WORDS BY OWEN LESKOVAR
ILLUSTRATION BY COLIN MACFADYEN
Whether or not change is “the only constant,” it happens. All the time. For employees to buy in to a change, they need to understand the reasons and intention behind it. But for employees to adopt a change, they need a lot more than messaging. As a leader, it’s one thing to have the discipline and acumen to make the right changes for your organization; it’s another to properly communicate them.
To communicate a change well, you’ll first need to strip out the marketing speak. Yes, you need employees to buy the change. But you also want them to understand it. Be descriptive: What does it actually mean to become more “agile” or “customer-focused”? What does it look like, in real terms? What will it achieve?
Look at this paragraph:
“Becoming more agile is key to growing in a more scalable way and serving our customers better. We’re hiring a new managing director to handle people and development, freeing up managers to focus on projects and approvals, reducing bottlenecks and letting us work more quickly. And starting next Thursday, everyone will receive training on new workflow software, which will reduce the time it takes to complete timesheets and build and revise budgets. We’re committed to this change and know that it will improve performance, efficiency and customer satisfaction.”
Too often, change communications only include the first and last sentences. But you need to set people’s expectations and tell them what’s going on.
Even better than that first paragraph would be a message that’s contextualized for its audience and properly cascaded through the organization. People want to know what a change means, but they really want to know what it means for them. This personalized “What’s in it for me” (WIIFM) makes the message feel more relevant and begins to set a foundation of accountability. It’s even better if the message comes directly from an employee’s manager. This adds the powerful credibility and context that only comes from a trusted, direct-report relationship.
However, properly communicating change doesn’t end at the words, tone and images you choose. You must also consider the tools and resources you bundle with your message. Take an arbitrary example: A manufacturing company trying to implement Lean Methodology. Company-wide emails are sent out, videos are produced and screened, and Lean consultants teach employees everything they need to know about the process. Employees are aware that a change is happening, they understand the details and they even know their roles within it. Great! But then on Monday morning, they promptly go back to doing things the way they’ve always done them before. They don’t take action.
To illustrate, let’s use a simpler example: Teaching a child how to ride a bike. We communicate that bike riding is an important skill and that it’s healthy, fun and faster than walking. We even create gorgeous slides that cover the fundamentals of how to brake, steer and turn. The child’s thrilled. But two weeks later, there’s a very stylish bike buried behind the snow shovels and lawnmower.
In this case, there are several factors that could explain what happened: The child might be nervous or have too much homework, you may have forgotten to buy training wheels or may not have made an effort to provide instruction.
In both cases, the ability to take action has been stifled by a bottleneck in resources. People learn new skills and behaviours through deliberate practice, not through emails, slide decks and meetings. To learn to ride a bike, the child needs training wheels, direct instruction and practice time. To properly embrace a change initiative, the manufacturing employee needs guidance, training and an acclimation period to get used to the “new way of doing things”. If production quotas are the same or higher immediately after the change, when do employees have time to learn? Notice how a communication challenge has shifted to an operational one.
For a change to be successful, employees must be given the resources and tools they need to adopt it. This is why an internal communications team can’t work in a silo; because when they do, it leads to frustrated leaders saying things like, “We communicated it! Why isn’t it working?” In order to succeed, change and communication initiatives will often need support from the leadership team, operations and many other parts of the business.
The “right amount” of resources and tools to provide will differ according to the scope of your change. But a good heuristic is to try to make employees’ day-to-day lives easier and less stressful rather than the opposite.
For example, if your primary way to announce a change is through an all-company webcast, are you making employees’ lives easier? Not if – in order to attend – they need to move or reschedule their own meetings and convince their managers to let them defer important work. Attendance and engagement would increase dramatically if the webcast was automatically booked and protected in their calendars a month in advance and accompanied by an email that informed managers of its importance. Communicators can craft the perfect message and choose the ideal channel (email, webcast, video, desk drop) to broadcast it, but other parts of the business need to help the audience tune in.
Often, the ever important “What do you need from me?” question is only asked in one direction: By the communications team, to leadership. Asking it back will empower the team and supercharge the way your organization at large navigates change.
If clarity and specificity are gifts you give your message and resources are gifts you give employees, then measurement is the gift you give yourself. Implementing solid measurement practices is a lot like going to the dentist. It can feel arduous, inconvenient and like you always have something more important to do. But it’s a critical habit to have for your change initiatives, communication functions and winning smile.
Start at the start. Think about measurement before you build your plan; don’t relegate it to the “whatever’s left” line in your budget. This will also help to ensure that you measure the right things, which are usually the new behaviours you want to encourage. For example, if an internet service provider wants to become more customer experience-centric, it should stop evaluating call centre employees on average call duration and instead measure customer satisfaction.
Some people use statistics as a drunk man uses a lamp-post: for support rather than illumination.
~ Andrew Lang
While what to measure can feel like an operational decision, that decision can have downstream effects on communication. Measurement can be a powerful enabler of communication. Publicly embracing a robust measurement and reporting scheme will signal to employees that “this time is different”. And when empirical progress gets shared, those momentum-building messages can themselves be measured for efficacy, helping your communications team fine-tune messaging frequency, channels and content.
Communicate clearly and honestly. Give people a message that makes sense to them. Provide the resources required to adopt the change, not just the language to understand it. Learn from every interaction. And then finally, communicate – clearly and honestly – what you’ve learned.
This creates a loop. A story. A virtuous cycle. And an organization that responds to change in an adaptive, agile way.