Transforming? Take two pain pills and call me in the morning

Among many change and transformation assignments I’ve had the pleasure of working on, I observe a consistent pattern among leaders and sponsors. In their genuine commitment, enthusiasm and passion for their change, they tend to be overwhelmingly positive about their initiatives – a positivity that can border on gushing in the most extreme cases of what I call the “cheerleader effect”. This is particularly pervasive among technology change projects.

While this relentless positivity is admirable, it is often quite erosive to achieving success in change communication.

Daryl Conner describes this phenomenon best in his seminal book Managing at the Speed of Change in which he challenges us to understand that “orchestrating pain messages throughout an institution is the first step in developing organizational change.”

Last week, I had an opportunity to explore this seemingly counterintuitive advice with Daryl at his exceptional Raising Your Game workshop in Atlanta. It was helpful to wrestle through the importance of promoting pain messages, which bumps up squarely against the natural gravitational pull of organizations, which normally seek to minimize and avoid pain at all cost.

Daryl’s counsel was that in cases of major transformation, pain is the essential ingredient, and must be the central lifeblood of change communications messages. “You want people trapped between fear and hope”, he counseled. This is central to his overall change model that is rooted in the basic tenet that for people to shift profoundly, the cost of staying where they are has to be greater than the cost of changing. If this is not the case, they will constantly revert back to the status quo, and sustainable change and transformation to a new state will be impossible.

Acknowledging the importance of pain messages requires a special brand of compassionate courage on the part of change leaders and communicators. It’s not easy to talk about pain, and it is fundamentally contrary to the established patterns and social norms of organizational culture and communication. Yet transformation is, of course, by definition fundamentally contrary to established norms.

This refreshing perspective bears out in my experience working on transformation projects – change leaders and communicators generate much better and more sustainable results to the extent that they can tolerate the discomfort of being matter-of-fact in describing the pain of the current state as the indispensable ingredient to shifting forward into change. This can be done most effectively by moving beyond words, and communicating through behaviours, symbols and visuals. For example, we have had success through a “hello, goodbye” style of video which illustrates the limitations of a current IT system quite blatantly in order to produce the raw energy to get engaged with a transformation.

Daryl Conner’s starkly pragmatic but insightful assessment of the currency of change rings true: “Accept that you will either pay for getting what you want or you will pay for not getting what you want, and the payments may come early or late – but change is expensive, and you will pay.”