The best-laid corporate plans often get no further than the meeting-room in which they were hatched out. Change Management specialist Jonathan Steffen gives a few tips on how to get people to buy in to your bright ideas.
There is something extremely enticing about a virginal flip-chart standing in the corner of a meeting-room. And there is something very appealing about a brand-new marker pen. If the former is a point of calm, a silent space, a piece of potentiality, the latter is an instrument of action, a doer of deeds, a righter of wrongs.
You can take a fresh sheet of flip-chart paper and a marker pen and transform your entire organisation in the space of minutes. In place of the mess of your office, the confusion of your diary and the complexities of the interdivisional rivalries within your company, you can create beautiful geometrical shapes – circles and rectangles that are joined up in meaningful ways, arrows dynamically thrusting this way and that, squiggly lines which you can immediately cross out to demonstrate their total irrelevance to your great new plan.
The curious thing about such diagrams is how stale they look, how jaded and shamefaced and sad, when they have been standing in the corner of a meeting-room for a number of days. The bright ideas seem to have faded, the energy to have evaporated, and those strategic route-maps tend to take on the air of someone else’s problem. ‘Oh, that’s been up there for days,’ you remark as you tear off the sheet, wishing that someone in the office had done it for you before you brought your client into this meeting-room. ‘Excuse me a moment, I’m just going to try to find a marker pen that works …’
And the whole process starts again, with a couple of scribbled bullet-points rapidly turning into a graphic dissection of some new strategic issue. This links up to that. This is on the right here, but it should actually be on the left. ‘And when you look at it, you can see that the key aspect is this little box here. Hang on, I’ll just highlight it in another colour so that you can see it better …’
The rubbish-bins of the corporate world must be full of such schemes. And yet a lot of the companies you see around you, a lot of the buildings and a lot of the names and a lot of the logos had their origin in some such flip-chart process. Whether it was actually a flip chart or a paper napkin or the back of an envelope is of little relevance: the fact is that some visionary scribblings actually do get translated into reality.
So how does it happen? And how can you ensure that the next time you get going with the bubbles and arrows, it translates into something tangible?
One person’s diagram is another person’s blind spot
The first thing to do is to recognise that one person’s diagram is another person’s blind spot. The geometrical representation of a process flow may be crystal clear to some of your target audience, but it will probably be alienating or even unintelligible to others. The human imagination is limitlessly powerful, but it does not naturally think in terms of bubbles, boxes and arrows. It is therefore important to accompany your abstract conception of a process with something far more readily comprehensible. This may be verbal or visual in form; preferably, it will be both. A clear and simple proposition backed up by a memorable image will enter people’s hearts and minds in a way that a flow chart never will.
If your task is to persuade your board of the value of funding a particular project, a few images culled from magazines and glued to boards or downloaded from the Internet and copied into a presentation might help you get your point across in a memorable and striking way. If, however, you need to communicate with an entire organisation, or with audiences outside of your company, you might need to call on the resources of an external agency to design the material to deliver your message. A slogan, logo or mascot can be an immensely effective communication tool if well chosen, and as we all become experienced consumers of information, the need for such tools becomes all the more important.
Equally important is to set realistic deadlines and adhere to them. To be behind schedule is by nature an unsettling and depressing experience; to be permanently behind schedule leads to self-protective cynicism, which can have very destructive effects on an organisation. Setting realistic deadlines also facilitates regular evaluation of the process you are engineering, which will help you keep it on course.
The need for champions
No process, however intelligently conceived, will succeed unless championed by people who have full belief in it. It is therefore vital to ensure that your process has the support of at least one board member, preferably of the entire senior management. The world is full of people trying to obtain senior management support for projects already under way, and it is a thankless task. Try therefore to identify and obtain senior management support for your plan well before you initiate it, and even if this step is not an internal stipulation, be aware of who might champion your plan in the event of a crisis and get them onside.
Equally important is the selection of champions lower down the organisation. It is vital here to distinguish between champions and enthusiasts. Champions are people who are dedicated to a particular cause; enthusiasts are people who will champion any cause until a more exciting one comes along. This is one reason why so many change programmes fail: they are based upon the capacity and commitment of overstretched volunteers rather than dedicated champions. Your champions will need the time, the resources, the funding, and perhaps even the relevant training to perform their task and translate your process into reality. They will also need to gain by doing so, both in personal and professional terms. The corporate world is full of sometime champions who have bitter tales to tell of how their dedication was never rewarded.
Continuous and careful co-ordination
Having a clear message backed by arresting visuals and articulated by effective champions will still not guarantee that your flip-chart scribblings turn into transformational experiences, however. If your process is to work, it needs not just up-front planning but continuous and very careful co-ordination. In a world of information overload, in which we all spend a great deal of energy in filtering out ideas, people will only listen to what you have to say if this is reiterated in a memorable and intriguing manner. Particularly important is the co-ordination of oral and written messages. A conference, meeting or training exercise will have a certain short-term effect. This effect may be very powerful initially, but it will only last if supported by written information. All ‘live’ events should therefore be backed up by some form of written communication. Important here is not to drown the world in a flood of messages, but to select one or two communication channels with which people can rapidly become familiar, and to use them to maintain the impetus of the process. The choice of channels will vary from organisation to organisation, and from function to function. What works in an office is unlikely to translate directly to the shop floor. The vital thing is to use your own resources as effectively as possible.
Belief – and respect
But none of this will work without someone to co-ordinate it. The patronage of the board, the support of champions, and the co-ordinated deployment of resources will not of themselves secure the success of your project. For your project to be successful, you need a number of vital qualities. One is stamina, for implementing your project is likely to mean a long haul. Another is determination, for you are bound to encounter obstacles upon the way. A third is realism, for you are unlikely to achieve anything if your decisions are based on wishful thinking. The most important, however, is the hardest to define. It is the quality which marks all successful leaders, be they managers, captains of sporting teams or military officers. It is the ability to win other people over to your cause and to get them to support you whole-heartedly. For this there is no handy recipe. Many successful leaders are eloquent, charismatic individuals, but just as many have a quieter, more self-effacing style. The way you win hearts and minds will depend on yourself; but you will only win them if you genuinely believe in what you are attempting to achieve and genuinely respect the hearts and minds you are trying to win.
Text © Jonathan Steffen
First published in Training Technology & Human Resources July 1999. Republished here in lightly edited form.View Archive