The Progression of Change (circa 1990-2020)                      

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 – The Digital Imperative

The Evolution of Change Management/Communications

In a white paper titled “Ten Tumultuous Years: Examining a Decade of Change,” I examined – some years ago – the concept of change management through the lens of strategic internal communications, exploring the implications for leaders and communicators alike. The premise reflected the current thinking as it related to organizational evolution in that change became a necessary ingredient in avoiding marginalization and maintaining competitiveness.

But that was then. What we have experienced since that time is an incredible journey of self-discovery – as leaders, managers, employees, consumers. In looking back, we would argue that the concept of organizational change is now in its fourth generation or phase – what we now call Change 4.0.

In Change 1.0, leaders placed “change” in a box, separating it from the very business it was meant to improve. When introducing a change initiative to their organization, leaders and management consultants would focus on communicating process, forming integration teams, and presenting workflow charts on a PowerPoint slide. While these efforts kept consultants employed and certain managers busy, none of them actually connected with the workforce or addressed how the business was going to ultimately improve. In fact, few early “reengineering” efforts actually addressed whether the process being improved was still relevant!

In Change 2.0, leaders, frustrated at the lack of success, turned their attention to the business’ strategy and direction. What business are we actually in? Who are our competitors? Do we have a discernable value to customers? Are we exploiting our core competencies or strengths for competitive advantage? Are we making the right investments including acquisitions to bolster our position?

Today, we are seeing the continued evolution of this thing called “change.”

Change 3.0 was about leaders recognizing that, unless and until employees (managers, supervisors, production, administration) see, believe and experience the totality of the business’ reality and assimilate its meaning to their individual reality, it doesn’t matter if the strategy or processes are improved, the company will not achieve the necessary results for sustained success.

In Change 4.0, we are in the midst of a digital revolution – meaning that connectivity, real-time learning, and continuous acceptance are overwhelming the transformation landscape, raising expectations and challenges.

The one constant through all this is how the organization responds and adapts to change. The oft quoted “change fatigue” is actually a misnomer as employees are less bothered by change but more concerned about what the change actually is and how it will impact their jobs and future.

The Digital Age

Today, technology is enabling and encouraging people to have a voice and an opinion. Unlike in the past, when a company could enforce its will on constituents, today, employees, consumers and customers all demand the right to be heard. 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.

What does this new reality mean for the practice of change management and, more specifically, change-oriented communications?

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 likely to experience fear about their future, anxiety about their role and capability, skepticism based on previous unsuccessful efforts including a lack of 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.

Data and analytics allow us to delve deeper into behavior and mindset as it relates to change. From determining what people truly understand, to where and how they need to receive information, to actions and performance, we can glean insights to direct communications and change initiative efforts.

Making Change Real

Against this backdrop, leaders have come to understand that change is a requirement of survival. Change is about uprooting the organization – its people, structure, processes, systems – to achieve financial and operational performance that results in long-term growth and prosperity.

The targets of change

While all change initiatives must have a clear goal or purpose, the underlying and long-term results should be seen in one important area – decision-making. Change efforts should focus on teaching people to develop new abilities and skills to make decisions, take risks, assess information, channel knowledge, engage others, build relationships and effectively deal in a real-time world from a position of confidence, not fear.

Change management, therefore, should be concentrated in four areas:

Leadership

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 their actions, leaders 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 determine the narrative – that is, define the specifics of the effort against the backdrop of the business, its history, prospects, challenges and 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 renewing the business.

Management

It’s management that will ultimately determine success. As leaders, we must equip managers with the skills and tools they need to make critical business decisions. Expectations of managers must be clear – if necessary, managers should be reoriented around specific expectations (e.g., how to listen, performance expectations). 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.

Communications

Within the context of change, communications must create a new conversation with employees, customers and other stakeholders. This means we must move away from focusing primarily on what we’re going to say and, instead, 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 that people can relate to – by bringing the outside in, by using relevant examples, by telling stories about real people.

Structure/systems

Most change is needed because organizations fight themselves. Thus, 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 a number of questions. How do we manage employees? What are the key relationships within the organization? What are our policies? How do we compensate employees? How do we interact with them? This is where the “rubber meets the road” in any change effort.

Contextualizing Change in the Current Environment

Against this backdrop, how do we as leaders successfully effect change within our organizations? What are the key lessons learned over the past 20 years?

Social is a complement

In a digital world, it’s easy to mistake technology as a replacement for face-to-face interaction. Winning organizations employ social to support interaction not to replace it.

Iterative experience

First and foremost, any major corporate undertaking is a chance to continuously learn and grow. The process is an iterative one, yet many change consultants and business leaders attempt to package the process in a linear box believing that things will happen in proper sequence if they deem it so. The true value for people involved in such efforts is their ability to learn and share, to formulate their own insights, and to forge perspectives that keep their involvement crisp and real.   

Timing and audience cadence

We have seen major organizational change efforts implode because the announcement and introduction phase came too early. Any serious change effort should begin with at least a build-up of two to three months where the conversation internally begins with leadership and focuses on new and different topics, told in robust and interesting ways. Instead of the usual corporate rah-rah information told in typical corporate speak, a more personal, authentic and provocative form of communication that encourages discussion, dialogue and debate should be used.        

This new rhetoric should be complemented by specific outreach to managers at all levels to set the stage for the current competitive or business reality, followed by a discussion of the various approaches the organization is contemplating taking to address them.

Communications as catalyst

To continue running the play above, we must take a broader, strategic view of communications. We must go beyond process updates to incorporate messaging on desired results and a vision for the future. We’ve learned that we must separate communications from the change process and, instead, focus on telling stories about the business, which will provide content and context around the reasons for change. All communications must answer these questions: What is changing? How does it affect me and my function? What does success look like? How are we tracking progress? What is the organization doing to support me in my efforts to engage? Will I become better through the process?

The bottom line is that communications must facilitate an organizational dialogue, not a leadership monologue. This requires a completely new perspective as it relates to communications being a driver of knowledge, insight and counter opinions in an ongoing discussion

What are you solving for?

The number one area in change is recognizing the cause versus the symptom. It’s so easy to chase symptoms in change and communications, expending time, energy and resources on the wrong things. Addressing the cause and then solving for it focuses energy and action in the right place.

Strategy in narrative form

Translating a business strategy into a story or narrative is  one of the most important things that can be done in change. The story provides a picture of the effort, makes it personal, and reinforces the context for people.     

Employees are an audience

In a digital age, every stakeholder group is an active, engaged and vocal entity providing influence across a wide spectrum. Employees, in particular, are the most trusted group for an organization and their opinions are the most sought and respected.

Begin with where people really are, not where we want them to be

In the past, we allowed consulting firms to define communications as a dissemination model without any respect for what people wanted to hear and where they currently were. Today, we understand that we must employ research to gain a clear understanding of the values and beliefs of management and employees.

What’s often missing in change efforts is a sense of empathy – ensuring your efforts acknowledge the individual and what they are experiencing.

Ensure messages are relevant and dynamic versus “rah-rah”

Remember that information about the direction of the business has little meaning to employees unless a line of sight can be drawn to their daily activities and responsibilities. Segmentation is key. A homogenous approach to communicate to all audiences is bound to fail. We must consider people’s individual perspectives and priorities and focus on creating relevance.

Communications must be clear and easily understood. It must avoid jargon and corporate-speak. But even more importantly, communications must tell a story.

Don’t mistake tools for solutions

Communicators often mistake tactics for strategy and solutions.

Think about your employees like a public constituency

Employees must be treated as if they are a public constituency capable of opinion-shaping, decision-making and, ultimately, organizational success. We must fight for their attention just as we would with a customer.

As with any external constituency, you should consider leveraging a variety of communications tools and techniques to engage your people, including, but not limited to, face-to-face meetings, social media, learning modules, manager intervention, network outreach, messaging and pulse checks.

Focus on education versus promotion

Any change effort should be viewed through the lens of learning and development – moving people from where they are to a new place. Promoting a new initiative – through promotional materials, emails, slogans, etc. – does not add to someone’s understanding or knowledge. Instead, focus on training managers and delivering engaging, two-way communications versus one-way “push” vehicles.

Be proactive in terms of addressing critics and concerns head-on

People don’t fear change as much as inconsistency and uncertainty. Confusion is a part of change – you can expect that people will feel frustrated, concerned, skeptical and angry about change. People accept change more easily if they feel they are being dealt with honestly and if they are engaged in a dialogue about their concerns. Utilize communications to encourage dialogue, discussion and debate – this type of engagement leads to learning.

What Does the Future of Change Look Like?

After reflecting  on how change management has evolved in the past 10 years, it’s interesting to consider how things will continue to change in the years ahead. How will the concept of “change” continue to evolve? How will the role of communications be redefined?

Change will increasingly become “business as usual.” Embracing and effecting change will become a part of the operating model for companies and, increasingly, CEOs will emphasize a focus on the business rather than the process of change. More and more, communications will be a strategic methodology that brings change to life – creating new conversations internally, facilitating dialogue among leaders, managers and employees, and initiating social interaction both inside and outside the company – rather than being a disseminator of information.

As technology leads organizations to constantly reassess their purpose and value, so too communications will be a provocative catalyst for change.

Key Considerations

  • Is there a there there? What is the change?
  • Consider how people assimilate information. What do you want employees to know, feel, do?
  • Have you clearly defined the reasons for change? Are your communications answering the question “What is this change meant to achieve?” Remember that if the goal is clear, you won’t have to sell a change.
  • Are you seeing the world through the eyes of your workforce and management team? Remember that information about the direction of the business has little meaning to employees unless a line of sight can be drawn to their daily activities and responsibilities.
  • Think externally to legitimize internal actions – the marketplace should dominate the internal dialogue.
  • How will communications be conducted in a social and digital environment? What will employees do with the information?
  • How will people know it’s working? What are the markers and guideposts to guide the effort?

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