Tell Me Why. Fuelling Successful Change
Updated: Jun 15
Continuing our series on delivering effective change, my colleague, Glenda Bailye-Bray recently wrote about the need to take a holistic, dynamic, longer-term approach to organisational structure change. In this article, I look at an issue that can ultimately make or break your attempt to change and determine its level of success. That is the engagement and importantly, the understanding behind why the change is happening, in the minds of your employees.
A strong communication plan can inspire, maintain momentum and build trust in the very people you need to execute the change. Yet often, the communication plan is an after-thought (and not always a plan), or is something that burns brightly at the start, but fades as the project continues. Communication is a key part of the 7 Factors of Change we discussed previously, and it needs to be given the focus it deserves.
Change in business is a constant. There always seems to be something changing and affecting people’s jobs in some way. But a major reason as to why many business change projects fail or run out of energy is down to the resistance to change from employees. This strength of this resistance is multiplied if they don’t understand why the change is happening and crucially what the benefit of it is.
In a previous article, I wrote about how communication can light the potent, internal fuel that employees supply to an organisation. In a similar vein, when it comes to successfully delivering change, there are several tips you should follow with your communications.
1. Show them the inspiring future
Any change creates uncertainty. This can be eased by showing your people the clear path ahead. The best way to do this is to start by creating an engaging narrative. A story that explains the current situation, why change is necessary and importantly what the positive results will be as a result of the changes. This is the core foundation of any successful change programme.
The best stories link and align with the company’s mission and create a compelling future vision of what the company will look like. The goal of this story is to show the part that the changes play in delivering this new future.
I previously worked with a company that had a common challenge of having to modernise and diversify its product offering to survive in a more digital marketplace. A challenge though was that in previous years, a rather insular strategy had been used to dismiss the digital "upstarts" and defend the traditional nature of their business. We needed to convey a story that wasn’t seen as hypocritical but played to the proud and competitive nature of the business. We landed on a story that talked about “getting back what was ours.” We turned a fear of the competition into a unifying challenge and pursuit of reclaiming former glories for the long-term, learning from the competition’s mistakes, doing things the right way and rightfully claiming back our place as the leader in the sector.
Getting the story right can create a powerful movement, driven by people united by a cause and a better understanding of the company strategy too.
2. Keep it going and be consistent
A mistake some leaders and organisations make is thinking the job is done with the one-off telling of the future story. No matter how powerful the story and charismatic the speaker is, successful change is rarely delivered by a single speech. A report by McKinsey suggested that businesses that include communicating effectively, leading actively, empowering employees, and creating an environment of continuous improvement in their change plan are 3 times more likely to succeed.
When it comes to effectively communicating a key element of that is to keep the narrative and pursuit of the goals linked to the company mission, alive and in front of mind. You will need to continually keep your employees informed of progress through all the phases of your change programme. Having a reliable and regular set of communications is vital in this regard. Within this there are 3 tenets you should stick to:
Be Consistent – Every communication should be clear and tie-back to the original narrative and company mission, reinforcing the beneficial reasons for change and the progress that’s been made in getting there.
Be Honest – There are going to be questions from employees you don’t know the answers to. Don’t hide from these things, this only breeds more uncertainty and mistrust. Of course, concentrate the focus on what you do know, but when these issues arise, be clear that you don’t know what you don’t know, reiterate your commitment to open and honest feedback and confirm you will come back when you know more. Equally, you will no doubt have to make some difficult decisions along the way. Being consistently straight, honest and ensuring the actions align to the future benefits will help reinforce that you are being open and truthful in your communications, even in the most difficult of circumstances
Be Personal – It’s incredibly important to transfer ownership for the change to your employees. Helping them see “what’s in it for me” plays a significant role in doing this. If they cannot see how the change positively affects them, it will only act as a barrier to making your pursuit of change successful.
Don’t fall into the trap of thinking that the benefits all need to be financial. It can often be about the softer things which end up being more powerful drivers for your employees. Things like stronger shared values, better customer experiences and improved working practices can be just as important benefits of change.
3. Encourage, empower and ensure role-modelling
Hearing is one thing but seeing is another. The words you use to convey your vision of change and your progress towards it will only get you so far. Successful change relies on the obvious and consistent witnessing of change behaviour in leaders and managers. Role modelling is important when no-one is watching, but when everyone is watching it becomes an example to follow.
The same McKinsey report I mentioned earlier, showed that where leaders role modelled the behaviour change, they were asking employees to make, the change programmes were 5 times more likely to be successful. That’s a huge multiplying effect. But this can be easier said than done. To get this sort of benefit your leaders and managers must feel confident and supported themselves to actively deliver change in their people. This could be in the form of information, or tools, but can often be in how to lead change themselves. It’s the perfect time to consider some refresh change training or mentoring. Spending some time with people who’ve successfully managed change before can really help. It’s something that both Glenda and I have benefitted from in the past and is now something we enjoy helping and supporting businesses with today.
It can be taken for granted when you’re a leader that this is just something you do and that because you’ve experienced change in your career, you instinctively know how to lead it. That’s just rubbish. What if you’ve learnt from someone awful at managing change? What if this is your first management or leadership role? You can’t assume people know how to successfully lead change because of their job title. For 5 times the chance of making your change successful, surely it makes sense to prepare this cohort for the challenge ahead?
Some time spent training them in the basics of change, leading change, the change curve, dealing with resistance and barriers is a worthwhile activity? As Glenda stated in a previous piece, “As a leader, you have to be ready for change, first.”
The most successful change transformation I’ve witnessed as an employee, before my career in consulting, did exactly that. At the same time as preparing the story and putting the plan together, we developed a separate plan to engage and train our senior leadership team and identified change leads, in a series of activities to refresh and introduce them to the success factors of leading change. This meant that when the communication started, our team was ready, willing and able to lead and role-model from the front.
4. Involve, immerse and make sense of it all
The final tip I want to share is about involving your people in the change. I believe that change that feels involving is far more successful than a change that feels done to you. For one, it is more successful in transferring ownership and secondly, it accelerates the feeling that there’s something in it for you.
Finding more ways to involve and immerse your employees in the change programme is an important part of your engaging communication strategy. Whether that’s forums to discuss issues or ideas on how to realise opportunities more effectively or similar things will depend on your organisation. The goal here is to reinforce that this isn’t another “initiative” or “fad”, this is a change that has a reason and clear benefits attached to it and it’s not going away. It’s also to switch it from change to norm.
The more people are involved in talking about it and seeing resulting actions, the faster the effort and commitment with pay dividends. But perhaps the greatest lesson I’ve learned in all my dealings with change is giving people reflection time and allowing them to make sense of the messages and expectations.
Often, because we’ve been involved with writing the stories through numerous iterations, and building the plans after weeks of forensic thought and discussion, we forget that our audience is hearing this all for the first time. Yet, we expect them to absorb and understand the implications immediately. Even just writing that sentence sounded daft.
The best way to properly activate change is to facilitate legitimate time for your people to discuss what they’ve heard, question it, get answers and clarification, then reframe it and personalise it. But how often do we do that?
Change can be a messy, disruptive, confusing and unsettling time for businesses. However, if done right, it can be empowering, revelatory, releasing and game-changing. Which story do you want to tell?
Andy Goram & Glenda Bailye Bray are a pair of energetic, committed partners focused on helping you plot a clear and simple path to successfully delivering the change you seek. They’ll be with you all the way (it will be them too, not some juniors you’ve never met before), or at least as long as you need them. Get in touch here.