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Communicating Ch-Ch-Changes

Best idea ever, or what were they thinking? Communications may be the deciding factor.

Let me start with an understatement: We are in the midst of massive change. Globally, as a nation, organizationally and individually. For organizations, the change can be exhilarating, opening new doors to opportunities and quantum leaps toward long-fought-for missions. Imagine the people working to reduce waste by making offices paperless. Getting an office to go to two-sided printing was a good day. Suddenly, in the pandemic world, offices digitized everything overnight.

But change also brings tension and uncertainty. People feel inept, confused – maybe like things are moving too fast. Communication done well rallies support around the upsides and navigates the messy middle from “here’s how we used to do” it to “here’s how we do it now.”

It’s easy to find online resources on change management or models for change. But most overlook the integral role communications play in the change process. By building in communications from the start, your change initiatives have a much better chance of success.

Don’t spring change on people. My husband found this out recently. He got a new pot for the stove in our camper and revealed it while we were camping. I immediately questioned this change. What was wrong with the old pot? He explained why he thought the new pot was better. I offered him a different perspective. The new one’s handle was short, so it got hot from the open flame. I asked rhetorically if he wanted me to burn myself. I also asked why he didn’t discuss this with me first. Didn’t we both have a say in what pot we used? He realized where this was headed and offered to bring back the old pot.

This is exactly what happens if an organization proposes a new policy or practice without the right communication. You need to communicate about a change model before you ever make it available to your team. Many change models aren’t intuitive, so putting the change model on a slide and walking people through it will breed confusion rather than sparking the conversation about the change you want. If you make the model the first communication that change is coming, you’re already behind. Kind of like what happened to my husband.

Start the process by communicating not just what will change but why the change is needed. As a leader, you have likely been thinking about this for a long time. You’ve come to conclusions, but if you just announce the conclusion it will trigger change aversion. Instead, you need to back up. Retrace your steps. Invite others on this exploration. Come to the conclusion together about why you need to change. During this exploration you and your team are analyzing and diagnosing. Analysis is gathering what is happening in the world that might be relevant to your organization. Co-create a list of resources to tap that bring in diverse opinions. Diagnosis is coming up with insights and sharing what all this might mean for the organization.

For example, I work with many organizations that want to make their anti-racist position clear through their statements and actions. They see what is going on, and then have conversations about what it means about them and what changes they need to make to live up to their values. They need to ask questions about what anti-racist means to their organization. What is their role in dismantling white supremacy? What does it mean if they don’t change? These conversations will set up the reasons why change is needed. When people understand and are engaged in why the change needs to happen, they are more open to discussing what that change might look like.

Know who you are dealing with and their tolerance for change. Every organization is made up of people who see change differently. Going back to my husband: In 2017 I announced we were buying a trailer and going on the road for four months. My husband started packing. I know you are thinking, “But the pot! Discuss!” My husband has a higher threshold for change than I do. He is a charge-ahead person. His attitude is, “Let’s try it. If it doesn’t work out, we’ll do something else.” My change philosophy is to consider every possible thing that can go wrong before moving forward. Both approaches are valuable when considering change.

Other approaches are valuable, too. Guardians of the old way help you keep what’s working. Those who want to start small and see how it goes make sure you try change in chunks. People who say “We tried that before and it didn’t work” prevent you from repeating past mistakes. Also consider people’s comfort level with uncertainty, so you can design a process that respects this perspective rather than exacerbating it. Create and communicate a process where staff are included and appreciated, and reflect back what you are hearing so people know their voice in the process is heard. Consider every viewpoint or you may miss out on something valuable. You’ll get where you need to go, even if you all have different ideas about how to get there.

Change is something to do with each other, not to each other. After analysis and diagnosis, you can explore options for what change might look like. Setting up small committees to develop recommendations fosters buy-in. But you want to go beyond buy-in to actual ownership. People need to own the change. While evaluating what changes to make and how, have staff talk through the different change options. What will it mean for their work and responsibilities?

A few years ago, Spitfire moved to hiring panels rather than one person hiring new team members. Everyone on staff wants a more equitable staffing system, but when we started talking it through, staff raised a lot of concerns. “Wouldn’t this take longer if we have to line up multiple schedules for interviews? How would we decide who was on the panel? How would the panel navigate disagreements about who to hire?” By talking these through in advance, support for the change grew before it was ever announced.

A big part of creating change with each other is actually agreeing to the change. Keep in mind, all staff may not make the decision to change. A leader or a small group may make the final decisions. Agreement in this case means everyone will need to change something, and perhaps many things, for the change to take hold in the organization. Have staff articulate their role and responsibility and explicitly agree to do this.

Rewire rewards to accelerate change and celebrate even small milestones that represent progress. A big barrier to change is that in most organizations, people are rewarded for doing things the way they are done now. When Spitfire changed to hiring panels, it meant the one person who had done all the hiring didn’t hold this power anymore. This is a disincentive to change. We had to rewire what that person saw as rewards for doing a good job. Talk with your team about what they’ll lose with the change and how they can replace that with something else. If you don’t, the change will be slow and possibly falter as people hesitate to give up rewards without something to replace it.

In the end, we want to feel like change is worth it. Change takes a lot of energy. People have to learn new ways of doing things. After the initial “Let’s do it!” comes reality. There can be push-back, a sense of not knowing how to do something well or straight-up mistakes. It’s human instinct to second-guess the decision. For every misstep, make sure to highlight a step in the right direction.

But some change efforts fail. Maybe it was a bad goal, bad strategy or bad execution. Maybe all three. But if people feel like they knew why change was needed and they were part of shaping what that change was, they’ll be more likely to consider a failed effort a valuable learning experience and try again.

Communicating well during change develops an organization's skills for navigating change. And as this is something we'll be doing a lot of for the foreseeable future, there's no time like the present to start building this muscle.

This entry was posted on Wednesday, September 2, 2020 at 13:44 pm and is filed under Communication planning. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.