A woman named Dorothy recently called for advice on a project they were getting ready to "go live" with. I could tell in her voice that she was stressed out about this rollout. She and a small team were working on a project at their company and Dorothy was getting very anxious about how to reveal the change to the rest of their colleagues. I asked her to describe how far they’ve come and how they made the decisions and how the project was going. She said the group has been meeting for a month or two to analyze the situation, determine solutions and come up with an implementation plan. Everything she described sounded well thought out and organized.
"So what is the problem?" I asked.
"Everyone is going to hate it. There are so many rumors circulating about the project, people are saying they are going to refuse to change and that the whole project is waste of time. My team is questioning why we even started this project to begin with - none of them want to move forward."
I asked her how people responded when they talked to them about the project over the past two months.
"We didn't talk about it. We were trying not to reveal anything until we had all of the details worked out."
You know what happens when people have a sense something is "going on"? They start to talk about it. They talk about what they know and what they think they heard and speculate about what might happen. Just like a storm morphing into a full blown (pun intended) tornado - these "conversations" develop into damaging rumors strong enough to take Dorothy's project and fling it straight to Munchkin Land.
Engagement isn't a box you check at the end
It’s something you build along the way. And it doesn't just happen on its own. There has to be intentional conversations to build an understanding - not an understanding of how things will change, but an understanding of what will be changing. People need time to warm up to the idea that things are going to be different. The earlier on you start this dialogue, the better your team will be set up to implement changes - when that time comes.
Do yourself a favor - be open and honest!!
The purpose of communicating is to keep people informed - not to manipulate them so they "buy in" to your changes. Tell them what you know. Tell them what you don't know. Ask their opinion. Get their perspective. But never manipulate them. They will eventually find out and no one follows a leader they cannot trust.
I have observed people struggling with initiating these types of conversations, so I have a script to use that makes it more of a casual conversation (please steal this - it works quite well!). It goes like this...
#1 - Give them a brief overview
"Hi [interested person] I just want to let you know that a group of us have started talking about how we [improve something]. This is a really important initiative because [tell them why it is important to the customer/business/employees]. We are still tossing ideas around and I wanted to let you the general direction we’re heading in and give you a little background about what we’ve been discussing. [tell them about a few general ideas to give them a sense of the types of things that are being considered - this should not be long and drawn out!]"
#2 - Ask for their input
"We'd really like to know what your thoughts are..."
#3 - Give them time to process, think, and react
"...and you don't have to let me know right now, but if you could think about it and get back to me with your thoughts by [a couple days later], we'd really appreciate it."
And now, (drumroll, please) the two big what-ifs...
What-if they oppose the change? Then the project is doomed. They'll start telling everyone why its a bad idea and the status quo will prevail! Not true - here is something to remember: if they are going to oppose the change now, they will oppose the change later. If there is a bumpy road ahead, putting off the journey does not make the road less bumpy. Start involving them in the conversation now.
What if they get the impression that I am going to do everything they think needs to be done? Don't let them get that "impression". Be clear with the communication and set the expectation. Tell them that you (or the team) are gathering information from many sources, and their input is a part of it. The team (or you) have to consider all of the input and make the decision that is most appropriate.
If you follow this three part dialogue - most people will not come back with any ideas, but they will greatly appreciate the conversation. For the ones who do have feedback - thank them for their input and learn what you can from the new information.
People are far more engaged in changes when they are informed and are able to have a voice (ever hear someone say "no one ever asked me!"). Don't make changes to them, make changes with them.
Christopher M. Spranger, MBA, ASQ MBB
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