Organizations undergo change. Whether brought on by a positive or negative force, it is a reality in a company’s course of business. From mergers to new internal initiatives, it is common for stakeholders and employees to feel uneasy or resistant when there is change in the air, especially when it comes to routine, organizational structure, or the company ethos most familiar to them.
Key themes of change management
Before initiating any sort of change, it is important to be as transparent as possible to achieve buy-in across the board. In a 2017 Employee Engagement trends report conducted by Quantum Workplace (h/t HBR), almost one-third of employees don’t understand the impetus behind change initiatives. Granted, most large-scale change initiatives contain privileged information, so businesses must be creative in how initiatives are presented externally and internally.
For instance, a 2015 McKinsey and Co. article argues the importance of using digital tools in internal change management to achieve more “effective and enduring” results. Through digital platforms, dashboards, and other visualizations that keep employees engaged, a more direct connection (no information middleman) is established and an “espirit de corps” is promoted especially across global organizations (McKinsey, Changing Change Management).
Also, when the scale of the change increases, so do communication efforts. A company reorganization for example requires communication at all steps of the process, and may include in-person messaging, two-way correspondence between management and employees, and communication about topics relevant to the staff (Getting Reorgs Right).
Successful transformation cannot happen without ongoing communications
Many change initiatives are launched because businesses (and their people) need to adapt to disruptive market changes such as cloud-based solutions and Big Data. Most, if not all, change management processes, e.g. the Burke-Litwin (B-L) Model of Organizational Change and Performance or the Pascale and Athos 7S model, recognize the critical value of communications.
Communications must address the WIFM (what’s in it for me) for each stakeholder group. It’s important to reinforce the vision and how the change will help the organization achieve its goals. The message must be consistent at all levels of the organization. Most people intrinsically want to do well and support their team. They’ll do this when they’re informed and when expectations are met. Employees are more willing to accept change when they:
- Understand why the change is occurring and the necessity for change
- Understand WIFM and how they’re affected
- Receive detailed information in a timely manner
- Are provided the right communications tools and skills
- Can provide and get feedback
- Receive clear and consistent communications
10 best practices for communications and outreach
According to a 2013 Project Management Institute (PMI) Report, 71 percent of organizations said that communicating to stakeholders about organizational objectives is “extremely or very critical” and only 59 percent reported performing this activity “always or often.” The study also concluded that “the most crucial success factor in project management is effective communications to all stakeholders… In a complex and competitive business climate, organizations cannot afford to overlook this key element of project success and long-term profitability.” Today, in the 2018 version of the report, four in five respondents reported that soft skills, which includes communications, are more important today than they were 5 years ago.
Develop a mission statement for the change.
Develop a vision and mission statement in simple terms that explains the future state as well as the goals and desired outcomes of the transformation.
- Focus on what stakeholders will gain – people are afraid of what they’ll lose.
- Clearly identify and describe what the change is and why it’s needed.
- Set clear performance metrics that address the end state and the organization’s improved ability to achieve its goals.
Involve senior leadership
Involve senior leadership in the communication of the transformation since stakeholders tend to respond most favorably to communication from the top. A lack of leadership involvement and communication conveys a lack of credibility and significantly reduces the chances of success.
- Provide leadership with messaging and talking points to ensure that all communications are consistent and that change represents a positive development for the organization.
- Work in face-to-face conversations, forums on intranet sites, training materials, and other two-way forms of communication to get feedback and encourage dialogue.
- Make sure any format of two-way communication is monitored so feedback from management can be timely and authentic.
Identify and understand internal and external stakeholders’ perceptions, needs, and motivators
Change management experts say that about 25 percent of employees are initially receptive to change, 25 percent are resistant and the other half are undecided. An older workforce that is approaching retirement and would rather not change the way they do things can also cause resistance.
- Identify change champions—the drivers and catalysts of change initiatives—to lead teams and provide feedback before, during, and after the change.
- Use surveys, interviews, and observations to assess the internal stakeholders’ concerns, the potential risks and barriers to change, and the organization’s readiness for change.
- Understand where employees are in their level of commitment to organizational change.
Create a steering committee composed of company leaders and senior managers that are particularly affected by the change.
Work groups can validate research findings, inform communication planning and implementation, help build support, understand and translate objections, and understand what processes and organizational structures will need to change to implement the overall change.
Develop standardized messaging for key audiences
Short, one- to two-paragraph messaging that is relevant to each stakeholder group and quickly communicates the “who, what, when, where, why, how, and WIFM” of the change will be most effective. If some things are unknown, say they’re unknown but give a reasonable timeframe for when decisions and direction will be determined and released.
- Address the potential risks to successful change when creating the messaging.
- Highlight any new training programs, which can go a long way towards making people feel that they are not at risk.
- Identify key stakeholders and the stakeholders’ perceptions, hopes, and fears.
- Communicate that the change will be incremental and management is committed to the change.
- Remind people of the company’s successes and previous successful changes — this can help people maintain pride, a sense of purpose, and teamwork.
- Reinforce the company’s goals, which will help keep those who are undecided or open to change on board (and remind them of why they came to work for the company in the first place).
Establish a communications governance process
Include a governance system with clear roles and responsibilities for who is involved in contributing to the communications process and who has permission to make final communications decisions.
Develop a communications plan
It’s important to develop a communications plan that includes the “who, what, when, where, why, how, and WIFM” as well as a timeline for each communications tactic.
- Conduct an audit to evaluate what communications tools are currently effective, what messaging is already being used, and what additional channels such as videos, intranets, newsletters, brown bag lunches, town hall meetings, conference calls, etc. are available.
- Show clear goals and milestones, and tie all communications and metrics to the goals.
- Use the governance process to make sure that messaging is consistent and timely.
Use a cascading communications approach
In a cascading communications approach, consistent messaging is pushed from the top of the organization down to lower employee levels.
Develop a brand for the change management initiative
This should be consistent with corporate branding guidelines, and gives all change-related communications a similar look and feel, allowing stakeholders to easily identify and absorb messaging.
Capture feedback and measure progress
Be sure to include a process to capture and measure anonymous, individual feedback in your communications plan. Identify clear measurement benchmarks and communicate progress and outcomes.
And remember, to achieve success, management must maintain a connection with and commitment to the change process (even if there are setbacks).
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