10 Tips for Communicating Change
While organizational change requires more than 10 tips, here are 10 key things to keep in mind when planning, announcing, implementing, and communicating a change initiative:
- Remember that there's no one perfect way to communicate change. Change is uncomfortable, and adapting to change is messy. The perfect Gantt chart does not a painless change experience make. Why? Because tasks are easy to list, but behavior and long-held habits are not easy to change. Gather outside information, solicit perspectives, and adapt the approaches for your organization and group.
- Start by asking yourself what exactly is changing and why. Too many programs are heavy on the jargon and light on the substance of what the buzz phrases mean in the day-to-day reality of the organization' s people. You have to make that link. For example, what does it mean when you say the organization needs to be more responsive? What behaviors characterize a so-called flat organization? Go to the root of what you're trying to achieve from an organizational behavior perspective, and give the jargon life.
- Know what results you want, ideally, from both the change initiative and the communication program or tactic. What's the call to action for the communication program? What's the call to action for the specific communication tactic? What systemic or operations changes are under way that provide the framework for the desired results and behaviors?
- Include communication strategists at the very beginning of the discussions about the change, on the strategic team from the start. Too often, qualified communicators are involved after backlash is in full force, when the leaks and rumor mills are rampant. The corporate lawyer or the MBA with one or two classes in PowerPoint is not qualified to understand how the people of the organization will respond to change and what information they'll need. Their particular expertise is most likely legal requirement and cost cutting, not communication.
- Share information with employees as soon as possible. There's a real dilemma in public companies, where investor communication is a priority and employees hear about a merger or reorganization on their car radio while commuting to work. Once fear and insecurity are heightened, you waste a lot of time getting back to a place of order, understanding, and productivity, and many people head for their desks to update résumés and to call employment recruiters.
- Keep in mind that quantity is fine, but quality and consistency are crucial. Most CEOs and managers are quoted as saying, "You can't communicate too much," but you can communicate too much insigificant or insensitive information. You can't communicate too much significant, substantial information.
- Longevity. Remember that a change effort starts with the announcement or a merger or change initiative. Many leaders and managers underestimate the length of time required by a change cycle. That's why numerous reports indicate poor performance following many IPOs, mergers, change initiatives, etc. Just as Rome wasn't built in a day, neither do people and organizations change in a week, or even a year. Think of it as changing some very ingrained habits; that's what you're doing.
- Remember to use a variety of communication pathways and vehicles. Some organizations make an enormous mistake in using only one vehicle, such as e-mail or the company intranet site. Redundancy and repetition are helpful in creating an effective communication program.
- Don't confuse process -- visioning, chartering change teams, planning, endless PowerPoint presentations -- with communication. While those meetings and processes can be communication vehicles if designed mindfully and handled in the context of a broader program, they aren't adequate to meet change communication needs.
- Give people multiple opportunities to share concerns, ask questions, and offer ideas, and make following up with answers and updates a top priority. The more people are involved in the process, the fewer you'll have walking out the door or worse, staying and acting as internal saboteurs.
This information provides food for thought rather than counsel specifically designed to meet the needs of your organization or situation. Please use it mindfully. The most effective communication plan should be tailored to your unique needs, so don't hesitate to get individualized assistance from a communication expert.
Jamie Walters is the founder and Chief Vision & Strategy Officer at Ivy Sea, Inc. in San Francisco, CA. Coauthor Sarah Fenson is Ivy Sea's Guide to Client Services.