Monday, April 23, 2012

Manager Mondays: Communicating Change: An Easy 3-Part Template

Is it just me, or has change management become a rather misused and overused catchphrase in today's business world?  (This question might deserve its own blog post; leave a comment to tell me what you think, and it may get one.)  All high-falutin' talk aside, the truth remains that in everyday organizational life, managers are most often the ones tasked to break the news about change to their troops.

A change might be positive -- "We got the big account!"  -- or negative -- "We're closing the plant."   Either way, your team has to tackle some new territory, and that can be stressful.  The initial change communication  is a critical element.  It can pave the way for a smooth transition, or it can start a cascade of emotions and assumptions that complicate the whole endeavor.

If you've been handed the dubious privilege of executing change management for your firm's new initiative,  here's a simple formula for getting the word out, without having the floor drop out from under you.

Remarkable Change Messaging - In 3 Easy Steps

Part 1:  We Know...  

This first part of your change management message should tell the truth about the present state.  People accept change best when it's founded on reality.  So get your reality ducks in a row.  What hard facts can you discover about the factors that led to this change?   What measurable data, research, market trends, or information can you state to support the change?  Lay them out in a clear, neutral summary.

In creating your picture of the present state, you will start to frame the change for your audience.  They will start to get the idea that this understanding calls for action; this is truth that can and should be leveraged strategically: We know that the current situation is this.  

Part 2:  We Need... 

This second part of your change management message should inspire a vision of the future state.  People buy into change when they see its necessity, and/or its benefits. What is the target outcome? Where do you want to wind up?  What's at stake?  Why is it important?  Establish a direction: We need to achieve this.

Part 3:  So now...

In Part 1, you've set up the true context for change.  In Part 2, you've explained the need for change.  In doing so, you've created a tension between the here-and-now (present state) and the yet-to-come (future state).  Your audience is fully engaged with you now, and ready to absorb the impact.  Now it's time to outline the plan for going from the present state to the future state. At this point (and no sooner) you finally dig into the specifics: the action steps, who's going to do what, the timeline, when things will start to happen, what the pivotal pieces will be and who will own them:  So now we'll do this to get there.

Change Messaging for Remarkable Results

If you keep to the above formula in all of your initial communications to various stakeholders (inhouse staff, vendors, customers, etc.), you'll establish a clear rationale for the change and set balanced expectations for its execution. You'll also set the tone for an ongoing transparent dialogue about the change, its effects, and its effective execution.

Good messaging at the start of the change process can encourage good communication throughout.  

A few other things to be mindful of

Communication is key during times of change. But remember, keep it simple.  As you present your 3-part message, steer away from embellishments that could cause complications, either now or later on:

a.  Don't say what might not be true.  If some facets are still being finalized, acknowledge that  you don't yet know certain particulars about the change process.  Say you'll fill in the blanks as soon as you can.
b.  Don't make promises you can't keep.  Assure your staff that you'll try to accommodate their requests whenever possible, but don't write a blank check.
c.  Don't minimize the difficulty.   Leave room for, and acknowldege, all reactions.  Be prepared to absorb some negative feedback.  Show that you are taking your team's role, and their required effort, quite seriously.  Commit to be available for questions and ongoing problem resolution.
d.  Don't vary the message.  If people start questioning the change or proposing alternate courses of action -- and they will -- answer by repeating Parts One and Two above.  Keep your message consistent.

Getting More Help

There are many other aspects to managing organizational change,  I totally recommend getting more training on the subject if this is turning out to be a focus in your career. Organizations such as the American Management Association offer courses that can give you an edge.  But if you don't have the time or the funds to go that route right away -- or if you could just use some light guidance for your present situation --  now at least you have a simple messaging formula to start you off on the right track.

Managers: which of these new projects is coming up on your agenda?

  • a new product or service to support
  • a revamped procedure to train out
  • a budget cut to administer
  • a business expansion or acquisition to oversee
  • a marketing campaign to deploy 
If you answered "None of the above; it's business as usual around here," just wait a while.  Given the business realities of 2012, I'm betting that will soon change!

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