It’s Not Always Who You Know

Who You Know_NBLDiscussing subject-matter experts today – employees we’ll rely on to bring the knowledge to new business process design for a change project – and a familiar set of names pings around the office.

This is a good thing because subject-matter experts, or SMEs, who are already actively involved can jump right in and share their wisdom.

But, it can also be a not-so-great thing when we go with who we know and forget to consider a broader and more fully representative swath of experts. Why do we default to our familiars?

We think it will take too much time to get newcomers up to speed. Harder to admit: We don’t know stakeholders well enough.

Here’s the thing: Taking the time, during this early project stage, is always worth the effort:

  • It ensures we’re not missing key details.
  • It provides greater credibility for the project when more areas of the business are represented.
  • It saves us endless amounts of time in later stages, trying to create awareness and gain traction and support.
  • It builds a sense of ownership, which breeds natural ambassadors for the project.
  • It’s the right thing to do.

Bottom line: Get to know as wide a group of stakeholders as possible, and you’ll have a built-in group of supporters who’ll do more than cheerlead – they’ll make sure you succeed.

Change Is a Good Thing, Right?

Stray cat  Photo by Vickie Bates

“When are you gonna get me out of this driveway and find me a home? Cuz that’s the kind of change I can embrace.”

When I got back to Hollywood after three months in New Hampshire, a lot had changed.

Streets were blocked off for repairs, changing normal routes into confusing detours, snarling traffic. A wonderful neighbor in my triplex announced he would be moving to the westside in October. And there was a new and insistent change, making immediate demands on all three of us in the building. (Yeah, that guy, up there to the right, batting his baby-blues at you.)

From the timing of his appearance in our driveway, we think he was abandoned when someone moved out of a nearby apartment at the end of August. My soon-to-be-departing neighbor reported that he was so hungry, he tried biting into a lemon that had fallen from a tree. So distraught that he sat on my other neighbor’s doorstep and cried all night. Here was a young cat, used to living indoors, out on the streets, dealing with traffic and, yes, even in central Hollywood, wildlife – the kind that tends to fight with neighborhood pets. This little guy seemed unprepared for all that and dazed and distressed by his new circumstances.

By the time I returned from the east coast, both neighbors were leaving food and water for him. But due to allergies and peripatetic lives, none of us was prepared to adopt him. And so he remained on the street, exposed, which gave me a week’s worth of sleepless nights.

My contribution was lots of cuddles (he was starved for affection, too) and immediate outreach (for some reason, my neighbors hadn’t thought this far ahead). I figured my social media network probably wasn’t wide enough, but I knew two friends – both with extraordinarily kind and generous hearts – who had substantial numbers of friends, acquaintances and followers. I reached out with a kitty profile and photos (hooray for smartphones) and, as it turned out, one of them didn’t need to share across her network – she was looking for a pet.

Now he has a loving home, a hoomin to talk over philosophy and the state of the litter box at 4:30 in the morning, and a new name (Io, after one of Jupiter’s moons).

And I went back to losing sleep over who my new neighbor is going to be and whether he or she will smoke and party every night and leave suspicious things in the laundry area. Y’know, the usual stuff I stress about.

That Darn Cat

I also was left to reflect how far outside of my comfort zone this little fellow’s desperation had placed me.

How, before I got emotionally invested (darn that cuddling!), I could feel myself balking at even acknowledging the existence of a stray cat who’d taken up residence in our driveway.

How annoyed I felt at the intrusion into my work.

How my mind kept racing with questions: What if he got run over? What if a raccoon gave him rabies? What if he was already sick? What if he belonged to someone who was looking for him? What if I took him in and he turned out to have the kitty equivalent of Mr. Hyde lurking inside him?

And how – after he left our driveway for his new home – all three of us confessed to missing him terribly and worrying about him even though we knew he was in a far better place.

You see, usually I’m the one inflicting change on other people. But it reminded me of something we used to say to each other, over and over, on one of the facility-closure change teams I served with: “You never want to get so good at this that you forget what it feels like for the people losing their jobs.”

As professional communicators, we’re dealing with change management 24/7. So it’s probably not a bad thing to take stock, when change hits home, and see – no, feel – what it’s like when our own emotional ball of string gets unwound.

Fear, cynicism, unwillingness to let go, anger, blame, excitement, acceptance, and all the other emotions that experts chart on the change curve, don’t arrive on schedule or follow a neat, sequential line. No, typically they pile up on top of each other, like bad L.A. traffic; they honk our horns and change the pre-sets on our radio dial. They’re the busted car alarms that keep us awake all night.

I’ve learned it’s valuable to remember that we too balk at change, feel uncomfortable in our own skin, and toss and turn all night. It doesn’t mean we’re terrible at change. I think it makes us more effective change managers if we recognize that talking points and trainings and lunch-and-learns often barely scratch the surface of what people are experiencing when their lives are upended and that our feelings about change don’t stop just because we’ve happened to reach that final milestone on a change plan.

What do you think? What important emotional experience – in life or at work – have you learned from?

Related posts:

Just the Facts? How to speak to the emotional concerns of audiences dealing with change
Is It Possible to Speed Up Change Management?

Talking to Stakeholders about Organizational Readiness

Listening is the most effective tool in stakeholder management.

There’s a deliverable at the beginning of every effective business initiative that involves sitting down with key stakeholders to determine the organization’s readiness for change. Do it correctly, and you’ll have the information you need to run your entire program.

Frequently, though, change management teams skip this key step or use it for their own purposes. Bad idea.

Here are four approaches to stakeholder interviews to avoid:

Pointing Fingers
Change is inevitable in business. Senior leaders know this, so do employees and customers. When change is afoot, stakeholders need an honest and transparent approach. What they don’t want to hear is blame – laying the responsibility for change at someone else’s feet.

Recently, a magazine I subscribe to sent out a survey, asking readers how they’d feel about:

  1. receiving this weekly magazine four or five days later than it currently arrives (meaning most of the reviews and listings would be outdated) or
  2. an increase in the subscription price of the publication.

These potential changes were prefaced with some context: The U.S. Postal Service was changing its service levels, forcing the magazine to arrive late or cost more for subscribers. Or, at least, this was the magazine’s conclusion. Readers, on the other hand, have some sense of who’s responsible for publication schedules – magazine staff, not the post office – and responded with hostility to both options. As of this writing, the subscription rate of the magazine remains at the old price.

Change initiatives spring from an essential need inside an organization: more effective business processes, reliable systems, better customer service, less bureaucracy. Stakeholders know this just as they recognize that the impetus for change is coming from the organization’s leadership. Strong leaders take the wheel and turn the ship when it’s required; change programs need to acknowledge why there’s a change in course rather than assign the blame to some outside factor.

Let’s Talk about Me
One of the first change programs I worked on had an 18-month period of research and strategic planning. That kind of preparation time is unheard of in today’s business environment. Yes, time is precious, but the stakeholder interview is not the place to try killing two birds with one stone.

It’s tempting, when a stakeholder wants to know more or doesn’t understand the change initiative, to jump in and share the vision, goals and messages of the program. But, this deliverable isn’t about talking; it’s about listening. The purpose is to capture all the background about this senior leader’s organization, how it works, what stakeholders require, when they might be opposed to or ready for change, where they touch other key functions in and outside of the company, which cultural sensitivities might affect training readiness and communications, and so on.

Barge in to this discussion, and you’ll miss the most important, salient reasons why you’re engaged in this effort in the first place. Be willing to listen, and your program will run like clockwork.

Trial Ballooning
Likewise, the stakeholder interview shouldn’t be used to float trial balloons. In addition to keeping the change team from the important goal of listening, launching a trial balloon to gauge reaction to it only tells stakeholders that the new direction hasn’t been fully vetted yet. This is dangerous because early in every change program, you want senior leaders invested; you want them championing this change to their organization, not downplaying an initiative because they don’t believe it’s ready to fly.

If 12 percent of survey respondents said they prefer grape jam with peanut butter-and-jelly sandwiches would you assume the remaining 88 percent like strawberry? When designing the stakeholder interview, make sure the questions lead to appropriate conclusions.

Try out the questions on members of the team first, noting the answers, then take the extra step of tabulating them. Did that question about a key business process provide enough detail for you to draw a conclusion? Or do you need to ask follow-up questions about informal channels that bypass the process, which systems are involved, and which teams outside this functional area use the data, too?

Never assume, and make sure to drill down with specific questions that will help eliminate erroneous assumptions.

The Elevator Speech: Approach with Caution

There is a moment I dread, perhaps above all else, at the beginning of a project, and it starts with an innocent-sounding request like this: “I need an elevator speech, so that when I go out and talk to stakeholders, I can explain what we’re doing.”

Elevator speeches, as you and Wikipedia know, are intended to “quickly and simply define a product, service, or organization and its value proposition.” The goal is to deliver your prepared speech in the time it takes to ride an elevator from, say, the lobby to the 6th floor.

What’s wrong with that?

Nothing, by definition. It’s practice where we can falter.

5 Tips to Elevate Your Elevator Pitch

When you’re supporting a project, you can improve the impact of communications by offering a quick bit of coaching. Remember, your team was chosen for their expertise in business process development, HR, change management, and IT, not communication. Some may be project – and elevator speech – newbies.

Help them out with these five tips for effective communications:

Time It Right, Part 1: Don’t Play “Beat the Clock”
Do you know how long 30 seconds is? That’s not a trick question. Unless they’ve worked in radio or racing, it’s unlikely most people have a sense for how many words fit into 30 seconds. Wikipedia gives elevator rides a generous 30 seconds-to-2 minute time span. The reality, unless your stakeholder is traveling from the lobby to a skyscraper penthouse, is more like 30 seconds. After exchanging greetings and inquiries about your health, that leaves just enough time for a tagline about your project. You’ll help your team immensely by keeping the elevator speech to one or two sentences, at most.

When you send it out to the team, append it with answers to a set of questions they can expect to get in response. And, for those used to receiving a paragraph-length or longer elevator speech, remind them that brevity is more likely to invite further questions: it leaves the stakeholder wanting more instead of feeling overwhelmed by a long, verbatim speech.

Make It a Natural Part of Conversation
Corporate initiatives struggle under enough weight – from awkward acronyms to flagging sponsorship – so give your team a fighting chance by helping them sound natural, not canned. This, of course, starts with the style and tone of your writing, but depends on the person delivering the elevator speech, as well. Memorization is key, but it doesn’t have to be perfect. If IT phrases things a little differently, let your IT lead change it up for her or his constituents. Most important, encourage the team to listen first.

Has the other person in the elevator (or cafeteria) said “Hi” just to be friendly or are they really starting a conversation? (Hint: Avoid launching into the elevator speech with everyone who says, “Hi.”) What are the conversational indicators that someone wants to know what you’re working on? (Hint: It’s probably not asking, “How are you?,” after saying, “Hi.”)

Really big hint: Someone is more likely to ask what you’re working on if you’ve invited them to talk about their work and expressed real interest in what they do. If that takes up the entire elevator ride, suggest a lunch (if appropriate) or catch them up on the elevator speech next time.

Don’t Corner Your Stakeholder
Remember that episode of “Seinfeld” with the Close Talker? Elevators, small conference rooms, stairwells, and most especially bathrooms are tight quarters and not your stakeholders’ natural habitat. Also, other people frequent these spaces; they may be less receptive to hearing an elevator speech.

Suggest to your team that effective communication is what they’re going for, not communication-at-all-costs. They should be aware of their surroundings, what the stakeholder is attending to, and the appropriateness of delivering the elevator speech there. (Hint: You’d be amazed how many folks need to be reminded not to talk business with stakeholders in the bathroom.)

Time It Right, Part 2: Be Aware of Social Signals
Did that VP of Sales really want details when she asked, “How’s work?,” or is she just being polite and simply want an answer like, “Work’s great!”? Is he looking for space to think? Is she only riding the elevator up to 2? Is he making a private phone call? Late to the next meeting? Deep in conversation with a boss, customer or direct report? Encourage your team to trust their instincts. The elevator speech won’t get a good reception if someone from your project has just interrupted a conversation or stalked a stakeholder from the elevator to a meeting.

Know When It’s Time to Listen, Rather than Speak
After all, stakeholders are the audience most critical to the success or failure of projects. Now do you see why that request for an elevator speech concerns me? It’s because the focus is on what we, the project team, need to say. When we focus so hard on messaging to stakeholders, we tend to forget to listen to what they have to say.

If this is the case, then we have it backward. We need room in our communication plans – and within tactics like elevator speeches – to listen to key audiences.

Our “value proposition” is only as valuable as the audience believes it to be. It’s our stakeholders who give the project credibility among their constituencies. If we want to earn their genuine support and buy-in, so that they go out to the rest of the organization and help us as ambassadors, we need to engage in two-way conversations.

Write it into your plans and help your project team understand that delivering what we need to say shouldn’t get in the way of listening to what audiences have to tell us about how to ensure the success of the project.

Writing that inspired me this week:

“Don’t speak!”
~ Dianne Wiest to John Cusack in “Bullets Over Broadway”

Saving Face: 11 Ways to Recover from a PR Disaster

Netflix stock has opened like a poorly reviewed sequel for the past two weeks after reports that the online DVD/movie-streaming company lost 800,000 customers in the last quarter.

The irony is that new pricing and a hastily conceived change in business model, aimed at boosting Netflix’s stock, turned off customers, inviting reputation-drubbing reviews, and ultimately caused scared investors to dump shares.

There were three separate chances – the pricing change, the Qwikster announcement, the Qwikster demise – for Netflix to communicate effectively and help their customers adjust to change, yet the company seemed to bungle each opportunity, infuriating customers to such an extent that they unsubscribed from the service.

Why did communications go so wrong? And, once they’d created a problem, how could Netflix have handled communications to keep customers and investors happy? How do you successfully retract messages and deliver newer, better ones?

In the interest of full disclosure, I’m a Netflix customer and have been for about seven years, though I don’t own stock in the company. I am probably what Netflix considers a Luddite user – I’ve always had a low-priced DVD-only plan. I was unaffected by most of this as a customer; as a communicator, I learned, and was reminded of, some valuable lessons about messaging change. Here’s what Netflix could’ve done before, during and after…

Introducing the Higher-Priced, Reduced-Service Business Model

In July, Netflix announced it would change its service offerings and price structure. Up until then, folks who had DVD-by-mail accounts also had the option to stream some movies for free from the Netflix library.

Here’s Lesson #1: When you give away a product or service for free, as the old joke goes, you’ve just established its worth. Netflix should have done a better job communicating why it was offering free streaming to begin with, and it should have been explicit about how long the free offer was going to last, so customers weren’t surprised when it went away. Even if they didn’t do this when they launched free streaming, there was still time to communicate before the price hike and service change.

Lesson #2: Explain your decision clearly and provide evidence. When you’ve offered something for free, then decide to charge for it, it’s going to feel like a loss to your customer. When brands and companies retract an existing feature, they need to make the case for change to the audience. The explanation – and any research backing it up – must be compelling enough to convince the audience to adapt to the change. The rationale can’t simply be about a company’s bottom line. (For an effective example of charging for an online service that used to be free, check out this NPR story on The New York Times’ paywall.)

Instead, Netflix choose to deliver the news about changes in pricing and service like this:

“Last November when we launched our $7.99 unlimited streaming plan, DVDs by mail was treated as a $2 add on [sic] to our unlimited streaming plan. At the time, we didn’t anticipate offering DVD only [sic] plans. Since then we have realized that there is still a very large continuing demand for DVDs both from our existing members as well as non-members. Given the long life we think DVDs by mail will have, treating DVDs as a $2 add on to our unlimited streaming plan neither makes great financial sense nor satisfies people who just want DVDs.”

Lesson #3: Know your audience. Buried inside this price-change announcement was the news that Netflix had plans to eliminate DVD-only plans. Essentially, they were telling customers with DVD-only preferences that they’d better jump on the streaming bandwagon quick-smart or they’d find themselves paying for a combo plan while using only one part of it. Kind of like paying for a surf-and-turf platter and only eating the steak.

If this wasn’t confusing enough – and if freaked out customers were still reading – Netflix abruptly reversed itself: “Since then we have realized that there is still a very large continuing demand for DVDs both from our existing members as well as non-members.” (Italics mine.) The language takes the form of a pronouncement: We’ve decided this for you in consultation with ourselves. With any change – and any decision that affects customers’ wallets is always going to feel like a big change – audiences like to feel as if they’ve been consulted, like they’ve had a chance to provide their point of view. This messaging is entirely one-way communication. It’s no surprise that customers took to social media to voice their complaints…and that Netflix remained silent in those channels for days afterward.

Lesson #4: Be human. Statements like “…treating DVDs as a $2 add on [sic] to our unlimited streaming plan neither makes great financial sense nor satisfies people who just want DVDs” reinforced what many Netflix subscribers viewed as a money-first, customers-second approach. This will happen when the words “financial sense” appear before “people who just want DVDs.”

When communicating about change or any difficult subject, always, always place human beings before any other issue. And try to make those human beings your audience, your customers or your stakeholders, not you and your investors.

With each of its decisions, Netflix failed to indicate if they’d done research into what customers wanted and needed and the price points they were willing to pay. How difficult would it have been to poll customers, invite them to focus groups, or engage them in social media channels before making a business decision?

But, companies on the brink of change are often ruled by fear – of what customers really think, how they’ll react, and what any hint of change will do to Wall Street. Decisions based on research into stakeholder perceptions – part of the due diligence of change management – are a lot more strategic than ones based on assumptions. When we engage stakeholders, we start to think of them as individuals and spend more time with them in two-way conversations, listening and learning. As a result, our communications become a lot more relevant, relatable, human.

An Apology Minus a Strategy

It took until mid-September for Netflix CEO Reed Hastings to jump into the fray the company had caused.

“I messed up,” he began. “I owe everyone an apology.” It was such a promising start, seeming to acknowledge the problem. Unfortunately, this was also the email that begat Qwikster and foisted the awkward two websites/two passwords/two credit card charges business structure onto baffled customers.

Lesson #5: Demonstrate that you’re sincere. Apologizing was the right move for Netflix, and the CEO was the right person to deliver the communication. The apology itself was well-worded; it didn’t resort to any “I’m sorry you thought I said that when I really said this” shenanigans.

Hastings went on to provide some context, pointing to companies, such as AOL and Borders, which had failed to adapt to change. “Companies rarely die from moving too fast, and they frequently die from moving too slowly,” he wrote.

Then, he added, “When Netflix is evolving rapidly, however, I need to be extra-communicative. This is the key thing I got wrong.” But, when he tried to re-explain the pricing and service changes, the language again turns a deaf ear on customers:

“So we realized that streaming and DVD by mail are becoming two quite different businesses, with very different cost structures, different benefits that need to be marketed differently, and we need to let each grow and operate independently. It’s hard for me to write this after over 10 years of mailing DVDs with pride, but we think it is necessary and best: In a few weeks, we will rename our DVD by mail service to ‘Qwikster.’”

“We realized….we need…we think it is necessary and best…” I’ve included the link to the full email so that you can see for yourself that, besides the apology, there’s little in the way of an explanation that takes into account the needs of and what’s best for customers. Really, it’s not about you, the email essentially says, it’s about how hard this is for me.

“For me the Netflix red envelope has always been a source of joy. The new envelope is still that distinctive red, but now it will have a Qwikster logo. I know that logo will grow on me over time, but still, it is hard. I imagine it will be the same for many of you. We’ll also return to marketing our DVD by mail service, with its amazing selection, now with the Qwikster brand.” [sic]

Lesson #6: Pinpoint the issue and address it directly. In its haste to announce and explain Qwikster, Hastings and Netflix lost sight of the real issue at hand: customers were upset over a perceived loss of service combined with a price hike. They weren’t clamoring for Qwikster as a solution. This lesson goes hand-in-hand with the previous one – it’s impossible to be (or sound) sincere when you’re addressing the wrong subject.

For this to feel like a genuine apology, Netflix needed to clearly state its rationale for the price changes and back up its words with tangible improvement to existing service(s) that demonstrated a benefit to customers despite the price increase. The Qwikster announcement merely changed the subject, it didn’t make the issue go away.

Lesson #7: Unless you can poke fun at yourself, don’t try to be funny when communicating difficult information. “There are no pricing changes (we’re done with that!),” Hastings added to his email, striving to be jocular. Humor is tough under the best circumstances; it never works when your audience is angry (actually, it works to make them angrier) because it sounds like you’re missing the point. Which is exactly what Hastings was doing.

The About-face

Customers weren’t the only ones left scratching their heads. Investors, the audience Netflix was preaching to all along, became equally irate as the missteps shone a spotlight on an utter lack of strategic thinking in the executive suites. Stock price reflected this loss of confidence, plummeting some 70 percent in three months, after visiting $300 a share in mid-July of this year.

R.I.P. Qwikster.

On Oct. 10, a terse email from “The Netflix Team” – rather than the CEO this time – announced that Qwikster had imploded on the launch pad.

The note reiterated its pricing messaging without acknowledging the customer outcry that had led to Netflix’s disastrous business model revamp: “While the July price change was necessary, we are now done with price changes.”

The brevity of this communication was designed to get the whole thing out of the way quickly. Yet there are still lessons to be drawn:

Lesson #8: Don’t market, explain. With every announcement, Netflix felt the need to market some additional service. Here it’s a giant paragraph (far longer than the space allotted the slap-dash demise of Qwikster) devoted to their streaming services. It’s random, it’s off-topic, it’s just not helpful. Mainly, it suggests Netflix is just going to keep hammering away at their messages and not listen to or care about what the audience has to say or needs to know.

Lesson #9: Enlist back-up. Work with industry pundits and influencers among your target audience in advance of any big announcement. Explain what you’re about to do, demonstrate the research you’ve done to support the change, detail how you plan to message about it, and listen to their reaction. Adjust your message accordingly, then ask for their support when traditional media come calling with questions and on social networking sites, before chatter gets loud. Netflix should have enlisted industry analysts and techies before its first announcement; it was an absolute requirement by the time they retracted their position on Qwikster.

Some final lessons that may help brands and companies avoid PR disasters like this:

Lesson #10: PR can’t solve everything. You gotta feel for Netflix’s spokesman, who was sounding mighty beleaguered by the time announcement No. 3 rolled out. This was one of those PR disasters where Netflix basically revealed that “the Emperor has no clothes.” There was no strategic thinking or planning behind Qwikster – it was a knee-jerk reaction to a deluge of angry customer comments – and no PR can dress that up.

Lesson #11: Focus on the future. This is where your customers and Wall Street want you anyway. It’s clear Netflix had a vision of a future where clunky old DVDs – easily damaged, slow to mail – were no longer part of the business model. Instant streaming seemed to be the way of the future. But, the company needed to do the work to get customers to share the same vision, understand the value proposition, overcome any technology gaps or fears, and adopt the new way of accessing the Netflix library.

To be visionary, you have to know how to lead. In this case, Netflix needed to invest time, money and, goodness, yes, communications to educate the portion of its customer base that wasn’t in that magical early-adopter space. Teaching, sharing knowledge and information, is always preferable to pronouncing. And, like two-way communication on social networks, it puts you squarely in touch with your most valued constituents and helps you understand what they’re thinking, what they need, and when they’re ready to make the leap with you.

Just the Facts?

NPR ran an intriguing story this morning that gets to the hearts (and minds) of the people who are the targets of messaging.

The story was about the drought in the southwest United States and why, no matter how long the drought has lasted and how desperate communities have become, what many think of as an obvious solution – recycling waste-water – isn’t even on the table. So to speak.

After a quick synopsis of the drought, the story dives in to the discussion of messaging, and there’s a lot of valuable information for communicators helping their audiences cope with change.

What the advocates of recycled waste-water discovered when they tried to convince communities to adopt this solution is that no amount of scientific information could sway the good citizens. And, this isn’t a case of education level or translating science into plain English. The issue, if I might place myself into the mindset of some of these townsfolk, was: “No way, no how am I going to drink sewage-water or serve it to my family!”

Discussions with psychologists seem to have got to the root of the problem: contagion thinking. This is when one concept is so tightly bonded to another concept that no amount of facts will separate them or dissuade people from their way of thinking.

In this case, it went like this: “You can talk ‘parts per billion’ and ‘filters’ and ‘cleaning chemicals’ all you want, but nothing – and I mean nothing – is going to flush that image of sewage from my mind when I look at a glass of your filthy recycled water.”

Glass Half-Full Thinking

To aid recycling advocates, the psychologists suggested messaging that separated the original sewage water from the clean recycled water that ended up in people’s taps. Instead fresh river water and natural aquifers, rather than sewage, were identified as the source water. Of course, they were able to de-link these concepts because what they were saying was true; they’re not suggesting inventing false scenarios – that just wouldn’t wash when you’re trying to create credibility for your messages.

Now, I’m not suggesting that every audience is coping with contagion thinking. But, listening to this story this morning brought to mind some of the difficult conversations we have to have with our audiences, whether internal or external. How many times have you discovered that science, economic theory and well-researched rationale isn’t always persuasive?

Whether we’re trying to communicate changes in a benefits program or the decommissioning of a facility in a community or asking employees to work in new ways because of recently passed federal laws, our audiences have strong attachments to certain ideas and emotions about each of these actions, and facts alone may not be enough to help them change and adapt.

Internal audiences may have different concerns from external audiences. What we can do as communicators is work not just with the change management teams, senior leaders, line managers and external spokespeople, but with the audience members themselves.

It’s as important to find out what isn’t convincing your audience as it is to know what’s working, and then find new answers and reasons that speak to that emotional core of concern. With internal audiences, what we find is that every aspect of change management runs more smoothly: these concerns interfere with everything from process mapping to training and adapting to new roles. For external stakeholders, you discover that audience members feel the company has “really heard” them, and you see more engaged advocates for the change your company has embraced.

Worth listening to the whole NPR story here.

Is It Possible to Speed Up Change Management?

Tucked away in an interesting post by those mavens of common sense at the Brass Tack Thinking blog, was this almost parenthetical comment:

“In context of someone like a social strategist or someone engaged in shifting the culture and design of a business, it’s important to not only recognize the stages and their characteristics, but their role in helping guide the organization from one phase to the next, and shorten the time from denial to acceptance.”

While the concept is never brought up again in this post about adapting to change in an organization, you hear it more frequently in todays business climate: The idea that acceptance of change is something that works to a timetable and, as such, can be treated as a mechanism, or “milestoned” like a technology deliverable, and speeded up for the convenience of the project outcome and ultimately the organization.

Where you especially hear this is in younger companies, the ones that emphasize above all else the need for entrepreneurial approaches. In the hurry to be nimble, the human aspects of achieving those milestones become lost.

Corporate communicators will spend a good percentage of their careers working on change management efforts and much of our success – and a project’s – depends on our ability to think and plan strategically, message effectively, manage stakeholders, and support training.

In the years since change management first entered the corporate world, new technologies have been developed along with newer and faster ways to implement them. What hasn’t changed is the length of time it typically takes to adopt and adapt to these new ways of working. This is the human piece of the puzzle.

Anything that deals with emotional transition isn’t going to happen overnight, it’s probably not going to fit neatly within the grids of a project plan, and it’s unlikely to take place on a schedule.

Since this is not a case for waiting until the very last employee is in an open state of mind and fully trained to adopt a new system or business process, what do we do? How do we as corporate communicators do our jobs and support both project goals and employees?

A few keys to success:

Build the case with project leaders first
Go back to basics and help them to see and understand why change management programs have been part of large-scale technological and business process transitions in the first place. If important pieces of change management are being removed from the plan – such as the upfront work of establishing relationships with stakeholders or reducing the amount of training time – find the success (or failure) rates of other large change efforts at your company and others (your vendors should be of help here) and demonstrate why it’s critical to keep these deliverables in the program. Once project leaders are on board…

Communicate with the workstream leaders
Ensure the entire project team is operating on the same page.

Work closely with program team members on stakeholder management
Help develop strong two-way communications with stakeholders, understand what they need to know and how they want their information delivered, and don’t surprise them.

Learn who’s on the periphery
As you talk with stakeholders, you may uncover other departments, or even one small workgroup, that will be affected downstream by all of the change. Bring them into your communications plan (even if you have to add their email addresses one-by-one every time you send out a communication) and into the project planning, as well. These employees will not forget what you’ve done for them, which can make them powerful voices supporting the change program to the wider organization.

Team up with the training workstream through the entire project
Do discovery with them, meet the early adopters, know who’s in the bell curve and who’ll be the last across the finish line, edit their training materials. This will help you develop messaging specific to each audience and it will give you a technical edge when communicating about the project (that works both ways: understanding the technical aspects of the program will give communications credibility with employees who are on the front line, working with the new systems and business processes, and it will enable you to explain complex technical information in English to those employees who need to understand what’s going on, but aren’t going to put their hands on the system).