When speaking about the uncertainties of the future, Winston Churchill said, “The further backward you look, the further forward you can see.” Churchill advised us to gain wisdom from experience so we can avoid past mistakes. If you accept his premise, then you will need to do three things to apply his prescription to your organization: capture, communicate and personalize.
Capture the Lessons of the Past
Two years into the startup of Saturn Corp., the fledgling company faced a crisis: Immense external competitive pressures; unexpected technical delays; on-again, off-again support from General Motors; and emotionally charged, divergent, internal views and resulted in low morale and ambiguity. Without a significant change, our chances for a successful new- car launch were remote at best.
It was clear that a shared mission was an indispensable prerequisite to create a compelling case for change. Unfortunately, as with most mission statements, ours had only a marginal influence on Saturn associates’ efforts and attitudes.
We decided to engage key stakeholders to capture their perceptions of how the decision to create Saturn was made. As you might guess, the interviews contained stark differences, but there was also surprising consistency in the stories. We were able to capture a strong core theme on which the majority of interviewees could agree. Where we found evidence supporting unique perspectives, we included them to provide more of the complex texture for the events that led up to the decision to create the company.
We were assisted in this process by a remarkable graphics facilitator who began translating the startup story into a 5-feet-by-20-feet timeline mural. The mural’s rich visual detail captured the major events and facts that led up to and followed the decision to create Saturn.
This mural became a powerful communication tool in our campaign to change the culture and practices of the young company, and we used it in a variety of contexts. We had our officers “walk the wall” to tell the Saturn story to new recruits in orientation classes. We used it with our suppliers to help them understand the context for how and why Saturn operated as it did. We used it at business conferences to explain how we came to be.
But most important, we used it with the very people who helped to create it: the key stakeholders. In coming together to create a common picture of our history, these leaders found common ground.
If it is important to capture and communicate the context for change, it is equally important to personalize the message at the individual level. The majority of large organizational change efforts are a flop. Additionally, most turnaround efforts usually fail. Although there are many factors that make change efforts challenging, we often stack the deck in favor of the failure with a silly process for communicating the change.
The standard approach is a video that features the CEO. The president appears with shirt sleeves rolled up to show the common touch. The setting is usually staged but doesn’t resemble any place you’ve seen the CEO. There is a title for the program that employees often twist into a politically incorrect paraphrase.
These are the types of programs that provide the raw material for “The Office” and “Dilbert.”
In contrast to the normal approach is a fact-based discussion that cascades through the organization in a series of one-on-one dialogues between every manager and each person for whom she or he is responsible. When the message is clear, respectful and personalized for every direct report, it is more credible and more effective.
Churchill told us that when change is required, we should look back to see forward. And once we look back, we can capture the lessons of experience, communicate them in a compelling way and personalize them to effectively enroll others in the change process.
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