It's the job of communications pros to help people visualize the change they don't see
Long ago, Bob Dylan warned us that "the times, they are a-changin'. ... The slow ones now will later be fast. ... The first ones now will later be last." Today change comes at us faster than ever. Changes in markets, consumer tastes, tech, communication, and even politics that once took decades now happen in months or even weeks. This monthly column is about change - nerve-wracking, gut-wrenching, make-you-or-break-you change. We'll look at organizations that have survived and exploited change, as well as those that have been felled by it. And we will pay particular attention to communicating about change, both internally and externally.
Anticipating, understanding, accepting, managing, embracing, and manipulating change are very hard. But communicating about it can be harder. Communicating about change requires imagination and visualization - right brain functions that can be difficult for many. And it can be particularly hard for communicators who are often, by nature, explainers - linear thinkers who help people connect the dots.
In 1995, Bill Gates introduced Windows 95, a product he knew would change our world. Despite the success of its predecessor, Windows 3.0, consumers could not imagine how this new version with Internet Explorer would connect them to the web and how myriad services could be seamlessly integrated into a single platform. But Gates didn't try to connect the dots. Instead, he launched the largest ad blitz ever seen - $300 million - that described his brave new world and its promise to change our lives. (He wanted to use REM's It's The End of the World As We Know It, but had to settle for the Stones' Start Me Up.)
Not everyone was overwhelmed. The Washington Post wrote, "Those customers expecting Windows 95 to be a great technological leap forward may be disappointed." An IBM spokesman sniffed, "Microsoft is delivering the same features we [did] seven years ago.
We're moving on ... business as usual here." Good call. Gates recognized that the age of personal computing had truly arrived. His genius was grasping how to help the old world visualize the new one and link it inextricably to his product. He realized that communication about change must be descriptive and spatial, not linear. Windows 95 was as much a communications breakthrough as it was a technological one.
Communicators have to help people see, visualize, and imagine change before they can be expected to understand and embrace it. That's a tall order. When combined with all the normal resistance to change - fear, inertia, bureaucracy - it's easy to see why major organizational change is as likely to result in abject failure as in stunning success.
Dylan was right. Things have "a-changed." If you doubt it, consider that this troubadour of Greenwich Village coffee houses has released his latest CD exclusively through Starbucks. Don't forget your latte with that. Extra soy.
- Greg Schneiders is a founding partner of Prime Group, a consultancy that specializes in helping clients understand, plan, and execute change. Contact him at Greg@primegroupllc.com.