Four ways to successfully engineer change

Cengineer changehange is hard.  Leading others through change can be a daunting
challenge.  However, if leaders understand and apply some basic principles, even large organizations can be re-aligned and move in a different direction.

I was thinking about this as I watched a video about operating a large rail yard.  I noticed that when an engine hooked up to a long train of cars, the engineer did not simply pull forward after it was coupled.  Instead, he backed up first.  Then, he slowly accelerated forward.  By backing up, the couplings between each rail car were compressed.  As a result, when the engine started forward, there was a small amount of slack in the couplings between each car.  When the engine started moving forward it was pulling (for an instant) just one car – then two cars, then three cars, and so on.

By following this procedure, the engine was able to eventually pull several hundred cars.  If the engineer did not back up first, he would have to pull all the cars at the same time.  The total weight of a long train would cause even the strongest engine to lose traction and spin its wheels.

This is a wonderful metaphor for leading change.

Back up before moving ahead

Too often we assume that if we just paint a clear picture of where we want to go, people will line up behind the leader and move forward.  But we need to provide a compelling case for any significant change.  People will naturally ask, “What’s in it for me?”

By taking the time to understand where people are coming from, we are better equipped to address concerns or allay fears.  We can only do this if we meet people where they are.

Look for weak links

How do we know that the couplings are all connected? Are they strong connections?  If we leave the yard now, will we be leaving any critical cars behind?

In a large organization, it is difficult for the leader to have a sense of who’s connected and who’s not.  She must rely on others on the leadership team to provide a timely and candid assessment on the organization’s readiness for change.  Check in frequently with others to determine if everyone who is needed for the journey is on board.

Connect the cars in the right order

Fortunately, we don’t need to have everyone on board before the train leaves the station.  Instead, we should concentrate our efforts in getting two groups lined up and engaged.  These are the ones that we hook up to the engine of change first.

Obviously, we need to have key leaders in the chain-of-command ready to pull forward.  The other essential group is opinion leaders.  These are the people who are respected by most of their peers, and connected to many others in the organization in some way (either formally or informally).  As Dr. Everett Rogers explained in his seminal work on Diffusion of Innovations, it is imperative to have opinion leaders engaged in any change effort.  The acceptance of any change is directly related to whether the opinion leaders approve or advocate for that change.

So the first groups of cars to hook up behind your engine are the leadership team and the opinion leaders.  Once you get these cars moving, the rest will follow.

Make sure the brakes are not on

If a few well-placed people are strongly resistant, it could make it difficult to get the train up to speed.  It is worth checking to see if anyone is applying the brakes to the process.  Sometimes it just takes people longer to accept change.  They eventually come along, but only after the change becomes inevitable.  (Rogers termed this group laggards).

But you should also be aware of active resistors – dissidents who are pulling in the opposite direction.  Deal with them quickly.  If they won’t keep their hands off the brakes, you may have to decouple them and leave them behind.


The larger the organization and/or the larger the change, the more critical it will be to consider these strategies.

To successfully engineer change:

  • gain alignment by seeking to understand other viewpoints
  • assess your entire organization’s change readiness
  • engage key leaders and opinion leaders first
  • reduce friction by addressing or isolating those who are resistant to change.



Photo credit –

Rogers, Everett.  The Diffusion of Innovations.  The Free Press.  Macmillan Publishing. 3rd edition. 1983.

About David Galloway

David Allan Galloway is author of Safety WALK Safety TALK, instructor of an online course with the same title, leadership coach, keynote speaker, and President of Continuous MILE Consulting. He has over four decades of industry experience, with leadership roles in Operations, Research, Product Development, Quality, Engineering, Logistics, and Strategy.

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