Leaders make change. Leaders have a large capacity for change. Leaders are ahead of the curve in their change process when they tell other people about it. All of these factors contribute to the need for a thoughtful and consistent approach to change communication.
We suggest that leaders use a consistent structure to tell the story of change. This ensures that there are no missing pieces. Just as a traditional story has specific elements needed to share it effectively (setting, plot, character, conflict, and theme), the Case for Change has specific elements that are required to tell a change story.
Context – Give specifics of the challenges and issues that are creating the need to make a change. Is this driven internally, or externally as a response to the market? Be clear about the most important reasons for making the change. It’s essential to provide a common baseline of awareness and understanding for the listeners.
- WHY – explain why the status quo is not sustainable. Why can’t you continue doing what you’ve always done? Explain the consequences of not making the change. It’s important that this isn’t overdone to create fear. Fear leads to uncertainty and massive brain threat in the listener. We’ve heard leaders who believe that they need to explain “the burning platform” in order to shock their people into a state of change awareness and create urgency to make the change. Instead of inspiring hyperawareness and motivation, fear stunts creativity, slows problem solving and reduces productivity.
- WHAT – describe what will and will not be changing. Usually when change is announced, you don’t have all the details. That’s ok, but tell people what you do and don’t know. Is this a people change, a process change, or a system change? Are there things that are out of scope for the change?
- WIIFM – this is the first question that every person asks: What is in it for me? How am I impacted? What does this mean to my job, my future, my life? At some point in the Case for Change, it’s essential to help the listener understand how he or she will be directly affected.
- Benefits of the change – Describe how successful change will address the issues and challenges outlined in the context. Help the listener understand what change success looks like. Paint a picture of the future.
- It won’t be easy – This is an important and often overlooked element of making a Case for Change. When leaders explain that a change is happening and just paint a bright picture of the future, people’s BS meter goes off because they know that there are challenges ahead. By acknowledging that the change will not be easy, you build credibility and address the inner cynicism. This doesn’t need a lengthy explanation, but it’s essential to express empathy for the listeners impacted by the change.
- Confidence – explain why you as the leader believe that this can be successfully completed. This is the opportunity to “connect the dots,” reminding people of how you’ve done this before and it’s all worked out (or why it’s going to be different than the last time you tried!). This is a chance to inspire and motivate by sharing your unwavering belief in the listener, the change, and the purpose of your organization.
- Expectations – what role does the listener play in the change? What are your expectations for their involvement and support of the change?
- Commitment – share specifics of how the leadership team supports the change. All successful change is due to excellent change leadership. It’s critical to make a public commitment to the change and then walk your talk.
Message consistency throughout a change is ridiculously important. By creating the Case for Change and being able to refer to it as a baseline, leaders can ensure that they stay on point and don’t create confusion by varying their messages. The other benefit is that this structure forces you to put into words all the things about the change that you intuitively know but do not always articulate.
Use the Case for Change described above to make sure that you don’t overlook a key element of the change story.