Building support for change
“The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present. The occasion is piled high with difficulty, and we must rise with the occasion. As our case is new, so we must think anew and act anew.”
Ah, Abraham Lincoln. Though nearly 150 years old, the poet-president’s words tell a very modern story. The lesson: Change has always been around us. Though change may come at a faster pace today, Lincoln’s point is well-taken. What matters most is how we respond.
Yet, in times of change, our first instinct is to ask for specifics. When will this happen? How will it affect me? Why are you doing this? What is the long-term impact? Those details are often tough to come by, so what can you do to build support for change?
Tell a story
In “Engaging Frontline Workers in Times of Organizational Change,” Ann Woodward suggests using stories or metaphors to talk about change in a way that makes existing staff feel their dilemmas are understood and that they aren’t being blamed for the situation that needs changing.
Woodward cites an example from Thomas North Gilmore’s book Making a Leadership Change, where a Juvenile Detention Center was about to welcome its 24th new leader in 26 years. Staff feared losing their jobs and being blamed for the organization’s problems. Gilmore describes the story the new leader told staff shortly after joining the organization:
A pilot and a co-pilot had just taken off when the co-pilot told the pilot that they should return immediately because a rat was gnawing at the fuel line. The pilot not only continued his ascent but increased the rate of climbing. The co-pilot grew agitated and repeated his warning. The pilot reassured him. “Don’t worry” he said. “We’re going to fly so high, no rat will be able to live.”
Though providing no specifics, the story helped spell out the new director’s desire to take a different approach in overcoming the challenges the organization faced. Telling stories works as well with external stakeholders as it does with those internally. Reinforce the takeaway message about by teamwork with a Teamwork-Themed Monthly Pocket Planner. Emphasize messages of anticipated growth with Grow Cups.
Engage stakeholders in planning
Dale Iman, City Manager in Fayetteville, North Carolina, suggests bringing elected officials together for a strategic planning retreat as the #1 thing public managers can do to create successful change initiatives.
“This helps to build consensus, and it helps to build a positive relationship with the new manager, staff and the elected officials.”
Even if you’re not new to your position, bring together teams to support organizational change initiatives. Being part of the change helps stakeholders advocate for changes, rather than fight them. Once agreed upon, imprint the vision on Lanyards so it is always visible to staff and external stakeholders.
When undertaking a change initiative, you can never communicate enough, so says Merlin Switzer in “Preparing the Soft Stuff… Building Commitment for Change.” Switzer references John Kotter’s book Leading Change, in which Kotter estimates most change leaders undercommunicate by a factor of 10. True dialog among stakeholders can help change assumptions and build commitment for change.
When communicating, remember many people need to see AND hear a message. Put your priority points on paper, spelling out both what change will take place and why it is needed. Keep the message in front of people by printing key points on Bamboo Retractor Displays and placing them in high-profile locations, or developing change kits you can distribute to key audiences. Place important handouts in Paper Presentation Folders imprinted with key points on the cover.
While change may be difficult, telling stories to spell out the vision, engaging stakeholders in decision-making and communicating constantly can help build support. Use these tools repeatedly, and you’ll be likely to earn a reputation as an effective change agent – one who helps stakeholders experience and build on success.