Modernization and Adopting Change

Generating Short-term Wins

Posted by Chris Barlow on Jun 11, 2019 2:32:58 PM

Stage 6 of the 8-Stage Process of Transformation

Shor-term wins aren't short-term gimmicks

Part of our Series on Leading & Adopting Change

The primary purpose of the first 6 stages of the transformation process, as developed by John Kotter, is to build up enough momentum to break through the dysfunctional barriers that prevent organizations from change.

When we ignore any of these stages, we put the entire effort at risk. Especially in Government, the process is tenuous and time consuming – it usually takes years to complete. Stage 6 is, in part, a culmination of Stages 1-5, taking all the work together to start making small, measurable changes to the organization.

If you initiate a transformation effort for your Agency, from the beginning you will get a few zealous believers in your vision, who will be willing to stay the course no matter how long it takes. For everyone else, however, the effort will need to provide measurable performance improvements along the way, showing that the effort is moving your organization in the right direction.


It’s a major risk for leaders to get excited about a new vision and forget to manage the current reality for everyone else. This is especially true with Government Agencies. Key executives and large numbers of employees need a basic level of confidence in the vision. This confidence comes from real data that shows the changes are working and the transformation effort isn’t endangering the organization in the sort-term. Skeptics and change resisters need even more proof (in the form of data) to support or to at least remain neutral about the effort. A lack of attention to short-term results leads to a lack of (data-backed) evidence that the vision is benefiting the organization. Without evidence, the vision will not have the credibility it needs to be supported over the long run.

Despite the importance of short-term wins for the long-term success of the vision, realizing these small, measurable victories within a short time period can be difficult!

Here are 4 reasons why this is hard, which we at Synergetics experience regularly:

  • Middle management or other stakeholders may try to delay or change the agenda (to goals that are more relevant for them, rather than for achieving short-term wins)
  • These projects can slow down the main transformation effort, even if they are helping it move forward, because it takes more time to define the smaller milestones, track them, and get them recognized, than to solely work on the big picture
  • An organization’s business information systems don’t always track the data that can show these small performance improvements
  • Without someone actively managing performance improvements, they usually never happen


The Value of Short-term wins

Before going further, let’s define what we mean by “short-term wins”:

A win is any measurable, unambiguous performance improvement that helps the organization move toward the overall change goal – this can include actions taken, lessons learned, processes improved, new behavior demonstrated – as long as the win is measurable with data.

A short-term win means it should happen every 6-18 months from the start of a change effort.

The moment the guiding coalition begins to form the vision, it should also be asking, “how can we target, then produce, unambiguous performance improvements within 6-18 months?”

The ultimate result of short-term wins is that the organization gains a body of data that tells story of its transformation in validated, quantifiable, qualifiable terms.

Five Characteristics of Short-term Wins

  1. Visible: large numbers of people can see whether the win is real or just hype
  2. Tangible: little argument over whether it was successful
  3. Relevant: clearly related to change effort
  4. Meaningful: above and beyond the team celebrating the win, people inside and outside the organization appreciate the results
  5. Scalable: replicable or adaptable for others to be able to achieve their own short-term wins

Examples of short-term wins:

  • A re-engineering effort that promises cost reductions in 12 months and the reductions happen
  • A reorganization reduces the product development cycle from 10 to 3 months
  • An early assimilation of an acquisition gets a glowing write up in business media

Examples of non-short-term wins:

  • A “good meeting” with lots of agreement and excitement
  • A new product design
  • An effectively distributed communication about the vision

The Timing of Short-term Wins

  • For small organizations or small departments of large orgs: the first win is needed within 6 months
  • For big organizations: the first win is needed within 18 months
  • This means that while still in the early stages of a transformation effort, this Stage (Stage 6), has to produce measurable results!

6 Benefits of Short-term Wins

  1. Provide evidence that sacrifices are worth it

Short-term wins give a transformation effort needed reinforcement by showing that sacrifices are paying off; this leads to more people being willing to sacrifice, which in turns strengthens the organization.

  1. Provide milestones for change agents and reward them with positive feedback

When goals are achieved, leadership can take a much-needed moment to relax, celebrate and recognize notable contributions from those supporting the effort.

  1. Help fine-tune the vision

The process of producing short-term wins helps the guiding coalition test its vision against reality. This does three things:

  • Helps the coalition adjust the vision as needed
  • Reveals problems that would have arisen far too late otherwise
  • Gives concrete data about the viability of the vision
  1. Undermine cynics and change resisters

Short-term wins make it much more difficult for people to “take cheap shots” at the leadership team or the vision; instead because it shows that the vision is serious, it encourages feedback and discussion of real issues that arise.

  1. Keep bosses on board

Visible results retain the support of investors/executives/managers, without whose support the vision will be in serious trouble.

  1. Build momentum

Short-term wins will turn neutral people into supporters of the vision, and reluctant supporters into active participants, etc. Such momentum is critical to provide the organization the needed energy to complete Stage 7.


Making Short-term Wins Happen

Sometimes a transformation effort gets lucky and visible results emerge, but most of the time they do not happen, unless they are planned for.

Why aren’t short-term wins planned for? Here are the three most common reasons:

  1. Lack of time or attention: people don’t plan sufficiently for these wins because they are overwhelmed, the urgency rate is not high enough, or the vision is unclear for them to be able to make such plans.
  2. Wrong belief: it’s a common belief that you can’t achieve major change and produce short-term results at the same time. This fallacy, that there is a trade-off between short vs. long term results, prevents many organizations from planning for short-term wins that also further the overall transformation effort.
  3. Insufficient management: without good managers (whose job it is to plan, organize, and control for results), short-term wins will not happen, or will be in too short of supply to carry the transformation forward.

How to Plan for Short-term wins

During the vision creation process and ongoing, the guiding coalition should do three things to plan for short-term wins:

  1. Find areas of opportunity (projects for performance improvement)
  2. Create specific goals & plans for the operating budget
  3. Review these projects regularly

A Pro and a Con of Focusing on Short-term Wins

Pro: more pressure isn’t all bad, as it can help keep up urgency (esp. if the success of the main change effort is not yet in sight). When urgency goes down, everything becomes harder to accomplish.

Con: short-term wins increase the pressure on people. Pressure doesn’t always create urgency; it can simply create stress and exhaustion.

How to overcome this con: leaders of successful change efforts must continually communicate about the vision and strategies, reminding people that the urgency they feel is tied to forward progress:  “This is what we are trying to do, and this is why it is so important; without these short-term wins, we could lose everything.” Such communications renew motivation and give meaning to hardships that employees face.


Perhaps most importantly, the reason leaders should plan for short-term wins is because they give everyone a chance to pause, celebrate, and be recognized for their sacrifice and achievements. At the end of the day an organization should make people’s lives better, including or even especially the lives of the people who work there.


Topics: change management

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