TWH#33: Write Simply, Change Effectively
"The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place." —George Bernard Shaw
One of my coaching clients, a Head of Engineering at his company, has been dealing with a small “re-org”. While supporting him, I again realized how organizational change is difficult but also how leaders are often concerned that it will rattle their people and affect their motivation.
While some time and stability are necessary for team growth and development, I find that concern to be often exaggerated. The competitive advantage of startups comes largely from being nimble and adaptable. Internal shapeshifting is critical for that. People are not necessarily resistant to change per se—they are resistant to change they don’t understand.
In this week’s post, I’ll delve into how to write well in the context of driving effective organizational change that people do understand—and buy into.
Why is organizational change so difficult?
Most of us generally dislike change, and feel threated by uncertainty. Old habits also die hard—and new ones are difficult to get going. Everyone has different needs, value systems, and mental models of the same objective reality. It’s difficult to get everybody on the same page.
Because of this, and despite best intentions and thorough planning, change often fails. While a solid plan is necessary, it is by no means sufficient. Without great execution, the best plan is worthless. This is true for all types of change, from picking a different technology all the way to managing a big merger or acquisition.
Great execution requires great clarity. And clarity is largely driven by how we communicate what’s happening—and why it’s happening. Written communication is an essential part of a broader communication strategy, yet so often overlooked.
The Foundations of Clear Writing
As much as I learn from reading great writing, I always try to go back to first principles. What are the basic building blocks of clear communication that drives effective change? For me, it’s three things:
It’s intentional. How you communicate changes must not be an afterthought or a nice-to-have. It is an integral part of their rollout, just like a product feature is not complete without tests (right?). Think through who’s going to be affected and how, and what the potential pitfalls can be. Intentional communication is proactive, not reactive.
It’s emotional. Not to be confused with weepy or wishy-washy. Tech tends to be very brainy. Reason, however, is insufficient because we’re not robots so cold, mechanical language alone won’t cut it. Change needs to appeal to the heart, too. Throw away the script, use your authentic voice, say why you believe this change matters, and people’s support will likely follow.
It’s empathetic. Communication always a sender and a receiver. Unfortunately, for many reasons, it’s easy for the sender to obsess about what they want to say, forgetting to contemplate how it will be received. Who’s your audience? What do they care about? Remember that you’re selling—you need them for the change to be successful. How can you make it as easy as possible for them to buy into it?
Part of my support to the client I mentioned earlier was giving feedback about their re-org communication plan. The content was great—there was just a bit too much of it, perhaps trying to cover all bases for fear of being misunderstood. The format itself compounded the issue, coming out as a few walls of text. The message was there but it wasn’t shining through.
The Practice of Clear Writing
Clear and effective writing is, above all, simple. If you’re on the receiving end of writing you don’t understand, even when you re-read it, odds are you’re not the problem. Keep that when you’re the one writing, and consider the following practices.
Kind, but firm
Your message must be clear, opinionated and unapologetic about the choices that had to be made. Pleasing everybody is both impossible and not the goal—effective change that moves the organization forward is. Remind yourself that you’re making the best possible decision with the information you have. Kindness is about being considerate, and the best way to do so is by respecting people’s intelligence and to honor their ability to adapt. Treat them like the smart adults they are.
Easy to parse
I’m known to be an ass about whitespacing and letting documents “breathe”. Might be OCD, but I believe it’s more about doing all I can to make the message really come through. Remember that you’re selling, not buying. When communicating a change, I find this simple 3-part structure works best:
TL;DR. Why should the “executive summary” be for executives only? Everyone’s time and attention is highly and equally valuable. A single narrative paragraph, no longer than 4-5 lines gives the reader the gist of what’s happening, without detail or nuance. It also helps someone decide whether this is relevant to them, and if they should continue reading.
Specifics. What are the details? What exactly is happening and when? Who’ll be impacted? This is where you put the meat in the executive summary’s bones. Be concise and to the point, though. Stick to the essentials, and respect the brain’s channel capacity.
FAQ. This is a nifty tricky I learned from Balaji Nageswaran, my former SVP Product at HelloFresh, long-time Amazonian, and a mentor of mine. What questions will likely arise from the readers? Anticipating their doubts and concerns is one of the most empathetic things you can do. It also helps you catch potential gaps in your plan. List all the relevant questions you can think of and preemptively answer them. People will thank you for almost reading their minds, and you’ll be less busy answering questions 1:1 later.
Defusing fear and anger
We’re wired to detect threats and rewards so no communication can be effective without taking those into account. Threats in particular lead to fear and anger responses, states of mind not conducive to assimilating change. The SCARF model, developed by David Rock, is helpful to avoid this. Based on neuroscience research, it stands for the five key “domains” that influence our behavior in social situations:
Status. Our relative importance to others.
Certainty. Our ability to predict the future.
Autonomy. Our sense of control over events.
Relatedness. How safe we feel with others.
Fairness. How fair we perceive the exchanges between people to be.
Given a draft of your message, you can use the SCARF model as a filter. Put yourself in the readers’ shoes and ask yourself how their sense of the five domains might be affected. For example, in a re-org:
Will some folks perceive a reduction in their autonomy or status?
Could people perceive this change as unfair in some way?
Are you framing it in terms they can relate to?
Does it create uncertainty in their minds?
The change itself is what it is, but the way you convey it makes a big difference. By gaining awareness of how your content and phrasing addresses these five domains, you stand a better chance of success.
Organizational change is hard, but inevitable. A lot of the difficulty comes from not building enough shared context with those who carry it out. As a leader, your job is only starting once you have a plan—execution is what makes or breaks it.
By being intentional and authentic in how you communicate; focusing less on what you say than on how others will perceive it; and by making your content easy to grasp, you go a long way in making your people more comfortable with change.
🙌🏽 Thank you for reading! Enjoyed this week’s edition? Have feedback on how I can make this more valuable to you? I’d love to hear it — just leave a comment below.
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