Change management can be challenging, but it doesn't have to be a battle.
Change communication is something you've undoubtedly encountered many times over your career, and likely have implemented yourself, whether consciously or not. When done well, it can energise staff and communities, encourage new ideas and innovation, and ensure that the changes being made are welcomed, rather than resented.
When changes aren't communicated well, the outcomes look very different - people can avoid or outright reject the changes, hoping they will 'blow over'. This can end up building resentment between the people working hard to create positive change and those who have become cynical from a cycle of failed initiatives.
Whilst this process is often overlooked, failing to have a change communication strategy in place is a lot like tripping just before the finish line.
You may have heard the statistic that 70% of all change initiatives fail. Though a widespread and commonly cited figure, the truth (as reported by Harvard Business Review) is a little more nuanced, and taking this 70% failure rate as fact can create a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy.
The reality is, successful change is a lot more attainable than that statistic would suggest, and the likelihood of achieving success increases exponentially when you stop treating it as an insurmountable challenge and approach it as more of a marathon. It's time-consuming and certainly not easy, but change is achievable with hard work and a clear strategy.
So, what should this strategy look like? A lot of that will depend on your school and the specifics of the change being introduced; but whether you're implementing new software, announcing a new leadership structure, or trying to enact school-wide cultural changes, you won't get far without a strong communication plan.
It may be tempting to wait until every part of the change is set in stone, but keeping your staff or community in the dark until everything is finalised can leave them feeling ambushed by the announcement. With no room for feedback or flexibility to accommodate potential concerns, those affected are more likely to resist the change, as they have no personal connection to the initiative's eventual success or failure.
Successful messaging begins early in the change management process and needs to continue until changes have been fully implemented and accepted. Be as detailed as possible, and don't assume that just because you know and accept the reasons for the change, others will too.
Lead with higher-level explanations and follow up with more specific details tailored to individual people or groups. Your audience should be able to answer the below questions, without having to search for more information: (via whatFix)
- What is the change?
- Who is going to be affected by the change, and who will be responsible for carrying it out?
- Where will the change happen? This could apply to a physical location, such as a campus or building, particular departments, or to a specific process, such as introducing new software.
- When will the change take effect?
- Why is the change needed?
Even with fantastic messaging, it's important to recognise that you can't just tell people to be excited or even interested in change. Whether they have their own personal biases or are sceptical due to previous negative experiences, it doesn't matter how many emails or meetings they sit through if the messaging isn't being delivered by the right people.
The change leader may perfectly understand why and how a change is happening, but this messaging can get diluted as it travels through individuals, like a game of Chinese Whispers. By the time those affected are weighing up the challenges and benefits of the change, it's difficult to know for certain how they will interpret the information. So how do you combat this? By bringing your school's key influencers into the process, giving them a sense of ownership over the change's success and directly arming them with the actual facts.
First, however, you need to identify who those influencers are. If the people that came to mind were predominantly senior management or department leaders, you might be surprised to learn that that's not always (or even usually) the case. Research from McKinsey & Company, a global management consulting firm, shows hidden influencers exist in every workplace, and don't typically align to organisational charts, roles, or tenure length.
Fortunately, it's not all that difficult to identify them. "Snowball sampling" is a simple survey technique that uses peer referrals rather than formal identification, and McKinsey & Company's methodology can be easily applied to a school setting:
- Build a survey asking a small sample of staff to give 3-5 nominees for a question like "Who do you go to for information when you have trouble at work?" or "Whose advice do you trust and respect?"
- Ask the nominees identified above to then answer the same survey.
- End the survey once nominations start to be repeated (typically after 3-4 rounds).
- Those with the most nominations are your school’s key influencers.
Getting these people on board will make a huge difference in how changes are received. Inviting them to give input or share their experience puts them onto the same team as those leading the changes, and allows you to leverage their influence throughout your community to build goodwill and positive impressions of the change process.
It's important, however, that they are not coerced into helping, but they agree to participate and are given opportunities to genuinely contribute. Simply using them as a mouthpiece can do more harm than good, giving them a negative impression of the changes or undermining their influence with others if they seem to be acting on behalf of someone else.
Resistance and Reinforcement
You'll need to prepare ahead of time for objections, resistance or an overall lack of interest in the change being implemented.
Even when a change is unavoidable or the details already set in stone, it's important to offer multiple opportunities for discussions and to address concerns. People are going to have objections no matter what, so failing to provide a chance to air them just means you won't get the opportunity to respond.
When having these discussions, use a variety of channels and encourage participation as much as possible. Physical meetings (if possible), group chats and other instantaneous communication channels will facilitate more natural conversation, compared to often cluttered inboxes and the formal nature of emails.
It's important to maintain communication as the change is being implemented, to give opportunities for feedback and ensure the new processes are continually reinforced. Dropping communication immediately after implementation won't give you the opportunity to evaluate the change and will lean into the idea that the change may be forgotten about if staff avoid it for long enough.
Ultimately, having a change communication strategy is often the difference between a successful change and one that is resented and resisted.
Though it can be a challenging process, it doesn't have to be a battle. Bringing key influencers on-side and approaching the change as a team can help shift the perspective from something to be wary of to something exciting and energising. This success can bring great benefits to your school and inspire more innovations and improvements into the future.