Few topics have generated more articles, books or consulting dollars than the topic of change management. It’s one of those labels that seems to carry gravitas, and it’s loosely used across a range of situations – many of which have nothing to do with managing change.
In recent weeks, I’ve been involved in several discussions with peers and colleagues about how to manage and direct change in an organization. My experience is that while there is often consensus and even excitement among leaders (and consultants) about the need for change, and usually a favored approach by one guru or another, there is rarely enough thought given to confirming the purpose and implications of said change. In short, why do we need to change? And why and how is this change different from the routine that occurs in most companies every day?
With that in mind, I developed a short checklist that has served me well when this topic comes up. Consider it a due diligence template for communication professionals.
· Burning Platform or Opportunity– The best impetus for change is when there is a crisis, such as a critical downturn in the business, leadership change or a dramatic competitive shift. But in some cases organizations feel compelled to change despite satisfactory performance, perhaps to boost performance or gain competitive advantage. Either way, leaders need to define a platform – burning or visionary – that will compel employees to consider dramatic shifts in their behavior or performance. Making a case for change when the situation is relatively positive and promising, in my experience, is a more challenging proposition. Defining a compelling vision or goal is not as easy as it sounds; the call to action must be relevant and credible – which eliminates most self-serving and trite corporate slogans. It involves defining the desired future state, what “better” or even “excellent” looks like. How big and successful will we be? How will our competitive position change? How will our organization change? All these elements have to be defined to a certain extent for employees to get on board. In short, you need a clear destination…not just a roadmap.
· Focus on the rationale – Building on the point above, one of the critical drivers to employee acceptance of any change message is the underlying rationale…why do we need to change? Why now? Why this way? What are the fundamental reasons for the new direction or strategy? The logic and credibility of this core argument will determine the success of the change effort. Sounds obvious, but many organizations do not get past this point. Their case is muddled or lacks traction. As a result, the effort falls on deaf ears.
· What’s in it for me? – One of the critical elements required in any change communication effort is a clear indication of how employees across all regions and levels will benefit from the change. How do they win if the company wins? These benefits can be intangible (pride of global leadership, external recognition) or more practical (increased opportunity for career advancement, financial gains, increased security) but they need to be addressed prominently in the outreach. It won’t be good enough to demonstrate how the change is good for the company – we need to make the link between company gains and personal benefits.
· What will not change? – With talk of change, most employees will be very interested in confirming what won’t be changing, particularly with regard to their daily jobs and more esoteric issues like culture. Will there be change to the core values, for example, or compensation strategy. If that’s the case, that needs to be emphasized in the communication effort. Confirming these surviving pillars – whatever they are — will provide some sense of continuity and security to employees.
· Dialogue vs. push – It’s particularly important during broad-scale change efforts to go beyond basic “push” communication tactics to fully engage employees in the topic and drive understanding and support. The communication effort should engage the employees in the change process through discussion and participation where appropriate, rather than just as recipients of the messages. If the old adage is you cannot over-communicate during times of change, I would adapt that to add you also can’t listen too much. It will also be critical to engage managers as active participants in the communication process.
Consider integrated communication campaign– Many companies leverage broad, multi-year internal marketing campaigns to direct and support change. This helps package a complex set of messages into a compelling, logical thematic framework that can appeal to employees. A well crafted campaign can also help to address the points above – for example defining the vision but also reinforcing the “how” or culture – through engaging collateral and messaging.
· Integrate internal and external messages – Whatever organizations do around change communication, they need to ensure their directives and messages are consistent across audiences, particularly related to marketing messages. Not everything communicated internally needs to be shared or identical to external messages (for example internal messages exhorting additional effort may not be relevant or appropriate for customers) but they need to be aligned and based on a common platform.
Engage Hearts and Minds – While it’s critical to have solid empirical evidence to back the call for change, too often leaders assume facts alone will sway the organization. To increase chances of success, communicators should ensure their change program appeals to the emotions of their employees. That can be done through the messaging, packaging and tactical plan. The best change programs have an almost visceral, personal element.
Devil in the Details – As with any organizational directive, employees must understand how they need to do their jobs…how they have to change. A critical element of any change program is clearly defining what employees at all levels and roles need to do differently – whether it’s behavior or process. If the scope of change is massive, the company will likely need to engage in substantial training and briefing programs.