Part 1: Change Management in the Age of “You”

With virtually everyone possessing a “voice,” change management has never been more democratized, dispersed or difficult.

Back in 2006, Time Magazine named “You” as its “Person of the Year.” That meant you, me and the person next door and even your aunt in Chicago. To be sure, many people scoffed at Time’s selection, considering it a cop-out or outright gimmickry. There might be some merit to what the naysayers said. After all, it seems likely that Time knew this selection would generate more buzz than, say, naming a president or notable celebrity or businessperson as Person of the Year.

But the stated, underlying rationale behind Time’s choice so many years ago is unassailable. The world had entered a new, highly personal place. Fast forward to now: We live in an era in which content, opinions, discourse, information and misinformation are part of our daily lives. It’s also an era in which opinion drives decisions, bias forces action, and authority is dispersed – all causing a lack of direction. Social and digital transformation has not only redesigned business models, it has also recast society. The line between personal and professional is all but gone.

In the midst of a global pandemic, we witnessed worldwide movements over racial equity, health disparities, justice and entirely new work protocols – all begun with the power of individual fortitude and perseverance. From a change initiative standpoint, such occurrences placed important pressures on the business at a rate not seen to date.

So, what happens when organizational change is no longer a leadership prerogative driven largely inside the business – when it becomes a public reality where different voices and perspectives weigh in on its efficacy, purpose and value?

Change 4.0:  An Infinite Experience

Unlike the past, when a company could enforce its will on constituents, today, employees, consumers and customers all demand the right to be heard, and technology is enabling and encouraging people to have a voice and an opinion. This shift in expectations, combined with the challenges posed by an evolving economic landscape, has created an unprecedented sense of urgency for companies large and small to continuously examine their business model, purpose, values and management approach to survive. “Change or die” has never been truer.

Change, then, is an all-encompassing description for any necessary shift in attitude, mind-set, behavior, approach, performance and measurement that is either in response to or ahead of internal/external forces. To cite Gartner,[1]In the year 2020, the amount of change the average employee could absorb before fatiguing was cut in half compared to 2019. As employees coped with uncertainties concerning the economy, job security, the health of their families, and the nation’s political future, their capacity to deal effectively with change in the workplace has plummeted.”

Confronted with this reality, and knowing that organizational change will continue to occur no matter what unfolds in the world around us, how must the practice of change management – and more specifically, change-oriented communications – adapt?

As leaders, we are challenged to seek new ways to engage employees during the journey of organizational change. We must optimize new technologies to involve our people through both an emotional and intellectual appeal. In the past decade, we have learned that we cannot effectively sustain interest by focusing on just the rational reasons behind a particular change in strategy, priority, system, process or product. We have seen that, when it comes to organizational change, people are more likely to experience fear about their future, anxiety about their role and capability, skepticism based on previous unsuccessful efforts including a lack institutional learning, and concern about the fate of their colleagues. This highly emotional response requires us as leaders to rethink the way we interact, manage and communicate with our people – as a rational explanation of the business needs for a particular change will be largely ineffective.

 The Progression of Change (circa 1990-2021)                      

Change 1.0 – Business Process > changing how we do things

Change 2.0 – Business Strategy > changing what we do

Change 3.0 – Internal Alignment > engaging people to own each new day

Change 4.0 – Community-Oriented Ecosystem > creating a broad network inside and outside your organization that monitors, addresses change

The Communicator as Interpreter and Navigator

This new reality changes the role and value of the professional communicator – especially in a change management situation – in many ways. Not long ago, communications as a process, philosophy and system was still fairly linear. You cultivated a handful of relationships with stakeholders and distilled information, balanced arguments, and addressed counter points. If the organization announced a new leader, enacted a new business strategy, made an important product decision, or instituted an important policy, the communications function handled the positioning, messaging, framing and response management.

The job certainly wasn’t easy; far from it. But, in most cases, you had a handle on the situation as it was a fairly finite world of key influencers for your business. Reach them and they, in turn, could let the rest of the world know what you were up to.

All of that has changed, and, mindful of the immediacy of information, our approach to change and how it’s communicated must adapt accordingly. To do this, two actions become critical: 1) building and navigating a community-oriented ecosystem of employees, including managers, leaders and external advocates as participating partners in the change process; and 2) taking on the role of “interpreter,” translating information into relevant content for multiple stakeholders.

Information sharing and analysis today is not only immediate, it’s also democratic. Everyone can be an “expert” with the “right” to provide assessments. That’s both exhilarating and, admittedly, a bit disconcerting. Where change was once an internal effort, it has now become a very public exercise, causing organizations to rethink the approach taken to engage employees.

What does all of this mean to the communicator? 

Most importantly, we need to interpret real-time information and data from more sources and navigate that knowledge and insight to move people from observer to advocate.

The New Targets of Change

Given this dynamic, all change initiatives must have a clear goal or purpose, and the underlying and long-term results should be seen in one important area – decision-making. Change management, therefore, should be concentrated in five areas:

Environment

Neither intelligent machine nor intelligent human, alone, can deal with an unpredictable world. “Change Management in the Age of You” must embrace the larger context surrounding the organization and its people. Incorporating data, analytics and insight into the process upfront provides a landscape for how to approach change management at any given time. And while the dynamism of today’s environment calls for a constant calibration of strategy that can only be guided by data, it also calls for a measure of judgement, flexibility and resilience that can only be provided by people trained to have an agile mindset – those able to use data to re-think, re-evaluate and re-act in step with the mood and pace of a warp-speed world

Leadership and Effective Change Governance

Any organizational change starts with leadership – leaders set the direction, tone, decision-making, accountabilities and consequences for an organization. But it’s not about what leaders are saying, it’s about what people are seeing – through the action of leaders who can instill the necessary mindset around the organization’s vision, values, purpose, strategy and performance. This means that employees understand the direction and priority of the business almost intuitively.

To effect change, leadership must ensure the narrative is formalized – that is, define the specifics of the effort against the backdrop of the business, its history, prospects, challenges, advantages. What exactly needs to be addressed and why? Further, leadership should establish a standard for how employees will interact with each other – defining and demonstrating how the company will provide information, listen, respond and engage people.

Done well, leaders provide the rationale, including the importance of resetting the business. They are also ever mindful that a carefully crafted change narrative is effective only if it is wrapped around an organization that is plainly human at its core, and that demonstrably treats its employees well.

In the age of stakeholder capitalism, forward-looking boards should work with leadership teams, employee task forces and external advisors to guide the development of well-defined financial and non-financial value drivers. They should use those value drivers to set strategies to meet the moment, including those related to environmental, social and governance (ESG) matters, as well as operating model changes needed to align with the organization’s purpose, vision and strategy.

Finally, the board and its executive leadership teams should proactively review and pressure test whether they have the appropriate corporate governance processes and policies in place that are both in-line with stakeholder expectations and supportive of any planned change initiative, with an eye to both near- and longer-term success.

Management

It’s management that will ultimately determine success. As leaders, we must equip managers with the skills and tools required to make critical business decisions. Expectations of managers must be clear – if necessary, reorient managers around specific expectations (e.g., how to listen, performance expectations). Finally, to make change real, performance metrics and new compensation models must be linked to their efforts.

The most powerful tool for a manager in effecting change is to ask a question. Experience has shown that an organizational “revolution” can’t begin without first asking the right questions. To succeed, businesses need to continually ask themselves insightful questions that will shape their future. Therefore, we must empower and encourage managers to question the status quo and challenge the assumptions upon which the business is built, without fear of repercussion.

Communications

Within the context of change, communications must create a new dialogue with employees, customers and other stakeholders. Today, change happens in circular loops, not in straight lines. That means we must move away from focusing primarily on what we’re going to say, but achieve a true dialogue through active listening, feedback, policies, accountability and decision-making.

Too often, companies confuse events with experience. Effective communications is about more than communication “events” such as town hall meetings and executive speeches. It’s about connecting events to experience, by filling in the action in between (e.g., what happens before and after the town hall). Communications must translate the change strategy into stories – by bringing the outside in, by using relevant examples, by sharing the real, lived experience of different people and communities – because as humans we’re wired to connect to stories we can relate to.

Structure/Systems – Community-Oriented Ecosystem

Change 4.0 has morphed into a network-based ecosystem comprising internal advocates, external partners and myriad voices that can accelerate or derail change. The real focus of change is to tear down bureaucracy and move forward. To make change meaningful and lasting, the structure of the organization must be re-aligned to support the change effort. When this occurs, leadership, management and communications are in sync with where the business is going, and each understands their respective roles in getting there.

Similarly, systems are critical. As leaders, we must ask ourselves How are employees managed? What are the key relationships within the organization? Policies? Compensation? Interactions? This is where the “rubber meets the road” in any change effort. A community-based system is one that allows both internal and external forces to align in an effort to propel the business.

Read Part 2 of this commentary series here.

– Gary and Annika

Gary Grates is a Principal at Real Chemistry. His expertise and experience are defined by corporate transformation, workforce confidence and organizational relevance.

Annika Engineer is a Corporate Strategy Practice Leader at Real Chemistry. Her experience is grounded in the guardianship of sustainable business through corporate brand evolution and protection.


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[1] https://www.gartner.com/en/newsroom/press-releases/2020-10-14-gartner-cautions-hr-leaders-that-the-risk-of-change-fatigue-among-employees-has-doubled-in-2020-this-year#:~:text=The%20amount%20of%20change%20that,%2C%20according%20to%20Gartner%2C%20Inc.&text=Gartner%20research%20finds%20that%20organizations,much%20as%2024%20percentage%20points.

Gary Grates
Gary Grates

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