Of hares and deer
Change communication in IT projects.
When you think of an IT project, you may have software packages, rollout data and test cases in mind. The project is set up, requirements are recorded and new processes are planned. Everything is timed, development is at a standstill and then someone asks: “Has anyone told the users about this yet?”
Unfortunately, this happens more often than one might think. IT projects are planned down to the smallest detail, but nobody thought about organisational change activities at the beginning. So a team is quickly set up to present the interim results and findings regularly.
“What´s in it for me?”
IT projects usually bring major innovations to the users. The replacement of hardware or software is still a rather small change, but even then, in addition to the actual training, it is important that the users recognise the benefits they gain from the innovations. Runs the computer faster now, is the memory larger or is the new software more user-friendly? In the back of one’ s mind the question “What’s in it for me?” (WIIFM) could be asked. So what does the user gain from participating in this change or even carrying it out on his or her own?
In addition to simple hardware and software changes, an IT project can also change entire processes or work cultures. For example, the user-friendly dispatch software fills in the address label itself, which makes the work step for the dispatch employee unnecessary, he or she now only has to monitor the process. Things become more exciting when, for example, a collaboration platform is introduced where employees previously sent files by email or met live for meetings.
For the first point, the intention is usually that these employees can share their work results with their colleagues at an early stage, even if they are not yet 100 percent done. But if someone has so far only ever shared finished work results with individual colleagues, this is a huge step for that person. Probably he or she will feel vulnerable when sharing unfinished work and not knowing exactly with whom.
Reasons such as saving time and money often speak for online meetings. Depending on the size of the company, it can take a while to get from one meeting to the next, and specialists from other locations cannot attend live regularly. But anyone who has ever held live meetings in the past faces challenges when planning and conducting online meetings. “How long should such a meeting last and how do I keep my participants happy” are just a few of the questions asked. For participants, on the other hand, another concern often arises: “What can I say and who is listening?”. While participants in a meeting room can look each other in the eyes, this is only possible to a limited extent in an online meeting and of course it has a completely different quality.
As you can see, concerns are definitely present in the users’ minds from the very beginning and therefore there is a need for communication. After all, the majority of users usually find the sticking points quickly by themselves, but not the “What’s in it for me?”
Change communication today
No matter which IT project I look at, most communication today takes place via mass mail. The “WIIFM” points are quickly captured, written down in a crisp text and sent to all stakeholders in an email. Occasionally there are one or two question and answer sessions, or a townhall meeting, but that’s it.
Differences in communication are made at most between the individual user groups, such as management, support and end users. The fact that knowledge and feelings can also be completely different within these groups is often overlooked. In a change process there are not just those who are convinced and those who need to be convinced.
The animal model
In Kurt Lewin’s change curve, someone who learns of a change goes through a shock, then rejection, then insight and acceptance, then a phase of trial and error, insight and finally the integration of the new. These phases have been incorporated into my animal model. It distinguishes four phases and describes the transition from one phase to the next:
- The hare in phase 1 is full of worry, it is in shock rigor or in flight mode. It asks itself questions like “Will I lose my job?”
- The sparrow in phase two is already one step ahead. Basically, it is opposed to changing its usual routine – because that’s what it is attached to. You recognise the sparrow by the statement: “We can’t change that, we’ve always done it this way”.
- In the third phase is the mouse, it is neither for nor against. It looks for the advantages, wants to know why it should be the one to support this change. It is the typical representative of the question: “What’s in it for me?”.
- And the deer in the fourth and last phase is finally convinced, it goes ahead and explains the advantages to all those who are not yet ready in the process.
The communication between hare and deer
The deer is the pioneer in the forest of change. It knows its way around, knows the advantages for each individual and also recognises the big picture behind it. It is convinced of the vision and supports it. It is important to breathe life into this vision. To do this, it sees its role as a communicator and brings the knowledge of the advantages out into the world, so that soon everyone will be as convinced as itself.
On the other hand, the hare is at the very beginning of change. It is concerned about very basic things like its job. Clear thinking is hardly possible, either its thoughts are rigidly in shock or it is planning for an emergency, in which it is accommodated in the cellar with supplies for several months or at least is a longtime client of the agency for labour.
Can you imagine what happens when these two talk to each other? It will be a complete disaster!
Deer: “Take a look at the great news.”
Hare: “WHAT??? Something new?”
Deer: “With the meeting software, even the specialists from Asia can now take part in our meetings.”
Hare: “From Asia? They are cheaper there anyway and will soon replace me. And the time difference. I can’t work when they work in Asia, I’m still on my way to work. My boss will certainly not like that for long. It just can’t be good…”
You see, the deer is so far away in his thoughts that it does not understand the problems of the hare. The deer talks about the possibilities, the hare recognises the problems. Successful communication about changes is thus hardly possible.
In the woods as in the company
In the forest of change, deer and hare can hardly talk to each other. In companies, however, this is common practice. Because in IT projects, it is mainly the advantages of change that are communicated. The curious are the ideal target group for this. But the worried and the doubters are not addressed.
The solution is a change of perspective. There will be no other communicators in a project than the convinced, the deer. The curious ones fiddle about for themselves or in small groups, and that doubters or anxious people take over the communication, you certainly don’t want that.
So the pioneers have to put themselves in the shoes of the individual phases – perhaps they have been there themselves at some point and it is not too difficult for them – and communicate in exactly the way the users need in the individual phases. They can take as a rule of thumb that communication is always most effective when it is done from the perspective of the following phase.
In this way, the deer tells the mouse about the advantages and shares the great vision. The mouse, already curiously puzzling, can often be quickly convinced of this. The mouse in turn spurs the scolding sparrow on to simply take a look at the new possibilities, it does this itself and it is quite interesting.
But what will cause many change experts a stomachache is that the worried ones will now have to be served from the perspective of the doubter. But don’t forget that your communication is not the only thing that happens during a project. The “corridor radio” is not to be neglected. And since sparrows are much louder than hares, communication in this direction happens practically without any action on your part. This makes communication with the doubters particularly worthwhile, however, because they have a direct influence on the group that follows.
Analyse the phases your stakeholders are in. Don’t communicate only for the tinkerers, who only need to be convinced of the advantages, but don’t overlook the important target group of doubters. This group is more demanding, but it has an incredible pulling effect on the group of the fearful.
Stephanie Selmer has published more posts in the t2informatik Blog, including
Strong companies do not only rely on new IT systems for their way into the future, but above all on their employees. Stephanie Selmer supports organisations in making changes, improving cooperation, achieving common goals and finding IT professionals. Her clients include medium-sized companies from all sectors who see digitalisation as an opportunity to empower their employees.