“I have noticed even people who claim everything is predestined, and that we can do nothing to change it, look before they cross the road” Stephen Hawking
The upturn in the global economy over the last few years has seen a shift in the way businesses are organising themselves, many driven by a tougher regulatory environment but others by a renewed focus on growth, investment and innovation.
This changing environment can lead to a sense of organisational helplessness, raising the question for businesses of ‘how do we navigate and operate in this new world?’. In our work we are often confronted by factors like “change fatigue” – where employees are simply exhausted by the sustained and prolonged changes taking place, inside and outside their organisation. I am sure there are many business leaders who secretly crave a period of stability, but the world keeps turning and so organisations must continue to prepare themselves, and their people, for change.
Much of this is about the way leaders perceive change. Do they see it as a positive enabler for the business, or a necessity to be forced on to the organisation (and the people working for it)?
At one end of the scale you have Tony Hsieh, CEO of the innovative footwear business Zappos, who is adopting a completely new way of working called “holacracy”. It is aiming to create an ecosystem as opposed to a traditional organisational structure. Hierarchies have been ended, outdated processes removed, existing structures changed or challenged. This bold experiment, so the rhetoric states, is designed to make Zappos more like a thriving City than a decaying business.
Of course, transformation on this scale can be a risk. Will this type of change simply ‘happen’ at Zappos, or can it be managed? (Spoiler alert: at Lansons we believe effective change can be managed through good planning and preparation).
Some people have not been able to adapt to the new ways of working and have left Zappos, and there remains significant resistance within the organisation. This may be a good thing. The people who left may no longer be the right fit for Zappos’ emerging organisational culture.
Equally, though, there is the possibility that Zappos will lose key talent because they have not done enough to engage their people with the changes the business is going through. Do staff understand their role? Are they clear on what’s expected of them in this new world? Do they understand and believe in the new vision for the company?
Time will tell whether Mr Hsieh will be revered for his foresight, or whether he will have to press the re-set button.
While not quite as dramatic as the social experiment taking place at Zappos, some of the organisations we are working with are designing and delivering programmes to change the way that they operate. Clients across an array of sectors including Pharmaceuticals, Energy, Financial Services, and not-for-profit are embarking on culture change, mergers & acquisitions, and diversification.
Unlike the dark days of 2008, the focus of these programmes is not purely on efficiency and cost-cutting (although the rumours coming out of IBM of 110,000 job losses worldwide are a sober reminder that significant challenges remain for businesses, which in turn have a very real human impact).
Many of the recent projects we have worked on do have a significant impact on employees. However it is more nuanced than the simple (albeit powerful) narrative of the organisation having to cut its costs, resulting in inevitable job losses. The projects we are working on balance a positive story of investing in creaking IT systems (or renewing the focus on customer service, or bringing great talent into the organisation) with tougher messages around having to work in a different, more flexible way, about having to change roles or learn new skills, systems or rules, or about staff changing their working environment or location.
Ensuring that this overarching corporate story has power, meaning and relevance is essential. Employees must understand the core purpose of what the business is seeking to achieve (the why), and how it affects them in terms of their role or working practices (the what, and the how). Only then can they truly commit to changing their behaviour in ways which meets the business objectives – whether that’s better serving customers, improving new product development or being more efficient.
Working on these complex programmes has given the team here at Lansons a lot of opportunity to learn, and so in summary we have captured our five key lessons around communicating change:
- Change can be managed with proper preparation – leaders must give people a sense there is a plan
- Your overarching story needs to be clear, compelling and relevant (and needs to be repeated constantly)
- People need to see tangible evidence that things are changing (and continually reinforce)
- Leaders need to be visible role models for the new ways of working and need to listen to their employees
- A regular rhythm and structure of communication needs to be put in place in order to establish credibility, provide reassurance and build trust
In summary, change is inevitable but that does not mean you should be fatalistic. Managing and communicating change effectively improves business performance, increases employee pride and morale, reduces reputational risk, and retains key talent.
So, you can and should prepare for change. Going back to the Hawking quote at the start of this article “you should look before you cross the road”.
If you would like to discuss how to improve the way you communicate change within your organisation please contact Scott McKenzie, Director, Change and Employee Engagement at firstname.lastname@example.org or on +44 (0) 207 294 3611.