An Easy and Powerful Change Leader’s Tool: A Journal

Affecting change within an organization, regardless of how well understood or widely used the program or system might be, is a matter of leadership.  Leadership is how we constructively influence behavior.  Behavior is ultimately what we must change to make our programs and systems take root.

Affecting change within an organization, regardless of how well understood or widely used the program or system might be, is a matter of leadership.  Leadership is how we constructively influence behavior.  Behavior is ultimately what we must change to make our programs and systems take root.

A fundamental leadership technique is to use examples of good and bad, poor and better to communicate our expectations to our peers and our followers.  We use it at home with our families to teach children how to clean up their rooms or brush their teeth.  We use it at sporting events when we say, “That was a good play; our team needs to do more like that,” or contrarily, “Oooh, that was a mistake!”  We use it at work when we say, “This is good; make them all like this.”

We don’t have to be extraordinary to know how to use examples to set direction, communicate expectations, and establish desired behavior.  We do have to have those examples, however.

There is a tool that I didn’t realize I was using until I found myself going back to it, over, and over, and then re-creating it a second time on a different initiative.  It turned out to be useful to me in so many ways that it eventually became a habit for me.  That tool I call the Change Leader’s Journal.

Let me briefly explain why it is so useful, though I have already given away one of the most important elements.  While it has uses for keeping records of events and providing evidence during an inquiry, we hope that we never need to use it for such.  It’s more productive uses are as follows.

  1. Enables a (albeit subjective) measure of progress
  2. Provides evidence of progress
  3. Captures indicators of problems or roadblocks
  4. Captures examples for facilitating behavior adjustment

Let’s look at each one.  I find myself, throughout a day, or at the end of each day, jotting down the things people said, or that I observed people to do that reflected the behaviors concerning the process or programmatic change I am driving.  I list them in a plus-delta or positive-negative format.

The journal practice began for me with a list of specific behaviors that my peer leaders and I had determined we needed or expected to promote in order to facilitate the change.  I simply make a digital list of each one and every time I observed either the behavior we desired, or something contrary, I record it underneath the target behavior on the list. 

I have made it my habit to color code each observation.  Positive examples get one color, and undesirable examples get a different color.  Within a few short weeks my list of observations becomes a list of observed behavior as well as a visual display of desirable and undesirable observations.

As you might imagine, in the beginning, there is a quick rush of the positive, which is rapidly replaced by a consistent list of negative observations.  When the inspiration from kickoff communications and training wears off, my journal shows it. 

It gives me a more-or-less rational trigger or reminder to step up my communications and my mentoring of activities to ensure that momentum is gained instead of lost right after training is delivered.  It helps me be sure to do my leadership duty to follow through after the training.

This visual can be very useful in communicating with other leaders as well as personnel the progress of our change effort.  The measure doesn’t have to be precise for it to work as effectively as any metric, but it does need to be relatively free of clear bias for it to be meaningfully credible.

When people see that the majority of observed behavior is not the right behavior, and the communication is understood as, “We are watching, we see what is happening, and we all need to do better,” people understand quickly and, if properly led, are motivated to improve upon performance for the next report. 

This phenomenon is exactly what we hope to get out of metrics, but we can get it out of a simple journal.  I don’t mean to say we don’t need metrics, but I do want to point out how easy it can be to get the same effect while the metrics are still just getting traction.

Likewise the journal entries provide a record of observations of real behavior and events.  When other leaders begin asking questions or trying to troubleshoot why the progress isn’t what they expected, or why things are going in directions they didn’t want, the journal provides clues and sometimes direct explanation.

Sometimes we’ll see a trend in behaviors that aren’t part of the plan, but as we watch our plans unfold, clearly have an impact.  Records of these events and behaviors are very useful for making meaningful adjustments to metrics, communications, processes, and other elements.  Face it; no plan is perfect.  The journal helps us keep up with things that show where we need to adjust.

The collective journal observations provide an invaluable resource for all the leaders involved in driving the change.  As I wrote above, the most fundamental leadership technique involves the use of examples.  We can all be effective leaders when we can meet with our teams and say, “Yesterday, I observed [X].  That is an example of what we are trying to get away from doing.  I also observed [Y], which is precisely what we want to be doing.  Be alert to your habits.  Let me see more [Y].  Do not do [X] anymore.”

What’s more, the journal continuously supplies us with a flow of real examples so we can have the same conversation as many times as we need, but with new examples every time.  It’s very powerful to have that when directing new habits and behaviors.  In fact, I find that it can be so fruitful that I won’t use every example because I don’t want to “badger” everyone.  We must push, but we must also accept that there will be a learning curve.

Eventually, if we are successful in driving the desired change, the colors of our journal shift and we see many more desirable observations than undesirable ones.  It gives me confidence and it helps me judge when a change is successful and sustainable, and when it is still teetering on the brink of a potential backslide.

The key to keeping and using the journal is a mixture of simplicity and discipline.  For the journal to work, it must be kept up daily, as much as possible.  I make it a habit of blocking out a few minutes of every afternoon to update the journal.  Throughout the day, I’ll jot down a few key words or short hand phrases every time I witness something that should go in the journal so that I will recall the event at the end of the day.

It is much easier to maintain the journal habit if the journal is simple.  I’ve used everything from word processors, to spreadsheets, to mind maps to keep my journal.  They all work well.  My preference in any record-keeping tool is as follows.

I list down the specific behaviors that I am trying to drive and establish, with room in between each one.  I also make a “miscellaneous” category at the bottom for things that might be significant but do not clearly belong to one of the planned behaviors.

As I begin collecting observations, I note them underneath the planned behavior where the observation most indicates either adoption or resistance.  I will use green or blue text or background for desirable observations and red for undesirable.  It can be useful to keep the log going for the entire initiative, but more often I find it most helpful to re-start the log every month.

By comparing both the number of observations, and the ratio of colors from early months to later or current months, we can easily see if a meaningful change is beginning to manifest.  It is also much easier to digest and troubleshoot a single month’s worth of observations than it is a full year’s worth of them.

Word processors are easier to format and edit.  Spreadsheets make it easy to automatically update an uninterrupted log while updating a monthly log.  Mind maps make great color-coded visuals and enable the connection of interrelated elements.  It doesn’t matter which record-keeping tool you use, or how you format it, so long as it is simple enough to do every day and can be clearly communicated to others.

As you go through your initiative and endeavor to drive the changes you plan, make it a habit to keep a journal of observations relevant to the changes you are driving.  Those log entries are useful for monitoring progress, troubleshooting resistance or roadblocks, and, most of all, for providing the teaching examples that enable us to set expectations and adjust behavior.

By far, the Change Leader’s Journal is one of my most useful tools.  I’m just sorry I didn’t share it sooner.  Give it a try and see if it doesn’t help you too.

Stay wise, friends.

If you like what you just read, find more of Alan’s thoughts at

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