Scenario: “During the next eighteen months we will close the entire customer service center operation in our current downtown San Francisco location and open our new, state-of-the-art facility in downtown Sacramento. ”

How do you assay “the clarity of business intent?” As a critical success factor in major change initiatives, it is truly golden to have the ‘what’ and ‘why’ expressed clearly. But, how do you ascertain that something is “clear and unambiguous?” Within the context of the study, our standard for evidence of “clear and unambiguous” was that people who would be directly affected by the change, at all levels, could express in simple terms, the meaning of the change for them as individuals and for their immediate work group. What will be happening, how will affect me and my work team, and why is it important to the business for this to happen (at this time). That was the litmus test.

The statement in italics above represents a company’s plan to relocate their customer service center, which provides over-the-phone support to commercial and private customers. There were roughly 500 employees and 40 managers affected. Was it sufficient? Was it clear and unambiguous?

In many situations, people leading, planning, and managing the change would claim that the business intent is obvious. “Everyone knows why we have to do this. And everyone understands what it means to them.” Some would attest that they had spent days in off-site meetings to craft the project mission statement and goals; so there was really no reason to spend more time and energy ‘perfecting’ it. What was important was, how are we going to get this out there? What are the best ways to communicate it to the general population; to broadcast the shiny product of their off-site. The study of successful initiatives revealed that project leaders often over-estimate the effectiveness of how the intent of the change is articulated, resulting in unsurprisingly high levels of confusion and resistance as things move from concept to implementation.

The study revealed 3 ways to calibrate the notion of “Clear and unambiguous business intent” so that there is not an over-reliance on an individual’s or group’s opinion.

  • Well researched and validated value to company customers and utility to work performers.
    • This is a required ‘phase one’ activity. How do we know what the value is to the business? What facts support the need to change? How will customers recognize the value of the change? Will people doing the work realize improvements in their methods and ability to deliver value to their customers? The business case for change needs to be built at all levels of the organization. Even if it feels repetitive and pointless, people need to derive and arrive at the conclusion, not just have it presented to them.
    • The ability to say that the change is well researched and delivers validated value to customers and work performers is not based on speculation. It is based on facts derived from focused research and study. Successful project leaders fiercely defend the importance of doing this initial research and formation of the business case in a manner that engages and reaches people who will be affected by the change. It is an early opportunity to identify the prevailing sentiments of the organization and to give people the opportunity to challenge their thinking about what is being considered and what is in place today.
    • A key challenge of documenting the business case for change is often expressing the findings and facts in a way that is meaningful to those who will be most affected. How does the change improve delivery of value to the customer and how does it enhance their ability to do the work.
  • Could be articulated in personal terms by those impacted by the initiative.
    • A common phase one gate for successful initiatives is testing the veracity of this statement. Can people describe how their jobs will be different?
    • How will things change for me? What will I do that I am not doing now? What will I stop doing that I am doing now? What will continue on as it is now?
    • What will be most challenging for me as I do things to make this picture real? Do I need new skills? What habits will need to be changed? What will change about how I am rewarded and reinforced in my work?
  • Simple, compelling picture of the future and the pain of the present.
    • The key words ‘simple’ and ‘compelling’ are fantastic ways to ‘assay’ the notions of clear and unambiguous.
    • Can I remember and express, consistently and briefly, what is going to happen and why? (elevator/coffee pot exercise).
    • Does the picture of change I am describing motivate me to step up to the challenges I will face. Do I feel ‘compelled’ to do things differently? Can I express this in terms of the work I am doing now and the work I will be doing in the future? Can I fully describe the difficulties and frustrations that are inherent in the way things are done now?
    • Can people tell you in a convincing manner, why rising to the challenges of the change is better than fighting to maintain the status quo?

An underlying principle to expressing a clear, unambiguous business intent is that ‘change is personal.’ One of the early errors of many change initiatives is that the work of defining what needs to happen and why is held closely by a small group of managers and experts who “study the problem” and define a solution in isolation. Away and removed from those who will be called on to implement and support the change. Successful initiatives revealed multiple methods and channels through which people were called on to help ‘define the current state,’ to consider possible alternatives, to establish criteria for vetting alternatives, and for thinking of ways to introduce the need for change to their peers and customers.

The condition of “clear and unambiguous” becomes apparent as people turn their attention from ‘what and why’ to ‘how.’ Participants and leaders of successful change projects often describe this transition as “shifting gears.” Participants of unsuccessful projects often describe this transition as “chaos.”

“It’s like we were all at the train station and no one could agree on which train to get on. It was instantly obvious that we did not have a common view of where we needed to go, why we were there, and even, who was in charge of getting the tickets.”

If you are the change manager or communications lead on a project like that, you would pretty much take a train to anywhere else but here!