What We’ve Got Here is a Failure to Communicate
Philip H. Bonello, Ph.D.
We have all been there – either hiring a change agent, being hired as a change agent, or watching someone take this role to help change an organization. Nearly all organizations at one time or another need to catch up with the times and change. Sometimes it is with the help of a consultant. Sometimes with the implementation of new software. More typically it is with the addition of a new full-time executive.
A problem can’t be solved with the same level of thinking that created it.
Implementing big change is no mean feat. And to do so it is absolutely essential to accept and fully I internalize the idea “that a problem can’t be solved with the same level of thinking that created it.” With this insight Einstein established a rationale and a logical premise to support new thinking. In corporate environment, substantial political support is needed to pave the way for this required new thinking and to achieve a successful outcome.
This is easier to do than most think. Oddly, it’s infrequently done. If the right approach is used to communicate goals, the roles of key people and respect for their efforts, and this is done with sufficient frequency, the odds of success are significantly improved.
As is often the case, the hiring organization has been cowed by years of passive leadership, particularly where technology or data utilization are involved. A new wunderkind is hired to turn a department or division into a more contemporary and a more productive digital-age contributor.
Upon hiring, the CEO and her coterie of senior executives anoint the Newbie wunderkind as a “key member of the team” and “the catalyst for change” the organization has been looking for to achieve its strategic objectives and to meet its operating targets. This initial communication is usually done in a small, executives-only meeting with lots of welcoming and “let me know how I can help” comments. An email is sent to everyone by the CEO, announcing the Newbie and ensconcing the Newbie’s position and vital role. The Executive Team Page is updated with the Newbie’s photo, title and career summary. After these important first steps, the Newbie is typically directed to “Fix it” and the now popular motivating mantra, “go big or go home” is used to encourage iconoclastic moves. This is all good, really good. But this where a significant opportunity to accelerate change is so often overlooked. It is at this point where the CEO’s efforts are now truly needed.
Marketing is the science of creating demand
But first, let’s explore a little background and history. Why was hiring a change agent needed in the first place? Generally, the hiring organization became passive and complacent in a specific operational area. Today, the areas typically needing a fix are those driven by technology and data. Marketing, data management, IT, manufacturing automation are excellent current examples of how technology has outpaced many organizations’ abilities to implement critical changes in organizational structure and key personnel.
The reasons for the need center around “information deficits” i.e., there is an insufficient understanding about how these areas, that rely so heavily on ever-changing technology, actually work. These technology-centric areas are also complex and rely on techno-speak. This technical argot is understandably off-putting to those outside the field.
It is easy to understand how executive leadership in a reasonably successful enterprise could have gotten lost only to one day realize they are now behind the times and are taking on material risk.
For example, the term “data governance” didn’t appear in literature until the mid 1990’s. Data cataloging and access, data protection and use, marketing channels and attribution metrics, manufacturing automation and IT are now distinct technology-driven fields in their own rights. It their current forms most of these areas did not exist twenty years ago.
In terms of change process, corporate leadership concludes that a serious change is needed to reverse the hardened pattern of ambivalence that inevitably sets in once complacency and mistrust become the overarching attitudes. These attitudes set in once an organization capitulates to an information deficit and turns a blind eye to organizational dysfunction. A change agent is needed to lance these ulcers of passivity and indecision. When these interventions begin, the organizational corpus plenum reacts viscerally and predictably. It quivers, contracts and rolls with misinformation. Staying the course and correcting the problems is not a yeoman’s task. It is also a task that needs strong, visible and frequent political support if change is truly sought.
When C-suite members hear the initial messages of support, they only hear it once or maybe a few times. The rank and file may hear it once. Let me say that again, the rank and file may hear it once. The importance of this cannot be over-emphasized. The employees who are most likely to actually feel the impact of a changed organizational structure, absorb the burden of increased productivity, endure changed job titles and responsibilities, commiserate with others who are moved from one team to another, and so forth, may never hear the story at all, if they hear it once. Herein lies the CEO’s missed opportunity.
It is within this organization environment - this social environment - the Newbie is now cast. They are cast into the organizational bad lands tasked with redirecting well-intrenched inertial forces; those of a workforce hardened with well-formed opinions of mistrust and incompetency. A work force with attitudes of complacency, if not outright resistance to any newcomers, be it people, process, software or new fancy projects. What is the new wunderkind to do? How can the CEO accelerate the change process? The answer is very simple: create demand. Create demand throughout the organization using the force and weight internal power structure. It works, and it is free of financial cost.
A change agent is needed to lance the ulcers of passivity and indecision
It is from this corner office authority where the messages of progress, change, respect and support must be delivered. Changes in perception and improvements in attitude are achieved by repeating the same messages over and over again, for the entire organization to hear without filters, until the belief system - the attitudes, opinions and beliefs – begins to change. This is a very simple, time-tested, recipe-based process.
The objective is to align people around articulated goals and objectives as defined by the CEO and by extension, the Newbie. To a large extent, regardless of the functional area, the Newbie is tasked with either saving money, bringing in more money, or using the money more productively than it has been used in the past. The most important element in aligning resources is to transfer power and authority to the Newbie. Only then can the Newbie get the job done. Here’s the formula.
Building this constituency of support is nothing more than a simple marketing project. NERD ALERT: Marketing is the science of generating demand.
Let’s assume the Newbie was hired to deliver the following:
Improve enterprise-wide productivity through better use of technology
Rationalize human resources
Centralize responsibility and accountability
Develop and recruit full-time staff to replace high cost consultants
Eliminate redundant or unnecessary software and personnel costs
First, let’s redefine a formula from physics F = M x A (Force = Mass x Acceleration) and apply it to an organizational behavior. In this context the equation’s terms are redefined to mean F = Force and Awareness (of the newbie’s role), M = the power, weight and reach of the CEO and Acceleration = Frequency of communicating the key messages.
The greater the frequency of message delivery,
the greater the likelihood the message will be believed, internalized and followed. This is true even if the content isn’t.
Using the above Newbie deliverables, we have five key points to use as communication anchors, each specifically tied to the stated reason the Newbie was hired. They are also likely tied to various annual performance bonuses. The cornerstones to successful messaging are vital and basic.
Who is delivering the message?
Who is receiving the message?
Who is seen or referenced in the message?
How often is the message delivered?
Implementing Organizational Change: The Essential Ingredients
Use a messaging calendar. As with any successful implementation, the most important tool is the calendar. In this case, an annual calendar by month is recommended, with at least twelve monthly episodes of activity.
Identify key audiences
Internal by level; Senior Executives, Directors, Manages, all employees, etc.,
External by type, vendors, trade organizations, consumer media outlets, boards, regulatory agency members, etc.
Select the communication channels, whatever the organization is capable of using
Select the communication medium
Written word in an article
Written word in a short blast (to trumpet an event or an achievement)
Video (news event, award, organizational announcement, general show of support)
Write the stories
Base stories, blasts, posts, etc., on the Newbie Deliverables as outlined above.
Use a rallying call with simple language like, “Make Technology the New Cornerstone of Our Business (or Marketing or Data or Automation).
Use short aspirational language lightly peppered with a few details to define the tone and scope
Make it is easy to understand
Repeat the rallying call often
Avoid language of technical and intellectual authority
Transfer Authority and Respect
Use the most powerful individuals in the organization to deliver the messages
Have the Newbie in photo shots, lots of them
Have the Newbie quoted in stories and posts by the most senior individuals
Use video interviews or conversations
Repeat each month
With frequent on-message communication, attitudes will shift, opinions will change, and obstructionists and disbelievers will lose their purpose, support and zeal. The new train tracks will turn ten degrees north. When the realization sets in that this heavy, fast moving train is coming, only those who don’t truly understand inertia will hope to stand in the way and not get on board. We know what happens to an object at rest.