When we speak of best practices in change, perhaps the most underutilized of these is providing clear direction. It seems obvious, maybe too obvious, that those leading change need to provide clear direction. But when it comes to leading change, giving clear direction is so much more than telling a subordinate what to do, or outlining the project return on investment, it is really about enabling teams to bring about the change.

When we say, clear direction is underutilized what we really mean is that many change leaders, whether they be executives, or team leads, are apt to give transactional directions, but are less familiar with giving the kind of direction that enables people to change. When asked to direct, it is usually done in the default way, the way that has always worked, but leading a change requires more.

We believe that only a commonly held picture can be made real. So, before people can truly work toward a change, they must have a clear, compelling picture of what they are working toward and what they need to do to get there. Even in ambiguous situations, good leaders can and should provide sufficient clarity to enable their people to move forward. Our checklist for good, clear direction involves the following:

  1. A clear description of where we are all headed (the future state)
  2. A statement of why (intent) the change
  3. Clarity on actions needed to get there
  4. A way to know if goals are being met

These four elements of clear direction will provide a litmus test of whether the direction you are providing as a leader of change is clear enough to enable change.

Clear Description of Where We Are All Headed (Future State)

Think of the executive who gets up on front of her organization and announces an exciting new initiative that will save $110M for the company by cutting out the fat in the organization. How many people really get excited about hearing that? My experience has been that most greet that “exciting” message as a veiled threat for layoffs and more work being loaded on to already full plates. A view of the future state must be compelling to inspire action.  A “compelling” future state will describe the future state in a logically and emotionally moving way. A logically compelling future state must make sense. Perhaps the $110M in savings is logically compelling. The problem is that logically compelling visions rarely motivate people to act. People are logical, but they are emotional first.

An emotionally compelling future state rings true, sounds exciting, or is just plain cool. Sharing emotionally compelling future states helps us see ourselves in that future state. People often make career changes to connect better to where a company is going or to be part of something larger than themselves. We hear this often from those looking to join “socially responsible” companies, or those companies that have a sense of mission and purpose. What people are describing is an emotional connection to a future state. They see themselves in that future state and that emotional connection helps fuel the desire to take action.

I spent about a year working to spin off a networking company from the parent. They had a great product, the best in the market, but every time they were asked about where they were going they could only describe it in terms of milliseconds and hardware. The product was great, but the future state was not compelling. The spin off failed and was soon bought back by the parent company draining millions from their balance sheet in the process.

On the other hand, Intel’s campaign around “Intel Inside” was about connecting with consumers rather than discussing only the merits of chip speed. Intel appealed to consumers emotionally with imagery and sounds that were compelling, so much so that consumers would ask for PC’s with Intel chips, even if they couldn’t articulate the difference between Intel’s chips and other chips.

The bottom line for leaders of change is that they must take time to discover and communicate a compelling vision of the future. Even if that future involves only small changes, simple cost savings, or minor organizational changes, leaders must articulate what that means for people in a logically and emotionally compelling way.

Why Are We Changing?

Clear direction is not just about where we are headed, but also the why behind the change in direction. The why is important because it provides context for the change. If communicated correctly it strengthens the logically and emotionally compelling reasons for action as opposed to stay in the status quo. The why provides context and a narrative for the change. It helps people understand the pressures and pains of today as well as the risks and promises of the future. With clear direction, change leaders communicate the why to honestly share the pain or shortcomings of not changing as well as the promise and hope of the change. In the same way that our vision of the future must be logically and emotionally compelling, the why must also be compelling.

An important part of the “organizational why” is the “personal why.” People need a solid reason, logical and emotional, for changing their behavior. In providing clear direction, leaders must help people understand why they must change. Change practitioners refer to this as the WIIFM (What’s In It for Me?). Remember clear direction must enable and motivate people to action. Honest disclosure by leaders about why they themselves need to change and what the change will mean to them often goes a long way toward helping people emotionally connect with the need to change their own behavior.

More than a decade ago, when open workspace was the vogue in corporate settings, we worked with a company who was consolidating several offices and co-locating 5,000 people in the same high rise. This was done during a downturn in the industry and the cost savings was important. As employees struggled with the move, we witnessed executive after executive discuss the financial benefits of the move, but that didn’t do much for the people. Many had spent 20 years earning wood furniture and nice office perks and now it was all being done away with.  Perhaps the most powerful and effective example of clear direction was when one executive stood up and talked about the importance of collaboration, of supporting corporate decisions made in the best interest of all people, including shareholders, and of the need to attract new talent that was more comfortable in the collaborative workspaces. While this was interesting, she punctuated her comments with the revelation that she herself, though exempt from the open workspace concept, would move into a cubicle the same as others. There was silence after her remarks. She had appealed to the emotional sense of fairness and made it clear that these reasons were enough to cause her to act. It would come as no surprise to anybody that her organization made the jump with less drama than any other group.

What Will It Take?

Even if leaders are wildly successful at creating a clear view of the future state and a compelling reason for that move, they must not make the mistake of stopping there. Connecting emotionally and creating a willingness in others to act is only part of the direction. Leaders must help people know what it will take, and what leaders want them to do.

Leaders must be specific when telling people what to do and when to do it. Going back to the example of saving $110M in costs. Who is going to save the $110M? Is there something each person needs to do differently? Often executives successfully connect with people, but the ideas are too general. If you are asking people to save money, you need to specify how they should save money or you may find yourself with employees who, in their zeal to do what the company needs, will cut safety procedures, redundant checkpoints or risk controls. In the end your company would have been better off not to ask them to save $110M. As a leader of change you must provide clarity. Consider the following statements, both provide clear direction as to what people should do but in different ways:

“We ask you to save the company money by limiting your travel to mission critical trips.”

“We are not asking you to make significant changes today, but we are asking for you to get with your supervisors and recommend small changes that can be made to reduce the operating expenses without putting the company or our customers at risk.”

When leaders ask others to take action, too often they get very prescriptive, without helping employees manage some of the inevitable trade-offs. When you ask employees to do something more, you are also asking them to do something else less. If you can provide guidance on what the “something less” should not be, it could save the company trouble. Describe the outcomes as well as the behavior that you are hoping to see. For example, if you ask people to “limit travel to mission critical trips” you should also emphasize that the expectation around outcome, “so as not to slow down our most significant projects, those contributing to revenue.” The message is limit trips but do not slow down revenue generating opportunities. This direction enables them to act appropriately.

Measurement & Milestones

Last but not least is the need for measurement and milestones. Clear direction will provide people a way of knowing when they have reached the destination. People want to know if their actions or even the actions of a team are having the desired effect. If people believe their actions are not producing the expected results, they will stop taking action. Measurements should be described using multiple metrics including (and there may be others):

  • Processes measures (a measurement of whether the process is working or the project is going as planned)
  • Behavioral measures (a description of what behavior people should be able to observe)
  • Financial measures (the dollars and sense of progress)

Along the way there should be milestones that people can look to in order to check progress. They are looking to see if the pain associated with the change is “worth it.” Do not forget that change requires effort and if a person’s effort is of no effect, he/she will be more than happy to stop.  Setting up meaningful milestones, checkpoints, and interim measures (don’t just measure at the end of the effort) help sustain the change and give clear direction to employees that effort must continue, and that change is taking place. While this may seem like cheerleading to some leaders, it is really change leadership. You, the leader, are providing clear direction that efforts need to continue and that the desired change is going to produce the promised future state.

Expressworks worked with a large multi-national organization that was transforming its human resource organization. The motivation for change was both a desire to be prepared for the future needs of the company and the mandate to reduce operating expense (also given to many other groups in the company). The company focused solely on a go live date for its reorganization. All eyes were focused on that event. Change efforts were only focused on short-term interventions with no eye toward the journey. As a result, the employees believed it was all about cost reduction and they had little faith that anything else would change (sound familiar?). When the go live date arrived we found confused employees, confused business leaders, and a lack of willingness to work toward a long term, sustainable change. A change had occurred, but it was largely ineffective. Instead of providing direction and encouragement to regroup and recommit to the intended objectives, the executives declared victory at “go live” and the project team was disbanded, effectively stopping any future hope of progress toward business goals. It is important to note that the “go live” date of an initiative is not the end, it is just a milestone. The “end” of the change initiative, can only be declared once the change (and benefits) are realized and institutionalized. Usually that doesn’t occur until a year or two after the project go live. The go live is a milestone, a signal of progress, not the end. Measures and milestones really help leaders communicate and sustain change efforts. If the purpose of giving clear direction is to help others take action, then measurements and milestones cannot be ignored.

Clear direction is critical. It is underutilized because most leaders of change stop short of providing the type of clear direction that motivates and enables others to take action. Clear direction should have a logically and emotionally compelling “what” and “why” which helps people connect with where they are going and why they should want to go there. Instructions about specific behavior and guidance as to how to manage the trade-offs give people something to act on. Measurements and milestones help sustain the effort and let people know that their actions are having the desired effect. Measurements and milestones provide energy to sustain the action and allow people to adjust their behavior if their behavior potentially compromises the outcome. Clear direction, in the context of leading change, is so much more than telling someone to perform a specific action, it is about enabling people, lots of people, to change.

Need some coaching? It can help when you’re building your capability to lead change. Remember, change is inevitable, but results are intentional. Contact us today.

If you’d like to learn more, check out the remaining 7 best practices of change: Sponsorship, Planning and Modification, Competency Development, Reinforcement, Communication, Engagement, and Measurement