How to Transform Good Intentions into Actionable Change

As leaders, how often do we announce good intentions with the goal of making a difference in some way (e.g., addressing bullying and harassment, becoming a more inclusive or diverse organization, being more environmentally responsible, focusing on wellness, etc.)? How often do we see these declarations and bold initiatives translated into meaningful, accountable, and measurable transformation of behaviour and practice?

Too often, the result is a front-loaded splash followed by a few more checks on the to-do list . . . giving way to other competing priorities, receiving limited resources, and lacking real commitment at the top. Six months down the line, the potentially “game-changing” initiative fizzles and is filed away in the “failed grand plans” drawer.

Why Many Initiatives Fail

Initiatives fail (or recede into the background) for several reasons:

  • There was a lack of buy-in at the top or clarity about who was ultimately responsible for making it happen.
  • The plan focused on a few events but didn’t account for the process (and corresponding nuances) associated with building a shared understanding and new way of thinking.
  • The plan never went any deeper than superficial window dressing. Sometimes new priorities and challenges emerge that overshadow what was previously felt to be so important (e.g. COVID, elections, natural disasters, economic threats).

The complexity of shepherding a change initiative from need recognition to deep, transformative implementation requires skilled, committed leadership that rests on a foundation of solid guiding principles. This, combined with flat-out persistence and grit, is not work for the faint of heart. The good news is that training, perspective, and known practices can support this journey and increase the odds of true transformation.

What can we learn about meaningful change from Canada’s 94 Calls to Action?

Let’s broaden the scope of what we’re talking about from leading change in the workplace to leading an entire nation through a large change initiative. I believe there are lessons to be learned from Canada’s bold commitment to the 94 Calls to Action (CTA) that flowed from the work of  (TRC).

It is interesting to contemplate where we are today, years after the introduction of these actionable policy recommendations were released. The jury is out, I suppose, and it depends on who you ask. From the Indigenous perspective (the indisputably most important perspective in this case), I imagine they had hoped for more at this point, and wonder at times just how committed we are as a nation.

A lengthy process, including a commitment of significant resources; bringing people to the table; broad consultation; and compelling moral purpose (acknowledging our past, supporting healing and reconciliation, and assurance that past abuses are never repeated) should have set the stage for transformation. The path was made clearer than ever before – commit to these actions and that will make the difference.

The complexity of shepherding a change initiative from need recognition to deep, transformative implementation requires skilled, committed leadership that rests on a foundation of solid guiding principles.

True change requires a shared understanding of the desired outcome.

I recently participated in conversations in Chilliwack, BC, where an effort to account for meaningful implementation of the Calls to Action was shared in the form of an infographic.(see page 41) It was taken from work done by Yellowhead Institute, an organization committed to offering “critical and accessible resources to support the reclamation of Indigenous land and life.”

Of the many lessons learned, I’ll share two insights I gained from the conversation and examination of the report. I believe they are important considerations both in the context of following through on a commitment to reconciliation and, more broadly, to our efforts as leaders to ensure a faithful and fulsome implementation of the priorities and plans to which we commit.

The report demonstrates how divergent our perspectives are, as people sharing the land, about what “successful implementation” actually means. This is very different than saying nothing has been done. Lots has been accomplished and many of us can point to activities, events, changes, and practices undertaken to support our declared commitment to reconciliation. However, we lack a shared understanding of what it means to achieve the transformative changes envisioned by the TRC.

This notion is captured in a quote by Indigenous policy, planning and decolonization specialist Ginger Gosnell-Myers reflecting on her experience of our nation’s commitment to enacting a Truth and Reconciliation statutory holiday. Her experience of the day – a day with endless possibilities for the advancement of the cause – is captured in her observation:

I walked past the shopping mall. Seeing how crowded it was, I asked my husband, “Is this good day for capitalism?” Because that’s what it felt like: just a day off and business as usual for too many. And it shouldn’t be . . . One thing that is becoming clear to me is the need for two versions of the day: one for Indigenous peoples and one for Canadians.

From Ginger’s perspective, reconciliation means different things to different people.

From one perspective (Canadian): Reconciliation may mean declaring a national holiday, wearing an orange t-shirt, eating an orange donut with sprinkles at Tim Hortons, or an apology from the Pope or PM, all of which can be movement in the right direction but do not, in and of themselves, constitute a fulsome implementation.

From the Indigenous perspective: The transformation that leads to true self-determination is the primary evidence of a real commitment to reconciliation. In other words, symbolic steps forward get us to the starting line of a long journey . . . they are not the destination.

Ginger’s observations align with the four types of actions described in the TRC report:

Symbolic Actions

Those that represent a possibility for further, more meaningful action, but are often centred on making Canadians feel like they are doing something without really making a difference.

Easy Actions

Low hanging fruit, quick wins, that may or may not lead to transformation. For example, performative allyship changes nothing but feels like support, whereas dismantling and speaking the truth about the “settler fantasy” is relatively easy and has great potential for transformation.

Impactful Actions

These empower indigenous peoples, but may or may not lead to transformation. Contrition and apology are empowering but they remain symbolic gestures unless accompanied by other actions. Giving land back is both impactful and has the potential to be transformative for Indigenous peoples.

Transformative Actions

These have a deep impact and are fully centred on the Indigenous quest for self-determination.

Two lessons for me that are applicable to other reconciliation efforts and have broader application to my thinking about effective implementation of change initiatives:

  1. Take the time and effort to ensure a shared understanding among all parties and stakeholders about what successful implementation will look like and whose interests are paramount. Ensure accountability by committing to clear and objective measurement and reporting, utilizing agreed upon criteria for success.
  2. Understand the difference between symbolic, easy, impactful, and transformative actions in the journey toward faithful implementation. All have a place – all can play a role in inspiring and showing the way toward the goal. However, symbolic and easy (and even impactful actions) can run the risk of stopping short of transformation (the final destination). Worse yet, they can be held up as indicators of success and activity without actually moving the needle.

As leaders, we draw on lessons and reflections from our own lives to inform our practice. When it comes to leading change initiatives that will significantly impact the lives of many people or multiple stakeholders, what have you learned from our collective experience of living out the TRC’s 94 Calls to Action?

What can you do to move from symbolic and easy actions towards those that are impactful and transformative?

For more FREE resources, visit our resources page. Read more blogs by Mark Schinkel here.


Mark Schinkel

Trainer, ACHIEVE Centre for Leadership

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