Virga and transformation: managing change effectively requires more than a top-down approach
In the science of meteorology, virga is an observable column of precipitation falling from a cloud that evaporates into mist before the water can reach the ground. When traveling through arid lands, water can mean the difference between life and a disaster. Running out of water can amount to the ultimate failure in planning. As you can imagine, it's heartbreaking looking up to the sky for desperately needed aid only to watch as the rainfall fails to come down to earth.
I will forgive you if you're now asking: what the heck does this have to do with organizational change management and transforming government?
Bear with me for a moment because this odd weather phenomenon offers an outstanding metaphor for one of the most common and heartbreaking ways for well-intentioned project teams to turn a program pear-shaped.
Most transformational endeavors or change-management plans start with the best of intentions. But, unfortunately — like a virga in the desert — the essence of the change never reaches the people on the ground. It's a simple but incredibly stubborn problem. Change decreed from the top usually has no trouble getting enacted — but change led from the ground can be embraced.
To be effective, change leaders have to build trust so that others will follow. Ultimately, the only way to effect lasting change is to win people over to a shared understanding that the change is both important and necessary. It's one of those unmistakable lessons spelled out in countless case studies, but it bears repeating and remembering that change only "sticks" when it's made meaningful for those impacted.
Sounds simple right?
Considerations to emphasize so teams and stakeholders can embrace change:
Earn trust – Trust is earned and often requires vulnerability. As change leaders, we must be willing to say the hard things -- to share the reality of why change is necessary. Those we ask to come with us on a change journey will undoubtedly know if we are not sincere.
Define what is necessary – People are more willing to change when they understand why change is essential. Like the desert virga, if the information never reaches the ground, we should not expect the support for change to grow. Change leaders should speak clearly and honestly:
The benefits of this are. . .
What this means for you is . . .
Why this matters is . . .
Make the change meaningful – In change management, the term, what's in it for me (WIIFM) is standard. As change leaders, we should think about — and express — what's in it for them (WIIFT), or collectively what's in it for us (WIIFU).
Effective change managers tackle this problem by accounting for and considering the perspective of the impacted teams and stakeholders — keeping the specifics of how the change benefits the affected groups, individual stakeholders, and teams. It is not enough to manage change; we must influence, motivate, and enable others to lead them through change.
An excellent place to start is setting out to ensure that our "rain" is reaching those on the ground.