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Back to Archives | Back to October 2003 Contents 

Five Steps to Building Commitment for Change

Merle Switzer, Captain, North Central Division, Sacramento County Sheriff's Department, Sacramento, California

uilding commitment for change is fundamental to successfully implementing change, but all too often it's a process that is ignored. In a time when changes due to technology, community expectations, worker expectations, or budget crises are accelerating, one would think that business and government would be pretty good at bringing about change. Unfortunately, that is not the case.

A survey of the literature indicates that 65-85 percent of change initiatives either fall short of initial expectations or fail outright. Why is the failure rate so high? One reason is that change agents often fail to build a proper foundation for reform by taking the time to convince others that change is needed.

Commitment is to change what prevention is to risk management. Those familiar with risk management know that prevention is vital to a successful program. The same is true of change. Without commitment, change cannot occur.

Like any new structure, a change effort needs a solid foundation. Change efforts that lack a solid underpinning sway back and forth, always vulnerable to attacks by management, coworkers, and customers. Build a rock-hard foundation by taking the time to build true consensus and commitment, however, and your change effort will weather the most violent storms.

The following is a five-step process for building commitment for change, known by the acronym IDEAS. Building commitment for change may involve using creative ideas to win support. These steps will take some additional time at the beginning but will save time and frustration later. Following the five steps is a real example of how one station commander built support for a voluntary adopt-a-neighborhood program.

Step 1: Identify Whose Commitment Is Needed

Who are key people whose commitment would help bolster the chances of success? A peer leader and shop steward are two examples of people whose commitment might be important in that others will watch to see how they weigh in on the coming change. If a peer leader is supportive, for example, others who value that person's opinion are more likely to be supportive as well.

Another way to identify whose commitment is needed is to ask this question: "Who among those who would be affected by this change could either help our plan or derail it?" This broadens the search to other stakeholders, which would generally include those who would be affected by the change, could help make the change happen, or could pop up with the power to derail the change.

Identifying those people is important to developing the commitment necessary for change to be implemented. If you have worked with a group for some period of time, you can likely name them. If you are new to a group or aren't sure who these key people might be, you should ask former supervisors or others you trust who do know the people.

Step 2: Determine the Level of Commitment Needed

This is a two-step process. First, you need to determine how committed they are to the intended change. If you know the person well enough, you may be able to speculate how they might feel about the change. You might sit down with others in leadership to discuss how committed you believe the group is to the intended change. A better way might be to ask them about their level of commitment.

Second, you need to determine what level of commitment you need from specific people. Among those whose commitment is needed, there may be varying levels of commitment necessary. People usually fall into one of four categories: those who resist the change, those who let it happen, those who help it happen, and those who make it happen. For example, strong support may be needed from a peer leader, but a lesser degree of support from someone else. The point is to determine what level of commitment is needed. Not everyone has to be intimately involved and 100 percent supportive.

California's Commission on Peace Officer Standards and Training's Command College Program promotes the use of a commitment planning chart (figure 1). It works this way: In column one, Key Employee, you would write in the names of key people. In the columns to the right, you would place an X in the column representing his or her current level of commitment. Next, you would place an O in the column representing the level of commitment you would like from this person.

Fig. 1. Commitment Planning Chart
Key EmployeeResist ChangeLet Change HappenHelp Change HappenMake Change Happen

For example, key employee 1 is currently believed to be resistant to the change. However, it is believed that this employee is needed to help make this change happen. Hence, there is a gap between where the person is believed to be and where you want them to be relative to this change. Step 4 will address steps that can be taken to grow commitment.

Step 3: Estimate the Critical Mass

After identifying the key employees and determining their level of support for the change, determine how many of those people are needed to implement the change. The number of committed people required to make the change happen is called critical mass.

Unfortunately, there is not a specific formula for figuring out critical mass. The nature and scope of the change is a key factor in making this determination. A change that is relatively simple and uncontroversial will need a lower critical mass than one that is complex and far-reaching.

The better one knows the people who will be affected, the easier it will be to determine the critical mass. Open discussion with staff that will be impacted will provide useful information about how receptive they are toward the change.

Step 4: Get the Commitment of the Critical Mass

It's important to assess how to get the commitment of the critical mass and develop a plan accordingly. If the employees whose support is needed is lower in intensity than desired, what can be done to grow or garner a greater level of support?

One chief of police makes it his practice when building commitment to ask key people what it would take to get them to a 75 percent level of commitment. Based on the answer, he will then take the steps necessary to grow commitment in that person.

For example, if one person says that if he or she had a better understanding of the reason for the change and how the change will affect him or her, then the chief needs to provide more information to that person. For another it might be seeing the process at work in another agency. If so, then the chief may want to arrange a visit to another agency. The key is to understand what it will take for staff to buy in to the change and take steps to meet those needs.

Step 5: Status Check to Monitor the Level of Commitment

Status checking refers to creating a monitoring system to identify progress in gaining commitment. One way to do this is ask for volunteers to sign up to participate on a trial basis. Who signs up and how many can be a good gauge to determine commitment.

Fig. 2. Sample Commitment Ladder
Instructions: What is your level of commitment to try this new process that will help us provide better service to our citizens? Place an X next to the number that best reflects how you feel about this change.
5: Committed: "I am committed to this new process. I will try to ensure that my actions reflect this commitment."
4: Genuine Compliance: "This new process sounds like a good idea to me. Tell me what you want me to do and I'll do it."
3: Formal Compliance: "You say this is part of my job. I'll do it."
2: Grudging Compliance: "I'll only do what's necessary to keep from losing my job."
1: Resistant: "I don't like this idea. I won't do it. You can't make me do it. I'll show that this idea won't work."
California State Parks uses a tool called the Commitment Ladder (figure 2). A ladder is drawn on a piece of paper. Each rung up the ladder represents a greater level of commitment, starting with resistance to the idea on the lowest rung and going up to strong make-it-happen type of commitment at the top. Distribute copies of the Commitment Ladder for a specific change to employees, and then ask them to put an X on the ladder in the field that represents their level of support. The ratings are anonymous and turned in prior to a break. While employees are on break, leaders can tally the ratings to see if people support the change. One benefit of this method is that after the break a leader can share the results. If the results are less than hoped, the leader can ask for feedback on how the idea can be improve to generate more commitment.

IDEAS in Action

Consider the following example of building commitment for implementing an adopt-a-neighborhood program as a way of enhancing community-policing efforts. The idea started with the station commander talking with members of the captain's advisory committee (CAC), several members of which were peer leaders representing different teams. Here are the steps the station commander took to generate commitment:

  • Sent members of the CAC to visit other agencies that had similar programs

  • Worked with the CAC to develop a short paper on how this might work in their area

  • Announced the program and provided a written overview of the program

  • Put up a sign up sheet to allow staff to adopt a specific neighborhood

  • Invited officers from another area to attend briefings, talk about their experiences, and answer questions from staff

  • Invited citizens to attend briefings and explained what it would mean to them for an officer to adopt their neighborhood

  • Approached specific employees and asked what it would take to gain their commitment

  • Created ownership by facilitating meetings with participants who volunteered to identify specific things they could do make the program work and identify what resources would be needed to support their efforts

When the first sign-up sheet was put up, about 10 officers signed up to adopt a neighborhood. Soon more than 20 officers had signed up, providing the necessary commitment to get the program off to a good start.

Building commitment takes creative IDEAS, time, and energy from those who would steer organizational change efforts. However, it is absolutely essential to success. A little effort up front helps leverage the odds in your favor and lessen resistance from those who would oppose the change. ■



From The Police Chief, vol. 70, no. 10, October 2003. Copyright held by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, 515 North Washington Street, Alexandria, VA 22314 USA.

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