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"They always say time changes things, but you actually have to change them yourself." Andy Warhol

In organizational life, that is far, far easier said than done. Seventy percent of change initiatives fail. When hundreds of thousands, or millions, of dollars are on the line, those are odds that your business simply cannot afford. How can you lead your people through times of change and transition? Organizational commitment and communication. Easier said than done? Sure - but not impossible. Put the odds back in your favour.

The Only Constant

While the old adage holds that "change is the only constant," that doesn't mean we necessarily get better with practice. Some (most?) people stubbornly resist; as a leader, you need to know how to move them from where they are to where you need them to go.

Change requires:

  • Motivation to change.
  • A viable plan to get there.
  • Details on the goal and vision.

One of the challenges, though, is that people - e.g. executives/sponsors, middle managers, and front-line employees - view change projects differently. And each group views the process of getting from where they are to where they need to be differently. It is difficult, if not impossible, to change anything if you cannot bring these into alignment.

Creating a Clear Line of Sight

One way to do that is to build a clear line of sight among the levels. That is, starting from the overall vision, people at each level of the organization see - clearly - what they need to do in order to make the change a success (and what's in it for them if they do so). Dr. Lorin R. Walker, Chief Learning Officer for Tercon Consulting, writes:

When you know what to do next, action is both possible and probable. Vision becomes clear and personal... The good stuff betters better: including morale, productivity, creativity, profits. The bad stuff diminishes.

Walker suggests asking three "line of sight questions" of individuals:

  • What is your understanding of our mission?
  • What will you do to make it happen?
  • What do you need from me?
  • Building Commitment

    These questions and their answers facilitate both understanding and commitment, the secrets to successful change initiatives. In fact, the lack of commitment by sponsors, change agents, and/or targets is the most prevalent factor in failed initiatives. At the same time, leaders frequently fail to realize that commitment doesn't just happen. It takes concerted effort and careful planning.

    As you'd expect, sponsors, change agents, and targets show their commitment in different ways.

    • Sponsors: legitimize the change and push it forward.
    • Change agents: carry out the sponsor's implementation decision.
    • Targets: support the project and take the steps necessary for successful implementation.

    That's if all goes well and you get the commitment you need from each level. To ensure that you do, create an effective communications strategy.

    Communicating for Change

    When developing a communication strategy for a change initiative, clarify where the organization is now, where it needs to go, and how it will get there. Be sure to cover the following areas:

    • Positive benefits of the change and the future state.
    • Potential negatives of the change.
    • Implementation and timing.
    • The support people can expect (e.g. technology, human resources, training).
    • Areas that are not changing.
    • Success criteria, evaluation processes, and rewards.

    Manage communications to manage change. When crafting your message, ask the following questions:

    • Who needs to hear the message? (Consider both internal and external stakeholders.)
    • What do targets need to know?
    • How do I position the change so targets understand and appreciate the importance?
    • How, and how often, should the message be delivered? (e.g. emails, meetings, weekly, daily?)
    • Who develops the message, and who will deliver it?
    • How do we measure the effectiveness of the message?
    • How will we continue to update people?

    Consider your answers carefully so your message lands - and sticks - with your people:

    • Remember, flow information down from the top, and receive feedback in the reverse direction.
    • Choose communicators who have influence to deliver the message.
    • Communicate the change initiative, your motivation, vision, and transition plan in clear, relatable terms. In other words, tailor your message to its receivers.
    • As implementation draws closer, take the time for small group and one-on-one conversations, and do so more frequently. Many an initiative has fallen apart for lack of this follow-through.

    As a leader, your job is to orchestrate these communications. Support the change sponsors, and help them develop "talking points" that will engage and motivate their direct-reports to make the change project a success.

    Time doesn't change organizations; people do. Leaders do. If you want to boost the odds that your next change effort will be a success, build individual and organizational commitment and focus on effective communication. Your project doesn't have to end up in the scrap heap of change initiatives.


    Larry Hart

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