There’s nothing more certain than change. We all know that. Change is essential in order to maintain the productivity of an organization and in turn enables it to face challenges from the outside world.
Sometimes a change is required to process an organizational development as in the case of a company take-over or outsourcing. Many times changes are on a small scale, like an improvement effort – initiated to optimize a single process, generally only affecting one department. But frequently change project are large affecting the whole organization. Unfortunately it’s not necessarily understood by all employees involved, why the particular change would be relevant.
Changes might take place so often, that employees show signs of fatigue towards new measures. In addition, major changes in companies as well as their mid and long term aims aren’t made transparent in public. Changes on a large scale e.g. the takeover of Kabel Deutschland GmbH by Vodafone are based on strategic corporate decisions and underlie legal rules and regulations.
A Sense of Urgency
According to leadership guru John Kotter there’s an 8-step approach to manage change. Step number 1 requires to establish a sense of urgency towards the new direction. People need to realize and understand why a change is going to happen.
Yet, do you know what picture usually comes to my mind? What I do associate with the chosen way to communicating the planned change? It is this one:
The picture shows a sign board at the former border to the German Democratic Republic – Eastern Germany. This was the sign board visible when leaving the American Sector.
This is how the message for corporate change often looks like… slightly adjusted to the context of transformation:
For all readers under the age of 35 and others who do not understand what historic situation I am referring to, I suggest you check out the following link: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2k2R_S11NUU.
Almost 20 years have passed since John J. Kotter wrote his book “Leading Change” in 1996, when he coined the expression “change management”. Until now several different methods of effective change approaches have been developed. Yet, whenever massive changes are being planned, there’s immense uncertainty. Have we chosen the correct method to direct the change? Are we doing the right things the right way?
The following questions are of special concern:
– What and how shall we communicate?
– How important is communication for our change effort?
Communication is essential at the beginning and during the transformation project. Most of the time communication in change situations sound like the warning on the sign board. “You are leaving the comfort zone!” This communication strategy has advantages as well as disadvantages:
1. There IS communication.
2. There’s a clear announcement that something is about to happen. Everyone understands that there’s no easy way back.
3. The communication is targeted in two ways:
– The message is conveyed in the languages of the target groups.
– This means that nobody was forgotten and everybody should be able to understand the message.
1. The message is in no way motivating. In fact, it is aggressive and frightening.
2. The target group knows: there’s no (simple) way back. The decision to cross this border will influence the events to come and most probably “forever”.
3. There’s no vision in this message. There’s uncertainty of what can be on the other side. Yet, it seems to be implied that anybody crossing the border knows this.
The other side
When standing on the threshold of change, actually facing the change, we tend to forget that there’s another way of looking at this – and we can actually look at this from the other side.
The warning: You’re leaving the comfort zone! is frightening. A change of perspective will enable a more positive outlook to the future:
Well, what should the communication of change projects look like?
Here’s a short guideline to such a communication plan:
1. Define the aim and vision
Develop the clear joint perception of the aim, vision and a time frame of the upcoming project as well as
the implications. Establish rules of communication. This will be a guideline to people involved, e.g. management and change agents. It is important for the communication to be consistent and authentic. Use workshops to prepare all those involved in communication and transformation, providing them with a thorough training.
2. Define and involve the stakeholders
Create the core messages and define their application to the individual target groups, e.g. different management levels, employees in different departments, locations or even countries. Each of these groups has its own focus and language, which must be referred to. To make sure you got the right tone in your message, identify representatives in those groups and ask whether your communication is understood and accepted.
It is easier to convey a message you have personally understood and know what it is aimed at. The vision then is more feasible and conceivable if you can picture yourself in the future situation.
3. Identify conflicts
Examine the core messages with respect to possible conflict and resistance. Stakeholders can reflect on this and can actively collect opinions. Take this seriously and do not deny or ignore resistance. Most employees value truthful and authentic communication. Should an unexpected conflict arise or a topic is brought up in discussions you did not prepare for, then there will often be volunteers trying to solve this situation. This is one of the benefits of getting those involved who are actually affected.
4. Establish channels for communication and feedback and communicate these
There’s a high likelihood that not all people affected by the change will accept this without resistance or will even actively support it.
The conflicts that were identified and the questions arising during the process of such a change should be sought and managed actively and constructively. In some cases this can be achieved via an online forum on the Intranet. In other cases there can be Q&A sessions at the various branches. Make sure that the communication is aimed at target groups and is specific and meaningful to these. Use the unique language of each and every target group to communicate – offer translations if required.
5. Progress and success – evaluate and celebrate
For each target group you should assess their „readiness for change“ and identify the current mindset. Then evaluate as you proceed on the commitment towards achieving the vision. If there’s progress and the team achieves the milestones set, CELEBRATE! It is a great success and an important team experience! Also, do not forget to celebrate the final success, be it with an event or a newsletter – depending on the size of the project.
Involvement of Change Experts
There is a lot of undifferentiated scolding of middle managers, accusing them of not beingsufficiently involved and committed. These people in “sandwich positions” are expected know what’s up and actively participate in the change procedures. But be aware of the fact that they themselves might need support to adjust to the situation. Change experts can be of great help here. These are specially trained people, either from within the company or specially hired for this purpose. They will provide new perspectives and assist during the transformation process.
Author: Sandra Aengenheyster
Translated with the kind help of Goldan Translations Editing
Über das Großstadtleben und das Rollstuhlfahren
Das Blog des Sprachzentrums TANDEM Göttingen
by Judith Paus