2020: A change management masterclass?

By Sue Dewhurst and Liam FitzPatrick

If learning from experience is one of the best forms of learning and development, then this year is surely proving a masterclass in change management. 

 

For most of us, navigating our way through the unchartered waters of the COVID-19 pandemic has meant sitting with continuous uncertainty and dealing with sometimes drastic changes impacting our daily lives. For some, it has meant the painful loss of a family member or friend. Businesses have expanded at high speed to cope with sudden demand … or changed their delivery model … or struggled to survive. The strategic decision-making and communication skills of politicians and senior health officials have been under a high intensity spotlight. 

 

Here are just five of the many teaching points we’ve noticed from our UK-based experiences.

 

1.  If you want people to do something differently, make the action as simple as possible, give a clear and specific message, and make sure senior leaders do the right thing. 

 

Specific messages like ‘wash your hands’ and ‘stay at home’ worked well. But a new message to ‘be alert’ brought confusion. What did it mean? What should people actually do, to ‘be alert?’  

 

Meanwhile, when a senior government advisor was perceived to break the UK lockdown rules, members of parliament were flooded with angry letters and emails. Research suggests people’s willingness to stick to the rules themselves began to break down at that point. 

 

2.  Remember the importance of individual stakeholder mapping. Consult and involve your senior leaders and key influencers at the right time. 

 

This seems such an obvious point. But time and time again in recent months, we’ve seen senior leaders in schools and local government voicing their frustration about changes being announced with no prior consultation or warning. These were changes which affected their constituents and the children in their care, and which needed action taking in response. 

Together with your change sponsors or leaders, take the time to identify your stakeholders. It can be useful to use a simple mapping matrix, such as the classic power/interest model from Johnson and Scholes. (If you’re not familiar with it, it’s widely available online.) Make sure you consider these individuals, as well as your mass audiences, when planning communication strategies.

 

3.  Beware of categorising dissenting voices or a less than rapturous welcome to change as ‘resistance’.

Linked to the previous point, in companies’ eagerness to urge their people to view change as the norm and embrace the need for it, it’s tempting to view any objections or dragging of feet as resistance. But we’ve seen senior leaders engaged in weeks of intense discussions about changes who then expect their employees to enthusiastically embrace them after a few hours of presentations and discussion. Remember the curse of knowledge – once you’ve become used to an idea yourself, it’s easy to forget other people don’t have the same familiarity with it. And question whether what you’re seeing is really resistance. Could people have a reasonable concern which needs to be addressed, or a useful insight for the decision makers or management team?

4.  Think about, and speak about, the human impact of strategic decisions – and remember that seemingly small things matter.

When you’ve spent months working on redundancies or focused on which direction your company will move to adapt and survive, it’s easy to forget the day to day impact of decisions on employees. These applies both to the leaders making those decisions and the communicators who spend so much of their time working with them. 

Remember the important role you can play as a bridge between employees and senior leaders. That means having a sound understanding of the perspectives from both sides. Make the time to talk with employees, understand their concerns and daily experiences. Bring your insights to decision-makers. We remember one senior leader being incredulous that the employees in her open forum didn’t want to talk about the impact of a major change on their computer systems or customers. They cared that their coffee areas would be affected and they might lose the desk they liked near the window. To her, these things seemed trivial. To staff, they were important. Help leaders hear and understand the view from the other side of the bridge – this is one of the areas in which we as communicators can add the most value.

 

5.  Show your working out.

By the time a decision is announced, those involved in making it may have spent many hours agonising over the right way forward, rigorously debating and discarding other potential paths, which may at first have seemed a better choice. 

Yet often, what’s announced is the only conclusion. We probably explain why change is needed, but do we explain why this particular way forward was chosen? Or why others were not? Giving people an insight into the thought process behind a difficult decision can make it easier for them to understand and accept it.

 

During fast-moving change, it’s easy to keep your head down and just keep moving forward with the next item on your to do list. But do take the time to reflect now and again, and invite your leaders and managers to do the same. We can learn so much from watching what went well and what went badly. Even better, teach managers how to tell and use a personal story from their own experience. Being able to share a personal experience of successfully navigating a difficult change is a powerful skill for any manager to learn. And this year has certainly been a source for many, many such stories. 

Authors

Sue Dewhurst and Liam FitzPatrick are longstanding collaborators. Although they work independently for clients, they have come together over the years to create the original and renowned Melcrum Blackbelt training programme for communicators and to research skills and competencies. Their work has resulted in multiple articles and most recently, in the book Successful Internal Communications published by Kogan Page in 2019.

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