A simple story of change

What do people need when their organisations change? Is it clear communication about the objectives of the change and the various projects? Yes. But there’s more. People also need a clear view of the change process to allow them to focus and contribute.

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Imagine you are working in the engine room of a ship. There are no windows. The ship is rolling and pitching, groaning and straining. Is it the rough sea, or has the ship been damaged? No one in the engine room can see, but it sure doesn’t feel good.

The captain and his chief mate are in the wheelhouse, busily plotting the ship’s course. Every now and again the captain grabs the intercom to update those in the ship’s engine room: “We are on the way to a place where the sun shines and the sea is calm”. And later: “To get there, we need to sail more efficiently.” Followed by: “Our new values are economy and effectiveness. I ask all of you to think about what this means for you.”

Meanwhile, the people in the engine room hold on tight, exchanging glances. Is the ship actually tilting, or are their minds playing tricks on them? There are heated debates about the ship’s location and what needs to be done. Should we power down the engines? It’s economical, but will it get us where we want to be? Should we speed up? This is going nowhere. How much longer?

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Lacking a clear view
It is not hard to imagine that people in organisations in a process of change often feel like those in the engine room I just described. They may have a rough idea of the purpose of the change, but it is only an abstract image. They have no clear view of the change process itself, of the ‘route’ the organisation must take. And they have trouble pinpointing exactly where along that route the organisation is. This makes it very difficult to explain the changes and events they experience: are we heading for trouble? Or is this just part of the change process? How can we contribute to make a difference?

If leaders are not aware of this, their communication may very well not be what those working for the organisation need. Communication about abstract horizons falls flat if acute problems go unaddressed. And communication about concrete projects or changes fails to hit home if people cannot see the ‘bigger picture’.

If people have difficulty ‘seeing’ the change process, it will add to the pressure and sometimes the stress they experience. It also means that it takes longer for employees to take responsibility. And, eventually, they will lose faith in their management. I am sure that the people in the example I gave wonder if those in the wheelhouse actually know what they are doing.

That is why the internal communication of an organisation undergoing a radical change must be focused not only on providing information to obtain commitment from employees, but also on creating insight. Making sure that employees have a clear view of the motions the organisation is going through and its location at any given point.

Roadmap as part of the vision
Over the past few years we have worked with leadership teams to create a roadmap as part of their ‘compelling vision’. The vision details the joint ambitions (WHY) and priorities (WHAT). The roadmap adds the HOW. It is a lively description of the change process from the employees’ perspective:
•    What can you expect over the next months and years?
•    What will be the order of change initiatives, and what benefits will they bring?
•    What are the timelines, more or less?
•    What are the ups and downs we will face and when can you expect to see the first real improvements?

The roadmap does not need to be very detailed or precise. That is not what employees expect. The point of the roadmap is to present a simple and clear story about the change process, in a way that resonates with the day to day reality of employees.

That sounds simple. But detailing such a simple story can be difficult if you’re at the helm. In the wheelhouse, you spend your days working on countless projects, deciding on short-term actions and long-term plans and investments. By definition, the change process is never going to be simple. It is complex and abstract. So how can you make it simple without taking away from its complex reality? By stepping back and looking at the bigger picture of the change process.

We often conduct workshops with leadership teams, where we ask them to stop thinking in projects, actions or decisions for a while, and start thinking in terms of impact. What are the concrete effects of what we do? How will these effects be experienced by employees? And when will they feel those effects? The answers to questions like these provide the outlines for a simple and clear story that can be visualised in a roadmap.

The great thing about this exercise is that it can be very helpful for leaders too. It forces them to think about the whole change as a process. This means they need to think ahead. Management teams often lack the time to do this, which is unfortunate. After all, it helps them keep sight of the bigger picture and focus on the things that really matter. And most importantly: it helps them engage everyone in the organisation’s engine rooms in the change process.

Michiel van Delden is managing partner at C-Suite Leaderhip Communication.

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