Start Change Journeys
with a Jump
Companies today are challenged with large-scale organizational change: managing mergers and acquisitions, building digital experiences for sales teams and customers, adopting new technology and ways to work, strengthening cybersecurity. It’s a long list.
Ultimately, employees are the key to organizational change, because they are vital for activating strategy. Leaders need their employees to own their role in whatever is changing to ensure long-term success. Otherwise, the investment and potential value of change is lost.
In a recent Gartner survey, 61% of senior executives said that they believed their organizations were struggling to bridge the gap between strategy formulation and day-to-day implementation (we call this strategy activation).
Leaders are urged to accomplish change at lightning speed and global scale. They sense they’re already behind and feel pressured to alert the organization and employees, even when their planning is in the early stages. A common failing is that they rush to “get going” on change activities, often underestimating the value of providing the context for people to activate around the strategy, building a foundation for long-term sustainability.
“Leaders too often express what they want in terms not of outcomes, but of tasks, and they rarely, if ever, make clear the full extent of the change they are asking for.”– Elsbeth Johnson, “How to Communicate Clearly During Organizational Change”
Here are some examples of how this “task mindset” often plays out:
Leaders struggle to get things off the ground. There is no compelling story to gain alignment and sponsorship for the change. The appetite for the change wanes, as does the chance for activation and results.
Leaders rush to launch when they’re not ready. There’s a flurry and big bang, lots of fanfare, colorful messaging, and details. Then there’s a long pause before the next injection of activities. Momentum is lost, making it harder to restart. Or worse, the experience of the rushed launch was so poor that employees rejected it outright. The change is rescinded to re-launch another day or year (or never).
Leaders choose to “shove major changes in” (actual quote from a Chief Human Resource Officer) with bare minimum preparation or communication. Leaders using this approach take a measured (or sometimes unmeasured) risk that the organization and employees will adjust to changes quickly and business disruption will be minimized.
There is another way to approach how leaders are talking about change–a way that gets things going, even when the plan isn’t fully baked.
Jumpstart communication for the change journey
Time and again, I’ve seen how effective it can be for leaders to use storytelling to jump-start the right conversation about change. The key is to craft the contextual conversation about change upfront for your employees, while continuing to work the nuts and bolts of the planning in the background.
Many leaders can find it uncomfortable telling a story while the change is still being shaped. However, they often appreciate the advantages that jumpstart communication can bring.
There’s no better way to align on the change than to craft a story around it, putting it on a page in black and white with impactful visuals. This activity alone can serve as a bulldozer for socializing, aligning, and energizing leaders. And once the story is crafted, it becomes foundational to any future messaging.
Most likely employees already recognize the change is needed. Storytelling provides an opportunity for them to see themselves as part of the story as it evolves, instead of just being an end result.
Ultimately, jumpstart communication can ensure leadership is heading in the same unified direction while also blowing away any doubts that employees may have about what’s changing, making everyone more prepared for the journey ahead.
The art of story
Let’s face it, people love stories. And when they provide meaning, stories can also yield results:
Stories rally value. All too often, change communication focuses on mitigating impacts, rather than promoting the value that change brings. Effective change requires both. After all, people rarely rally around impacts. They get excited about solving problems and creating (and feeling) value.
Stories trump conjecture. Some leaders may not feel they can announce upcoming changes until something big is ready to be revealed. Chances are, if leaders don’t tell the story about impending change, people will gather tidbits from the grapevine and make up their own story.
Stories set expectations. Some organizations fail to establish early and clear expectations for how their employees will hear and learn about changes. Employees want to know what’s changing and how they will be prepared.
Using the jumpstart communication approach, we can craft stories that cover all the bases:
- Providing the who, what, when, where, how, and why of change
- Demonstrating alignment within the organization for the change
- Serving as conversation starters that support leaders and managers in telling the change story
- Resonating as “human” and inspiring meaning from the perspective of people
- Including visuals to be more engaging, memorable, and recognizable
Getting started with jumpstart communication
Thinking about jump-starting your change story? Here are some common challenges you might face, and tips to address them.
Feeling vulnerable. This is a natural feeling to experience (remember, change is uncomfortable for everyone). What if you change your mind? Your direction? Your plan? Your reputation is at stake.
Tip: Be realistic in the narrative and craft the story based on what you know, with the understanding that there is more to come. Employees will appreciate the transparency and inclusion.
Fearing a lack of alignment or commitment. Crafting the change story will surface points of misalignment. It’s a truth maker. You may encounter potential challenges to adoption (areas of uncertainty and risk), while also sparking energy around what’s possible (alignment and support).
Tip: To use jumpstart communication as an alignment tool, know your audience. Identify must-have audiences to help craft the story (maybe even employees themselves), as well as audiences necessary for review and approval.
Not knowing where to start. Change can be complex with many details to work out. The team focused on change analysis and planning will need a creative partner for jumpstart communication–writers and designers who are both creative visionaries and strategic voices.
Tip: Recruit the right team to work on the narrative and bring the change journey to life. Keep them involved as the story evolves and plans for communication become more frequent and tactical.
Ready to jump?
Large-scale organizational change will likely continue to be difficult and ongoing. Leaders can prepare themselves and their people better by shifting their approach to how and when they communicate about change.
If you’re leading a change journey, consider using storytelling to get a jump on the story while your team works on all the details.