Running projects with no clear benefits to the individual can be a nightmare scenario for change managers. Here’s how to make bitter change more palatable.

“This is the stupidest idea I’ve ever heard.”

We had just announced a critical shift in the way our projects are catalogued. For years the business had been applying a numbering system that included year, cost center, project type and other critical information. With a glance at that number, documents could be quickly filed and invoices approved and allocated with lightning speed.

However, the numbering structure was inconsistent throughout the company and required significant manual work and system customization to support. There were considerable costs that would be unsustainable in a growing company.

No one cared. The new approach applied a sequential number to each project, removing all ‘information’ they used to accelerate processes. Stakeholders could only perceive the cost to them, and they were right. The potential benefit to the company did not compare with how much the new system would slow them down.

These types of changes are common. People have to learn new systems because the old one is no longer supported. New products and services demand new structures. Restructuring puts extra pressure on certain aspects of the business. Controls and regulation mean slower work.

Successful change management relies on clear stakeholder benefits. What do you do when there are none?

What’s the appeal for our stakeholders? How can we connect with their interests? Where is the ‘What’s In It For Me (WIIFM)?’ How many times have you attempted to produce WIIFM with statements like these?:

  • We are doing this for the good of the company
  • This will position us for rapid growth
  • We expect major savings for the company
  • This system is no longer supported so we have to change it

People don’t care about what’s necessary or good for the company until they understand how it relates to them. Change is personal. Until we connect it to the individual, we can’t set the stage for buy-in.

In situations with low WIIFM, engagement is critical. There are a few key approaches that set the stage for adoption when personal benefits are scarce:

1. Connect with a greater cause

A friend of mine told me how a leader tied a daunting ERP system implementation to the ability to save lives for clients dependent on their products. Every function in a business should link to customer outcomes. In times of change, helping employees understand how it will benefit the customer can generate support.

Linking to causes such as reducing waste, defending the environment and conducting ethical business have broad appeal as well. People want to know that their investment of time and energy has a positive impact for the greater good.

2. Tell the story

Stories beat data every time when it comes to influence. Consider the difference between these statements:

“Customers will receive our products 15% faster.”

“The Thompsons rely on our products arriving quickly. A one day delay in delivery can determine whether they are able to pay their staff that month.”

The choice is clear. Connect the change to your customers. Tell the story. Make it personal.

3. Have open dialogue

Provide as much information as you have. Detail helps people visualize how things will progress and what the future will look like. Then they can place themselves in the picture.

Welcome questions. There will be lots. When you don’t know the answers, say so. Then go find the answers. Let everyone know the answers as quickly as possible.

Ask stakeholders how the change might benefit them. You will encounter silence at first, but over time ideas may arise that surprise you.

If there is no immediate benefit to the individual, team or business unit, tell them that. Acknowledge that there will be costs (energy, time, stress) and let them know just how much their support is needed and appreciated. This must come from a credible, relevant leader. Keep people focused on the benefit to the customer or greater cause if possible.

4. Get them involved

Consider adding influential detractors to a special consultation group. Update them often. Ask for their input and tell them what you do with it. Consider making them testers or engaging them as Subject Matter Experts on the team. They may cause some disruption, but they have the potential to sway a larger group of stakeholders.

5. Repeat

Complex, difficult change keeps leaders and change teams fully occupied, but it’s critical to maintain the threads of connection, storytelling, open dialogue and involvement. They are not events. They are foundational elements to be repeated, reinforced and developed over the course of transition.

In the case of our project numbering change, the most powerful elements were dialogue and engagement. We listened and validated their concerns.

We did not challenge them. We did not offer solutions. We did not say “but…”. We did tell them everything we knew. Multiple times. We took action items and followed up. We shared with them a summary of all the issues raised and people were very appreciative of the evidence that they had been heard.

Their input and questions allowed us to respond with the detail they needed to begin the process of shifting current processes in preparation for the future state. We helped by developing reports providing much of the information they needed to support their processes.

Two of our biggest critics were asked to test out the new approach. I remember when Roberta declared the solution ‘adequate.’ From Roberta, this was very high praise! It was enough to convince others that they could manage with the new solution.

At the beginning of the project, resistance to the project numbering change was a top issue. We could not define any benefits for the individual, but it was a change that had to be made to support growth.

We gave stakeholders time to speak, complain, suggest and develop their own ideas with careful reflection and encouragement. In the course of dialogue stakeholders began wrapping their minds around what was coming, what it would mean, and how they would manage the change. They began to put themselves in the picture. By go-live the issue had faded into the background and did not arise at all when the change came into effect.

It was a significant lesson in the ability of individuals to adapt. Given sufficient information, time, a compelling story and an opportunity to talk it through with leaders, even the toughest issues can be conquered.


 This article was written by Jeff Skipper.

Jeff Skipper is a leader among change leaders. Fortune 500 companies that need to implement rapid change to reduce cost and drive profit while retaining their best people seek Jeff out. Professionals worldwide call upon Jeff’s insights and applications when it comes to executing strategy and transforming the way businesses engage and satisfy customers. Top ranking clients who have requested his help include IBM, AT&T, BP, Shell and Bayer.
Twitter: @jeffskipperinc