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The Danger of Smiling Faces: Fostering Two-Way Communication

There is an on-going debate over how to measure success in Change Management. Whether your focus is on user adoption, communications, or training, there is a constant stream of "new and improved" methods for determining if your Change program is a success.

Regardless of the formal method used, I've found that the overwhelming majority of people have one fundamental measure for Change Management success: The more people who are happy, the more successful the Change program. Sometimes we see this explicitly, as with the "Smile Sheets" that so many trainers distribute after each training course. These surveys ask people whether they liked the course, whether they thought the trainer was good at his job, and whether they thought they learned something. What the surveys don't do is tell the trainer whether or not he was actually successful in training the end users on a new skill. I'm not saying these surveys are bad - I use them myself. They are not, however, a reliable measure of training success.

While Smile Sheets very explicitly show the correlation most people see between happy end users and successful Change Management, the gut-level belief that most people have in this correlation is more often implied. How often have you heard (or said) these lines?

  • I just got out of a meeting where everyone was really negative about the project. We'd better change our Change Management approach.

  • I was talking to some people in the lunch room and they weren't happy about the change. Why isn't the Change program working?

  • I'm getting a ton of calls from people who want don't like the decisions we're making. You'd better figure out how to make them realize this project is great.

All of these statements imply that because stakeholders are unhappy with the changes you're implementing, the Change Management program is failing and in immediate need of re-work. Assuming that these statements are coming during the life of the project, however, and not at Go-live or later, I would argue that statements of unhappiness, requests to discuss project decisions, and expressions of annoyance are a sign of success.

What they demonstrate is that people are engaged. The first stop on the Change Curve is Awareness, and it's not possible to be unhappy with a change unless people are first aware of the change. Unhappy stakeholders? Congratulations! You've successfully reached Awareness.

The second stop on the Change Curve is Understanding. People yelling that they don't like how the changes you're making will impact them? Congratulations! Your stakeholders understand the change, and you've successfully reached the second step to achieving change.

When I get half-way through a project and all I see are happy, smiling faces, I get worried. 100% happiness tells me that I'm failing miserably at Change Management because one of three things is happening:

  1. People don't know a change is coming, which means my communications aren't reaching their intended audience.

  2. People don't realize how they will be impacted by the change, which means they don't understand the communications I'm sending.

  3. People are pretending to be happy, which means I haven't fostered good two-way communications.

For today, let's focus on the third option and look at:

Practical Tips for Building Two-Way Communications

  1. Make it Easy - People are busy. If you make it difficult to communicate with you or the project team, no one will bother. If you have an e-mail address, make it easy to remember. If you want people to respond via a web site, remember to include the link so that all they have to do is click. The easier it is for people to tell you what's on their minds, the more likely they are to communicate.

  2. Make it Confidential - How often have you sat in a meeting where no one offers an opinion, but as soon as you leave everyone hurries to someone else's office where they suddenly have lots to say? Many people are more comfortable sharing their thoughts in a one-on-one setting than they are in a group. Even more people are likely to communicate if they know that what they tell you will be anonymous when it's shared with others. This not only requires that you provide people a safe, confidential forum for communicating, it also requires that they trust you to maintain the confidentiality. Change Management often falls in the HR department for a reason. Even if it doesn't, you should practice the same level of discretion as an HR professional.

  3. Make it Matter - If you want people to communicate with you on an on-going basis, you have to demonstrate that what they tell you matters. This means that you pay attention to what they say, take appropriate action based on the conversation, then follow-up to let them know the outcome. Did they ask you a question? Make sure you get back to them with the answer. Did they make a suggestion? Even if you can't guarantee that their suggestion will be implemented, let them know that it will be considered and tell them when they can expect to hear more. Did they just want to vent? Remember that even if you don't agree, everyone is entitled to have an opinion. One of my major rules of communications: Never ask people for input if you have no intention of seriously considering it and taking appropriate action.

Do you think happy stakeholders is a good way to measure Change Management success? What other tips do you have for building two-way communication?

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