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.

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.