In the Northeastern part of the US autumn is a special time of the year. Despite a few weeks’ delay likely due to climate change, most of us still look forward to the change of seasons and the fall colors that paint the trees like dominos falling from north to south. I took the photo above a few years ago in Philadelphia, and each time I look at it I hear that classic Hall & Oates song. Change is natural and inevitable, and humans have adapted for a very long time.
In the business world, change is rebranded as evolution, innovation, and even transformation—yet many employees easily see these words as negative euphemisms for layoffs, restructuring and relocation, like the doublespeak made famous in Orwell’s 1984. Corporate leadership and employee communications experts continue to coin acronyms and clever names for change initiatives, designing logos and scheduling town hall meetings to explain to the staff how excited they are about their business model transformation. They talk about the change curve and give employees books that say, “adapt or die.”
Some of these books have helpful lessons and proven techniques to successfully sell and manage change in large organizations. Here are a few lessons that I’ve learned through personal experience:
When Leaders Say ‘Innovation,’ Others Hear ‘Change’
The ‘change curve’ is a real thing, most often based on Elizabeth Kubler-Ross’s five stages of grief, or the work of William Bridges in managing personal transitions in the shadow of large-scale organizational changes. Both describe the personal journey someone goes through when dealing with a significant change in her life, with its predictable ups and downs.
For big changes at big companies, the leadership team almost always has advance notice, and is often driving the necessary changes. Therefore they are farther along the change curve than the rank-and-file employees and may not understand why they just don’t ‘get it.’ Using words like ‘innovation’ or ‘disruption’ appeals to the intellect, while most employees are still in the emotional trough of the curve and only feel confusion, uncertainty and discomfort. Town Hall-style meetings in this stage must include listening to employees’ concerns in addition to answering the question, “What’s going to happen to me?”
Aim to Solve a Real Customer or Business Problem
Those of us in the business of innovation have at least three jobs: 1) Understand the core business as well as your internal customers; 2) Understand the external environment as it relates to broad trends, potential partners, and new technologies; and 3) Educate your internal customers on how to clearly define and start solving today’s customer and business problems in new ways.
Many times we and our internal customers are distracted by the newest shiny object, usually a startup (“we’ll be the Apple of healthcare”) or technology (“get me an generative AI thing”) that we pilot in hopes of learning something new, getting recognized internally or perhaps grabbing some headlines. In addition to needing an urgent and legitimate reason to ask employees to change, we need good reasons to ask our supplier ecosystem and our customers to change. We say, “New formulation,” and they hear “More complicated.”
Pick Projects with Short-Term Wins
In pursuit of an endorsement of and funding for an innovation project, sometimes we purport to see ‘around corners,’ and predict the future like Nostradamus, and it’s simply not credible. Whether you’re pitching an investment opportunity to senior leaders in your company, or interviewing for a new job, most people don’t believe that you understand what the world will look like more than a year or two ahead. Things change too fast. Plus, they likely won’t be in that same role in two years, so they want to invest their time, effort and budget in projects that have quick and visible returns.
“The only person that likes change is a wet baby.” — Anonymous
Organizational change management consultants and HR leaders used to say, “The only person that likes change is a wet baby.” As the speed of change accelerates, it’s essential that we learn new ways to adapt. Just understand that like most things, individuals process and accept change in different ways and at different speeds. While we can’t always wait for everyone to catch up and ‘get with the program,’ we can be kinder, more patient and more understanding. Each of us is at a different place on several change curves in our professional and personal lives, and at some points we all need a little help to climb out of the trough.
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