Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Communicating Your Change Vision

The first step in the change process is to create a sense of urgency. The second, corresponding step is to create a sense of expectancy. Together, these comprise the proverbial stick and carrot. Employees are motivated both by the desire to avoid the consequences of not changing and to enjoy the benefits of making the change.

The Edict--"we have to change"--launches the change process. But it cannot sustain it. This is due in part to the fact that progress towards change lessens the sense of urgency over time. Plus, using the Edict to motivate change amounts to employing negative reinforcement, which tends to produce only compliant effort--doing the minimum necessary.

You need to give employees a clear vision of a positive outcome to sustain the change process. Sounds simple enough. Yet company leaders often stumble in communicating a vision that resonates with staff. Below are some tips for effectively presenting your change vision: 

Make sure your vision appeals to employees. Simply setting a vision isn't enough. It must be compelling to those you count on to make it happen. Consultant Kevin Eikenberry writes that vision others will embrace should have the following characteristics:
  • Positive--something others see as desirable
  • Personal--something that benefits them personally and directly
  • Possible--a destination people can see themselves reaching
  • Visual--something people can "see;" it's tangible, imaginable
  • Vivid--clear and specific; they will know when it's achieved
Engage employees in creating the vision. How do you know what will appeal to employees? Ask. Better yet, involve them (or a representative sample of them) in defining the change vision. Have them focus on how the change will benefit them personally, not just in terms of how it helps the company. Ideally the vision should be something they can get excited about. If they own it, they are much more likely to work hard towards accomplishing it.

Communicate it clearly. One of my routine talking points about communication is that success isn't defined in how well you send the message but how well it is received. Reception problems can result from numerous causes, but the biggest one is the fact that your audience suffers from too much communication. You have to break through the clutter to get your message across. 

While I've written on this topic before, I can't improve upon the list of pointers included in John Kotter's seminal book Leading Change
  • Simplicity. Eliminate jargon and "technicalese" so that the message is readily understood by all.
  • Metaphor, analogy, and example. Word pictures and stories help make your vision tangible and inspiring.
  • Multiple forums. Use varied channels for spreading the word--meetings, emails, newsletter, posters, etc.
  • Repetition. Because people are overloaded with information, you need to communicate the message many times to allow it to sink in.
  • Leadership by example. Enable people to see the vision in action, in addition to hearing about it. Plus if leaders act inconsistently with the message, it won't be believed.
  • Explanation of seeming inconsistencies. This is another potential strain on the credibility of your vision. An explanation may suffice, but you may also have to address real inconsistencies within the organization.
  • Give-and-take. Two-way communication is always more influential than one-way messaging.
Report on and celebrate progress. Vision is less powerful when it's perceived as off in the distance. Change often takes time to complete, but you can't keep people waiting to reap some kind of reward for their efforts. So it's important to define intermediate milestones that can be reached every few months or so. Make them significant and celebrate their achievement.

Don't underestimate the importance of keeping the message alive. With everything on their plates, employees can be surprisingly quick to dismiss change efforts that "go silent" for a period. You must keep them informed and encouraged that things are progressing as planned.

Perhaps the most critical juncture in any change process is when motives shift from "we need to do this" to "we really want to do this." That's the essential role that vision plays in effective corporate change.

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