Crafting Your Change Message

ANY BUSINESS LEADER must learn early on that constant change is a fact of corporate life. Business Success depends on accepting that market conditions are never static. So, one of the prime skills for any CEO, division head or project co-ordinator is the ability to manage change effectively.

The context for change might involve anything from implementing a new organisational structure to planning a public listing, or fighting a low-season price war. In each case, though, a number of key questions will have to be answered, and the way this is done will make the difference between profit and loss, or success and failure.

The specific questions will differ but the common theme will invariably be the impact of any impending change and how to turn it into an advantage.

There are many people who think they have an answer. A Google search will throw up more than 190 million links in about 0.47 seconds on the subject of managing change.

Unfortunately, very few of those webpages will give the information you need because there is no simple answer to the problem of how to manage change.

A solution to this complex issue can be split into three parts: communication, leadership, and determination to get the job done. Without each of these, you will face an uphill task.

Good communication during a period of transition requires empathy – an understanding of what the people around you think and feel. You must listen carefully, not just to understand what is said overtly, but to detect nuances, doubts and what is left unsaid. You must also explain the reasons for impending change in a way that creates a personal connection with the members of your team.

It helps to keep the following essentials in mind when communicating change:

  • Start by defining exactly what is changing and why. Vague statements will not work, and as a leader you should never make the mistake of thinking that subordinates will not understand or want to know the details of what is happening. They expect and deserve to have concrete explanations. Otherwise, there is a risk that speculation and rumours will start. And as anyone who has worked for a big organisation will know, rumours can be a major distraction.

  • Know what has to be achieved. Even if you are not leading the initiative, make sure that you understand it thoroughly. Ask questions until you are absolutely clear what the change will mean and where you fit in.

  • Encourage all those involved to speak with “one voice” about the critical parameters and desired outcomes. Using a common terminology for new concepts gets people thinking the same way, and should make it easier for the management team and its trusted lieutenants to get the message across. This approach ensures everyone is in agreement. Misunderstandings can be avoided by giving a consistent message from the outset.

  • Anticipate the concerns and reactions of people, and do not try to dodge problems or procrastinate. If you expect difficult issues to come up, face up to them. Remember that people do not want to hear the sound of your voice, but what you have to say.

  • Share information with the team as soon as possible. Too many leaders wait for the information to be analysed and evaluated before passing it on. It is much better to say early on as much as you can and, if certain things are still unknown or must remain confidential, explain the situation. People will respect you for telling them what you can.

  • Give clear reasons and state intended outcomes and solutions for any planned change. If it is a big project, employees will want more than a basic announcement, so be ready to support the ideas and tactics with facts. The way you convey this information is also important. Therefore, let the audience sense your conviction about what is to come.

  • Always make messages about change relevant and compelling. Do not focus only on the benefits for the organisation. The board or the managing director may have made the decision, but the employees make it happen. For this reason, talk about what people will get out of the new process or structure. Give them a reason to be interested. This approach will minimise resistance and help overcome doubts.

  • Give people time to understand the reasons for change and to accept them. However large or small the project may be, emotions and uncertainties will be involved. Almost everyone follows a predictable course when it comes to dealing with change. A leader should be sure and keep the team moving forward.

  • There is never an upper limit on the amount of information you can communicate during a period of change. Few leaders have ever been accused of telling their staff too much. Your aim should be to inform your team before they come to you for clarifications and keep them updated. Also, make a point of recognising individual and group achievements throughout the change process, and not just in the end.

  • Take care not to underestimate how long things might take. Remember that ingrained habits or long established work procedures will not change overnight.

These suggested guidelines are just a starting point. By its very nature, managing change requires flexibility and innovation: the MBA textbook cannot give all the answers. A useful rule of thumb, though, is to start with a plan and be ready to change it as you go along.

Also, do not be afraid to ask for help. You will be surprised how many people want to contribute to the effort. Things will work out much better if your team members feel they are a part of the project.

Finally, if a change has to be made, get on with it. There is no point waiting for someone else to make the first move.


An emotional journey
When faced with change in the workplace, employees typically go through emotions ranging from excitement to anger. Before accepting something new, people first experience satisfaction, which means “I’m happy as I am”. Next is denial, where the predominate thought is that the news about change is not relevant to them. After that comes resistance to the whole idea. And then an exploration stage, during which the person begins to question how the change might work. With luck, this leads to hope for a positive outcome. Finally, there should be a commitment to ensuring things go well. Not everyone goes through each stage, or in the same order. Some get stuck and continue to resist. However, the leader’s job is to move those affected by change along the change curve as quickly as possible.

Seven questions
When any major change is contemplated, the following questions are almost inevitably raised. If not, they will be what people want to ask. What is changing? Why is it changing? How does it affect me? How will my work or role change? When and how will it happen? How will the changes be supported? What do I need to do now? As a leader, you should have the appropriate answers ready. Spend sufficient time thinking about the information you need to deliver, and how to get the message across most effectively.

Three stages
When implementing change at any level in an organisation, consider these three stages. First, prepare well. Be certain about what will change and why. Set clear objectives for yourself and construct a clear message. During this phase, turn to others for input and advice whenever necessary. Secondly, announce the change. Present it in a way that people can easily understand by giving an indication of the expected outcome. Whatever you say should touch a chord with the audience emotionally and rationally. Finally, implement the change and sustain it. This is usually the toughest and most frustrating part of the process. Nevertheless, remain focused and encourage your team to keep talking about what is happening. Do not worry if things seem a little chaotic at first. Constant communication is the best way of sorting things out.