A few weeks ago, I returned from an amazing family vacation that took us to Budapest, Venice and Rome. We decided to take a train from Budapest to Venice to take in the soaring beauty of the Alps as we made our way through Austria and northern Italy. And it was spectacular… until we reached our last stop in Austria. That’s when we got a first-hand lesson in how NOT to handle disruptive change.
Throughout Austria we had several 5 to 10-minute stops, with announcements made in German, Hungarian and English. We made what turned out to be our last stop in Austria in the beautiful city of Villach. The screen showed our usual 5-minute wait and then suddenly it changed to 45 minutes.
Soon an announcement was made, in German only. Slowly, groups of people began to get off the train sporadically. Not knowing what was going on, I finally found a train company information officer and he told me there had been a minor earthquake in northern Italy and all rail service was stopped indefinitely so tracks could be inspected. We were going to be bussed to either the station after the areas affected by the earthquake effected or all the way to Venice – they weren’t sure.
Eventually we made it to Venice, but the hours in between that conversation and our arrival were a great example of how not to lead change…
The leaders assumed everyone understood the message: while most of the people on the train spoke German, a very large minority did not. While other announcements had been made in multiple languages, this critical one wasn’t. We found out from fellow travelers that he announcements, even in German, didn’t explain exactly when passengers should get off the train and where they should go to wait for the buses. Passengers were only able to get this information by taking the initiative to talk directly with individual company representatives.
Focus on the technical side; forget the people side: there were a couple of coordinators from the train company in charge of arranging the buses, monitoring their arrival and getting us on board. Eventually there were 3 buses that arrived several minutes to an hour apart. We weren’t told where to wait for the busses or when they would be arriving. And we weren’t assigned in any way to a specific bus. After the second bus, someone asked ‘how long until the third?’ The coordinator answered “5 – 10 minutes.” His colleague then chimed in “or maybe 30.” In the 45 minutes until the third bus did arrive, they were on their phones in regular communication with the transportation company. They simply didn’t communicate with any of the passengers.
Don’t tell those affected by the change how to move forward: We finally arrived on the outskirts of Venice about 3 hours later than anticipated. The bus stopped and we all got off. Only problem was, this wasn’t the normal train station stop for those going into Venice. The bus driver didn’t tell us this; another passenger did. When we all disembarked from the bus, we asked the driver where to go. He said to the footbridge. Only problem – the footbridge is closed at midnight. The bus driver then got into the bus and drove away leaving about 20 of us to figure out how we were supposed to get into Venice. In the distance we saw what looked like a ferry stop and we went there. Eventually, through trial and error, we all figured out which way to go.
Assign change leaders who don’t know that leading change is part of their job: The coordinators understood their role to be to get the busses arranged and ensure everyone got onto a bus. The bus drivers understood their jobs to be to drive us to Venice. No one had set expectations with them that they also needed to step up and lead – to inform us of the overall plan and how each step for the rest of our journey would work, to reassure us when the busses were taking much longer than anticipated, and to prepare us for the rest of our journey.
Disruption – of your industry, your company, your team – can happen with little advance warning. Understanding that leading change needs to be a skill set that can be called on at any time, is the only way you and your team will navigate it successfully. How well prepared are you to lead change?