We all need help getting from where we are to where we want to go. Whether you are navigating through an unfamiliar city, looking for a loved one’s room in a large hospital, or learning to work in a new organizational structure or with a new IT system, you’ll need guidance along the way.
In architecture, the art and science of guiding people to their desired destination is called wayfinding. Wayfinding uses tools like lighting, sight lines, and signage to help newcomers make decisions – am I on the right floor or do I need to look for an elevator? Do I keep going or turn left? Am I even in the right building, or do I need to go outside and start over? When done well, these tools are placed frequently enough, and give information clearly enough, that any visitor can rely on them. When wayfinding is done well we don’t even notice it because we are able to focus on moving toward our destination.
But what happens when way-finding is not done well? It’s probably happened to you at some point. You start off toward your destination, and realize you don’t have enough information to take the next step. You’re following signs through the city to get on a highway, but suddenly you come to a T-junction and the signs have disappeared. Or you get off the elevator to find people bustling around but no way to know which way you should go. Which leaves you with questions. Right or left? Up the stairs or straight ahead? How long before the car behind me starts honking?
Wayfinding allows people to make good decisions, and there are real consequences when way-finding fails. People take longer to get to their destination. They can block traffic or ask others for help, wasting other people’s time as well as their own. And if it gets too confusing they may just give up and leave – and probably post their frustrations on social media.
Just like a tourist in a new city, a team moving through change needs signposts and guidance along the way. The goal is similar – to let teams know how to make decisions and move forward while things are in flux. When people know who is accountable for which deliverables, or when to go ahead and when to stop and ask, or what factors they should consider when deciding on the next step, change can move forward effectively.
The consequences of failure are similar as well – when people don’t know how to make decisions or do their jobs, they are either asking someone or guessing, each of which has its own cost. And in extreme cases, when change lasts for so long and confusion runs so deep that people feel they cannot be successful, they may start to leave. Better to put out an extra communication, spend an extra five minutes answering employee questions, or setting up clear structures than to risk losing time, productivity, or possibly valued employees.
The American Society of Landscape Architects says that “Truly effective wayfinding systems are a hallmark of great cities.” So too may effective change leadership be a hallmark of great organizations and teams.