The Essential Need to Communicate Change

Robert J. Binney - Wednesday, September 13, 2017

The Essential Need to Communicate Change

 We all know change is hard. That’s true whether it’s a “minor” change (e.g., re-mapping sales territories, extending a product line, shuffling people’s desks) – or a transformative one (such as integrating with a new channel partner, eliminating a product family, reorganizing the corporate structure, etc.)

As a leader– either by title or by influence – you play a significant role in how well your team members adapt. Even if you had nothing to do with the decisions being implemented, people will look to you to guide them and tell them “It’s OK.”

Some organizations do everything right – they assess “change readiness” and make a compelling case for change; they design the perfect solution, eliminating potential roadblocks. More commonly, though, executives grow impatient, and like frustrated golfers that shank their first few swings, decide to “grip it and rip it”: In other words, they announce change, and expect someone else (i.e., you) to make it happen.

Unsurprisingly, how well you communicate predicts how well your team comes through.

To effectively lead through and communicate the change, here are some things to focus on:

The Content

In March 1941, Ford began construction of the Willow Run plant; in September 1942, fully assembled Liberator warplanes were rolling off its lines. Today, it takes nearly that long to draft an email announcing “exciting changes”. Your team isn’t looking to you for poetry, they are looking for understanding and meaning.

Don’t waste precious time worrying about a perfect message; worry that it’s good enough (you’ll see why that’s OK in a moment). Make sure to include:

  • Why the change needs to happen. (Adults need reasons to care.)
  • What the change is. (Sometimes a nice framing device is “As-Is / To-Be”.)
  • What behaviors need to change.
  • What behaviors can stay the same.
  • When the change will roll.
  • How people will be prepared. (i.e., Training.)
  • How the potential roadblocks (hey, everyone is already listing them in their heads) are being addressed.
  • Who will have more information.

You may not have all the details, but go with what you have (again, you’ll see why that’s OK momentarily). Openly acknowledge what you still don’t know, and announce when you will follow up.

You need be neither Shakespeare nor Patton. The way to win hearts and minds is with honest, transparent, authentic communication. If you don’t have enough information to be credible, your responsibility as a leader is to get it.

What if it isn’t all chocolate rivers and butterscotch flowers? If change involves bad news – e.g., sacrifices or reductions-in-force - communication can be tough. When I don’t know what to do, I Bing it (Crosby, that is) and “ac-cent-tchu-ate the positive”; it’s a fine line, though, to keep people from feeling you’re blowing smoke up their skirts. Acknowledge the challenge, commit to doing your part to maintain fairness, and share a vision of the potential upside (this circles back to the “Why” above). Honesty, transparency, credibility, authenticity.

Frequency

I worked a project for a $27B company, reorganizing 60 percent of its corporate office and significantly altering how two-thirds of its 2,600 employees at HQ would support its 75 field districts. Management rolled out the Big Change with an all-employee meeting – on the last Friday in June. Most of the 150 attendees (including one vice president!) were in alignment: The muffins were delicious! Managers declared the debut a smashing success and could hardly wait for 3rd quarter results to rock their worlds. They were surprised, even by Labor Day, how few people knew why the reorg happened.

However much you think you’re communicating details of a change, you are hardly scratching the surface. At that company, most employees spent at least 20 hours weekly in meetings; so a one hour gathering barely made up five percent of their week. If they get 121 emails a day (US average), your one announcement makes up less than one percent of what they’re reading in just one day.

And we wonder why people don’t understand, much less adopt, the new approach.

This is why it is OK to start communicating before you have the full picture; you know there will be plentiful conversations, and you committed yourself to being agile about your message. As you get more information, share it. Have a regular, visible schedule for formal communication, and be prepared for many ad-hoc discussions, emails, and meetings.

And whatever that structured schedule is, it is barely one-tenth of what it needs to be. Add more. And add again.

Channels

During a recent international expansion, the Sales Director took the above advice to heart and sent out a weekly email blast to her staff every Friday afternoon. She included information on benefits changes and office closures; even though certain specifics were withheld by Corporate, she knew it was important to share. She was surprised, then, when her staff was caught off guard when the CEO formally announced the plans.

Make no mistake, a weekly email blast is great. But it’s not enough. It’s not a call to action. To truly lead, you should use all possible methods of sharing the message. This includes the traditional ways of special meetings and signage.

  • Take Time During Existing Meetings. Layer in the new vision with the old agenda.
  • Foster Group Discussions – not bitch sessions – about what the future holds.
  • Develop “What-If” Scenarios. As a group, apply new practices and philosophies to resolve them (replacing rote “training”).
  • Don’t Compartmentalize that “change thing” into its own separate being, weave it into your culture.
  • Be Willing to Talk about what’s happening. With honesty, credibility, transparency, and authenticity.

Behavior

New processes and tools were implemented to scope custom client work better. The managing partner carefully annotated HQ’s emails with “what this means for us” comments, chartered special training events, and hosted an open house with key customers. He also let it be known – just to one or two colleagues – that he thought the new process was “bullocks” and always seemed to get the name wrong. He chastised people not following the new process, but still financially rewarded those who played by old rules.

Walk the talk. Your team takes its lead from you.

If your behavior doesn’t match your words, they don’t know what to believe and will gravitate towards comfort – likely pre-change activities. This takes conscious effort and a certain amount of emotional intelligence from you. (And is different from just being a “Naysayer“; in fact, it is more insidious).

Good communication is not just message and medium, but also mindset. Communication comes from the words you use, and the actions you take. Guess which is more powerful? (Hint: Even Batman said, it’s what you do that defines you.)

Taking a proactive approach and communicating – well past what you may think is “over” communicating – the whys and hows of the future takes effort. Easing the way for your team means that they will get through it significantly faster, and with more confidence, then if you hadn’t. And that’s just good leadership.

Robert J. Binney is a management consultant who writes about managing people, projects, and process at B-Spoke.net.


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