What Phish Can Teach You About Change Management (Yes Phish!)

Posted by: in Communication, Communication Strategy, Corporate and Strategy, Organizational Communications, Thinking Creatively on August 18, 2014

FuegoTransformational change initiatives are widely known to be challenging, at best. But, they’re also a necessity amidst shifting industry and marketplace demands.

After over 30 years of making music, the jam band Phish recently released its twelfth official studio album, with a fresh sound. By constantly evolving, Phish has continued to secure its place as a top earner in an industry that is fraught with concern about monetizing the music, year after year. Here are 5 things Phish can teach your business about the components of successful change:

1.        Understand Your Organization’s Identity.

Phish has a dedicated and distinctive fan base that is comprised of passionate advocates. It’s a whimsical and talented band, focused on the live show experience. Over the years, Phish has simultaneously embraced comparisons to musical influences like the Grateful Dead and explored new genres and styles. How? By understanding its strengths and identifying its weaknesses.

Any successful organizational change initiative must first undergo a comprehensive analysis of the business to reach similar understanding across functions. The concrete analysis is the foundation for strategy and approach. Infrastructure hurdles, culture, business goals and benchmarks are just a few of the insights imperative for success.

2.        Have a unified message that is inclusive of leadership.

PhishFuego,” the band’s newest album, was a collaborative effort. The four band members worked together to select ideas and directions that worked the best. In short, they all got behind the new sound.

This unified front is absolutely essential. It boils down to trust. Just this year, a study showed that a quarter of Americans don’t trust top leaders of their companies. If your font-line managers to top executives are not aligned on messaging, goals and purpose across the board, that trust will be further eroded, compromising the change effort.

3.         Set the tone with employees.

Before Phish kicked off its 2014 summer tour, it toured major music media. Trey Anastasio, the lead guitarist, was quoted in several publications, like Rolling Stone, warning fans to expect less covers and more new material.

Employees won’t feel connected to organizational change that they aren’t even aware of. If a Phish fan showed up to a Summer 2014 show expecting the usual cover-centric experience, they would likely leave feeling a little cheated and disappointed. Without background information, change can lead to panic and widespread insecurity in a company. It’s paramount to regularly contextualize what’s going on inside and outside of the business. If it’s a part of ongoing, strategic communication, change is merely a part of the plan and the logical next step.

4.        Identify your stakeholders and the channels they prefer.

Phish understands and caters to its fan base incredibly well. The band knows where fans go for their music and how they digest it. The website is the central hub of information, but tracks from “Fuego” were also released on NPR and YouTube. From bios to tour announcements, the focus is on fun. In essence, Phish speaks the fans’ language.

For a business or a band, listening is key. Establish a framework of verbiage and channels that make the most sense across all levels of your organization. This often requires simplifying terms to humanize the initiative and broaden reach. Checking message cadence and delivery with a sample set of employees can also be helpful when trying to ensure clarity and understanding across the board.

5.        Allow your employees to be a part of the change.

Phish is Treyknown for its large festival-style concerts. Events usually feature life-size installations and interactive elements. They incorporate charities and causes that the band and its fans feel strongly about. These components are shaped largely by the culture of the live shows. Phish even lets fans determine set lists, at times playing songs based off posters in the audience.

Any organizational change initiative has many moving parts and pieces. Allowing employees to take ownership of some of the change and personalize it authenticates it. The reality of a company’s culture is too often different than how it’s spoken about. Your employees are the culture, so they need to be involved in the transition for it to translate into real, positive business outcomes.

Phish continues to navigate a tumultuous musical landscape and grow its dedicated following despite side projects, a hiatus and even a several year-long break. The band is agile in many ways, but maintains a focus on the people that love the music. Your business is comprised of employees who could and should be spokespeople, particularly throughout change. Are employees really fans? Well, why shouldn’t they be?

By: Meriel McCaffery

Meriel is a Senior Account Manager in WCG's Corporate & Strategy practice, based in NYC. She has a background in strategic communications, public relations and business.

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