Tips for a Change Initiative Kick-Off



How to run great kick-offs for change initiatives.

By Tom Swanson, Engagement Manager at Heinz Marketing

Forget trying to plan a change out perfectly.  I have tried, many times, and it does not work.  Change success comes from having a rough plan and getting more specific as you go step-by-step.  It is a squishy thing, but that is the nature of it.  With each step you take, you get a clearer view of what the next will look like, and over time you start to see the full picture.

To effectively kick-off a change, you have to straddle the line between sticking to a plan but keeping the flexibility to roll with the punches.  Your perfect timeline looks great on paper, but you must expect the unexpected.  That should really be the motto for change managers.

A good kick-off has 3 key objectives:

  1. Confirm initial buy-in from stakeholders (I say initial because buy-in needs to be maintained)
  2. Set reasonable expectations
  3. Activate the next steps

This puts a lot of pressure on the kick-off, and for good reason.  First impressions matter.  Here are some tips to make sure when you hold your earliest meetings, you are setting yourself up for success.

Gather Requirements – With Quotes

I am a big sucker for internet drama videos on YouTube.  It is a guilty pleasure that stems from my love of reality TV.  In these drama videos the winning strategy is typically to “have receipts”.  For those not in-the-know, this refers to having evidence to back up your claims.

Keep those receipts

Any project manager knows requirements gathering is a crucial part of planning a project.  The same is true for change.  However, when you are asking people to change their behavior, you had better have “the receipts” to back up the why.

Put yourself in the shoes of a manager.  A change means a temporary (hopefully) drop in productivity, stress on staff, potential for human error, and apprehension around efficacy.  You need to be able to show them why a change is needed in the words of the people impacted.  Make it relatable.

In most cases, requirements are presented as facts in a bulleted list.  Maybe you have some survey data to show why these are the right requirements.  While that is helpful, humans relate to humans.  Bringing in qualitative quotes about the requirements are what they are will do wonders for getting that initial buy-in.

The best way to get these is through qualitative interviews with individual contributors.  A common instinct is to hide a change is coming until it is planned out and clear.  This is a bad idea, avoid it.  Transparency that a change is being planned is good, and getting input from those who will be impacted is even better.

Most often your individual contributors and teams will already know a change is needed, and will be excited to be heard.

Focus your timeline on milestone checkpoints

“In preparing for battle, I have always found that plans are useless, but planning is indispensable” – Dwight D. Eisenhower

A battle quote might be a little dramatic here, but the point still stands.  This was a quote about strategic planning, after all.  What could be more strategic than planning out a change?

The point is: you don’t know what is going to happen when making a change.  This is a squishy effort, and when you put changes into a living system, the results are often unforeseen.

If you present a plan as firm and predictable, then you risk a number of issues.  Delays and changes to the plan will erode stakeholder buy-in, you may lose the human elements of change in favor of checkboxes, and confusion will run rampant when the plan isn’t met.  Yikes.

At the earliest stages, you must set the expectation of flexibility.  Rigidity is the kiss of death for change initiatives. There is a good answer for this: checkpoints.

Milestones AND checkpoints

Milestones AND checkpoints

You must set the expectation that the course will need to be charted as you go.  Checkpoints centered around key milestones will let people know where you will re-evaluate the plan and chart your next set of steps.

The most important expectation here is that you will re-evaluate the plan.  As you learn more about the impact a change is having, you must make adjustments.  Big or small, if you have the expectation the plan will need to be flexible, then adjustments go from eroding trust to building it.

Show your team you anticipate adaptation of the plan and have, funny enough, planned for it.

Build momentum with small steps early on

When I am leading a change, the feeling is like walking through a foggy valley towards a mountain top.  I can see the destination clearly, rising above the clouds (these are your requirements and desired outcomes).  However, I can only see a few steps ahead of me.  With every step I take, the next one becomes clearer.  Sometimes there is an impasse and I need to find a way around.  Since it is Halloween, there might be a predator lurking just out of sight (looking at you IT).

Photo of a misty valley covered in dense fog, with the silhouette of a towering mountaintop emerging in the distance against a pale sky.

Walking through the foggy valley

No matter what, as long as I remember to look up every once in a while and listen to the team, I will get there.  So will you.

Activating stakeholders to commit the time needed is difficult.  The more senior the stakeholder, the more challenging this will be.  In the book “Switch”, Chip and Dan Heath advise “shrinking the change” as a way to increase buy-in.  I argue this concept extends to activating people as well.

Make the next steps bite-sized, and the next milestone and related checkpoint close to where you are now.  These smaller steps will be excellent at building momentum.  Don’t ask stakeholders to take a huge step right off the bat.  Shrink the step.  Make it digestible.

A few early wins and on-time deliveries will build confidence and reinforce the buy-in you worked so hard to gain.  It has the added benefit of getting people psyched about the effort, which will increase the probability that they continue to engage.  Momentum really is the term.


Change is squishy, so kicking-off right is crucial.  Again, the big 3 goals for any change kick-off should be to ensure buy-in, set expectations, and get everyone moving on the next steps.  The tips above should help you hit those 3 goals and get your change efforts off the ground well.

If you want to talk change, let me know.  You can find me at