Bringing Out the Heavy Artillery

Do you want to know a secret about change management? Communication and training are important, but their effectiveness pales in comparison to Engagement. Now, I am not talking about engagement, I am talking about Engagement with a capital E. We will get into the difference shortly, but just know that this is the heavy artillery of organizational change management, and your best friend, if you are contemplating or undergoing a transformational change.

Up Close and Personal

The difference between engagement and Engagement is like the difference between agile and Agile. Where agile is a general concept or philosophy, Agile is a blanket of structured implementation methodologies that all align with a specific manifesto. In a similar regard, engagement is the general practice of interacting with others in a way that fosters bidirectional communication. Engagement is a structured approach to engagement with a specific goal and a prescribed method for accomplishing the goal.

It ‘s not necessary to use Engagement for every change effort. The tradeoff of deploying such a high-powered technique is the commitment you must make in time, money and other resources. You should not take this decision lightly; seek the counsel of a change expert if needed. Change generally comes in three sizes: transactional, transitional, and transformational. My general advice is to reserve Engagement for transformational change, or transitional change when the hard benefits of the change are significant enough to warrant the investment in resources.

The benefit and ultimate goal of Engagement is workforce ownership. It is the best way to move people through the treacherous Gulch of Resistance and onto Exploration and finally Commitment. This is done through a two-way exchange of information, a distinction that separates it from communication, which is only one-way. This is not to marginalize communication or imply that it is mutually exclusive with engagement. In fact, it is absolutely important to get communication right. However, communication alone does not afford you the valuable gift of feedback or the incredibly effective emotional satisfaction employees feel when they have been heard.

To ensure a robust and fruitful dialog session, it is important to keep the group setting small. Proper Engagement is ideally done with seven people or less. I would not try this with more than about 12 people. It’s at that point where some people will just sit there quietly and take notes, and the rest will dominate the conversation. That’s antithetical to goals of Engagement. Remember, it’s not about you, it’s about them.

Cascade and Levitate

If there’s one thing to take away from this article, it’s that Engagement is a two-way street. Clear direction and guidance flows from the top to the bottom and vital feedback flows from the bottom to the top. Engagement is communication on steroids, so you must master communication before attempting Engagement. On a major transformation, clear direction should start flowing from the very top — the leader of the organization. When I helped a strategic business unit of a large international oil and gas company through a major transformational change, one of the first things I did was sit down with the Vice President to crystallize his vision of success. I then led the production of a video wherein he would share that vision with the rest of the organization. Once the video was ready, I designed an Engagement effort called “Managing During Uncertainty,” where we systematically cascaded the vision down the organization.

Cascading, as its name implies, is a systematic series of dialog sessions that starts at the very top of the organization and moves down through the organization, all the way to the individual contributors. It is one of the best ways leaders can effectively sponsor the change because it provides a wonderful channel to clarify expectations and enroll the organization with key messages. In my intervention above, we started with a dialog session between the Vice President and his General Managers and other direct reports. Then, each General Manager met with their respective Managers and then each Manager met with their respective Supervisors. Finally, each Supervisor met with their respective teams until the entire organization was clear on the Vice President’s vision. This was easy once we had our Dream Team in place to shepherd the process. During each dialog session, we made sure critical feedback was captured and fed back up the organization. This is what I call levitation.

Levitation is the process of raising feedback from the bottom of the organization up to the top. Just like in the physical world, levitation is much more difficult than cascading, but it is critically important, especially if your targeted organizational design requires a different culture. First, you must be explicit about your expectations for each dialog session. Feedback must be collected and shared upward — no exceptions. Second, all feedback must be shared with your Dream Team and your change team so that it is managed properly. Finally, your change team has the responsibility analyzing the feedback, suggesting course corrections based on the feedback, and communicating to the workforce how their feedback is used. If you do it right, you will get amazing results.

Conclusion

Engagement — with a capital E — is the secret weapon of change management. But, as with all secret weapons, it must be handled with care and used only when warranted. If you are dealing with a routine or somewhat manageable change, then keep Engagement close by in a storage room. However, if you are facing a difficult transition or a transformational change, it is time to wheel Engagement out and start the activation sequence. Bear in mind that Engagement is a structured process, not a lofty notion or idea, so be diligent with your execution. Systematically cascade clear expectations and guidance from the top to the bottom using small-group dialog sessions and levitate valuable feedback from the bottom to the top using focused and disciplined change management. Let’s not fool ourselves. This technique requires a sizable investment in time, money, and other valuable resources and a full commitment from the entire organization. But boy, is it worth it when you need it.