Communicating Change to Your Teams

Knowledge / Inspiration

Communicating Change to Your Teams

Product Direction
UXDX USA 2022

All great products start with a great team; and building a high performing team functions at it's best through effective communication.
In this talk, Mamuna will breakdown her communication strategies when it comes to introducing change within her HP teams. She will touch on:

  • The importance of focusing on the Why' (addressing the problem, change and implications)
  • Creating a clear plan and rollout
  • Understanding that everyone reacts differently; and
  • How to give and receive feedback

Thank you all for tuning in. My name is Mumuna Oladipo. And we'll be chatting today about communicating change for teams.

I picked this topic because change is constant. And we all know that product starts with having solid teams. To have solid teams they need to understand the landscape they're playing in, and how success will be measured, and beware of any important changes that would potentially impact their focus. So before I deep dive, I want to take a quick moment to introduce myself. If this is the first time we're meeting.

So as I mentioned, my name is Mumuna Oladipo, she/her pronouns, I've led a number of teams ranging from product management, product design, brand design, product marketing, and engineering. I've worked across a number of industries, entertainment, music tech, Gov tech, crowdfunding, and now e-commerce. So I currently work as VP of product at Shopify.

So as I worked on picking a topic for today, I wanted to be something that would be relevant to everyone here. So over the past two years, something we've all experienced in one way or another is change. I'm sure if I asked the room to raise their hands and provide some examples of a change that took place that was communicated well versus not so well. We have some pretty interesting stories. I personally have some stories about myself. But you know, that's for later. I find communication so fascinating. Because there are so many layers and approaches one has to consider when thinking about what they're going to say, to think about the size of the change, the group it's being communicated to, the currency, the team, the company, the market, the world.

So today, as I approach, sharing with you all, I'm sprinkling some nuggets of learnings, through my own personal experience, I hope that you'll be able to take the learnings, some of the tools and apply them to your own approach when you're managing to lead across teams. So with any communication, you want to make sure that you know exactly why you're saying what you're saying. You need to establish your objectives.

So it sounds like a no-brainer. But I cannot tell you how many times I want to tell a team a thing without taking this step. I got in front of the team. I started to ramble, I confused myself. Questions came up, I didn't know how to answer them. When it came to wrapping up, I had no idea how to bring it in. And my ending was awkward. We were all both staring at each other, all staring at each other. And it was not the way one would want to end a conversation like this. So you have to think about your goal here not just to share information, there's likely something, in particular, you're aiming to accomplish.

So you want to be clear on your outcomes. So you're clear on how the team will need to think about what you're saying. So you'll need to be able to say what you need to say in a way that they can digest it. So by thinking about your outcomes, you can start to think about how your team will determine the change will impact them, they'll consider, you should consider words of reassurance or support, or clarity that would help support your team further. You know you want to find natural pause points if it makes sense to allow for questions. Whether that's at the beginning or the end, you'll want to think through those things. And then you need to think about your different mediums, which we'll talk about a little later.

My recommendation here is that you'll want to try to keep your outcome to about two or three. If you're trying to communicate more, the message is likely bloated, and you're trying to accomplish too much at one time, like myself that went into it and had something like I don't know eight items to deliver on, your team is going to get lost as well.

So as you formalise your outcomes, the next thing you want to think about is your team. So you should have a strong understanding of your team's goals, their values, and understand how they interact. I spoke about this in other talks. But we don't want the first time people see you, to be in a conflict or in an unknown moment. You want to be sure that you're taking that time to develop relationships with different team members. You want to understand their motivations and goals, their communication styles, and the way you digest information is very different from the next person.

So it's important you place yourself in their issues. I remember at the start of COVID I was leading a team through many changes in a period of time. And I just tried to jam it all in one conversation. You know, at the time, I was super uncomfortable. I didn't feel like I had a strong grasp of myself. So I was talking to the team about layoffs, structural changes, changing focus for teams, and path for the future. We should get excited. I spoke for maybe 20 minutes straight.

Again, I had maybe eight objectives that I tried to capture. And in my mind it felt like the right thing to do at the time but where did I go wrong? If you said, considering the people that I was speaking to, you are correct. I did not consider anything. The team was in a very vulnerable state, with a lot of unknowns. And the team really didn't need one at that time to come up and just say things to them. They really wanted to see and understand them. And I didn't put myself in their shoes. Regrettably, I left everyone in the room with more questions and answers. I would have done things differently of course, in retrospect, the time had just ticked over a new function, I was just getting to know people on the team, and I had no idea how my messaging would land, I just kind of went out there to make sure that people knew what I was going to say.

And people knew about the change, I could kind of check the box. But, you know, ultimately, I probably would have done better to hold off on sharing the message too, I myself felt confident and comfortable in what I was delivering. And I truly understood what I was hoping others to get out of that message. And I had taken a moment to get to know the people on the team so that I knew maybe how to think about how they might perceive some of the changes I was communicating.

So don't be like me, take that time to reflect. If you know your team is resistant to change, you want to find ways to reassure them, you want to create familiarity and comfort in the change. If your team appreciates authenticity, you want to show up as yourself and offer that personal perspective, offer input into how you feel about the proposed changes, I feel like this one is a really important one, especially as a leader because sometimes people feel that you're detached from the change, or that you're just telling people what to do. And you really want to bring it closer to you and personalise it more.

So they feel like they have a connection with you, as you're communicating this change that you're really thinking about them. And then if you have a team that challenges change, you'll likely need to have more dedicated time outside of the space you're speaking in, to allow for questions in a deeper conversation. I note authenticity. You know you want to be clear and honest when communicating change to employees. Any extra sugar-coating or spin or jargon or you know feels like an attempt to hide something. And you'll gain trust when you use very simple, straightforward language. And you know, if they feel like you're being very upfront about what's changing, and why. You never want to talk down to your employees, you know, this makes people feel resentful and undervalued. And so you really want to make sure that your mindset isn't that people can't handle the truth, but they can't handle the truth. And it's up to you just to make it as straightforward and simple as possible. So people know how to respond in kind.

So my recommendation is to develop a set of questions and like bullets to help you sort of form your thoughts on the outcomes are things you wanted, the key messages you want to deliver on, and then the types of questions you potentially expect people to ask you. And then on top of that, what are the things that you think you would need to convey? Either to answer those questions in the moment or get ahead of it, and work those into your messaging.

So now, pointing back to the moment I got you, you know, where I was talking about being in front of the teams, and I started to spew information about, you know, all the changes and all that fun stuff. It wasn't a good one, I assure you. And when I reflect on that moment, the thing that I also lacked, there was a sense of vision.

You know, I didn't have a sense of, I hadn't connected the dots to say where all the changes, we're going to take the organisation. So when you because you don't want to be like me, are getting up there, you want to think about the organisation, you know, is what's yours communicating a part of a larger story that involves you in the business, you know, telling that story enables everyone to envision where the company needs to be, and also where it is currently, and how to transition there.

So communicating the story of your change can have a powerful effect, in illuminating that path, that vision so people can get excited, and they can see themselves working in that path. As you move into more granular detail. You want to understand the key parts of the message. So teams have a clear understanding of what the change is and how to impact their work. Your teams to be aligned and heading in the same direction. So you have less ambiguity in what's being done. I remember one thing I used to do is communicate change. I move on to say okay, great, teams get it, I've done my part.

But what I started to do is anytime I have a chance, I'm communicating. I will sort of start to look at the operations or how teams are outputting, a couple of weeks after, so it's hard to say, okay, are the teams communication changing? Are they tighter? Are they looser? Are we starting to see friction in the way that people are communicating? Are we starting to see more questions bubble up? Are people becoming detached? Are people leaving? What are some of the signs you can think of within your organisation that show that maybe people didn't get or understand or align with the change that you're communicating?

You know, when you're thinking about this, I think another important thing to consider is, that you need to tell your team what's in it for them, you have to explain the benefits of the change and what employees can expect. You know, things will be different. Yes, you want to acknowledge that. And everyone may not like the change, need to acknowledge that too. But there's generally an upside, hopefully. So you want to make sure you outline that as well. If there's no upside, then you should say that you need to admit that what's happening sucks. And you know, people may not be happy, and that you will do as much as possible to make sure that the change goes as smoothly as possible. And then you want to thank people for patience, cooperation for sticking through the shift, whatever it may be, but you want to make sure that they feel like you appreciate them the moment that you see them.

So a way to craft that vision is by answering a couple of questions. I like to think of, you know, how will the organisation operate once the change is made? What will employees or team experience as a result of making this necessary transition? Will there be tangible results? What do those results look like? Will there be a sense of accomplishments or that feel like, what will the rewards be both for individuals and the organisation as a whole? You know, I think making these answers, a part of your conversation is going to be central to how you communicate your change, your employees will have a better understanding of why the organisation is changing, and disruption and why changes are imminent. And it's critical to success, you'll help to clarify the motivations behind organisational change, which helps your team hopefully have a better mutual understanding of what's happening and helps everyone to work towards that shared vision.

Though, again, I repeat that a trap here is that you may feel the need to over-communicate in one sitting. So you really want to be mindful of how much information you can throw at one person at a time. And your goal is to think about, you know, what people truly need to understand in the moment, and that balance between feeling overwhelmed and confused versus having clarity that you can build on top of.

Our recommendation, you know, I've adopted here, so breakout, the who, what, where, when, why, and how, my message to make sure that I'm anticipating what people may be wondering. And then depending on the message, you know, they may not all be relevant, but I think it's important for you, whoever's communicating, to know that upfront. So you know not to speak about that, or you can speak directly to the team. So you have your pieces together. And you have to consider now the activities around getting your message out there. So you'll ask yourself, what is the best way to get your message across to your team? How can you share this communication so that you achieve your objectives?

So some considerations here. One, you have to think through the structure. So you'll need to consider here the order that you'll need to share your points. When you're speaking to the team. Will you have time at the end of the day for questions? Or will you let folks pop in with questions? Will you have anyone else with you? Or will you do it solo? I mean, think about the moment. Do you have a reoccurring team meeting where you'll easily just address everyone's asks, do you need to schedule a dedicated moment, if you schedule by dedicated moment? Does that cause panic on a team? Do you need to, you know, think about how to approach that in a meaningful way? Then there's timing. Is there a time of day or week that works better for your team or you to speak to? Is there a deadline for the communication? When you think about the channel. Is it a public slack message? Is it a video announcement? Is that a meeting so the communication is interactive? You know, it all depends on the size and scope of what you look to accomplish in that announcement.

So you want to really make sure that you are going through all of these bits. You know I wanted to throw in here a couple of titbits for you to consider just as you are thinking about changing communication because there are so many parts to it. So one thing is, as you're setting your change management plan, you really want to be clear about your expectations. So here the team feels very reassured. And they're quick to get on board when you paint that clear picture of exactly what's going to happen and when. If you have a step-by-step list, for example, then you can do it, if your employees respond well to graphics use them.

If people work better if you design a roadmap, for example, and like talking explicit detail through each point, you can do that as well, as long as people on your team have a strong sense of where you're going. And I found that in my role, I've had to employ different methods, I've used graphics, I've used step by step, and I've done a roadmap. And sometimes it's for the same message. It's just depending on the group I'm speaking with. And so that's my understanding of how my teams digest information. And so that's a great place. For a lot of you to start, when you're thinking about setting those expectations. Don't assume that by just saying that thing, people will get it.

One of my biggest mistakes was not starting with my managers. So I remember, I was getting in front of a room to announce a pretty large change in terms of the team focus. I put the meaning in the calendar randomly for everyone. Put them in a room, and I just started talking about the thing. Managers had no clue what I was talking about. And they were caught completely off guard. And I had no advocates in the room to help support my messaging or to help answer questions. And this was a big mistake. It is not a good feeling when everyone in the room is confused or caught off guard or in disagreement. It is nice when you have allies.

So especially in a distributed environment, you really want to make sure that you start your messaging with managers first. They will likely have questions and it will offer you a great feedback to help adjust your messaging. Again, it is not good to have everyone in the room confused. So you want to try to flush out those moments early, your managers have likely a good pulse on how your team is feeling, and how they would respond to a thing, and you can kind of flush that out early. You want them to be aligned with your managers to be aligned in the direction. So when you're in a room, you say it, they're like thumbs up, we get it, the team may have questions, managers can speak to some of these questions as well or speak to these answers.

But now when you leave the room, likely their team likes team meetings or one on one conversations, and managers and others can now have a conversation on your behalf. You know, communication is broken down, if your managers or others have to always call you into the room to be the one to communicate the thing. So you want to make sure that at the very start, you give that time and space, even if it's something that's urgent, it has to be done quickly, you know, a slack message, whatever it takes to give someone a heads up, it's just, it's worth it, it's worth it.

And then, you know, I think the term call to action gets turned around a lot. But you know, it is critical for outlining what needs to be done. And when I used to be the type of manager that would, you know, have a direct report. And I'd say okay, great, are aligned, you're going to deliver on this thing. And that's okay. See you soon. And I would not specify to them my expectation that maybe it'd be done by the end of the day, or the week or the month, whatever it may be. So this person takes their time. And I come to them and I say, hey, where's the thing? And they're like, well, I didn't prioritise, you gotta have all these other things in my mind. I'm like, what do you mean, we talked about it, it should be done by now.

I failed as a manager to communicate when I was expecting this thing to be done by the timeline. And so in this world, it's the same sort of thinking, it's critical for people to know if there is a thing that they are working towards here. So this change is going to take place by this date. So we have to have these major milestones hit, and communicate them. If it's like a, you know, bulleted list if you want to build out fonts because you have a presentation if you want to do whatever it takes. You want to make sure that there's an essential step here. I would also say that even if there isn't a strong call to action, I would try to create something so that teams feel like they are involved and engaged in the transition. They understand, they feel like they're making value towards the past. For the transition, they're just not bystanders who just things are just happening to them.

So we don't have one, I would consider creating one. And then cascading, all the things I've talked about all my references, from my personal experiences, you know, I mentioned about, you know, not speaking to managers, you know, it's really, when you're thinking about communication, it's best delivered from the top. So it could be your CEO could be a VP, whoever it is, your director, you know, you want to make sure that you all have the same messaging, you're saying the same thing.

So when you're now communicating, one person may communicate it in like a town hall, then someone else may follow up on an email, you might be in a Slack message or company, like whatever messaging app you may have. But you're going to have to do it in more than one place. And likely, it may be more than one person communicating. So you need to think about the plan here, it needs to cascade in a meaningful way. So people aren't confused by different words or different messages that are coming through by whoever is saying it. You also want to make sure that as you start to cascade down, there's a two-way opportunity here for communication.

So you want to think about how our teams ask questions, and how are they going to express concerns? How are they going to get answers and how do you know, these things help to build trust further. So you want it to be personal, you want to feel like it's executed correctly, you want them to feel like, hey, we're all in this together.

So allow your team to ask questions, you want to address them clearly. And honestly, you know, you want to really just come across as authentic. And so as you have different leaders, or if it's you, and you're using different mediums, make sure there's consistency, but it matches the medium you're communicating to. And with that, we all acknowledge that change is hard. But even harder is developing a plan on how to communicate the change. So not overwhelmed or discouraged your teams. After the initial communication of change, you want to make sure that you keep communicating, and be prepared to communicate it not just once but again and again and again, throughout the process. You want to restate a vision, you want to retell the story.

I have learned multiple times that people oftentimes won't get it the first time. And the more you communicate it, the more they hear, and see something that could be interesting or different to them that they may want to ask you about.

So make the time and space for your team to digest it in a meaningful way. Because once everyone is aligned, you can do exciting things. Your organisation will be motivated, they're equipped to help you affect that change. And you know, I think, you know, individuals make change every day. Organisations shift gears and become increasingly successful as a result, your communication strategy can play an important role in enabling that transformation, for lasting impact.

So I hope you're able to take some of these nuggets and apply them to your own skills today. Thank you.

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