Invariably, strategic plans involve change. And, as anyone who has ever been involved in implementing strategic initiatives knows, 101 things can derail implementation – unrealistic deadlines, demotivated employees, overly ambitious outcomes, confusion around responsibilities, and poor planning to name a few. The good news is, many otherwise sound plans can be salvaged by paying greater attention to the one thing that is almost guaranteed to propel the change train off the tracks, ...poor communication.
The importance of being in the loop
In times past, we working stiffs were expected to do what we were told by our supervisors and managers. Whether we wanted to or liked what was being asked of us was pretty much irrelevant. We either did it or found another way to put food on our tables.
Fortunately, this aspect of work has changed, ...and for the better. Today, it’s not uncommon for management to survey employees on major issues, or to draw upon their experience when developing new programs and initiatives. In return, employees want to know what’s going on.
They want to understand the reason they’re being asked to undertake a special project, or do something in a certain way. They expect management to listen when they offer sound suggestions for doing things better. And they don’t like feeling out of the loop and being blindsided by outsiders who seem to know more about what’s happening in their organization than they do.
What’s this got to do with change?
Everything! To many people, change is threatening. There’s comfort in knowing that what you’ll be doing, or the way you’ll be doing it, will be more or less the same tomorrow as it was today.
So, information can be very empowering. When a change initiative is afoot, and employees feel in the know, they are much more likely to support the initiative and do their possible to make it a success – even when that makes them feel a little uncomfortable at first.
When employees feel disconnected, …out of the loop, …uncertain about the why or the what, …or uncomfortable with the how, the word “stubborn” can assume a whole new meaning as employees dig in to do battle with this change initiative they don’t understand, don’t like and consequently don’t want.
The problem with information underload
When members, customers, donors or other “outsiders” get wind of internal happenings before the insiders who are supposed to be in the know, the impact on employee morale and their willingness to support a change initiative can be significant. The fact is employees want to believe that what they are being asked to do will make a positive difference. That belief is hard to establish when they don’t get what they need to understand the whys and how, and enable them to do good work. Let's call it information underload – the exact opposite of what many of us suffer from these days.
One firm’s experience
Having invested considerable time and money in a rebranding initiative, management decided to implement a program that would engage employees in operationalizing the brand and position the business for greater success in the future.
An important part of the rebranding work involved the identification of six behaviours that, it was felt, once adopted by employees throughout the organization would play a big role in changing customer perceptions for the better.
What goes up...
Over the course of three years employees were exposed to a variety of workshops and materials to help them understand the why and how of these behaviours. Perceptions of the degree to which these behaviours were being embraced by coworkers were monitored. And, to the delight of management, all trended up for the first year and a half.
From the get-go employees were asked for suggestions on what would make adoption of the brand behaviours and implementation of new systems and procedures go more smoothly. One suggestion, put forward early in the process and frequently thereafter, was better communication. Many employees were concerned that those on the frontline were not getting what they needed to properly do their jobs. Stories of being blindsided by customers who got information on what the organization was or wasn’t doing before it reached employees were common. Not surprisingly, staff members not only found this embarrassing, the fact they were left out of the loop was having an adverse impact of the organization’s reputation with customers.
…can just as easily fall back down
Despite assurances that employees would get the information they needed, unfortunately little changed. The result was a growing indifference to the brand behaviours. By month 18 perceptions of the extent to which the brand behaviours were being embraced had peaked and were beginning to trend downward.
After several years, and several hundred thousand dollars, this change initiative had gone as far as it could, …which wasn’t nearly as far as the architects had intended.
The moral of this story is clear
Communication, or rather a lack of good, regular communication, can derail even the best thought out programs and change initiatives.