Change is a fact of life. John P. Kotter’s book, Leading Change, defines his famous eight-stage model for change. The first stage of the model is establishing a sense of urgency. A sense of urgency provides the energy and rational for any large, long-term change program. Once a sense of urgency has been established, the second stage in the eight-stage model for change is the establishment of a guiding coalition. If a sense of urgency provides energy to drive change, a guiding coalition provides the power for making change happen. A vision, built on the foundation of urgency and a guiding coalition, represents a picture of a state of being at some point in the future. Once a vision has been established, it must be clearly and consistently communicated. Failure to effectively communicate the vision will cripple change.
Kotter lists seven attributes for effective communication of the change vision.
- Keep it simple – The vision must be clearly understandable by all of those who are impacted. The message must be clear and simple, which means ZERO mumbo jumbo. The United States Coast Guard has the one of best vision statements I have ever read, “The world’s best responders: anytime, any place, any hazard.” Everyone from top most senior officers to the most junior enlisted personnel would have difficulty misinterpreting the vision when making day-to-day decisions.
- Metaphor, analogy, and examples –Use words to paint pictures in people’s mind that clarify the complexity.
- Multiple forums – Increasing the number of vehicles used to communicate the message increases the chance that the vision will be heard, internalized and institutionalized.
- Repetition – Communicating a vision requires more than a roll-out speech and an article in the company newsletter. The vision needs to be continually repeated and reinforced in order to break through the clutter of competing communications.
- Leadership by example – Leaders must participate in and live the change. Living the change increases the credibility and deflects resistance. Perceived inconsistencies between the vision of change and how leadership acts will be noticed. Inconsistencies in behavior will hurt or deflect change.
- Explain perceived inconsistencies.
- Give and take – Communicating the vision for change requires two-way communication between leaders and others involved in making change a reality. Two-way communication means both listening and being heard. Communication implies that if the vision is wrong that the change vision may need to change.
Effective change requires that enough people understand the change they are being asked to make and where that change will lead them. Ambiguously crafted visions and communications will at best cause confusion and at worst derail change. Regardless of the urgent need for a change or how carefully the vision is crafted people do not follow those they feel are on the wrong path. This true even if the change has powerful backers. Effective communication of the change vision helps to build the critical mass needed to make change actually happen.