The importance of setting expectations about change came to mind when I got our son Charlie’s phone repaired. I had scheduled the time to do so based on little information (hours of operation) and a lot of optimism. This won’t take long, I thought.
In front of me was a touch screen that dispensed tickets indicating your place in line. It also displayed how many people were waiting and what type of service they needed.
As I waited, I noticed that each transaction took five to ten minutes to complete, except for pick ups that took less than five. A large tally board helped me update my wait time expectation based on how quickly the four service representatives moved through the line. My 40 minute wait didn’t seem too long.
When I returned an hour later to pick up the phone, the number of waiting customers had grown to 28. Not great, but I quickly estimated my wait time, adjusted my expectations and settled in for a longer wait.
My mood brightened when eight numbers were called with no owners – they didn’t wait. Again, I recalibrated my waiting time. Next, a service representative called for all pick up orders. The three of us jumped out of our seats and within five minutes we were on our way. That didn’t take long, I thought.
The parallels between my phone repair experience and large organizational changes are compelling. We need to provide people with the tools and knowledge to set realistic expectations about how they will need to change – without doing so, they will form first impressions and judge progress based on their own expectations and little information.
Leaders need to share their expectations and the assumptions they are based on. Then they must provide updates (like the tally board) on what has changed so that people can recalibrate their expectations. Often, people interpret delays as failures when they are only prudent adjustments based on new information. Giving them the knowledge and tools to manage their expectations makes them active participants in the change process, which leads to greater commitment and engagement. It also builds their capabilities for the next time when something needs to be fixed.