Launching Change


After all the hard work of deliberating and designing changes, the time for unveiling them to the organization has arrived. This usually begins with someone higher in the organization than you announcing what is being done. Maybe it is a downsizing or merger announced through the media. Perhaps an e-mail from the CEO or a division head informs you about a reorganization. An electronic town hall may be created with all employees in your division around the world to discuss the new enterprise resource planning (ERP) system that will change the way business is done.

Whatever the case may be, you have the responsibility to explain what the change means to your employees. Often you don’t have all the information. Sometimes you don’t have any information, and there is a good chance you are just as confused and uncertain as your team is.

There are several critical elements to address in the launch of any change–whether a reorganization, merger, new project, or new leader.

Explain the What and Why of Change

The what of change: People want to know what is happening. What is this new structure? Who is this new person? What is the new process? At launch, there is an insatiable need to know what is going on.

People also need to know what is not changing so they have some sense of stability within the storm. Even if you are implementing the most complex computer system, for example, some things will stay the same: company values, some of the people you work with, where your desk is, the customers you are servicing, or the products you are selling.

The why of change: More important, employees want to know why the change is being made. Why is it necessary to go through all this trouble? Why is it important to learn all these new things? Why do we have to change when things are going so well? Why this decision and not another? What is not working that needs fixing? What better future are we trying to create? Employees want to know why they are being asked to sacrifice and go through pain. That is the purpose of explaining the why. It gives people something to focus on and strive for while they are going through the challenges of change.

Remember, these are not children nor is this the an old fashioned military operation (we took out The Army specific reference because they are a customer) army. They will not just do something because you said so. In fact, research of United States Navy commanders shows that even those who simply say “just do it” and act dictatorially are less effective and efficient (citation). [[QAU]]PLEASE ADD CITATION.[[QAUX] Working with Emotional Intelligence, by Daniel Goleman, 1998, pg 188] Even in the armed forces they want to know why. People want the big picture. They need to know why.

Remember to include all the stakeholders in your what and why message. The best change launch messages include all of the people impacted. Knowing why the change is important for your customers, your colleagues, the other departments, the company, and the shareholders will give people a broader vision of what they are doing. It will help them understand the business context and keep them focused on key priorities.

Do It in Sixty Seconds or Less

Try it right now. Take sixty seconds and see if you can explain the what and the why of your change. How did it go? Traveling around the world, we have found that most leaders can’t do it in sixty seconds. It is hard. It takes thought, preparation, and practice.

We call it the one-minute change message. It entails finding the essence of what is changing and why, and saying it in simple language. This is important for several reasons. First, employees today are swamped with communication: days booked with meetings; the constant ping of the BlackBerry; and innumerable chat messages popping up on their laptops. They are also pulled in many directions. The marketplace is volatile; priorities are constantly changing. You are lucky if you can get their attention for sixty seconds! When you have their attention, you want to make the best use of it. Sixty seconds may be all that you get.

Second, saying your message in one minute or less will force you to focus on key information. During change, there is so much information to share. Having a one-minute message will help employees weed through the information and hear what is really important.

Third, you are going to answer many questions and address many issues with employees. If you have to think through and create a response each time, you will never sound like you know what you are talking about.

Finally, change is filled with emotions. When people are emotional, their hearing gets clouded. They need to hear things over and over so that the message gets past the emotions and sinks in. When you have your prepared sixty-second change message in your back pocket, you are ready to provide employees with the key information they need to keep the big picture in mind.

Be Available to Talk to People

Leaders tell us one of the biggest challenges during change is dealing with all the employee questions, concerns, fears, and stress. Employees tell us that their biggest challenge during change is that they have all these questions, concerns, and fears and not enough access to leaders to get these addressed. This plays out often by leaders retreating to their offices to do e-mails and employees finding busywork to do rather than face the challenges of the change.

The tension of this situation is like a rubber band held between two fingers. The analogy works like this: There is a tension for the rubber band pulling in both directions. The employees on one side are pulling away because they want to run away and avoid the challenges. And the leaders on the other side are pulling away because they want to run away from all the employee issues. The only answer is for the leader side of the rubber band to move closer to the employee side. Leaders need to talk, listen, and connect before employees get too stressed and the rubber band goes flying. This is the only way to dissipate the tension.

In order to talk, listen, and connect, you must find ways to be available. You are the voice and face of the company, like it or not. A major employee complaint we hear is that leaders are not available to discuss the changes. To respond, you must be available, perhaps by stopping by their cubes, putting an agenda item on your monthly staff meeting, or creating Web conferences. Find some way to simply check in regularly with employees, asking, “How are the changes going?” “What obstacles are you running into, and what can we do to remove them?” “What’s the biggest fear out there this week?” Even asking “How are you,” can lead to a productive conversation.Take the time to listen and respond.

One last point: Many companies stop here. They spend a lot of energy and money launching the change. They fly around the world, create pretty posters and documents, and think they are done. This is wishful thinking. The main work of communicating change comes after the launch.

This was first published in our book Perfect Phrases for Communicating Change (McGraw-Hill)


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