By Michael Hedgpeth · January 9, 2017

Years back when NCR bought Radiant Systems, there was a lot of talk about a new term I hadn’t heard until then: the funnel. It took me a few years to understand this concept and how it relates technology change initiatives but NCR’s rich history as an effective sales organization was instrumental in gaining that understanding.

Over a century ago, NCR established itself as a pioneer in defining a sales process for how its products are bought. It had a revolutionary new technology, the cash register, that would massively change businesses who adopted it. At the same time, there were a lot of prospective customers who didn’t know how the new technology related to their needs.NCR created a sales process that brought people into a set of stages that led them to the sale.

Fast-forward to today, and it is clear that the commitment to excellence in defining the sales process is alive and well at NCR. I was having lunch with the VP of Hosted Solutions on the sales side a few months back (thanks to Adam Jacob imploring me to having lunch with my sales people). My sales friend brought me through the sales process and how it rolls up all the way to the highest levels of leadership at

NCR. On that day I got a new appreciation for how results-oriented and well-designed our a sales organization is.

Over the next few months, I began thinking about how all of what I’ve learned about sales at NCR has related to what I’m trying to do. The truth is, if I’m really trying to be a change agent in my organization, I’m not that far off from those sales people in the early 1900’s who were trying to bring the cash register to small retailers. There are a few people who are excited and adopting, a few people who are outright hostile, and a lot in the middle who can and will be persuaded when the time is right.

This is where the funnel concept in sales is important and helpful. In a sales funnel, you have stages of the funnel that demand more and more buy-in and resources from potential customers until they are to the point where they are a paying customer. Whenever I map out a change initiative, I think about the funnel, what the stages are, and which people are in which stage.

At the very center of the funnel is the people who are committed to the change initiative and getting solid and visible benefits from the change. At first there is no one in this place, but you want to see who might be in there in a few months.

A little bit out, you have people who are excited, see the benefits of the change, but haven’t yet gotten to the place where those benefits can be shown to outweigh the costs. This is a difficult place to be because you’re asking these people to spend resources toward an end that is not at all guaranteed.

The people in this phase will be different depending on the lifecycle of the initiative. At first, you’ll have forward-thinking people who have a highly critical business problem to solve. Toward the end of the change’s lifecycle you’ll have people who would not have been involved unless there was a long track record of success that they could draw from. I’ve learned to not judge the people in the latter camp, but to empathize with their needs that stem out of their own unique market forces and commitments.

A bit further out, there is the part of the funnel where people are curious and happy about the change, but they aren’t ready to make the commitment needed for it to be successful. These people are kind of dangerous, because if you spend all your time trying to make people who are interested but can’t commit to something, then you’ll end up killing your change initiative because you don’t have any results. It’s absolutely imperative that before you really engage people with what you’re doing you first ensure that they are willing and able to make the investment needed to get to the finish line. Lots of people want the change but aren’t able (for whatever reason) to make it happen.

Then there is the group that is difficult to even put in the funnel: those people who are in some way hostile to what you’re trying to accomplish. These people are sometimes difficult to spot. A lot of times they’ll show up and say something like “My boss thinks that your initiative is really cool, and she wants me to check it out.” That could translate into a number of things. For one, the boss could have wanted a promotion but then was blindsided by this other team that is doing great things and stealing the attention from the results she feels like merits a promotion. So she is sending a detractor into the mix to build a case that maybe the change initiative isn’t as great as we think it is. That happens. That’s politics.

The key thing to remember with the final group in the funnel is to not focus your resources on them. That’s difficult to do, especially because you don’t want to alienate anyone, and you want to try to help people make the changes that they need to make. In reality, maybe the my boss said person is your next champion of your change initiative. Who knows? Usually with these people I create a small experiment to me see what they’re really seeing. It could be as simple as asking “why don’t you install ChefDK” or as complicated as asking “let’s do a POC on your product.” Whatever it is, it should be small enough to not distract me from other more important groups of people further into the funnel.

I hope you’re able to see how the funnel concept can help you map out how you do a change initiative in an organization. I use it on every change initiative I take on as a guide to (1) knowing how to allocate my limited resources and (2) how to strategically move people through a process to where they adopt and embrace change.