several times on the Discovery Channel and is the basis for a campaign aimed at hospital boards and community leaders.

• Action tools and roles. In a successful campaign, there is a clear step anyone can take, without requiring elaborate new processes, even if more complex change is required eventually. A checklist for surgery is a simple, actionable tool, as Dr. Atul Gawande argues in his new book. The designated driver is a role that is immediately clear to everyone attending a party, and anyone can take it on. When IBM mounted a campaign to increase employee engagement in North America, the company created a new role, called "mayor," for neighborhood-based networks to build connections and community service, called "spirit communities."

• Coalitions of partners. Change campaigns need many suppliers, distributors, and allies. The "100,000 Lives" campaign mounted by Dr. Donald Berwick at the Institute for Healthcare Improvement (IHI), aimed at saving 100,000 lives lost annually to preventable medical errors. IHI mobilized 3000 hospitals to implement safer practices. Berwick (now nominee to head Medicare) later expanded this to a "5 Million Lives" campaign to reduce all forms of hospital-generated harm, adding more hospitals armed with more tools. In a different realm, NASA head Charles Bolden, a former Harvard Advanced Leadership Fellow with Denham, caught the change campaign spirit. He recently launched NASA's "Summer of Innovation" in its first four states. This campaign enlists middle school students and teachers in efforts to improve STEM education (science, technology, engineering, and math), using NASA scientific resources as a catalyst.

• "Point of action" nudges. Popular media messages get generalized attention, just as commercials for products do, but like marketing campaigns that require point of sale support, successful behavior change campaigns need to place reminders at the point of action—the moment of truth when behavior is set in motion. For example, bars are naturals for designated driver or safe sex campaign materials. Hand-washing reminders and hand-sanitizers are now prevalent in restaurants and hospitals.

Campaigns for culture change flourish under experienced leaders in later stages of life ready to jump into making a big impact on society. This reasoning underlies the meta-campaign of the Advanced Leadership Fellowship: to deploy a leadership force of social change campaigners. We're seeking a few great leaders to join the movement and create the next designated driver, patient safety, or science education campaign. The results can improve competitiveness and save lives. That's a campaign worth undertaking.

Copyright © 2012 Harvard Business School Publishing. All rights reserved. Harvard Business Publishing is an affiliate of Harvard Business School.

Rosabeth Moss Kanter holds the Ernest L. Arbuckle Professorship at Harvard Business School, where she specializes in strategy, innovation, and leadership for change. Her strategic and practical insights have guided leaders of large and small organizations worldwide for over 25 years. The former Editor of Harvard Business Review (1989-1992), Professor Kanter has been named to The Times of Londonlist of the "50 most powerful women in the world".

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