8 essentials to communicate change management
The perspective I have of change management is through creating communications to engage and inform about reasons for change and the corresponding new vision. Following from this there are usually some specific communications revolving around roles and the implications of change.
What is the communications issue? Most organisations are built to serve particular customer profiles. While customers change, a customer profile and the practices to serve this customer can become solidified within an organisation’s roles and hierarchy. Even in the face of convincing evidence of a changing market environment, perspectives and practices can be quite resilient. This is why the situation, and therefore the communication can’t be considered as business as usual.
For change management in general, the rationale is often presented in a similar way even if the organisations are very different: The traditional market is declining, so there is a need to reduce costs and at the same time broaden into new markets with more diverse products and availability. The seminal work in this area is probably Leading Change by John Kotter. For an analysis of the issues of change management, John Kotter’s Harvard Business review article is a good place to start:
The first thing is to distinguish what is genuine transformational change from the usual incremental and evolutionary change typical of organisational activity. Transformational change is a revolution of the structure and practises of an organisation. The problem of real transformational change is that it may be at odds with the usual way of seeing things, so a new communication framework is useful to help with new perception.
Change management needs change leadership, as the workforce needs faith to follow through with what may be an uncomfortable time. Your communications need to cover three particular areas:
- The reasons for change
- The new vision of the business, and how the change addresses this
- Implications for roles, structures and individuals
A team might be appointed to deal with this change, but if the team is chosen using just the logic of the current hierarchy, they may not be diverse enough to lead real change, and to communicate effectively with all parts of the business. Time and thought need to be given to the makeup of this team, and from which parts of the organisation they are drawn from.
Resistance to change
Resistance is often a reason for stepping up communications to create more engagement. Sometimes resistance might be seen in terms of a lack of cooperation, but resistance should more be seen as structural and a communication issue. Managers will still be expected to deliver results throughout a change programme. Without support and good communication, new methods can be reasonably seen more as a risk to business rather than a new opportunity. Resistance might be people doing their jobs the old way, because the new way of working has not been presented well enough to interpret and apply to their specific role.
While the strategy and vision are business decisions, good communication is a bit easier to identify and is key to the reduction of resistance and rise of a new innovating culture. Here are my 8 things to consider:
My essential 8 elements of communication for change management
#1 Communicate a clear vision of the new organisation with endorsement from the top. If it can’t be done in person, a video of the CEO directly addressing the audience will give a sense of personal commitment. Do this more than once, with updates to the message and make sure it is available in many channels: Use it at meetings, have a transcript available, send out reminders to view it on an intranet.
#2 Demonstrate a clear understanding of where the organisation is right now. A head office view may be out of date with actual practices in the field. For people to have faith in a new vision, you need to show you really understand the organisation as it actually is. Acknowledge the work that has gone into getting the organisation to where it is now, and highlight and celebrate new practices that may well already exist informally within an organisation.
#3 The team involved in the briefing of communication should be more a vertical slice of an organisation, not just a leadership group with similar experiences and similar perspectives. John Kotter suggests creating a ‘volunteer army’ drawn from all parts of an organisation to lead change.
#4 Let your audience tell you what communication they want, and how they want to receive it. Find out the best way of communicating rather than just assuming the traditional channels. Two important areas will be the CEO or leadership vision message, and enabling local supervision to discuss the impact on particular roles and people directly.
#5 Communication is two way. You need to get feedback from those the change affects, and let them voice concerns and questions. Let them contribute to the change and they are much more likely to support it.
#6 Plan for small changes, as they can still have big results. Big changes can unsettle and appear as unreachable targets. Break them into smaller steps. Celebrate small wins to show progress and acknowledge people’s efforts. Think about how you celebrate: Good news poorly communicated is almost bad news.
#7 Be aware of what personal demands you are making in terms of stretch goals. A vertical stretch goal is a higher target of the same activity, such as doing more with less. A horizontal stretch is doing something that requires new skills or going into a new situation. Asking for a horizontal stretch may need more support, for instance asking someone who has traditionally been backroom to take a more customer facing role – this may be easy for some, and very uncomfortable for others.
#8 Avoid jargon, TLAs, and buzzwords. Inappropriate use with an audience can feel very excluding, and serves just to underline distance between leadership and the rest of an organisation. Spell out what leverage synergies, become more responsive, and more ownership actually means in the specific context. Some examples:
Good communication always needs a clear understanding of the audience and a clear aim. My favourite phrase from a really successful change programme is that people need to have the ‘desire and accountability’ to create the change. A combination of a sense of vision and belief, coupled with responsibility for measurable activity.