Leading and Communicating Organizations through Big Change: Part 2

by Bob Domenz

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Change occurs within organizations every day, and it is the C-Suite’s responsibility to adapt and lead their teams through it. What happens with a Big Change jolts the company and propels it in an unexpected new direction? Read Part 1 for tips on navigating the six steps of an organizational swirl and taking the first steps to prepare your communication plan.

Based on our work in helping dozens of mid-market and Fortune 500 leaders and their companies use Big Change to transform their businesses and brands, we’ve identified four root causes behind failed change initiatives and that lead to Organizational Swirl:

1. The strategy is incomplete

The leading root cause is communicating a Big Change strategy to an organization before it has been fully developed and articulated. This occurs because leaders can usually “see” the full strategy as soon as the foundational elements are defined. Since they already know the context and direction of the change, they don’t see the need to fully flesh it out in contextual detail.

This ability to work with partial information and connect the dots on the fly is called business acumen, and it’s something all leaders should have. It’s why they are in leadership positions.

However, employees who carry out the strategy don’t always have the same level of business acumen. They can’t sift through partial information sets and connect the dots. Or they don’t have access to all the “dots” to make the same connections. And even if they do, there’s no guarantee they will connect them in the way leadership wants.

Employees need clarity and completeness. They need to understand not only the “what and when” of the strategy but also the “why.”

2. The illusion of agreement

When developing a Big Change strategy, leadership will collect and assess information, explore options, and discuss the options and choices so they can reach consensus and make final decisions.

Even so, it’s not uncommon for those who created the strategy to have trouble articulating it in a clear, consistent and compelling manner.

Ask each member of the leadership team to explain it and you’ll find troubling inconsistencies, not unlike the old parable of blind men describing an elephant differently based on where they are standing. No one is consciously in disagreement. They are simply interpreting abstractions and nuances of the complex strategy through their own point of view.

When the business and communications strategies are developed simultaneously, the communications strategist can make sure the leadership team has interpreted the strategy the same way and is speaking the same language. This ensures employees hear a consistent and aligned message when the strategy is rolled out.

3. Leaders out of sync with their audience

During the months of preparing and planning for Big Change, the leadership team has had ample time to intellectually and emotionally process and embrace the new strategy.

The employees have not had that same advantage. Yet, leadership can’t comprehend why employees don’t immediately understand and embrace the new strategy.

The employees aren’t the problem. It’s the expectations of leadership that are unrealistic as demonstrated by a model used by USC social psychologist Dr. Jerry Jellison, called the J-Curve. The J-Curve reflects the way change impacts an organization’s performance and the organization’s perception of it.

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What this chart doesn’t tell you (but Jellison does in his book, Managing the Dynamics of Change) is that a) every stakeholder in the company will traverse the J-Curve at a different rate and b) those leading the change will be way ahead of everyone else.

It’s the responsibility of leadership to recognize what employees are thinking and feeling at every stage of the J-Curve, in order to help the organization make the journey more smoothly and quickly. 

4. Words and actions don’t match

Even if the messaging and its execution are flawless, if the actions of the company and leadership do not align with what they are saying, or they fail to stand behind its messages over time or across functional groups, employees will not believe. And if employees don’t believe, they won’t buy in.

That’s because communication is more than words. Communication is the transmission of the total sum of the words, decisions, actions, attitudes, beliefs, values, and character of the communicator. This includes the decisions leaders make and the priorities they set.

Lead and communicate away from risk and toward reward. Communications planning should start as soon as leadership begins to contemplate a Big Change trigger event. Second, it should be developed simultaneously with the Big Change strategy and employ scenario-based planning methods.

Not only does this approach prepare leadership for communicating it to employees and other stakeholders, it makes the Big Change strategy stronger by exposing flaws and blind spots in the team’s thinking and the strategy itself.

The simultaneous development of the business and communications strategies followed by a meticulously executed intentional communications plan ensures:

  • The strategy and vision for the Big Change and the way it is defined will be clear, complete and compelling when it’s time to begin communicating the strategy.
  • Messaging has been stress-tested before widespread communications begin.
  • Leadership will agree on precisely what the Big Change strategy is (and isn’t) and be consistent in the way they articulate and express it.
  • The varied reactions of employees and other stakeholders to the Big Change have been anticipated and leadership is prepared to respond quickly with appropriate actions.
  • Leadership has anticipated the needs of the communication strategy — and their roles in it — from the earliest messages to the well-timed, nuanced communications that will lead the company successfully through each stage of the change.

Our experience has shown the critical importance of simultaneous business and communications strategies and intentional communications during times of Big Change.

The question is, given all the potential pitfalls and the payoff at stake, will leaders agree? Because once Big Change is in motion their organization’s success or failure will hinge on whether or not they made the right choice.


bobdomenzBob Domenz is founder and CEO of Avenue, a Chicago-based marketing strategy and activation firm that partners with B2B leaders to transform their businesses and brands, and launch new products. He can be reached at bdomenz@avenue-inc.com