What is long-term change?
Some organizational changes begin and end in a reasonable time frame. They go from announcement to implementation within a few weeks or months. However, many organizational changes happen at a slower pace. Long-term change management may stretch out for many quarters or years, or continue as an indefinite, on-going activity. In these cases, change becomes the new normal.
Really massive, transformational change is often rolled out in stages or phases, and may result in change tactics that fail to stick and have to be readdressed. When transition takes many months or even years to unfold, there can be more than a few challenges to overcome.
Why is long-term change hard?
If you’ve ever read a long book at the rate of a few pages a day, you can understand that for your employees, keeping track of the plot of a long-term change can be a difficult task. Their attention is often divided by their regular jobs, personal lives, and other pressing matters. Each time the on-going change returns to their radar, they must remind themselves where they were and what happened last.
In addition to keeping track of the change status, employees may struggle to stay engaged and support the change because:
- It can be hard to deal with beginning-stage uncertainty.
Organizations often begin long-term change before all of the details are fleshed out. In these cases, early questions often don’t have great answers. Employees may wonder about their future role at the company or the implications of a strategic vision on their team or group.
- Elements of the change might shift over time, causing confusion.
Long-term plans often morph, and employees may latch on to details that later change. Not meeting their expectations can cause confusion, or worse, distrust.
- Employees become fatigued or jaded.
In long-term change, information overload can be a real problem. Additionally, an organization may struggle to meet expectations originally set by the vision or use language that causes employees to lose trust in the change or its leaders.
How can you avoid these pitfalls?
Communication is the key to change management, especially long-term change. Clear, consistent, and well-planned communication can avoid employees becoming overwhelmed, disengaged, or distrustful. Even if you don’t have all the details of the change when you begin, it is crucial to create a strategic communication plan and methodology for sharing and implementing change within your organization.
What’s the Change Communication Framework?
At ThoughtForm, we advocate for The Change Communication framework, a four-step communication process, designed to help employees both understand and engage with a change initiative. Complete the four steps in sequence. They can happen either in a single communication, or they can be spread out and repeated over many communications.
In a nutshell, the framework begins with the Universal What, a broad and informational view of the change. Next comes the Universal Why, a broad and inspirational view of the change. Once you’ve painted the vision of the future in universal terms for all employees, you repeat it for individuals. Start with communicating the Individual What, a specific and informational view of how individuals help make change happen. Conclude with the Individual Why, a specific and inspirational view of the change and why it should matter to each employee or group of employees. Having this framework will help ensure that you deliver all of the right messages for change and do so in a logical and motivating order.
Adapt the Change Communication Framework for long-term change
To apply the Change Communication Framework to a long-term change, consider a few modifications.
- Add phases to your first step, the Universal What. For instance, if you have very few details about what the new future will look like, but you need to start the journey, you can begin with a negative story of the current state. Help your team understand what’s wrong today and show them that you’re exploring solutions. Once you have a general direction or a high-level vision, go ahead and share that too. Just be sure to let them know more details are coming (and then follow through with that promise).
- If the vision took a while to develop, communicate elements of the vision that were considered but not selected. Clueing employees into the strategy process will help create a bridge to the why and increase motivation and trust.
- Acknowledge shifts and be transparent. As you move through the change, be very clear if the plan or strategy changes. If the shifts are numerous and complex, create “Before/After” communications where you acknowledge shifts. For instance, you could tell the staff that the original migration period was going to begin June, but is now being pushed to October because of additional due diligence work.
- Create a central repository for the latest information. As the change initiative goes on, keep it up-to-date and promote it as a single source of truth to find strategy documents, implementation plans, timelines, and other details. Most importantly: make sure everyone has access.
Change is hard because it requires a significant, coordinated effort. Just like running a marathon is harder than running a 5K, change stretched over a long time frame is harder than a quick initiative. But you can make it much easier by creating a strategic communication plan, and approaching your change with a framework.