Change management: A better way to explain the “why”

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Answering properly the ‘why are we doing it’ question is so important when leaders start to talk to their people about organisational change.

Sadly, it often forgotten as we get caught up too quickly in implementing change. Always stop and think, do my staff really understand why we are changing? If they don’t, the chances of your change initiative succeeding are small.

Bob Kantor’s excellent piece here explains why this is so critical when firing up our change management initiatives.

Full article with thanks to:

Most leaders can walk their team through the what and the how behind change management efforts, but fall short on the why. Here’s how to make it meaningful.

The track record for most change management efforts is pretty dismal. One missing element often dooms these efforts from the start: Most leaders focus on the what and the how, thinking that these items will carry the ball. Leaders often avoid the why because it tends to be more of an emotional message – and people are less comfortable with those.

But the reality is that people make decisions based on their emotions, and then use the data to justify and validate their decisions. If you want your teams to actively support your change efforts, you need to do a much better job of engaging them in why it matters.

Why the why matters in change management

Let’s look at a simple and effective change management project plan, which should include:

Vision for the change – what we are changing
Rationale for the change – why it’s important to make that change
List of related projects and initiatives – how we will achieve that change
Most of us can explain what we are doing and how we are going about it, but most of us either skip or struggle with why it matters. Since organizations don’t change – people do – explaining the why needs to be personalized.

Also, people don’t resist change, but they do resist being changed. Leaders must involve their people in defining the why and implementing the change. These efforts require a lot of communication. And it’s not enough to simply send a message; you also must test for how the message was understood, and adapt as needed.

Unfortunately, skipping this work is what makes the difference between people supporting the change because they feel they have to, and people supporting the change because they want to. This distinction is the critical make-or-break factor in the success of change initiatives.

People who understand and emotionally connect with the rationale for the change feel inspired rather than manipulated.
Employees who feel that they have to do something usually feel like victims and will invest the minimum amount of effort and creative energy to deliver new results.

But employees who understand and emotionally connect with the rationale for the change – why it’s important to the organization and to them – feel inspired rather than manipulated, and will do all they can to creatively support and implement the target change.

A better way to explain the why
Often, when leaders attempt to communicate the rationale for change, they focus on why the change is important to them rather than on why it’s important to the team. They overlook the critical element – we call it WIIFM: what’s in it for me?

Reverse-engineer your traditional communication process.
The best advice I have is to reverse-engineer your traditional communication process. Start with what result you want. For example, it might be staff enthusiasm and commitment to making an organizational change happen. Then identify what the team currently believes about the situation. They might think, for instance, “Going to a managed services provider means I’m going to lose my job.”

From there, identify what they would need to believe in order to enthusiastically support the change. For example, “Once we transition our infrastructure support to an MSP, I will be retrained to enhance my infrastructure engineering skills and learn how to implement DevOps. My work will become much more interesting and less stressful, and my market value will significantly increase.”

Finally, examine the gap between what your audience currently believes about the change and what they need to believe about the change, and design your communication messages and engagement process to close that gap.

There’s even more you can do to make change personal. Let’s explore five tips:

5 ways to make change personal

Once you understand how to explain the why, you need a reliable strategy for getting the message across. Here are a few practical tips.

  1. Expect to over-communicate. Most of us need to hear a message multiple times before we really get it. Yet many change leaders think that “one and done” is all it takes for others to get on board. This often occurs because the leaders have been aware of the new vision for several months, and they forget that others are hearing it for the first time.
  2. Be transparent when you don’t have all the answers. Change is hard and needs to be fluid. Leaders rarely have all the answers in the early stages of organizational changes. Rather than wait to engage teams until you do, let them know what you do know when you know it, and keep providing updates as the process evolves.
  3. Constantly test for shared understanding. As George Bernard Shaw said, “The problem with communication is the illusion it has occurred.” Most management courses advise leaders to use active listening by asking people to repeat back what they’ve heard. But that doesn’t work very well in times of change. Nor does simply asking them if they understand what you’ve said.
  4. It’s better to ask folks what they think about what they’ve heard, or what their concerns and suggestions are for moving ahead as an organization. As they share those, leaders can assess how close they are to a shared understanding and adjust their messaging, and perhaps even their change plan, accordingly.
  5. Ensure everyone in the organization is in the loop. I’ve seen senior leadership send out all-hands messages about which their middle managers had no knowledge. Then when staff members asked their immediate manager questions about the situation, they got an unhelpful response along the lines of, “I don’t know either. I just heard about this the same way you did.”

Make sure everyone in your chain of command knows what’s happening, when it’s happening, and why it’s happening. Better yet, prep them with FAQs and sample answers. Also, make sure that they are on board, and address any concerns they may have before the all-hands messaging begins.

Again, adequately explaining the why is a lot of work for leaders. But while you might be inclined to skip it or feel like it will slow you down, it will actually help you achieve change more efficiently. And that’s the whole idea, right?

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