How Would They Know?

The local housing authority official was defending his agency’s procedure for implementing a change in utility payments and rent for low income tenants. The tenants had a very different story to share. This frustrated community organizer bluntly asked: how would they have known this change had been made?

The residents did not understand how the change was made, whether they had received an adjustment, or if they had been treated fairly in this process. Nothing was transparent or clearly communicated.

As a novice business owner navigating taxation regulations for the first time, I set up a state tax account I did not need. Recognizing the error, I quickly called the state office and was instructed in how to remedy the situation at the end of the tax year. When I dutifully pulled the recommended form from the state website I recognized immediately that nothing about the form’s title or its questions seemed relevant to my situation. This time when I called the tax office customer service, I got a person who either listened better or had more knowledge of her agency’s procedures. She simply hit the delete button to cancel the account.

These two experiences teach much about why changes in policies and practices create resistance and often fail in implementation. As another community organizer observed about the housing policies and practices we were trying to decode, they were written for “the suits”. They were communicating for their purpose and out of their own mindset—not for the people most affected by the change.

What we all want, whether we are public housing residents or well-educated business people is for someone to tell us what any change will mean for us in our specific situation. Why is not as important as what it will mean to me.

If we could autopsy most failed change initiatives, we would probably find the root cause for failure is a failure to communicate effectively with each person affected by the change. Relying on impersonal letters, automated websites and other expedient forms of communication will only slow down the change process. And perhaps most important, deprive the change leaders of any useful feedback that could lead to adjustments in the change initiative that better accommodate many different situations.

How would they know? It is a very important question for change leaders. How would the people we hope to lead, the people who do not understand our reasoning or choices, the people whose lives we are changing, ever know what the change requires of them unless we get out of our own heads and into their heads and hearts?