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University of Massachusetts Amherst

Family Business Center

Change: It's About Communication

by Shel Horowitz

Four local consultants, most of them well known to the Family Business Center, gathered at the Center's April meeting to address a crucial question: How do organizations face change? Laurie Breitner, Peter Zimmer, Ingrid Bredenberg, and Paul Lipke all took turns at bat, and these are all essentially excerpts of direct quotes. I've left the quote marks off for readability.

Zimmer: The dinosaur is either set in your ways, competent in your ways, or resistant to change. People don't wake up one day and say hey, I'd like to change. They want to stay in that comfort zone.

First generation businesses are more adaptable. They're not as well poised and not as sure of what they're going to do to be successful. That gives them a bit of aggressiveness. As they get more successful, it's a good time to look at family dynamics, as the next generation comes in.

One of the most significant things that helps business change is the need for technology: new phone, computer systems.

I'd rather think in terms of institutionalizing change, rather than saying how do we evaluate when it's time to change. You have to incorporate the notion of continuous improvement. Rely on people within your business that you trust. Make that part of a process that's expected, so people look forward to change.

  • Before you contemplate change, evaluate where the problem is. don't change for change's sake.
  • Consider the range of possible solutions, and consider the cost of implementation
  • Before you engage in the change, determine the criteria to evaluate the change
  • Come out with something that's logical and makes sense

Who's afraid: if it's the department head, then it just stops. If the person heading the change can't convey it in a positive way, it makes the fear normal instead of abnormal. You want to present urgency in a positive way. If you're too urgent, you'll have too narrow a scope of choices. If you look at change as a regular form of business, you're going to be less urgent.

Bredenberg: One of the resources that I use is storytelling: creating the future is about how a leader tells a story, or better yet, engages people in creating a new story.

A young woman in business was frustrated; every time she would solve a problem, two more would emerge. Her mother took her into the kitchen, put on three pots: some carrots, an egg, some ground coffee. She sat at the table and waited 20 minutes while the water boiled. She took out the carrots and the egg, and poured her daughter a cup of coffee. The carrot had become wilted and soft. The interior of the egg was hard. And then the daughter took the coffee, and she smiled, and she drank it. Each of these faced the same adversity, boiling water. Which one are you? Do you become soft, hard, or release your fragrance and be transformed?

So stories can touch people in their emotions. At the emotional level is where people will change. They need to be touched there. So helping leaders tell their stories, transform at the emotional level, re-engage, is very important.

Three tools:

  • Stories
  • Assessments—help people look in the mirror and appreciate their strengths, understand their liabilities, and get strategic about how to make it happen.
  • Large-group story telling, crafting conversations. Change is external, transformation is from within.

Once they understand the benefits of changing and the consequences of not changing, let them have ownership. Fear is an emotion, and people respond to it differently. Sometimes by helping them name their fears and getting creative about how to address these -- you've got to begin any change by ending something. Before you can get to that new destination, you're going to be wandering in the wilderness, and that is uncomfortable. Some will love the adventure, but others will. have different feelings. Then start to tell the new stories.

Lipke: Next time you are pushing change and ask "have you thought of" or "why don't you…" -- recognize those are truly an offense-defense questions, they say, "please justify yourself," and they embed an implied answer, they limit response to "yes" or "no" and say, "do it my way." Instead, try asking, "what are all the ways we can think of to make progress on this issue?" Try and reframe a challenge into a shared conversation with as many stakeholders as are relevant.

A concrete local example: the state cut uninsured healthcare funds, so Cooley Dickinson hospital needed a "retail" effort to make up the shortfall. They asked a diverse group, and paid attention to their values, and as a result, formed an alliance with Dean's Beans to brand "Way Cooley Coffee." the hospital's profits fund uninsured healthcare. Dean's Beans' profits fund "people-centered development in the coffeelands", and there are obvious marketing advantages to both. They've gotten national and local press. The hospital is lowering its costs, and you have this marriage. They're closing the loop on the energy and materials cycle all the way around, cause the beans are roasted using energy from the hospital's waste wood chip powered heating and cooling system, and the waste is composted on local farms.

When you go to the people you usually go to to solve the problem, you're having the same conversations again and again. So we bring in those unconventional stakeholders who have a completely different perspective. Our larger mission is to help business and organizations deal with the larger problems, to bring in those other perspectives. It used to be we looked to government to solve those problems. But they're too big for any one entity, and they happen faster than government can solve them, so you need a bigger conversation.

Ask "What are the community's or company's key larger social and environmental concerns, and how can I marry, in a deep way, a solution to those problems with our strengths and resources?"

We all have something called change logic, a way of thinking about change. If you practice management-style communication and they want "storytelling," they're not going to hear you.
The question you can always ask safely: "When you experienced change in the past, what did it take to make a success? Do that with a number of stakeholders, and you get a series of benchmarks of what they think they need.

Breitner: Often business owners look for help when efforts to make change falter or fail. Here are four common mistakes to avoid. First, be sure to communicate your vision - your company’s destination. Employees want to help, but don't always understand your goal. Once you have a clearly communicated destination, make a plan, ideally with measurable goals and milestones.

Business owners sometimes fail to engage their employees. Listen to their ideas of how to achieve [the vision] and take action on them. People on the front lines have really good ideas of what can be done. When you involve employees, you get two benefits: you get their good ideas, and you reduce their resistance. People don't resist their own ideas.

Finally, communicate your vision, plans and progress to every employee. [When leaders don't communicate, employees] will create stories. I've never seen employees create too optimistic a story. [Instead, their worst fears dominate and] their stories focus on negative outcomes. As an example, she observed a situation where an employee incorrectly imagined that change would eliminate her position; negative self-talk was a serious roadblock to internal change, even though that perception] wasn't close to correct. [In situations when face-to-face communication isn’t possible,] find some method that is certain to reach all employees. For example, use pay stubs with a bulleted list printed on the stub. Put the information on a web page and send a company-wide e-mail directing people to the page.

When employees resist change, it’s possible that they’re not on board, because they don’t see the cost of inaction. Let them discuss and even experience the pain of what they're doing now - the consequences of not acting. Change occurs when the pain of inaction outweighs the fear of change.

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