Uffe Tollet
Sep 26, 2011
Posted in category: 2011 Member Articles

Thoughts on communicating and committing people to change

A common topic raised by company Managers of today, is the topic of Managing Change. Why is this so topical – because it is simultaneously difficult and important. Often the ability to efficiently execute change projects is used as a measurement of the efficiency of the Manager.  When discussing change projects, one cannot stress too much the importance of communication. Here you find some food for thought concerning communication in situations of change.

1. The manager’s task is to see the needs for change in time – before it is visible to the customers or to the own organization
Change Management is not only about detecting the needs for change, but more often it is about ensuring that the desired change actually is implemented in the organization.

Both elements above are challenging. Generally speaking, Managers tend to be too tied up in their daily tasks, often quite operational ones, to have the mental strength to concentrate on a time horizon stretching “beyond the ongoing quarter”. In such cases there is a danger, that Management starts micromanaging today’s tasks (doing “more of the same”) instead of guiding the company into a successful future. Defining your focus is a task in need of constant attention if you don’t want to be drawn into the raging tornado of fast moving here-and-now issues.
Your task as a Manager is to see the needs for change in time – before it is visible to the customers or to the own organization.

2. Short-term long-term, is there a contradiction?
Dealing with short-term issues requires mostly fact based decision making. You and your organization have enough experience of your daily bread-and-butter business to know, that if you perform the needed tasks at a sufficient activity and quality level, you will reach the objectives set. Therefore Management sees keeping up a healthy pressure as its main task for making the quarterly numbers.

Planning for the future and deciding on long-term strategies is an entire different ball game because understanding the future is not a fact based activity. It is rather an activity based on a combination of business understanding, intuition, strategic thinking, courage and risk taking (to name a few). Seeing the need for change may be relatively easy but deciding which path to take in order to guide the organization to success is not easy. This is why enough time must be devoted to trying to foresee the future and to evaluate the optional ways to cope with the inevitable change.

Your job as a Manager is to combine two, often even contradicting, time elements; short-term efficiency and long-term planning and choice of direction.

3. Timing is the main reason for the difficulties in communicating and implementing change – change should be initiated before the organization is “asking for it”
As you so often have experienced, the launch of a change, needed for the future of the organization, often faces considerable resistance from the people it concerns. This is actually perfectly acceptable, almost desirable, because it probably implies that the launch is well timed – it is launched early enough. If the response to the launch is a standing ovation from the organization, you are probably months (or more) too late. Remember, your job is to see the need for change before the organization sees it. Your job is to spend a sufficient amount of time looking ahead.

4. Therefore the “why” becomes so important in the communication phase – this ensures the needed commitment
Your organization is not stupid and it doesn’t obey leaders in the way school children in the lower grades obeyed their teachers. Adults don’t adopt new ways of working or change their behavior simply because they are being told to do so. They need a reason for acting, they need an answer to the question “why”.
The more difficult the needed change may be to embrace, the more you need to concentrate on ensuring the needed understanding. You need to pay attention to “preparing the soil before you plant the seeds and expect to harvest in time”.

If you sell the idea of a raise in pay, don’t bother with the “why”. On the other hand, if you are launching the idea of
something that will feel complicated and uncomfortable, then you need to be able to motivate why changes are being made. Remember that many people feel good when “the organization, the responsibilities, the IT-systems as well as the products and services” are in place. And your job is exactly to shake that status quo.

5.  Too often the “what” is emphasized before the “why” is understood. Bullet points are communicated without ensuring that they mean something to the recipients
Still, so much communication (also on change) is done in the “what” mode. Lists of what should be done are handed out, e-mails packed with bullet points describing the new activities and directions are sent to unprepared recipients and lots of concerns are expressed within the Management because “orders” are not followed. Does this seem familiar, do you see the connection?

You don’t change the company culture by putting large posters on the wall, stating the new company Values.

6. In order to ensure implementation, the “what” must be accompanied by a strong “how”. Preferably each “what” should be supported by more than one “how”.
The big buzz word for many companies and Managers is execution. Execution is all about “how”. Why then is “how” so often missing when communicating change? Is this because Managers don’t have a vision of the end result, of how change should be implemented? If so, some homework needs to be done before communicating. Maybe you don’t know how the implementation should be done but rather want to delegate the choice of  implementation tools entirely to people in the next organization level – if so, then this is the “how” that needs to be communicated.

7. Actually, often the “what” can be decreased and replaced by a strong “why” and a strong “how”
The topic above hints that change should not be communicated as a separate topic or issue, but rather as a “movement”, as a process with a beginning and an end. Change only comes about as a series of actions, a series with a specific purpose and a dedicated execution. Change often takes years to accomplish, therefore committing to the “why” is crucial – otherwise the effort falls short very soon and the organization is back at the starting point. Also, since change is a long-term process, the “how” describes the actual work. “What” is merely the decision to change, “why” and “how” are the drivers and the execution.

8. The final stage in communication is the “what if” – representing the possibilities a company can capitalize on once the desired change is put in place.
If and when a change is well executed in a company and in an organization, the company / the organization is normally ready to take on further challenges because of the new level of e.g. efficiency or learning that it has reached. These further actions or next steps represent the fourth element of communication, called “what if”. Communicating the “what if” can be seen as a visionary statement, and this is actually the driver for some people.

9. The golden rule is “why” – “what” – “how” – “what if”
Communication is king. In his legendary book on change, Leading Change, John P. Kotter mentions “under-communicating by a factor of 10, 100 or even 1000” as one of the mistakes companies have done when they failed in implementing desired change. By the way, if you haven’t read the book, do it! It was written back in 1996 and it is still very valid.

All in all, please keep in mind that detecting the needs for change is only the start. To do this you need to manage your use of time, you need to have enough time reserved for matters important not urgent.
To make change happen, is a much more complex matter as it inevitable involves more people than yourself only. Don’t overestimate people’s readiness to change, rather go the other way. Make sure your communication helps people understand, embrace, commit to, execute and be proud of the change that needs to be done. Think “why” – “what” – “how” – “what if”!

Uffe Tollet, Executive VP at Mercuri International 

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