In Change Management – Questions are a Gift

Every workplace transformation project I have ever worked on involved the compilation of a series of Frequently Asked Questions – or FAQs as they are lovingly referred to! They are considered essential to ensure that everyone (including the project delivery team) can answer questions raised by anyone involved in the change.

The process typically starts with a list of questions that everyone wants to know the answers to – how things are going to work, where to find things, why we are doing things etc. – and the project team sets about writing their own version of the answers, specific to their programme. It usually takes a while – because not all workplace solutions have been decided upon at the time when the FAQ list is first needed.

Largely that’s okay, because the list will grow as more questions are raised, and over time it becomes more comprehensive. Guessing answers or saying what we think the answer should be is a dangerous business – its unwise to raise expectations only to dash them later. It damages integrity and threatens the trust that we are trying to build with those going through the change.

Does anyone read FAQs?

Having spent many happy hours helping project teams to compile their FAQs and getting them published (either on an intranet or in hard copy) – we often find that people continue to ask the questions that are already in the FAQ list. Clearly people either don’t know the list exists, or don’t have the time or the desire to seek out the answers for themselves. And as anyone involved in delivering change knows – people often need to have their questions answered several times before the message is received.

Does that mean we shouldn’t bother compiling the list? It is after all time consuming in terms of resources and effort. In my experience, this isn’t a good reason for setting aside the FAQ idea. If nothing else it is an excellent discipline for achieving clarity and consistency about solutions, rationale, methods of operating etc. among the project delivery team. Without a robust set of authoritative answers, project teams can give inconsistent answers when asked a whole variety of questions.

The FAQ is also a good way of sharing the answers with different workstream groups within the project team – so the IT experts understand how the catering offer is going to work; the FM experts understand how the Wi-Fi or technology solutions will work, everyone understands how the workplace management will operate – and hence there are more people able to answer the full range of questions.

Why are questions so important during change?

Although many people are troubled by the raising of often “tricky” questions – my view is that when people ask questions, it shows they are engaged. People ask questions so they can:

  • make sense of the change by understanding it better
  • seek to find out the truth about something they’ve heard and don’t believe
  • challenge the reasoning for the answer they’ve already been given
  • test the detail – to see whether the solution has been thought through

In my experience, most people don’t ask questions to make our lives difficult – they are simply going through a change journey of understanding – and asking questions is a good way to address things in a way that makes sense to them – to help them build up a picture in their mind about what the change means to them. This may be different to the way the change story has been told, but that often means that the narrative hasn’t worked for everyone and they simply need to hear things in a different way.

This is all good – it’s what we want them to do. To increase their level of rational understanding so they have a clear picture of the new world. Only then can they take a view about whether they can adapt and adjust to this change – and indeed why they should. Identifying wins and losses for them personally – this is the fundamental part of the change journey and lies at the heart of our change management approach.

Why do questions trouble some people?

Most people know who the “usual suspects” are in their team. The ones who take it upon themselves to find the most challenging and bizarre questions imaginable! Some people ask endless questions which can be time consuming and challenging to respond to when workloads are high.

That said, this approach often means that the person needs to understand things at a greater level of detail than other people. Our job as change managers and project teams, is to answer as many questions as it takes to help each person feel comfortable that they understand the change and can get involved in making things work for them.

Although project teams try to cover all the bases, there are usually some aspects they haven’t thought about. This is where the assiduous questioners can be a real gift. By highlighting things that haven’t been addressed, the project team are alerted to a need or a shortcoming in their solution which can then be tackled. This can be immensely valuable.

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How we answer questions is really important

It is undoubtedly true that many questions have a “right” answer. When someone asks about the size of the new lockers – a factual answer quoting the dimensions should suffice. A follow up question which asks “how many pairs of shoes can I get in the locker” at first glance sounds trivial and potentially difficult to answer (what else is in the locker, how big are the shoes, what type of shoes etc.), but how we respond demonstrates whether we think their question is valid and worth our time to answer. There may be many good reasons why they want an answer, but in any case, the most important thing is that they feel heard and that someone cares enough to respond. 

Now, I’m not suggesting for a moment that this discussion about lockers and shoes should be a lengthy one, but I do believe that every question is an opportunity to engage the person in the change and will leave an impression on them about our desire to get it right for them. A recent piece I read about any workplace change illustrated that there are recommended ways to respond to questions, but these should be blended with authentic context from the specific situation and organisation.

What lies behind the question?

Many questions seem (and are) quite simple.

Question: “How many showers will there be in the new building?” 

Answer: “6 – located next to the drying room in the basement”

But there are also many questions that initially sound simple, but mask an underlying concern which is really what the person is worried about. For example:

Question: Will there be enough desks in the office for everyone?

Answer: Yes, we’ve worked hard to understand how many desks are required and we’re confident there will be somewhere for everyone to work – although on the busiest of days it might not be a full size workplace, but a touchdown space or in one of the social spaces.

People may be less concerned about the logistics, and more concerned about their ability to do their job well in the future. They may already be under work pressure and feel that this change will cause a further deterioration in workplace productivity.

In many situations where organisational change happens, people are concerned about job security and have a tendency see everything as a bad omen. Things are perceived as part of the slippery slope towards redundancy. “Why do we have to share desks – is it because they are going to make cuts and I’ll lose my job?”

These seemingly innocuous questions need to be handled sensitively. In many cases the questions may asked of line managers, rather than workplace management and project delivery teams.

For managers, these questions raised by team members are a gift, as they provide an opportunity to engage with people around the change and the new ways of working – to have an honest and open discussion about how that person is feeling about the change. In these situations, what is important is that the opportunity is taken to open up the discussion to find out what’s really troubling the person.

So often we rush to give the answer – it’s in the nature of “Q&A” – the expectation that a question must receive an answer straight away. The question may just be the best way to open up a conversation. The questioner doesn’t want a “pat” or trite answer – even a factual one. What they DO want is an opportunity to talk about what’s really bothering them. Perhaps that’s one reason why they need to keep asking the question, because they haven’t listened closely to the answer – as they are troubled by a bigger issue.

Responding to “tricky questions”

Naturally managers that know their staff well will be in a good position to anticipate their concerns and anxieties. Where people don’t know each other so fully, a good approach when asked a tricky or ‘loaded’ question is not to rush into giving an answer, but to seek more information from the questioner:

  • you seem concerned about this – how do you think that’s going to work?
  • could you tell me a bit more about your concerns?
  • how do you think that’s going to work in our team?
  • how could we tackle this together, as a team?

The approach, as with all good coaching, is to make the person part of the solution. Finding out what they are thinking / what they’ve heard / what’s worrying them is respectful and enables them to be heard. It allows us to really listen – and listen to understand, not to simply wait and reply with “the answer”. It gives them permission to expand and say more about what is really behind their question / worry. It keeps them positioned as co-responsible for the solution and able to contribute to it.

The vital thing is the dialogue. And enough dialogue to enable the person to move on. Recognising when they have become stuck is very important, and the asking of a question is a wonderful opportunity to avoid them getting more stuck or becoming so wedded to a view that they can’t move on. It is often very difficult for some people to voice their concerns. In workshops and townhalls they may not speak up – and so asking a manager a question puts them in a potentially vulnerable position if their concern is dismissed or they get a stock answer which closes down the dialogue rather than opening it up.

Managing change takes time and patience

Supporting people through change takes time and a lot of patience. Cut corners and the change will be delivered, but not well and may not therefore be sustainable. We cannot expect everyone to embrace the change with open arms – there are many aspects they can’t control and to a degree they must accept that the change is going to happen. What we can do, is treat people well and support them patiently through their journey – treating every question as a golden opportunity.

Written by Karen Plum, Director of Research and Development.