2 Change Initiatives, 7 Lessons Learned

Two Change Initiatives
in the World Bank

Between 1995 and 1997 I participated in two change initiatives at the World Bank. They were both called Knowledge Management. The first one never took off beyond a small circle of invested parties. The second one changed the organization and the world in two short years, demonstrating how an old, stodgy, bureaucratic organization can reinvent itself faster than any one could have planned.

First, I was recruited to join the team building the Bank’s Knowledge Management System. In back rooms a select few world-class thought-leaders drew on a dedicated budget to design and implement a powerful, new tool they hoped would revolutionize the way business was done. I was part of that team.

We huddled in special meetings, witnessed remarkable demonstrations, and marveled at the power of the Internet to spread knowledge and experience.

One year later, the enthusiasm was still confined to our small group and just a few more who had joined our inner circle. It seemed to me we were going nowhere and I made up my mind to leave.

I was staying late one evening, writing my letter of resignation, when Steve Denning stopped by and asked what I was doing. I told him and he asked me to give him an hour before I turned in my letter of resignation.

Later that evening I had what I wanted, a new job. I was now on loan to Steve. He by contrast had no money and no resources except for one half-time assistant. He was able to wrangle my time and the time of one of my colleagues, Lesley Schneier, as a loan from the Chief Information Officer.

Steve was working with bits and pieces. He cobbled together resources here and there, and he did way more with his bits and pieces than the first team accomplished with a dedicated budget. Whether he knew it or not, Steve intuitively understood what engagement was and he knew how to use it.

Two years later our little team, by then six people, had grown over 120 communities inside the organization to champion our program. Thousands of people were deeply involved not only inside but also outside the World Bank, pushing the agenda forward on multiple fronts in a giant social network.

We achieved international prominence, receiving recognition from independent evaluation organizations and regular visits from business gurus. Our program obtained $60,000,000 in annual allocations. More than that, we influenced hundreds of projects, impacting perhaps millions of lives. These changes happened so fast, it was often disorienting.

Steve’s working style was the polar opposite of the first, secretive team. He told everybody what he was up to. In fact, we spent a good deal of time in the beginning figuring how to tell as many people as we could as fast as possible.

We settled on storytelling because it worked so well. We tried out different versions of our story. We convened storytelling think tanks with Hewlett Packard, Harvard, Eastman Chemical, Ernst & Young, the International Storytelling Center, and others. We tried different kinds of stories until we found those that worked best to spark change. Steve wrote a book about it, The Springboard: How Storytelling Ignites Action in Knowledge-Era Organizations.

We identified all the people who were major players and contacted them regularly. We convened those who understood and supported what we were up to, our evangelists. We met with directors and project managers who had the most to gain from our ideas.

We brought in key players like the World Bank Publisher whose participation could make or break some of our most important efforts. But, we didn’t stop there.

We created working groups. We did dog and pony shows. We met with clients. We visited other agencies that were doing what we were trying to do and brought them in to visit us. We met with business gurus like Peter Senge.

We even met regularly and often with our detractors. We met with everyone, everywhere, at every opportunity. We were a meeting machine. We lived in a river of conversations that never stopped.

The dialogue, like a river, spread and flowed to parts unimagined and permeated the tiniest crevices until everything was wet with new ideas, innovation. Everywhere we went people were thinking about Knowledge Management, what it meant to them and their work, how they could become involved and the benefits it could bring to their worlds.

The power of the transformation was unnerving, awesome. It travelled so fast that it often reached where our little team was going long before we did.

Seven Lessons

In retrospect we did a lot right, even if by intuition and accident as well as design. We also made alot of mistakes Daily perhaps. But, what we got right trumped all.

I learned seven important lessons that I use again and again in my work. I applied them inside the World Bank on two other major initiatives successfully. Today I use them in the many other world-class organizations where I help leaders with major change:

1. Communicate so people get it and spread it.
It’s all about people, stories, and conversations. But, it’s not just about packaging ideas, it’s about involving everyone in an ongoing conversation that seeks to understand what is happening and adapt it to present needs and circumstances.

Dialogue is the currency of change. Not just any dialogue, but constructive conversations that involve people in new ways of looking at their lives and their contributions. These interactions open up new possibilities, generating value for everyone who participates. There is a palpable sense of excitement because people are focusing on what they feel is most important about life.

These interactions lay the groundwork of the future, infrastructure built on emerging realizations that lead to new and better ways of growing, giving and turning life into all it can be when it is at its best. These conversations are not one-way presentations, downloads or broadcasts, with one side informing the other. Instead, they are mutual constructions where everyone contributes and shapes the way forward.

2. Energize your most valuable players.
Identify the people whose lives stand to gain from this breakthrough. Then identify others who are connected to those people. Bring in the influencers, the thought-leaders, the resource providers, and their partners whose lives will be touched and change.

Light their fire, activate them with the heat of change. This happens when people see what you are doing as their opportunity to grow, to be part of something bigger, something that is magnificent and important, where they can make a difference not only to the world but through their direct experience.

There are more of these players than most imagine. This is because multitudes are dormant, in unimaginative situations and as a result they are behaving dully. Good leaders wake them up by increasing their opportunities to engage.

3. Map the territory of change.
Every minute there are new developments. It’s the way of life. Every person is undergoing a different set of circumstances and experiencing their world in unique ways. So, the territory is highly nuanced, complex, reflective of many perspectives simultaneously, and always in flux.

Moreover, every country, every city, every organization has a culture, like a personality, that consistently generates challenges in a particular style. It helps to have a way to discover and describe this territory. The most effective way is to get really good at listening by going out and giving your attention to lots of people, walk in their shoes, get behind their eyes.

Then bring your listeners together. Compile what they have learned to see the broader patterns. This gives you a sense of where there are showstoppers (events that will stop your efforts cold) and what they are, the nature of particular challenges as they arise, what kind of education is needed for people to participate, and patterns that influence the speed and spread of new ideas.

4. Accelerate evolution through communities.
People are fundamentally social. We learn together. Through our relationships we make sense of the world, and coordinate our actions.

Many change initiatives rely on a single community to figure out what to do, the organizers. This is the greatest bottleneck you can construct.

Instead, cultivate communities and then generate growth by enabling them to inform, augment and leverage each other. Learn to work like the web. Allow others to take the lead. Do your best to facilitate information and new ideas flowing to where it is most needed, rather than setting up some kind of central communication hub or office.

5. Blow through bottlenecks and logjams.
Congestion, hurdles, breakdowns, and stalls are inevitable – they are part and parcel of life in a highly networked world. Expect them. Plan for them.

Build a culture that gets good at breaking through obstacles by bringing people together. Our original team of four at the World Bank included two expert facilitators, Lesley and I. 50% of resources! We worked closely with Steve to custom design sessions for every difficulty that arose.

We were a SWAT team that handled bottlenecks and logjams as a matter of course. Being in this constant state of alertness to stoppages and bringing people together to address them contributed to the speedy spread of our program.

6. Create dramatic surges in progress.
Special events are unique opportunities to accelerate headway, bringing people together in super-communities and creating opportunities for rapid, forward momentum.

Why not engineer special gatherings as a regular activity to increase exposure and engagement? Face-to-face, done right, move things forward in huge leaps and bounds.

The more important progress is and the bigger the leap you want, the more necessary it is for people to share air. With exceptional encounters you can move mountains in minutes.

7. Keep your focus when change comes fast.
The inside of your head is the real frontier of change. Keeping your eye on the prize when all about you is changing is more difficult than it sounds. It’s like trying to steer a car on a road that is contorting its path while you drive.

More than anything this means engaging yourself in relationships that keep you on track and growing. You must learn to keep your compass in tact and functioning, especially in disorienting situations.

The right relationships increase your mental agility and provide you with indicators that flex and shift with circumstance. Be sure you have heart-supportive relationships for your personal well-being, and professional connections and associations that provide the skills your work relies on.


These seven lessons translate to action principles that make for engagement that spreads fast and reaches far. I have seen it with clients of all kinds, private sector, public sector, and associations, organizations large and small, people spread across cultures, disciplines and the world.

Widespread engagement make it possible to achieve more than what any one person or group can imagine, including navigating through impossible-to-predict obstacles as they arise. Further, it makes the difference between cultivating a community of evangelists and a panel of auditors. Which would you rather have accompanying you on the harsh frontiers of transformation?

What I have discovered time and again is that widespread esprit de corps trumps the privileged few sitting at the helm in speed, effectiveness and pure, raw power. It’s that simple.


2 Responses to “2 Change Initiatives, 7 Lessons Learned”

  1. Seth,

    GREAT lesssons. I have been through major changes and read a ton of advice and these lessons are gems.

    Carla Carter

  2. […] 2 Change Initiatives, 7 Lessons Learned […]

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