Five years ago, the average design cycle for automobiles was five years. Today, that timetable has been cut in half. And the auto industry is far from the only one faced with the need to work faster. The rise of “fast fashion” brands Zara and H&M, for instance, are putting pressure on clothing retailers of every stripe.
In this new world where change is the norm everywhere, companies aren’t just struggling to pull it off—they’re also hard-pressed to communicate change more frequently than ever before. That’s a challenge for organizations of 80,000 or even just three. In order to keep everyone on the same page and head off resistance, you need to have a plan. Here are four steps to help you communicate change with power and precision.
Start by explaining what’s changing in big-picture terms. Don’t drown your audience in details. Stay at a conceptual level—don’t go lower than 10,000 feet.
The best way to do this is to use imagery—one upshot of which is that it makes your audience feel smart. This way they can “see” the change, so they have a much stronger grasp of what it means than if you were to explain it only as it will take place in practice.
For example, you may want to restructure your organization because you have so much work piling up that bottlenecks are forming. Your solution is to change who does what. When you’re addressing your team, show the image of a traffic jam in order to illustrate the problem the change is intended to solve. But be careful to pick the right imagery, and be sensitive to the feelings it can generate. An image of a traffic jam may stir up memories of yesterday’s frustrations. A more abstract, geometric image probably won’t. Sometimes it’s better to stick to more conceptual images when communicating change in order to reduce anxiety.
In any case, illustrations are powerful aids to understanding. People need to see and connect with your vision at all levels of the organization, and the best way to make that happen is to use clear, simple imagery. Remember that to change behavior, you first have to change thinking. Images are springboards to changing thinking.
The change you’re introducing may be great for your team, but make sure to put yourself in their shoes when conveying it. Change means disruption, and disruption can cause discomfort. To give your team the confidence they need to succeed, you need to minimize how different the change will be—without being misleading. Build up confidence by reminding them how they handled earlier changes in the company.
You can also compare the change to a more familiar type of change—like hybrid cars. Sure, the source of power is different, but the driving experience is still the same.
While explaining your change conceptually is essential, you can’t just stop there. You have to offer compelling reasons for why changes must be made. Don’t just say change is happening—convince your team that change is necessary for the company’s future and subsequently their own.
For example, the popularity of craft beer has forced the bottling industry to shift from exclusively mass-produced standard bottles to customized bottles that still need to be manufactured efficiently. One challenge facing leaders in the industry is to explain to their organization that this isn’t just a fad or a frivolous marketing ploy—they have to change the way they do business if they want to stay competitive. The decision may be made at the top level, but leaders need to get everyone on board in order to adapt successfully.
Another way to increase buy-in is to explain how the change affects the entire organization—not just individual departments. Offering the broad view will help each individual in the company know where they stand. Imagine an actor walking on stage and delivering a line without knowing where that scene fits into the play. By providing context, you can make sure everyone’s on script.
Finally, for your team to understand what change means to them, they need to know what success and failure look like. How does the change affect their goals? How will they be measured? These are questions you need to answer if you expect your team to buy in. Explain how changes do and don’t impact employee evaluation. When everyone knows what’s expected of them, they’re less likely to resist than when the goals and the strategies for achieving them are cloudy.
As the rate of change accelerates all across the business world, the ability to communicate change effectively will only become more critical to companies’ competitive edge. Getting it right will your team embrace new opportunities more quickly and innovate better than those that don’t.