Preparing for a talk with the leader of a large non-profit organization recently, I noted three questions to ask her. After decades of  asking these questions in organizations,  I know how central they are.

The 3 Questions

  1. What is changing?
  2. What will actually be different because of the change?
  3. Who’s going to lose what?

Here is why they are so important:

1. What is changing?

Organizations often undertake changes that no one can describe very clearly. “What’s changing?” we ask. “We’re changing the entire way we manufacture our product.” Or, “We’re changing the way we deliver our services.” Or, “It is time to rethink the way that we go to market competitively and differentiate ourselves from the other niche players in our industry.”

The problem is that these answers convey a very unclear picture of the change to those who must make it work. It is often true that at an early stage in the process there is only a vague idea of what, specifically, is going to have to change. The planners know only that there needs to be change in response to some threatening presence or some great opportunity.

Until the leaders of the change can not only explain it clearly, but do so in a brief statement, they will not be able to get their people to buy into the change. Longer explanations and justifications will be made, but it is the concise statement that will be the core of people’s understanding. So the first thing to check is whether there is a short statement describing and justifying the intended change, one that doesn’t use jargon.

A successful leader is one who can take a complex change and reduce it to a statement that is readily comprehensible to those who have to make the change work. The statement itself needs to express the understanding and intention of the leader.

Make sure that the statement ties the change to the existing situation that makes the change important. Sell the problem before you try to sell the solution. Don’t try to make a change to meet a challenge, solve a problem, or seize an opportunity until you establish this in people’s minds.

2. What will actually be different because of the change?

Explaining the what and why of the change is essential, but it is not enough. We often go into organizations where a change initiative is well underway, and ask what will be different when the change is completed—and no one can answer the question.

Many change projects are designed and launched from a high level in the organization and the planning is unrelated to the everyday operational details. The decision-makers often are unaware of how changes will actually make anyone’s life, job or function different. Yet that is what people need to know before they can embrace and support a change.

Leaders find this frustrating. A change may be very real to the leader, but those who must implement it may see it as abstract and vague until actual differences become clear.

The drive to make those differences clear should be an important priority on the planners’ list of priorities. If the differences cannot be spelled out at this time, then tell people how and when they will be explained. If you miss that date, explain why and give a new date. The thing to remember: Say what you’ll do and do what you say.

3. Who’s going to lose what?

The previous two questions, as important as they are, concern the change—the shift in the situation. The transition—the psychological reorientation that people must go through to make the change work—does not start with a new situation. It starts when people can acknowledge and let go of their old situation. Endings come first; you can’t do something new until you have let go of what you are currently doing. Even the transitions that come from good changes begin with losses of some sort.

You can’t separate change management from transition management until you have asked “What will we no longer be doing?” “Who will lose what?” Some clients resist asking that question. “That’s negative.” “We want to be positive about this change.” “We don’t want to be putting ideas about losses into their heads.”

Transition management is based on the idea that the best way to support people in transition is to affirm their experience and to help them deal with it. It is understanding how the world looks to them and using that as the starting point in your dealings with them. If  you deny endings and losses you are sowing the seeds of mistrust.

Most communication consists of listening rather than speaking. You open the door to the transitions if the change is to work. Issues are brought onto the table, where you build trust and understanding, and give people the tools they need to move forward. When you speak to where people actually are rather than telling them where they ought to be, you bring them along with you.

That is why three questions are so important in a time of change:

  1. What is changing?
  2. What will be different because of the change?
  3. Who’s going to lose what?

You will not only create a climate of listening which reassures people and defuses opposition; information can be generated that you may not know yet.

And, yes, you are in transition too.

— Susan

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