Regardless of circumstance, change in all forms takes time but the results are game-changing….so why not continue?
The numbers are sobering. Over 70% of change efforts within organizations fail. The reasons are many. But recently, a troubling number of change or transformation initiatives that have gained momentum or traction among employees have stopped. Citing the COVID-19 pandemic and racial tensions enveloping society to organizational exhaustion, leaders have pulled the plug, so to speak, on change efforts. They have resorted to business as usual, leaving people, process, and purpose in a state of uncertainty.
The non-stop shifts that occur in the external world continually challenge businesses, posing multiple threats and opportunities, often without warning. The imperatives that result impose a sense of urgency internally for leaders who must accommodate and address them in a comprehensive way. We know the importance of new strategies in driving organizations – meaning people – toward the future as well as the sobering reality of how few do it right. Corporate change today and the strategy that underpins it cannot be as dry as dust or it will be a good prescription for insomnia. In order for a change strategy to be effective and executed successfully, the people within the organization must grasp it and be able to digest its components in a manner that shapes their roles and responsibilities.
In other words, employees must be able to draw a direct line of sight between themselves and the future that the strategy envisions. They must be able to see clearly how their actions can help assure the successful implementation of the strategy to drive the company forward. But why would leaders stop such efforts when they are seeing progress or even achievement? How do we communicate corporate change in such a compelling way that both leaders and employees are hesitant to end such efforts? We are finding that the answer to this frustrating question lies in two areas. First, change or transformation takes incredible energy and engagement throughout the enterprise. This means commitment must be rock solid at the highest levels of the company. Second, companies believe that people don’t want to change, and if you push them too much, the business will break. Let’s start with the latter point. Employees change if the rationale, approach, process, end state and purpose make sense. However, they often express change exhaustion because so many transformation efforts are the opposite.
From a communications standpoint, animating the change strategy is critical. This means making it memorable through meaningful and appropriate anecdotes and metaphors that help personalize, illuminate and bring it to life. This makes it “stick” in the memory, linking the strategy to the hearts and minds of individual employees. Put simply, making the strategy stick means putting people first, seeing the implicit change through their eyes. It means that communicating corporate strategy is not about PowerPoint decks, colorful posters, cute themes, e-newsletters, blog posts or highly scripted management meetings.
Change During COVID-19 and Societal Tensions over Race
The COVID-19 pandemic has completely upended our lives. As a result, leaders have had to balance the tension between and among employees, customers, patients, government and suppliers. (See W2O Relevance Quotient COVID-19 Report #4). Stopping or pausing transformation efforts during such a time would appear prudent. But what better time to continue a change effort than when people are already in the midst of rethinking their methods, behaviors, attitudes, and actions?
Among the insights we’ve learned thus far is that working virtually has broken down silos, encouraged more collaboration, increased productivity in some areas, and forged a tighter belief network internally. With little effort, people are pulling together to seek information and solutions in order to accelerate a return to some normalcy. So why impede such growth? The changes harnessed through this difficult time can give rise to a new operating or business model – one that focuses on societal purpose – and better manage complexity. On a macro scale, organizations can better communicate about their strategy and direction to guide managers and employees alike in how to run their businesses, how to invest in their businesses, what is possible, and what people need to focus on to drive it toward that ultimate goal. As Amazon’s Jeff Bezos has said, this is a time of rethinking and learning. Everybody does it differently and approaches it in ways unique to their own personal style. Conviction, energy, passion, consistency and alignment are more important than the “right” message. The keys are to own it and make it part of how you change the business. To stop such efforts only places the organization and its employees at a disadvantage.
While there is no magic answer in all this, viewing transformation through a lens of learning allows you to begin seeing the organization in a new light – guiding it to define, describe and convey both externally and internally, the true meaning of its purpose.
The tension around racial inequity and social justice is a real example of change albeit a different type of change. Individuals and organizations are examining their conscience to ascertain beliefs, truths, bias and intent. It is here in the deepest part of one’s soul where purpose can be found. Diversity and Inclusion has always been a cornerstone of real change and efficacy. It means operating without blinders, taking in all around you and sharing knowledge, fears, concerns and interests to get to a better place.
Holding a Mirror to Your Heart and Head
Corporate change forces people and companies to literally hold a mirror to themselves and the business to see what is actually going on. COVID-19 and the tensions emanating here in the United States and abroad have initiated real inspection of not just operating practices but basic tenets and principles. What’s behind the mirror? If there were ever a time to open your eyes and ears to the real impetus of your organization and discover its meaning with a focus on redesigning and reshaping its purpose, that time is now.
Harmonizing Your Story and Your Actions
People are naturally curious. They don’t just want to know the end point, the decision. In the case of change that drives an organization through and beyond the issues and challenges impacting that organization, people want to know more than messages. They are looking for the story, the meaning, the “why” – everything that went into the decisions that shaped the strategy and what people are doing to support it. If we can share with people, through anecdotes, examples, lessons, the inside story, we can help them see, hear, experience, learn and, ultimately, discover on their own. In extending messages to stories, managers and communicators alike should begin asking themselves questions to help shape their stories:
- What do your people see?
- What are they experiencing?
- How do they respond to organizational initiatives?
- What are you trying to solve? What challenges does your strategy seek to address?
- What have people done in similar situations, either inside the company or from another industry?
- What can or does success look like?
- Are there personal examples to draw from that illuminate the premise?
Change is difficult. Particularly in a time of such disruption. As of three months ago, there is no rule book. There is a new playing field. A new way to manage, lead and engage people. A new set of customer expectations. New platforms. New ecosystems.
It is the right time to continue pursuing true change, not stop it or pause it!
Read our latest report, “Corporate Relevance in the Age of Social Unrest”