Of all the obstacles I’ve had to overcome in the workplace, confusion ranks in the top tier, especially during change. It can hold you back and delay progress, and often goes undetected because most people hate to admit when they’re confused.
I was one of the key executives assigned to transition Sony Music from paper to digital graphics, a global project that began in the late 1980s, and evolved throughout the following decade.
Sony had just purchased CBS Records, a significant shift that signaled the transformation from analog to digital, from LP to CD, and from manuscripts, typesetting and mechanical boards to formatted files, flowing text, and printed layouts.
We were all used to working with bits and pieces of information on paper — studio credits, lyrics, liner notes, even thank yous scribbled on cocktail napkins. It was a chaotic but comforting process to handle what we called ‘hard copy’: a tangible document that you stapled together and happily deposited on the art director’s desk.
Most of us had never touched a computer, let alone have one appear in our office. For many of us, digital was foreign, confusing, and feared.
My job was to make the transition in day-to-day operations as smooth and effective as possible — to get people onboard, trained and up to speed, and to share successes and challenges with the global community.
My boss at the time headed the initiative, and was understandably enthusiastic about getting started, as a lot of money was riding on our success. So, she was thrilled to introduce me to the technology expert who would make recommendations about which equipment to buy, and provide the much-needed training in the computers and programs we used.
However, the moment the expert opened his mouth, we were bombarded with a litany of information I didn’t understand.
Three significant things happened next: I became anxious…very anxious. I began to shut down, and mentally started to bolt the door behind me. I realized others could react the same way.
All excitement turned to apprehension: does change have to be so painful and confusing?
While his onslaught continued uninterrupted for thirty minutes, I noticed my boss constantly nodding her head in agreement. Our SVP was highly intelligent and innovative, but I wondered how much she really understood that day. I’ve wondered that a lot about nodding heads over the years. Do they truly understand? Or are they disguising confusion and fear? Fear of looking silly, of feeling uncomfortable, of people knowing that you don’t understand what is really going on.
How many people shut the door and bolt it firmly against change because they’re afraid to admit they’re confused?
Those who work with me know I ask a lot of questions. It’s part of what I do. My job is to not let confusion get in the way. I feel the fear, but ask anyway. I’ve found that if I don’t ask, I don’t understand. And if I don’t understand, I can’t own it. And if I can’t own it, I can’t help others own it too.
In any organization, change must happen at the individual level before it can be considered successful at the corporate one.
It happens when each person gets it and isn’t confused (or frightened) by it anymore. Change happens when resistance turns to excitement and closed doors open to welcome mats.
When I finally got around to asking the expert what he meant, I discovered that while he understood technology, he didn’t understand people. Successful change requires that you do. When you lead, you are responsible to provide an environment for human success: the tools and training to teach, and the support and materials necessary to understand, reinforce, and sustain.
My advice to all change managers (and trainers) is to know your audience and anticipate their needs. Encourage people to ask questions, even when they’re nodding. And, if you’re not sure they’re with you, ask them to explain in their own words what they understood to make sure that they do. Keep it simple, keep it interactive, keep it user friendly, and by all means keep the path to change clear by taking time to confront confusion with understanding. You and your company will be glad you did.
The digital change at Sony was successful and changed the way we worked, and the company grew on all levels: individual, team and corporate. It paved the way for the future and saved the company millions.
Now I hope you’re nodding your head.