How to Make a Big Change Without Blowing Up Your Business

Whenever an organization rolls out a major change, clarity and alignment are essential. Without those two things all the best intentions amount to little more than heartburn and headaches.

As a leader responsible for a large company, I have experienced the difficulty of getting clarity and creating alignment with my team. In one instance, we shuttered more than a dozen division of our publishing operation and restructured the entire business.

But I’ve also found myself on the other side of things—outside of the leadership seat and in the role of observer. Only in this case people were making decisions about my brand!

Earlier this month the National Speakers Association announced a significant change to their name. They announced that they would adopt the name ‟Platform.”

They noted that their members do a lot more than public speaking and their initials are far from popular right now. I sympathize. “NSA” is tarnished brand, regardless of what you think of the federal government’s operations. The initials simply invoked the wrong feelings.

But, as many of you know, the one they adopted was already taken—by me. All of NSA’s reasons for picking the “Platform” brand made sense. It’s just that I’d already planted a flag on that word with my book, conference, and membership site. And many people in my audience let the NSA know.

Within a ten days—which is like light speed for a nonprofit organization—they’d reversed course and abandoned the name. I was extremely pleased that they came to this conclusion. The last thing I wanted was a conflict with an organization I have held in such high esteem over the years.

As the whole situation played out, I was reminded of five key steps for any organization before rolling out a major initiative. Each of these steps is designed to achieve either clarity or alignment. Both are essential if an organization wants to avoid a backlash to its proposed changes.

These apply to the NSA, of course, but they also apply to all of us seeking to lead in the world of social media, where everyone has a microphone and everyone is connected to everyone else.

  1. Determine what you need to communicate. This is the single most important step. You need to get crystal clear on your message. Distill it down to one sentence. What’s the headline? That’s all most people will take away anyway.

    Part of this step requires answering the why question. You need to provide the rationale. This where NSA got it right and wrong. They did a great job of communicating why their brand needed an update, and I’m sure we could all agree. But they didn’t explain why taking platform was the right course for their organization.

  2. Commit your message to writing—in advance. My introduction to the NSA rebrand came through watching a video recording of a public address, so I’m not sure how this worked beforehand inside their shop. But I always start by writing a press release, talking points, and FAQ document.

    Not only does this step bring tremendous clarity to my own thinking, it also enables me to enlist others and keeps me from having to formulate communication in the midst of a public relations storm.

  3. Secure alignment with your leadership team. It’s crucial that you give your key team members information, time to process, and space to discuss.

    It’s hard to overemphasize this step, and the importance increases with the magnitude of the change. Individuals may express disagreement, but they can still get behind the change if they feel like they’ve been heard. If they feel ignored, however, they may well work against the new initiative.

  4. Contact key stakeholders—personally. You cannot afford to surprise your key constituents. This is another area where NSA might have stumbled. In the blowback of the initial decision, it seemed as if there were key people in the dark about the change.

    It’s essential to enroll your key stakeholders, determine who will contact whom, and then start making visits or calls—in advance of the public announcement. The information should quietly cascade within the organization. Then take it to select VIPs outside the company before the public revelation.

    You’re doing more than communicating about the change. You’re also conveying your respect by informing your VIPs before you go public. Then, once you go public, they are able to say, ‟Yes, I knew about that change. They contacted me in advance of the announcement.”

  5. Go public through all available media channels. Now take it to the world via press releases, blog posts, and social media. This ensures you control the narrative. Without a narrative, critics will create their own. And that’s when things begin to unwind.

    Part of going public is staying public. Keep the channels open for public dialogue. Interviews, blog conversations, Twitter exchanges—they’re all key for managing the public response. The NSA did this well. When the backlash came, the leadership owned the problem, solicited responses, and were quick to respond.

No change is easy, especially big organizational changes like a restructure or a rebrand. But clarity and alignment through good communication are critical components of initiating major change without blowing up your business.

I’m eager to see what the NSA leadership team develops for their new brand. I want them to succeed. Though they stumbled on this recent initiative, I think they have the opportunity to achieve even greater clarity and alignment within their organization. This will serve them well as they serve their members and the world at large.

Question: What good and bad experiences have you had with major organizational change?

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