A challenging task in management is achieving team alignment during a transition. In both fast- and slow-moving businesses, change can be punishing and it is hard to redirect energy to new problems and keep teams engaged in the process. Fast-moving businesses change too fast for comfort with the pace, and slow-moving organisations make people too comfortable to change. Investing in a smooth transition makes change easier and leads to better team alignment and a happier organisation.
A “transition” here could be anything from a change in strategic direction to a new role or responsibilities, growing the team, attracting more public scrutiny, raising money, having new investors on the register, receiving results of new research, new rules and regulations…the list is endless. Anything that changes in business is a transition, and the more effort you put in upfront, the faster and smoother the transition. Your team will get to the desired end-state faster and with less stress.
For brevity, I assume that you know what team alignment is and why we care, but if not, a simple overview of the benefits can be found in this blog post here. Alternatively — there’s a Dilbert cartoon for that:
Invest in good transitions
To get a good transition there are four things that need to happen:
- Planning, instruction, and guidance
- Remove the training wheels
The result of this process is good team alignment on the new project. I only have space to address Priming in detail here, but I will cover all four in time.
Priming is technically a psychological phenomenon. Someone who has been “primed” with a stimulus is more likely to respond favourably to that stimulus later. Imagine that you are hungry and I show you a picture of peanuts, then five minutes later I offer you a choice of peanuts or a sandwich. You are more likely to choose the peanuts because you have already been thinking about them. Priming is incredibly common in branding — it’s why you see Apple Macbooks and Ford Mustangs in movies. It’s called “brand recognition” there, but it’s the same thing. Basically, stimuli that are familiar to us are easier to approach and interact with.
In a business context, Priming should be used to build familiarity with changes that may bring stress and discomfort. Talk about the changes in advance, explain what is happening and why and — most critically — discuss how people might feelandwhat sort of problems they might run intoduring this transition.
Depending on your role it might be difficult to envisage how priming can work at your level of responsibility. I’ll give three examples below:
Priming in real life
The most obvious time to use Priming is when a team changes direction, structure, function, or purpose. Imagine that a team used to work on project X but is now required to work on (very different) project Y instead. People can feel stressed in several different ways:
- Important projects that they contributed to are now no longer in development
- Resources are being allocated away from things that they previously believed were important
- They have been “replaced” on a project by other people
- Valued colleagues and friends are moving to different teams, or new people are coming in
- The working environment/ team dynamic is changing
- People lose the feeling of mastery moving from a successful workflow to one that is nascent and less well defined
- (this list can get much longer if you think about it for a bit)
This rightfully results in lower team alignment, more stress, and feeling like the team is pulling in many different directions at once. Getting the transition right makes it much easier for people to pick up the new stream of work.
The reason Why is all-important here. People are losing things that they created, and starting again on something that they don’t understand and potentially don’t care about. The very first step — even before talking about the actual change — is to start explaining Why change is necessary. Outline the circumstances that are driving the change. In presenting this information, I always use the format:
the past -> new information -> the future -> the change
This approach is very effective because it gives people a narrative and shows where they fit in the story. It provides direction and purpose. I’ll give you a real-life example from a transition I’m working on right now:
“In (the past), we had a goal of providing news coverage for every company in the world and created content with the goal of the broadest coverage. Now that we’ve achieved that goal, we’re finding that we now actually have too much coverage and it is crowding our channels (new information/ the problem). In ( the future), we need our content to be more relevant and actually a bit more scarce and higher value. One of the most obvious ways we can think of improving this at the moment is by _________ (the possible change).”
That’s how I did it. In practice, Priming conversations should take much longer. For larger changes, you should even have three or four conversations, spread out over time as the transition approaches. Here is how they might look:
Change in team direction or workflow
Start simply by explaining why the change is necessary. If you’re in the position of making the decision to change, you are typically in a position of authority. You will (should!) have much more context than the people working with you who will be carrying out the changes.
a) “As you know, we’ve been doing Project X so far, with [these results] which have been [good or bad]. What we’ve found is that [additional information has arisen] which has highlighted [promising new opportunities]. We really need to start working on [Project Y] now to get [Desired Result] which is especially important now because [reasons]. The reason that [this team] has been selected is that we have [insert true reason here] and we’re in the best position to start soon. If we succeed, customers/the business will have [outcome] which will lead to [benefits for the thing that we care about]”.
note: You need to be flexible enough to reframe this conversation based on the context. Obviously, if The Roof Is On Fire, it will come across false and overly corporate to present firefighting as “promising new opportunities”. The general format of “the past -> new information -> the future -> the change” works well, but choose your words to fit the context. Prime the team for possible changes
b) “There are a couple of problems that we’re likely to run into. Firstly; we haven’t done this before. Ideally, we’ll be able to get the answers to the big unknowns before we proceed with major initiatives. However, we might have to make a judgement call on a few things and be willing to adjust quickly as we learn more. As it’s a new project, it seems likely that it’ll be more important than usual to measure what we’re doing, as we need to know if our work is actually having the impact we want. “
c) “We might make mistakes. Despite using our best judgement on a solution, we might find that it doesn’t work because of some larger underlying problems we weren’t aware of. Working on this project might be different because it overlaps with another team’s responsibilities more than we’re used to. They might feel proprietary about Problem Y because they’ve done some work on it already. We might have to put some effort into keeping them up to date so that they feel like their baby is in good hands. That’s something we’ll have to keep an eye on as we learn new things and invest more time into this project.”
d) “does anyone have any thoughts or questions?”
Opening the floor for discussion is crucial. This is what lets people clarify concerns and misunderstandings. This is how a team builds familiarity and confidence with the transition you are describing.
Priming in a dynamic environment is really hard to describe in scenarios because there’s infinite nuance in the real world, but hopefully, this illustrates the concept of what I am talking about. Priming improves resilience and openness to change by teaching people about prospective changes and problems in advance.
Here is another example of a different kind of transition, which might affect an executive team:
A new investor has joined the register of the company where you are a senior executive. This investor is now the largest single shareholder, although they don’t have a majority. Their holding gives them substantial influence in choosing the directors who can appoint/remove key executives, and could indirectly cause a change in business strategy.
The transition here is that the CEO and executive team have no choice but to engage with this new investor. They may lose some of their ability to steer the ship according to their own judgement, which could lead to a drastic change in perceived freedom to operate and execute.
The way I would present this transition conversation is:
Improve team alignment by providing context on the transition
a) “These individuals have become large shareholders of the company, which will give them a substantial amount of say in the way the business is run. While nothing is changing at the moment and they have made no requests, we might find that they want to see a change in direction in the business.”
b) “They might, for example, want to see a greater focus on paying out cashflow or a clearer path to profitability and ROI on new projects. Two of our major initiatives in the past few years haven’t seen the results we expected when we committed funding to them. It’s unlikely but possible that they might also seek to change directors and the executive teams. Activist shareholder campaigns often demand higher shareholder returns, and our investors might want less reinvestment and higher dividend payments. Now, they might also be perfectly happy with how the company performs, but it seems likely that we will need to spend more time managing their expectations and building a relationship with our investors.”
Priming the team for possible changes
c) “If that’s true, we’ll probably have to get better at getting buy-in from stakeholders before we commit to large projects. Shareholders might also want more contact with management, which could add increased overhead and necessitate more transparency. I am guessing, but it will probably be increasingly important that our investors understand our strategy and what we are doing. We need to make sure we are communicating our strategy clearly and understandably. We also need to listen to our shareholders, understand their concerns and make sure that we are addressing them well.”
d) “The other thing I would add is that we don’t have a monopoly on ideas. We might even find that investors with a strong interest in our business can bring new insights to the table. All things considered, it’s not clear that we need to take any action just yet. Still, I would like everything to think about this — maybe I’m wrong on some things or I haven’t fully understood all of the nuances of this news. Now that we’re aware of the changes that could happen, we will be in a much better position to respond when we need to. “
d) “Does anyone have any questions, or any thoughts or observations?”
Again, that’s where the first conversation should end. You’ve talked through what event is happening and given some examples of a laundry list of possible changes that could arise. The conversation is sufficiently vague — and it does not end with concrete changes — that people are less likely to feel threatened by it.
By Priming, you are creating a baseline for understanding that lets people more easily assimilate later information as it arises. For example — when you get that first letter from your investors, demanding that you cut costs and stop spending on [perceived wasteful project X], people will be familiar with the threat because you’ve already discussed it at length. This familiarity allows for faster responses — and better team alignment on how to respond — with lower stress. Plus, people have been thinking about the problem and there are probably ideas in the pipeline already.
Priming can also work the opposite way, by familiarising people with opportunities and the potential to have an impact. This can be powerful for getting a team motivated and excited by new opportunities. Depending on the organisation, my view is that you should Prime both the opportunities and the problems. A balance of both is required to be an effective manager. People will not follow untamed pessimism, and unbridled optimism causes more problems than it solves.
A final note on Priming — the leader of the team needs to do it. Leaders generally have a clearer view of the big picture across teams and business functions. It’s very difficult to use Priming in a team if your view conflicts with the manager.
Food for thought.