Implementing change series: Timing is everything

“In most cases, our direct mail piece is worthless. But in the hands of someone who just found out  they need new windows? It’s priceless.”

An owner of a window company made this statement when one of my colleagues asked him how he thought direct mail was working for him. Obviously, we’d need a lot more data to prove that it is, indeed, providing good return on investment (ROI), but the implication of timing is dead-on.

If it’s raining and there’s a crowd, it’s a good time to sell umbrellas and ponchos. If there’s a party or event without food being served, the timing is perfect for a food truck. But, for most large change initiatives (where we’re asking for a big change and/or a long-term change), it can be much more difficult to know when the timing is perfect for two main reasons:

1. The timing isn’t the same for everyone you’re trying to reach.

In the window example at the beginning, not everyone needs new windows at once. There may be parts of the year when it’s more likely someone will find out they need new windows, but it’s still scattered throughout the year.

Similarly, in my work promoting Open Educational Resources (OER), every faculty member doesn’t consider new textbooks and alternatives to textbooks at the same time. They may consider new books every year, every three years, or whenever they decide it’s a good time to. There’s no set formula.

2. The timing depends on external factors (usually beyond your control).

For someone to decide to make a change, usually there’s some sort of event that precedes that decision. Again, looking at our windows example, a homeowner considers new windows when they are told they need them by a home inspector or if their current set of windows is damaged somehow.

With OER, the event could be a complaint of the high cost from a student, or a publisher raising their prices again, or a technical error with the publisher’s system, or a discussion within the department of how to reduce high drop/fail rates.

Sometimes you’ll be able to anticipate these events happening, like monitoring publisher prices, but many times you may not even know they’ve occurred.

Being in the right place at the right time

A young man jumping off of sand. The timing is such that you see a trail of sand.
“jump” by Barry Badcock, via Flickr Creative Commons is licensed under CC BY 4.0

The simple solution would be to shout from the rooftops about the change you’re encouraging all the time. But, in practice, this is not only costly, but can leave those that you are trying to reach tone-deaf to your message. Think about that person who sends you too many irrelevant emails, do you read them all anymore? I’m guessing not.

The better solution is a pulse schedule. This is where you keep a low hum of communication about the change out there at all times, but you amp-up your messaging around those critical events and external factors you can predict.

A great example of a pulse schedule is candy manufacturers. In the U.S., candy manufacturers are always advertising, but for a couple of weeks (lately a few months!) leading up to major holidays (Halloween, Christmas, Easter, Valentine’s Day)? They are everywhere, there’s no escaping the barrage of marketing from them. These are their pulse times.

With OER, the pulses are around the academic calendar. The first pulse to encourage faculty to consider OER should happen when the faculty come to the welcome back event for faculty at the beginning of the fall semester. They are refreshed and ready to start a new year. The second pulse comes mid-way through he semester, faculty are in between their busy start-up period and exam periods. Similarly, there’s another great pulse time mid-way through the spring semester, leading up to the bookstore deadline for Fall (usually early-mid April).

By keeping a constant hum of communication about the change initiative and ramping-up (pulsing) when people are most open to the change, your can maximize your efforts for encouraging change.

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