As a first-generation American, language has always been an important part of my life. English was my second of five languages — we spoke two languages at home and I studied the remaining three at school. Having lived in eight different cities (seven in the US), I’ve also been fascinated by how differently we can all speak the same language.
So naturally, when I attended the Change Management 2015 conference in Las Vegas, I noticed a recurring theme of language in the context of change management. How you approach a conversation, as well as the language and vehicles you use, can impact the success of getting your message across to your audience.
As Nelson Mandela once said, “If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.”
Understanding your audience and speaking their language will help you as you work on a specific change initiative. For example, if the leaders and sponsors of your initiative are concerned about speed and quality, then it is important to use that same language in discussions about how change management helps achieve those objectives.
While this approach is beneficial in the context of a specific change effort, it can also be helpful in talking about the overall concept of change management. Many change management professionals have experienced resistance from sponsors and leaders due to a lack of clear understanding about what change management is. Given this, we were fortunate to have a general session one morning dedicated to the topic of how to create a compelling conversation about change.
During this session, we were challenged to come up with a metaphor to explain change management using language that might resonate with a potential sponsor. Here are some of the ideas we came up with at our tables using the prompt: Change Management is like…
A Marathon – Change efforts are often long-term initiatives with goals requiring a great deal commitment, training, and preparation. Change agents are like the volunteers at the race, providing help along the way and working to improve the endurance and health of the organization.
A Fairy Tale – Fairy tales generally start in one place and end in another. There’s always a journey and some challenges along the way, but change management provides the cast of characters to help you get to “happily ever after.”
Climbing a Mountain – Change management provides the right tools and the right commitment to get to the top of the mountain. Once you reach the top, you can see the new vision more clearly. But then, you have to sustain the change on the way down the mountain to ensure that employees are continuing to work in new ways and that the change is fully adopted.
WD40 – Change management helps create a smooth transition and reduce the friction that often accompanies change.
Preparing Your Family for a Move – Change management helps you understand where you are going, and provides a plan to help your people get there. And with change agents guiding the journey, your family can enjoy happy dinner conversations.
A Personal Trainer – Change management provides coaching and guidance along the journey to overall fitness. You may experience some discomfort during the process, and you’re going to have to sweat; however, the trainer guides you through the work needed to prepare your people to achieve success.
Flying a Plane – Change management helps you clarify your destination, provides a suitcase full of tools to help you manage the transition, and offers the expertise to help you avoid or smooth out any turbulence that may be encountered along the way.
A Midwife – In this metaphor, the organization is the mother and the change is the baby. You may be able to deliver the baby on your own, but not without incurring additional risk. Change management can help avoid a c-section.
Water on a Waterslide – ‘You can get down the slide without it — but it’s gonna hurt’. Change management helps achieve speed of implementation with minimal friction.
As you can see, we had a lot of fun with this exercise, and the responses were as varied as our potential audiences might be. The key takeaway is to take the time to understand your audience and do your best to speak their language so that your message will resonate. And mixing in a little humor along the way can help minimize resistance and keep your audience engaged in the conversation.