Craig Kronberg, John Deere

Over the last several years, I’ve had the opportunity to participate in a number of change management initiatives. Some of those changes were successful, a few failed, and others were somewhere in between. I have also played a role in leading some change initiatives and through those learned some key steps to successfully managing change. While there are numerous books and studies on the topic, I find many overcomplicate the topic, so I typically break change management into its simplest form—communication. The challenge lies in the planning and execution of the communication to build support and buy-in for the change initiative. I organize change initiative communication around six key areas: Audience, The Why, Message, Method, Timing, and Project Plan.

The Audience

Identifying your audience is probably the most important aspect to change communication. Grouping and then tailoring the message to each unique group helps focus your message to provide more meaning and support for the change initiative. A solid project charter often identifies these groups: Champions/Leaders, Team Members, Impacted Stakeholders, and so on. You need to consider what each group needs to know and how they want to hear the message.

  • Champions/Leaders need the executive summary and will expect you and your team to handle the details. They will need to understand the impact on budget, the high-level business process changes, and the return on investment.
  • For Team Members, the change may have more of a direct impact on their daily work. They will need to know how the changes will impact them and should be part of the change design when possible.
  • Other Impacted Stakeholders could include those providing inputs to the changed process or customers/consumers of the process. Again, where possible it may be beneficial to include them in the change design.

Each group will likely have a different need and a different expectation. Your challenge is to build a suite of communications that meets the needs of each group, while staying consistent. Put yourself in the shoes of each group to understand what they need to hear. A good practice is to review your plan and communications with a few trusted colleagues in each group to verify you will meet their needs. Deliver what information they need when they need it for building buy-in, support, and commitment.

The Why

The ‘why’ plays a crucial role in change management. Many of us have heard the term “creatures of habit.” Change can be very difficult; you need a compelling reason to acquire buy-in and support for your change initiative. Without it, those involved will resist the change and significantly reduce the implementation efforts; ultimately they will fail to produce results. So what is your compelling argument? Often sustainability is convincing. The business environment is competitive, and change is often required to deliver more value at greater efficiency than your competitors. Even for nonprofits, it is important to provide value and ensure funds are used efficiently and appropriately.

Beyond sustainability, another great ‘why’ is process improvement. Quality initiatives like Six Sigma focus on eliminating waste, improving efficiency, and streamlining processes. Most of us get frustrated by waste and want to add value. Engaging involved parties in improving the tools and processes that impact them can be very empowering. Probably the most difficult change management initiatives are directives and cost reduction measures. But even with these, the need for a compelling argument is still present.

The key is breaking down the directive to find positives without misrepresenting the changes if positives don’t exist. While some may adopt a “just do it” approach, the effectiveness of that method is limited to your relationship with those that need to implement the change. Nearly all change initiatives have some benefits—your challenge is to identify the benefits and communicate them.

The Message

So you’ve identified the audience and you know why the change is important. Next is the ‘what’… that ‘what’ is your message. The message takes the ‘why’ and mobilizes it into a vision of what the future state will be. By putting your stakeholders into the future state, you will build a better understanding of the reason(s) for the change and how you will get there.

As you communicate across various groups, consistency in your message is important. Driving for consistency will help avoid contradictions and build momentum for the change. Keep in mind that the people you communicate with may need to hear the message two or three times to understand, accept, and hopefully embrace the change. If they hear inconsistencies or constant changes (versus refinements), you will lose credibility and support.

Wherever possible, the message needs to be clear, crisp, and simple. In the authoring world, it has been said that it takes longer to write less. Spend the time to develop the message with as few words as possible while still being impactful in casting a vision of the future. The more succinct the message, the easier it will be for your stakeholders to understand, remember, and communicate what the change is about. Use visuals like process maps, videos, and other graphic tools where applicable to help build understanding and support for your initiative. Most people can only absorb so much text, so look for ways to use visuals to simplify your message.

The best solution is to start with a framework of the ‘why’ and what the impact of the change will likely be. Then ask your stakeholders to provide you with input on how the change can be most successful. Even if you can’t act on every suggestion, asking for input will help you avoid major roadblocks and resistance. This input can also help you tailor your future messages to address objections and be more successful.

The Method

In today’s technology-filled environment ,it is more critical than ever to think through the method and media we use to deliver the message. Remote meetings are efficient, but their effectiveness can suffer from multi-tasking and inattentive participants. Part of delivering change communications is ensuring you “read the crowd” for buy-in and support. Without face-to-face communication. reading the crowd is almost impossible to do. Not every organization has access to videoconference technologies or an extensive travel budget, but face-to-face communication is the most effective method—especially when talking with the group who is most impacted by the change you are leading.

When face-to-face, watch for concerned reactions and ensure you address them. If questions arise, be sure to answer them. While not every question will have the best answer, it is important to build trust by addressing questions as they arise and providing candid answers. Even in a teleconference you can query for questions to identify objections or concerns. In many cases, the best approach would be to address known objections head-on to show your understanding of the concerns and how you will address them. Development of a FAQ (Frequently Asked Questions) document can be a powerful tool to document and respond to larger audiences. When posted online, a FAQ can be an excellent living document to keep people informed and engaged.

Think through your audience(s), the level of buy-in needed, and the anticipated resistance to the change; these will guide you to the appropriate communication method.

The Timing

Timing your change management method can be a challenging part of the communication equation. The timing of the change will often be driven by senior management or leadership. When you can determine the schedule, it’s important to evaluate timing. What other changes are happening for your stakeholders? Will chances of success improve with an additional six months of planning? Evaluation shouldn’t be an excuse to procrastinate, but it is an important consideration for success. Most of us can only handle so much change at once; you may increase your chances for success by waiting for an existing or upcoming change to settle. In other situations, existing changes may provide the right timing to make additional changes and eliminate a separate change initiative. Evaluate your stakeholders, the changes, and the timing to decide which approach is best.

Regarding communication, early is almost always better, but it is a balance. Communication too early risks not having enough details to answer questions that arise; too late and you may face resistance to buy-in because the solution is developed and your stakeholders never had input into the change. Part of your plan should include what will be communicated when. As mentioned before, many will need to hear the message two or three times to understand, accept, and hopefully embrace the change.

Changes within the message should also be carefully considered. I’ve always found communication to be difficult because when the message changes, you must follow up and re-communicate. When the message does change, have a process set up to circle back to your stakeholder groups and let them know what changed and why. Often your candor with changes will build credibility and additional support.

The Project Plan

Any good change-management initiative needs a project plan and a communication plan to keep track of all of the items previously mentioned. Many change-management initiatives get derailed by failing to communicate with one stakeholder group or communicating to groups in the wrong sequence. A project plan will help organize who gets each communication when. And like any project, you should think through the message that needs to be delivered to each group and the sequencing of those messages.

Should your organization be more hierarchal, it may be necessary to communicate first to your leadership and upper management for buy-in and approval of the communication plan before proceeding. In other organizations, it may be more effective to handle the different stakeholder groups in parallel to prevent one group from feeling “left out” should there be weeks and months between each communication. The key is ensuring that you have a realistic timeline that meets the needs of all of your stakeholder groups.

Another piece of your project plan is resources. If you will be leading the project solo, you’ll need to think about the time it will take to generate the message and supporting materials, as well as deliver it and engage the needed key stakeholders. You may want to recruit resources from the stakeholder groups to help deliver the message for you. Often the acceptance for change increases if the message is coming from someone within the group. Relying on others does create the potential of losing some message consistency, but may be worth the risk. Ensure that those you are engaging clearly understand the message and can answer some of the key questions.

As I mentioned at the beginning, successful change management is ultimately an exercise in successful communication. If the right audience understands the reason for the change in a clear and succinct message at the right time, you have a much higher likelihood for success.

Identifying the Audience, The Why, Message, Method, Timing, and Project Plan can all help you in leading change. The best initiatives are those where you can engage and involve stakeholders early to guide the development and deployment of the change initiative. By playing this role, they gain more ownership and can assist in the change-management process. To accept change, people need to know where they are going and have a basic understanding of how you are going to get there. By casting a vision of the change, you can eliminate questions and doubts while building support for your change. With proper communication planning and execution, you will build the necessary support and buy-in to succeed.

About the Author
Craig Kronberg is Manager of Strategic Projects for the John Deere Ag & Turf Division Global Customer and Product Support Group in Moline, IL. He previously managed the Technical Information Processes and Standards, as well as the John Deere Technical Information delivery tool (Service ADVISOR™). Craig has a Bachelor’s Degree in Agronomy from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and an MBA from the University of Iowa.