Big News! Communication Failures Cause Change Failures!

OK, that’s not really such big news, is it?  Gary, an HR executive in an accounting firm, just ran a Group Workplace Communication Survey to see why his last two organizational change projects didn’t work well. The survey results told Gary the #1 reason: 75% of his staff agreed that the most annoying and counter-productive issue they see in their workplace is this:

“Changes are implemented without discussing them with the people whose jobs will be affected by the change.”

Gary had done two of his three planned steps for improving productivity in the company. The first two changes took more than twice as long to complete as he had planned. And in both cases, people were unhappy about the way those changes “messed with their jobs”. Two people left to work for another company. Productivity slowed down, and clients mentioned more service problems than usual. The three steps of Gary’s plan were:

  1. A new software system would help people share documents and communicate in real-time.
  2. The financial and the accounting staff would relocate to the same floor in their office building which would reduce delays and increase information-sharing.
  3. The client services team would work with the financial and accounting groups to redesign client reports and the financial performance evaluation system.

Before Gary started the implementation of that third change, he wanted to find out what had caused the problems. Out of a total of 53 staff people in the company, 49 people took the Group Workplace Communication Survey to learn more about the communication issues that people see at work – and 36 people said that they had not been consulted about some of the changes made in other departments or groups. Two comments from Gary’s staff members:

  • “Our work uses data from both our Clients and the Finance group. Just because we now have a “real-time” communication system doesn’t mean that Finance will bother to put their new templates into that system. We lost 10 days on that one, and the Client was upset about it.”
  • I didn’t have a say in the kind of office furniture I got when we moved to the third floor. Now I don’t have room for my reading chair and side table. I feel like I’m working in a cubicle.

Everybody knows that “communication” can be improved. But what does that even mean? What kind of communication – and improved how? Gary got some specific answers, but most important to him was learning about “Understanding Conversations” – the dialogues to engage people in finalizing the details of a plan.

“I bought the software sales pitch,” Gary said. “They told me people loved the document-sharing system and would pick it up quickly. I never thought about getting everyone together to meet with the software team and discuss it as a group. And moving Finance and Accounting to share the same floor – well, I got their input on that, but I talked to each group separately, and we didn’t get into details about office arrangements and stuff.”

Too many changes fail – taking too long or costing too much – because the people whose daily work life will be changed didn’t have a say in what was going to happen. And they didn’t get to ask the questions about “little things” that employees knew to ask but the change agent did not.

“I won’t do the report and evaluation redesign changes without having a robust dialogue first,” Gary said. “It takes too much out of everybody to try and fix things after the fact. People felt hurt, and some were mad. My plan looked great on paper, it was approved by the other executives, and I talked to people about it before those steps were implemented. Turns out that was not sufficient. I learned something about implementing change: First, take the time for a dialogue with everybody whose work will be touched by it.

 

Maybe It’s Not Them – Maybe It’s You.

“Morale seems to be dropping around here. It’s the millennials – they have no work ethic.” That was Molly’s explanation for her biggest workplace problem. She manages a department of 14 people, and wasn’t getting the kind of positive participation she expected from them.

“I tell them what we need, what to do, what results to produce, but they seem to be slowing down, not speeding up”, she complained. “They should be more productive to help get this company more competitive. A little enthusiasm would be nice too!”

After Molly mentioned getting the company more competitive, I asked if she talked to her people about her vision or that goal. “Not really,” she said. “They should know we’re not in this business for fun – we’re here to have the company be successful.”

This was not a problem of Molly making unclear requests, or failing to explain what to do. It was bigger than that: the people in Molly’s department did not connect their work assignments to the larger vision of business success. We talked about how to get people related to the “big picture” of their work. Here’s the 3-step solution we created together:

  1. Call a department meeting to talk about the company – the organization as a whole. What is the company’s mission? What is the vision for a successful business? Molly got some documents that talked about those things and made up a list of what she called “Five Big Ideas” for discussion: the market, customer profiles, competitors, sales, and local business rankings.
  2. Write the list on the board, read it aloud, and ask people to talk about where they see these things in their daily work and what they mean to them. Invite questions and comments from everyone, and take notes on the board – visible to all – whenever new ideas or definitions are introduced.
  3. Save the last half-hour of the meeting to ask the group three questions:  First, how would you change your work habits in light of this conversation?  Second, is there a particular “Big Idea” you think is most important?  Third, in what ways would you like to continue this conversation?

The meeting started off slowly, maybe because people were shy, or because the subject was unfamiliar. It picked up, though, and Molly was amazed at what the meeting ultimately produced. Their energy grew as they talked – they were learning more about the business they were in, and they were learning about each other in a new way as well. Then the group chose two of the “Five Big Ideas” as being particularly important to them: customer profiles and local business rankings. People wanted to see more data on those two areas, and to understand how they were measured. They talked about what their department could do to make improvements in those areas.

The group had several more meetings about these ideas, looking at ways to see how they were impacting “big picture” results that benefited the company. They also agreed to track and review those impacts every time the statistics were available, and to add a new topic to their weekly staff meeting: all new assignments would be associated with some aspect of improving “big picture” business success.

Molly gave up her complaint about millennials. “I really did think they were lazy,” she confessed. “I’ve been here eleven years, and I assumed that everybody in this department knows our business goals and connects them to their work. Now I see that part of my job is to engage people in talking about how we can be more successful – and checking to see how well we are doing at that.”

“It wasn’t a problem of them losing energy. It was me – I was not keeping their fires lit”, Molly said.  Management lesson learned.

Change Champions: Commitment, Respect, and… Closure   

Intentional change requires a goal, a schedule, and at least one success measure. But change is still a challenge, whether it is a big reorganization or a small change to one little practice or habit. Just like New Year’s resolutions, we often rely only on creating a solid plan for success. News flash: that is not enough.

You – as an executive, a consultant, or an individual with a goal – need a Change Champion, sometimes called a “committed listener”. You need someone who agrees to having regular “closure conversations” to track the pace and direction of a proposed change. This person understands the goal, the schedule, and the success measure(s), and is committed to a successful outcome.

In organizations, the rule is that an effective Change Champion must have – or cultivate – genuine respect in every area of the organization that is affected by the change. Organizational Change Champions are willing to track the progress of a change – sometimes in partnership with a change-implementation consultant – and to see it through to the end. One consultant I know held a meeting with the 4 executives developing a change plan, but none of them wanted to be “hands-on” for the implementation. The consultant told them he would have to meet with them once a week throughout the whole 12-week change timeline. They agreed, reluctantly, but admitted at the end that those meetings were key to the change’s success.

Another consultant met with managers and supervisors in each area affected by the change and asked them where organizational changes had gone wrong in the past. She took their lists of pitfalls and communication breakdowns back to the senior managers and, after reviewing it, they chose one person as their best candidate for Change Champion. This gave the consultant a partner, someone to review the change’s progress and to make course-corrections as needed.

To make a personal change, your Change Champion needs to be someone you respect – someone who will listen to, and care about, your promise for change, and someone you don’t want to disappoint. This gives you a partner in checking progress, a resource for advice and guidance, and perhaps someone who can provide direct assistance. A friend of mine told the leader of her fitness class that she wanted to trim up her waist but couldn’t afford a personal trainer. The class leader became her “committed listener” and gave her extra advice during and after classes until she reached her goal.

Whether organizational or personal, effective change requires regular “closure conversations” – scheduled talks with a Change Champion – to check on where things stand with respect to the goal, the planned schedule, and the measure(s) for success. Because, after all, without a conversation for real-time tracking, you aren’t giving your own commitment the respect and attention it deserves.

Start 2017 with an enhanced ability to produce results by taking The Four Conversations online course. Specially priced in January for just $29.99 (usually $79.99). Purchase it today.

Ring Out the Old. Ring in the New.

Three people have now told me they are clearing out quite a few “unnecessaries” from their Outlook contacts and Facebook friends list. Interestingly, they have all attributed this purging to the “changing times”, especially visible in the last few months. I didn’t pick up any signs that this downsizing of friends and acquaintances is a product of fear or anger. A few quotes from these conversations suggest they are interested in making more substantive changes in the quality of their lives:

  • “My in-box had too much politics and disagreement for me,” Dan reported. “I have real work to do, plus I have a couple of charity projects that matter to me. Some of the emails I’ve been getting are asking me to join protests or movements that I don’t have time for. And frankly, some of them seem just mean or self-righteous. Count me out – I don’t want to be that kind of person!”
  • “I was caught up in getting a bigger set of friends,” Eva said. “I thought having a large Facebook group would show that I was popular and had influence. But I don’t like what I am seeing on my Home-feed page, where everybody who is in my circle gets to post their thoughts. Some of their comments embarrass me, and I don’t want my real friends to think those people speak for me.”
  • “All the turbulence in this last election cycle has been ugly,” Kim told me. “I just feel it’s time to do some housekeeping and clean up my circles of friends, associates, and acquaintances. If I delete the connections to people who are doing the most whining, criticizing, or arguing, it will make room for something new in my life. Like maybe, more positive conversations and more personal peace.”

Perhaps a little “un-friending” can be useful, to rearrange who we interact with and to give ourselves a more purposefully designed set of relationships.

Another friend mentioned that he was changing the media he reads. “I found an article that included a Media Quality Chart,” Alex said, “and when I clicked on the chart, I studied it for about 15 minutes. Then I decided it was time to update the kind of media I was looking at every day. I want a bigger picture of what’s happening. I want to know what is true and what is fake. And I don’t want so much drama in my life – the sob stories and fear-based news headlines are confusing and can be exhausting.”

It sounds like some advice I got from a wardrobe consultant once: “If you want a new silk jacket, you sometimes have to toss out an old polyester one.” Embarrassingly, she also took a suede shirt of mine out of my closet, held it up high in front of me and said, very slowly and deliberately, “This is not where you are going.”

There’s a kernel of truth in those ideas. It’s okay to get rid of things – and relationships – that no longer reflect who we want to be or where we want to go. Eliminating what we do not need might just create a space for something more true to our commitments and aspirations. Bring in the new!

Management #2. When Things Change

I recently worked with an organization – I’ll call it Field Work Co. – that had downsized, taking an entire department and transferring it to another organization. It was a pretty big business deal – financial stuff, legal stuff, etc. It was also a pretty big deal for the social network of the organization, as people said goodbye to friends and associates. Some were even fearful for their own positions, worrying whether they would be next.

But the biggest problem of all was the fact that so many critical “productive relationships” were suddenly broken.

  • Karen had always been the hub for people who worked in the 5 Field Offices – they had always sent Karen their daily activity summaries, and she put the data into the template that tallied hours, service categories, and materials for the company’s quarterly report to the State. Now Karen was gone.
  • Delray was gone too. He had handled the schedules for Field Staff, assigning each person to their locations. He also entered the data for the inventory items the Field Staff used – he put it into the State Report template. That job was simple enough that anybody could be trained to do it. But how did Delray handle the scheduling of 23 people in at least 8 locations on jobs that lasted different lengths of times and were sequenced to reduce overall travel time? Delray took his experience with him, and the Field Staff are now pooling their knowledge to design a new scheduling system.
  • The now-missing Customer Care department was probably in a better place, folded into another Service Company that was organized for strengthening customer relationships. But the information they gave to Field Staff now comes from the Service Company’s website, which reports their customers’ feedback, problems, and questions in a new format that requires learning new software.

The Field Staff was under pressure to sort all this out.

As we said in last week’s blog, everybody is already managing lots of relationships – with banks, people, and schedules of all kinds. We decided to look at relationships in the Field Work Company. Our solution was to have all remaining employees in the Field Work Co. take our Workplace Communication Assessment (http://usingthefourconversations.com/organization-analyst-subscription). Out of the 8 different types of workplace problems, two of them were rated as the biggest:

  1. Poor Planning and Workload Overwhelm, including lots of unexpected “emergencies”, bosses giving assignments with no plan for the best way to get things done, and lack of clarity on where resources will come from.
  2. Lack of Teamwork, including people working at cross-purposes and making extra work for themselves and others, unclear goals, and lack of cooperation.

Organization change can cause chaos, and it can be hard to know what to do about it. The Workplace Communication Assessment – you can see the freebie version at http://usingthefourconversations.com/workplace-communication-assessment-2 – was the “Group Assessment Subscription” version that added up everyone’s responses. So we learned what they needed help with, and designed a ½ day discussion to sort out some ideas and possibilities. More on this next time!

Yahoo, Marissa Mayer, and the Missing Conversation

There is much talk right now about Yahoo’s demise as an independent company. The Economist said the failure was due, first of all, to “a chronic lack of focus”, never deciding if it was a media company or a technology company. NPR’s “Morning Edition” said Ms. Mayer, the CEO, treated Yahoo more like a think-tank than the sinking ship it really was.

Both diagnoses are probably right. Ms. Mayer got into the deep weeds when she insisted on reading the resume of every person Yahoo considered hiring, and needing to OK each one. Being Yahoo’s CEO in 2012 was a job that required creating a big-picture view of what Yahoo’s success would look like and leading people toward that future. But Ms. Mayer was more interested in listening to everybody and collecting their ideas than focusing on saving Yahoo. Then she got swept up in the part of the business – media content – that is “fun but will never turn a profit”, as NPR said.

Her listening tour when she began the job might have been good preparation for a Closure Conversation: “Here’s where we are now. Here’s what has worked and what hasn’t. You people are terrific! Now we are going to make some changes in what Yahoo is all about.”

A Closure Conversation is a necessary setup for an Initiative Conversation – and that is the conversation that was missing from Ms. Mayer’s repertoire. She could have opened a conversation to create a future: “Here’s where we are going, here’s our new mission, vision, and purpose (MVP), and here are our top-line goals for the next 3-2- 1 years.” She didn’t do that. She “listened”, read resumes, and collected ideas.

A clear Initiative Conversation creates a well-defined future that can be further developed with an Understanding Conversation: “What is missing missing now, for us to reach our goals? Where are our key resources? What are the most important actions, results and timelines for success? Who else should be working on this with us on these things?” And then, of course, people can have Performance Conversations, getting into action to make that future real with agreements for producing results.

I don’t mean to suggest that I would have wanted a shot at doing Ms. Mayer’s job – I would not. But I do know that without a clear objective pointing people toward a goal, there is no game. Collecting ideas and reading resumes does not create a game that will harnesses talent and energy to produce results. People need to know what success might look like, and to locate the target so they can align their efforts for a worthwhile accomplishment.

My take-away? I really do see, out of this example, how easy it is to pay attention to the beauty of the trees and forget about paying close attention to the forest. It is a good reminder as I set about my next project.

That Difficult Client – Part IV.  Completion

Reggie started with a serious performance problem in his department. He said his staff was “under-performing”, and he was insistent that I find out what the problem was and “fix it”. So I did. The problem was Reggie. He was a technical whiz, but not a very good manager. Here’s what I mean:

  • He was managing people instead of managing their agreements for performance. He could have looked at their agreements to deliver quality products or services, or to produce on-time results, but he didn’t have those spelled out. So he was “coaching”, and focusing on their attitudes instead of working with them to define clear jobs and tasks, and identify relevant ways to know whether they were doing what they agreed to do.
  • He was being a boss, not a manager, by giving orders and instructions without asking for input from the people who would be doing the work. His dialogue was “I talk, you listen”, which isn’t the two-way street he needed to manage a staff of diverse responsibilities.
  • The goals of various individuals and teams were sometimes overlapping, sometimes disconnected to each other. There was no “big picture” that allowed everyone to see themselves as collaborating in some way for a common purpose.

Here’s what Reggie himself said he learned to do out of this experience, in his own words:

  • “I stopped relying on people’s job descriptions and experience, and my own expectations, to be sure people knew what to do. Talking about what the end results should look like, and agreeing on timelines that worked for me and for my staff – that was a breakthrough. And follow-through was everything for me. I never saw that as my job – I thought it was their job. Now I follow up on every assignment we agree to put on the list. It’s part of my staff meetings. That alone improved people’s performance in a very big way.”
  • “The discussion thing was huge. I learned how much I didn’t know about what’s happening on our customer’s sites. Technology changes, and so do operations, and my staff is on the front lines of those changes. They have been great with educating me! Our customers are pleased too, and one of them told me he wanted the same team to come back for the next project.”
  • “We had gotten pretty good with the “GPS” thing – Goals, Performance measures, and Schedules – but when we looked at how it connected into one bigger picture of Mission-Vision-Purpose, we saw where the holes were. I hadn’t updated that stuff since I got this job, so it was way out of date. When I could see the value of having those statements “belong” to our department, we all talked it through and created new statements for our MVP. Re-framing our goals after that was simple, and much easier for everyone to see what our primary game is. And we are winning at last.”

There was one last nice thing he said when he thanked me for helping him learn to manage his department: “I’ve always been a technical guy first, and never learned management. Sometimes we just get promoted, and don’t have the knowledge we need for that next step up. Thanks for the kick in the butt!”

That Difficult Client Talk – Part III.  Too Many Goals?

Dear Reggie,

The “discussions” are working. Your people said that you are listening to them in a new way, and that should raise their performance. That was your original goal, wasn’t it?

So here’s the next place to put your attention: your Step 3. I am hearing some confusion among your staff people – it’s different depending on their roles and responsibilities, but I’m drawing a general idea of their concerns. They like the idea of having their assignments paired with clear goals, but I think there may now be now too many goals. My biggest clue was when one of them said, in a joking voice, “Which goal? Pick a goal – we have dozens.”

So now it’s time to take a bigger picture of your whole department, a context for all those goals. Here are two ways I have tried for going about that, and perhaps they could merit another discussion or two with your people:

  • MVP – Mission, Vision, Purpose. Mission is about what your department delivers or provides to others: think missile or, more kindly, missive – what you send out into the world beyond your department borders. Vision is about seeing ahead and having a stated future for your department to move toward. Purpose is about your intention, as in “What’s the point?” Your department has a purpose for existing, an intention to fulfill. There is no magic in these 3 terms, other than their power to get people thinking about what each of their goals contributes to the department’s MVP. If you can draft a statement of the MVP that you and your staff agree is “right on” or even “pretty good”, it can begin give everyone a lift and a sense of operating with more cohesion.
  • GPS – Goals, Performance measures, Schedules. Goals can then be connected to your MVP: each goal should contribute to the big picture. Performance measures can be created for the big-picture MVP as well as for the goals – and the goals can be restated or combined in ways that add up to something worth pursuing. Schedules too can be associated with goals and aligned with the MVP to support departmental and staff planning, changes, and assignments.

The idea here is to integrate the various types of work people are doing under their own individual or team “umbrellas” of Goals, Performance measures, and Schedules – and then to have those GPS-umbrellas connect upward to the Mission-Vision-Purpose for the department as a whole.

If a goal doesn’t fit, or is stretching the bounds of your mission or vision, perhaps it’s time to revise it. Conversely, if the MVP needs a little clarification or expansion, talk with people about that too. Your staff wants their work to make sense, maybe even see that it contributes to something greater than the tasks they do. Everyone’s work can be about more than just “getting things done”.

That said, your work on upgrading your management practices is making a difference, Reggie. It is visible in the participation of your staff, and it is audible in the conversations they are having with each other these days. I’m betting performance is improving here.

Cynicism and Resistance to Change – What Works?

Cynicism is a unique form of resistance to change. It’s a way of saying, “This will never work so I’m not even going to participate.” People tune out, or surrender, without even a flicker of interest in the possibility of making something happen. Cynicism is a nasty disease in many organizations (and in many households, too). It is contagious – in part because people can make their cynical statements sound wise and experienced, often humorous or sarcastic. Having been a management consultant, charged with implementing organization changes, I’ve heard lots of those:

  • “Talk to Arnie about that idea. He loves science fiction.”
  • “Last time they did that, 24 people lost their jobs. You won’t get much help from us.”
  • “It won’t work here. This is a government organization.”
  • “We’ve tried that every year since 1972. Is it the 1-year anniversary already?”

We have a lot of data on handling resistance to change from my consulting practice and from Jeffrey’s MBA classes. Here are three lessons we learned:

  1. Cynicism is a signal that the change process was not designed with employee input – people’s ideas and perspectives were not considered in planning the course of the change. There was little recognition that the change would rearrange (and in some cases, damage) people’s daily work activities and communication links, causing them personal and professional setbacks.
  2. Cynicism is a sign of unfinished business. Something happened in the past – a project, a merger, a change of some kind – that was never completely closed out. When the change was finished, people had no way to say what happened to them, or to ask for help in repairing the damages or disruptions they experienced. Many are still injured in some way, perhaps having missed a raise or promotion, or simply not being heard.
  3. A person’s cynicism puts blame on “the system”, “management”, or just “them”. It avoids any attempt to consider what personal role someone might have had, or wanted to have, in the change process or its outcomes. It also prevents any serious inquiry into what might work, due to the firmly held view that “nothing will work here” – which prevents future changes from going smoothly.

What to do? Meet with the key people involved in the past changes, and create closure. I used two whiteboards, labeling them “What Did Work?” and “What Didn’t Work?”, and asked people to tell me about the last big organizational change in those terms. I wrote down each response, building both lists. If the “what worked” list didn’t have much in it, I asked them, “What would have worked?”, which usually triggered ideas.

These conversations sometimes took an hour, sometimes longer. The tone of the conversation usually shifted after about 20 minutes, from expressions of individual anger to making corrections clarifying what was already written on one of the lists, or adding new memories and ideas. At some point, the responses became relatively free of cynicism and sarcasm, and I could ask my punchline question:

“If we could find ways to prevent or fix all of the things on the “Didn’t Work” list, and if we used some of these ideas from the “What Worked” list, then could we make any future changes happen successfully?”  This usually opened a discussion of what would have the next change go more smoothly, with less pushback, resistance, and fallout.

Sometimes, to move ahead, we need to help people close out the past and see it in a new light. Even when executives want to move forward quickly, it is useful to take the time to assist key players in getting on board. Changes don’t work if people aren’t listening.

A Recipe for Little Changes – Organizational and Personal

Talking to two very different people this past few weeks, I was surprised to see how much their conversations had in common. The first was Elayne, a manager in a manufacturing facility, who dreaded making a change in her HR department.

“I don’t know how to update our employee timesheet system,” she said. “I mean, I know I can just substitute the old email templates for the new online reporting system. But how do you deal with the resistance ? Some people just won’t do it, and I’ll have to chase them down and have one-on-one begging sessions with them.”

The other was Darren, a father of four. “I wish I could improve weekends around our house,” he said. “The kids are doing a million different activities, and my wife and I spend time chauffeuring them around. Personal time to go to the gym is out of the question.”

I told them the “recipe” I had developed for making a change, whether personal or organizational:

  1. Get clear on what the change is, i.e., what needs to stop happening and what needs to start happening. Be sure to include timing, such as “a by-when date” or a recurring day like Saturdays.
  2. Schedule a time to meet with the key players – people who will be affected by the change – such as the different groups of employees, or the wife and kids.
  3. Have one or more discussions to clarify the change, and make a list (maybe on a flip chart?) of all the negatives – problems and challenges, sometimes called “resistance” – and all the positives: solutions, opportunities, and benefits. Allow “counteroffers” and “bargaining” on some points.
  4. Revise the definition of the change, including the timeline for implementing it, in a way that recognizes the input received from all those key players.
  5. Review the newly updated plan with the key players and establish agreement about what will be implemented, and how, when, and by whom each element will be done.

Elayne held four meetings – one with all the plant managers and supervisors, and three others with groups of employees who had been there more than 5 years. “It was actually kind of fun, with the guys teasing each other about revealing their overtime statistics. And we didn’t need second meetings: I just took the results of all the meetings and summarized them, then emailed everyone the link for our new timesheet and the date to start using it. We got 89% on-time submissions the first time around -amazing!”

Darren told me, “Our first meeting was noisy, but I wrote down the 4 problems and the 2 “good ideas” they offered. The second meeting was a week later, after they had time to think about it and talk it over with each other and with friends. We created a workable solution that included a car-pool arrangement with some of their friends’ parents and a change to my daughter’s dance-class schedule. I’m starting my new Saturday gym program a week from tomorrow. And my wife will be joining a Sunday afternoon book club. Peace reigns.”

Simple? Yes. Easy? Not necessarily. It takes willingness to practice The Four Conversations in the sequence above: (1) Initiative – have it well formulated before delivering it; (2) Request + Promise = Agreement on when to meet and discuss the proposed change. (3) Understanding – a dialogue to identify problems and benefits, along with what will be done and by whom; (4) Update the change statement using the language and ideas obtained from key players; and (5) Meet again to create an agreement for implementation that includes Who does What by When.

It may not be easy, but it can be done.