One might think that a small, remote village community in the middle of East Africa has little to teach us about the modern business world or contemporary organizational change. I would argue otherwise. While there are many unique and special differences between the experiences of a developing nation and our own here in the United States, we do share many common traits. Change and the tension it creates are just a couple aspects of those shared understandings of life.
I had been traveling to Uganda for 20 years when I made the visit in December 2021 to investigate a community-based intervention process related to sanitation behavior and maintaining new behaviors. In Uganda, there are ongoing efforts to improve health and sustainable sanitation in villages by introducing the use of latrines to replace open defecation. When done well, this practice saves lives. Community Led Total Sanitation, or CLTS, is a worldwide effort to prevent over 600,000 deaths in children under the age of five each year and 1.2 million deaths in other age groups simply by improving sanitation. Prevention involves deploying effective latrine installation strategies on the front end and instituting solid maintenance plans on the back end to continue these new habits.
As I entered this research endeavor, I was familiar with global reports demonstrating how effective these intervention strategies can be—at least initially. After creating a sense of urgency among village residents with an eye-opening demonstration of the speed of contamination, there is often quick and decisive action to change behavior and create systems to support longer-lasting change. This is good news.
During the maintenance phase, however, international evidence also demonstrates that more than 50% of the initial investment is lost because people return to old habits. This is not good news. This significant loss of momentum has caused much head-scratching from change leaders in this field. It also invites many questions.
My research investigates the change leadership strategies within this context. Specifically, I focused on what a successful community change effort looked like. In my case study, I zeroed in on one remote community and the change leadership efforts of one non-governmental organization, Kibo Group International.
So, what can we learn from this remote, village community about organizational change? Change leaders anywhere in the world can benefit from the following behaviors.
Understand the change itself. Perhaps the first and most important step is to have a firm grasp on what is happening. Leading change means you cast the vision for a better tomorrow.
This requires asking many initial questions: Is change necessary? If so, why? What are the challenges? What is the level of complexity? What are the observable benefits? As a leader, you must understand the big picture and the nuances of organizational needs.
Be “in tune” with the social context. It’s also important to understand the social context of these changes and how to tune into the organization’s social network. Recognizing opinion leaders, early adopters of change and potential hindrances (material and human) can help you strategize the best way to influence others and bring about the adoption of change much faster.
Carefully consider communication strategies. After understanding the purpose, process and social network, leaders should thoughtfully and carefully consider communication. In a change effort, communication is more than simply a transfer of information. The careful use of repetition and multiple communication channels promotes clarity, understanding of anxieties and buy-in for the new vision.
Be supportive, not punitive. While change comes easily for some, it is painful for most. The fear of change doesn’t deter action nearly as much as the fear of a loss of control and autonomy or an increase in workload and expectations. If you carefully considered the first step, you understand the dynamics of the change in question and its subsequent challenges.
Create a supportive environment by removing barriers to change where possible. This may mean removing a tedious organizational process or even a person standing in the way of meaningful change. Creating a supportive environment may also mean providing the right tools or proper training. At minimum, creating a supportive environment means allowing two-way communication between the team members and leaders willing to listen and create space for questions and thoughtful dialogue.
Promote successful stories. Celebrating successes big and small helps to build momentum within the change effort. Highlighting successful change agents also promotes positive energy and effective use of organizational opinion leaders. Don’t hesitate to celebrate the benefits of change as you move through it. The confidence gained can produce a collective sense of satisfaction and pride.
Stay focused. Leaders cannot take their foot off the accelerator as successes are achieved. Staying focused on change is an ongoing process if you want to transform into a culture that can pivot in uncertain and complex times. Continuously pursuing change and using momentum gained from previous successes eventually becomes part of a learning and growth-oriented organizational culture.
Ultimately, these takeaways are not isolated to this remote village or this one change effort. These ideas are supported by change leadership theory and practice. You can continue to learn more by reading “Diffusion of Innovations” by Everett M. Rogers, “Leadership on the Line: Staying Alive Through the Dangers of Change” by Ronald Heifetz and Marty Linsky, and “Leading Change” by John P. Kotter. You can draw many similarities between these writings and the change leadership lessons I gained from this village community.
Danny Cagnet is a senior lecturer in management at the Kelley School of Business at IUPUI.