“Undercommunicating the vision by a factor of ten” is one of the reasons why organizational transformation efforts fail according to John Kotter, a longtime writer on various facets of leadership and organizational change and professor emeritus at the Harvard Business School (Kotter, 1995, p. 63).

And as we all know—and as Kotter acknowledged—“Communication comes in both words and deeds, and the latter are often the most powerful form” (Kotter, 1995, p. 64). I don’t agree with everything Kotter wrote about organizational change—for example, his “steps” for organizational change often imply an overly sequential process that doesn’t always survive reality—but on this item, he makes a good point.

Namely, actions speak louder than words.

So if you want to communicate change in your organization, be bold.

Act differently.

And be overt.

One way to think about overt action as a powerful form of communication is to consider the world of maritime navigation. Specifically, consider how waterborne vessels of all types should take a number of actions to avoid collision. I’m familiar with these rules from my earliest days as an officer in the U.S. Navy. We learned quickly back then that driving ships should never be a contact sport.

In fact, Rule Number 8 of the U.S. Coast Guard’s Navigation Rules directs what mariners must do regarding “action to avoid collision.” Paragraph (b) of this rule stipulates that

Any alteration of course and/or speed to avoid collision shall, if the circumstances of the case admit, be large enough to be readily apparent to another vessel observing visually or by radar; a succession of small alterations of course and/or speed should be avoided.

That is, if two vessels are headed in directions that would put them too close together for comfort, the vessels shouldn’t make gradual turns away from each other.

Instead, a mariner in this situation should make an overt change of course, one that is clearly noticeable and communicates intentions to the other vessel.

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Photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Andre T. Richard. The appearance of U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) visual information does not imply or constitute DoD endorsement.

For executives attempting to communicate to an organization that the team is going to move from one way of operating to another way, there often can be no clearer signal of intent than to make an overt course correction.

Some examples of overt changes that communicate organizational change include:

  • Abolishing policies that contradict the goal of the change,

  • Giving a well-respected leader a new title and powerful role associated with the change,

  • Restructuring departments or functions,

  • Promoting people who embody the spirit of the change,

  • Demoting or terminating people who repeatedly block progress or violate core values,

  • Shifting considerable resources in the budget to support the change, and

  • Other bold, public moves that demonstrate long-term commitment to a new pattern of behavior.

By making such overt changes in behavior or resources, leaders can clearly signal what it is that they expect, support and reward from their people. And this can help communicate change much more powerfully than a company-wide e-mail or even an in-person speech to employees.

Organizational change, of course, doesn’t always happen through radical episodes. Sometimes, powerful change can happen gradually, over time.

But when leaders have clearly identified what needs to be done to avoid a collision, so to speak, there is often no better way they can communicate what needs to happen than by role modeling and making bold, public decisions aligned with the new vision.

Otherwise, they run the risk of making “this change” the same as so many others—empty promises that do very little if anything to alter the everyday behavior of employees.

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References and for further reading

Kotter, J. (1995). Why transformation efforts fail. Harvard Business Review. Link