Change Management for SME’s. Principle 1: Communicate with Feeling – the WHY of Change

When I mention the words ‘change management’ to someone I don’t know well I wait a second for a reaction. If the person has worked at a large corporate they will tend to know what it is and perhaps make a disparaging comment about ‘soft stuff’ or ‘fluffy stuff’. However, people who have worked mainly in small-medium businesses will rarely know what I am talking about and the reaction is fairly underwhelming. This is always a conundrum that has interested me. Why should people who work in large companies get more care in dealing with changes in business than others? Is it just a luxury overhead that only big businesses can afford? 

I don’t think so. In fact, it is my ‘mission from god’ to bring change management fundamentals, principles and activities to smaller business! This is the first of a series of articles about how change management can work in small-medium businesses.

There are huge text books written about change management that don’t even define it. The definition I use is “getting people ready, willing and able to adapt to and adopt a change”.  Let’s look at a few examples. 

One of my clients was a small finance company that had developed a product that one of the big overseas banks was interested in. However, the large bank did not just want to review the product – they wanted to scrutinise all the company polices, processes and procedures – things like quality, IT security, facilities management and so on. This company had none of those things and so had to quickly change into being a more process driven organisation with documentation and so on. You can imagine the resistance of the staff who had worked in a particular way for years and were quite happy with the status quo.

The directors hired me to help the staff develop the processes but refused to deal with any resistance. People were told to ‘we need to do it so just get on with it’. Most didn’t even know the reasons why there was a sudden push for processes. This brings us to an important change management principle: 

“Communicate WHY things need to change, not just WHAT needs to change.”

Compare these two messages: 

1.    “We need to document our processes so that we are more efficient in what we do”

2.    “This company has a substantial opportunity for growth. To take that opportunity we need to prove to others that we are a professional and credible organisation. We have done our best to be where we are today and now we need to make the next steps together. “

Many will like the brevity of the first statement. But what does it make people feel? Firstly, the term ‘more efficient’ gives the impression that we are not currently efficient today. This may be true but is that the fault of the reader/stakeholder? Secondly, ‘more efficiency’ or ‘more revenue’ or ‘more profit’ is never a sufficient message so incite change. This is a bit like a parent saying to a child ‘you will eat your dinner because I like to cook’. Messages that are based on what is good for the organisation are not feltby individuals. It is not a good enough ‘WHY’. And people in all organisations need a WHY in order to change.  

When I coached the Directors of this company to communicate the WHY with feeling like (2) above, there was considerable suspicion (in fact they burst out laughing!). But they were eventually prepared to give it a go. Once they did (and repeated it regularly), the mood in the office changed. As always, some hated the communications and were cynical but at least it got a reaction! With most, their energy lifted and they felt they were contributing to something big and new together. The large bank was impressed and they eventually signed a deal.   

It is not just staff in large companies that need to face constant change – businesses of all sizes need to make changes and communicating with staff needs to happen with any size business. Using some simple techniques such as communicating the WHY (with feeling) can make your changes successful and help your business grow.