Stage 4 of the 8-Stage Process of Transformation
Communicating the Change Vision
Part of our Series on Leading & Adopting Change
What good does a powerful vision do if no one hears, understands, or supports it?
A great vision can accomplish goals even if it’s only understood by your key leaders, but real transformation happens when that vision sinks deeply into the minds and hearts of most of the people in your organization.
In this series on leading and adopting change, we’re summarizing the book by John Kotter, Leading Change, chapter by chapter. Our goal is to inspire and equip you to bring about lasting change in your Agency – whether that’s successfully navigating a modernization initiative, becoming a leader in innovation, or fundamentally changing how fast or effectively your organization can solve problems.
Although the process of creating a unifying vision for transformation is difficult, getting an understanding of and commitment to that vision is no easier. The larger your organization, the more difficult communicating it will be. Yet, it hardly needs to be said that a vision must be communicated and then inspire your organization, for that vision to come to fruition.
So, in spite of the importance of doing so, why do leaders often fail to communicate their vision?
5 Reasons for Failure to Communicate Vision
1. Inadequate Communication: The vision is not communicated often enough, and therefore buried in the sheer volume of other communication that people hear every day.
Example: Senior management spends what they felt was adequate time communicating the vision: an announcement was made in a big annual meeting; 3-4 articles were published about the vision in the company newsletter; the marketing team made a professional video; and at each monthly gathering, the vision was discussed.
Unfortunately, this is far from enough communication to truly take effect across an organization. If employees hear about a vision once per month, along with a few other times here or there, it may be something they remember hearing about, but it won’t shift their perspective of the company nor affect their day-to-day work. Most likely, the vision will get buried in the volume of other information the employees are bound to receive every day.
2. Poor Communication: In this scenario, the vision might be communicated all the time, but it’s not communicated as a significant change, or the vision itself is fuzzy.
Example: Senior management begins sharing the vision like it’s a commercial: people hear a cliché new motto, reminiscent of happy talk, instead of a message that makes it clear to every employee that this vision is fundamentally changes the direction of the company. No matter how often a vision is communicated, if the vision isn’t properly understood or understandable, it won’t sink in at a level that can unify and bring about change.
The next three reasons a vision fails to be communicated are related to the first three stages of a transformation effort –
3. Lack of Urgency: When an organization lacks urgency, people are unlikely to listen carefully to the vision (see this article for examples).
4. Guiding Coalition: When the coalition doesn’t consist of the right people, it is going to have far more difficulty creating and sending the appropriate message (see this article for examples).
5. Quality of the Vision: If the vision is fuzzy or just a bad idea, helping employees understand and buy-in to that vision may be an impossible task (see this article for examples).
The Magnitude of the Task
The magnitude of communicating a vision is difficult even if the first three stages of a transformation effort have gone well. It takes a lot of work for a guiding coalition to create a unifying vision, because as was discussed in the previous article, good vision should reach down to people’s core values and emotions. Getting hundreds, thousands, or tens of thousands of people to understand and accept this vision is a huge task.
When vision fails to be communicated, instead of looking at the previous five reasons shared here, management tends to attribute the failure to:
- Limited intellectual capabilities of lower level employees (ouch!)
- General human resistance to change, and thus resistance even to communications about change
Neither of these reasons gets to the root of the real problem. As soon as people learn about significant change that is coming, it will affect them intellectually and emotionally. Here are some of the important questions people ask:
- “What will this change mean for me? My coworkers? My department?”
- “Are there alternatives? Is this the best option?”
- “Will I have to work differently? Can I?”
- “Will this mean I have to make sacrifices? Will my sacrifices make a difference or be appreciated?”
- “How do I feel about those sacrifices? Do I really believe this is the right way to go for the future?”
During Stage 3 – Creating a Vision, these questions will inevitably come to mind for the members of the guiding coalition. Meaning, if the vision creation process was successful, each member of the coalition should have answered these questions. It’s easy for the coalition to think that once they’ve put in the many hours and effort to create the vision (and wrestled with these issues), the rest of the organization will be able to accept the vision quickly… instead of remembering that each person will have these same feelings and questions as well.
The strategic part of a transformation is difficult, but a minor part of the overall effort. Example: “Instead of using this app, use this one; instead of sending an email, use this process instead.”
The emotional part of a transformation is much tougher, because it involves:
- Letting go of the status quo
- Letting go of other future options
- Coming to grips with sacrifices
After considering how difficult this task is, it’s time to be encouraged that effectively communicating a vision for transformation can be done. Here are some principles that make the task easier and more effective.
7 Principles for Successfully Communicating the Vision1. Simplicity:
Communication about the vision should be simple, clear, focused, and jargon-free. This kind of message can be communicated across an organization at a fraction of the cost of clumsy, complicated information. Communication about the vision works best when it is so direct and simple that it is elegant, but to do so successfully requires great clarity of thought and courage.
Communicating directly and clearly makes leaders more vulnerable because it’s far easier to criticize something that sounds simple and is easily understood, than to comment on a vision that sounds very technical. At the same time, simplicity encourages feedback, which helps to refine the vision or help leadership avoid errors.
2. Use metaphors, analogies, and examples:
These tools help leadership communicate a complicated language quickly and effectively. Here are some examples to help clarify how these can be used:
Example 1: “We need to become less like an elephant and more like a customer-friendly T-Rex.”
Meaning: we need to become much more aggressive to survive. The T-Rex was an appropriate image in this real-life case because the company was too big to be represented by a tiger, and yet it needed to be clear that they were customer-focused.
Example 2: “We are going to be making fewer Fiats and more Mercedes.”
The meaning of this one is fairly clear if employees know the difference between the two cars, and value Mercedes more than Fiats. If it's the other way around, this analogy won’t work.
The key to these tools is that they need to summarize a lot of information in a simple idea, be believable/ appropriate to the organization and its employees, and appeal on an emotional way.
A “verbal picture is worth 1,000 words.”
3. Use multiple forums:
When communicating about the vision, leadership should use every forum and media possible: big and small meetings, memos, newspapers, formal and informal interactions, etc... When people receive the same message from six different directions, it has a better chance of being heard and to sink deep into their minds and hearts.
It can seem difficult to fit another message in all these channels (repeatedly), but it’s important to consider how much useless information clogs your company’s channels of communication. Once filler and propaganda have been removed, or even some of the unproductive topics in personal conversations, you might suddenly find a lot more space to begin communicating about the vision.
4. Use repetition:
This principle is straightforward – once the forums for communicating the message have been established, here is why and how the message should be sent repeatedly:
- Most carefully crafted messages rarely sink in after being heard just once; ideas sink in deeply only after being heard many times
- Many brief, daily reminders are better than long messages
- One communication will not address all the questions that arise over time
Successful transformation efforts involve hundreds or thousands of repeats to the point that employees look at everything through the lens of new vision. This repetition allows people to ask questions, new people to buy-in, and the message to be tailored to each employee, their responsibilities, their goals, and their team.5. Lead by example:
Behavior by leadership that is inconsistent with vision will overwhelm all other communication about the vision. Most of the communication about the vision be made by leaders who are putting it into action. This both adds credibility to the vision and resolves many of the questions or concerns that arise.
- Example, “If the CEO is willing to make this sacrifice, so should I.” When leadership 'walks the talk', a high percentage of employees will soon be able to explain the vision and fully agree that top management is committed to it.
- Example: Due to a tight defense budget, an Executive of the Department of Defense takes the subway to the airport and rides coach on his flight, instead of taking a VH-60 Black Hawk helicopter (when safety isn’t a concern). Not only is this a powerful statement, this kind of news spreads fast. What better way to get employees talking about and taking a vision seriously than when senior leadership does the unexpected, but necessary thing to act it out?
On the other hand, if leaders or key players of the guiding coalition say one thing about the vision and then undermine it by their actions, they will undermine the entire vision.
What are the repercussions of this principle, lead by example?
- Trying to sell a vision before top management can embody it is difficult. Meaning, leadership must be on board in their actions and not just their words.
- Monitoring senior management behavior to be able to address inconsistencies between words and deeds is important.
It is almost unavoidable that inconsistencies in the words of the vision and the actions of leadership will arise in one way or another. The problem this creates is not in the existence of inconsistencies, but how they are addressed. Here are two examples of common discrepancies in organizations:
- 100 employees are laid off while top management resides in regal offices
- Cost-cutting initiatives are happening everywhere while the company leases corporate jets
When confronted by such contradictions, executives can get frustrated when trying to defend the organization’s actions: they don’t want to encourage cynicism about the vision, but they don’t always have a ready answer to explain the discrepancy. This principle simply means that in the process of creating and communicating the vision, leadership should honestly evaluate where current actions or conditions don’t line up, and what to do about it.
- In some cases, an inconsistency should be resolved by leaders making reality match the vision: get rid of the fancy offices, jets, and trips.
- In other cases, an inconsistency should be explicitly addressed. For example, “We see that the corporate headquarters and management offices are excessive in this time of cost-cutting, but we have investigated selling and relocating the headquarters, and it will be more expensive to do so. Instead, we will look for ways to cut costs moving forward.”
In either case, the direct communication will increase credibility and trust about the vision.7. Use two-way communication:
In communicating the vision, it’s important to realize that it should be a process of give and take, listen and be listened to, between employees and the guiding coalition.
Specifically, the guiding coalition should seek feedback often. Asking for feedback and listening has four benefits for the vision and its acceptance:
- It gives employees a chance to feel heard
- It helps people answer their biggest questions and concerns
- It allows people to wrestle with the changes (challenge, argue, and question the vision) – this process is perhaps the only way that people will support a vision from the heart, particularly a vision that is very different from the status quo or significantly affects their work.
- Finally, this two-way communication often avoids expensive errors, revealing facts that the coalition did not know about (for example, it might show that the company already owns a particular technology that would have been purchased due to the needs of the vision).
- Empowered employees haven’t bought into the vision; therefore, they don’t use the power they are given to make it happen
- Empowered employees buy into a vision that hasn’t received any feedback, and therefore act on a vision that contains preventable errors (leading to a waste of time and resources)
When a vision is effectively communicated, the transformation effort will go from being supported by a small coalition, to being championed by the majority of the organization, making the vision a powerful force for bringing about needed change.