Effective communications are critical to every change management project. As a change management professional, you know that an email on Monday for training on Tuesday and go-live on Wednesday doesn't set up impacted people for success. Communications must focus on the right people at the right times and in the right ways. Leveraging our collective experiences and more than two decades of Prosci Best Practices in Change Management research, we complied five helpful tips to improve your communications around change.
Communication isn't new to organizations, and many have departments dedicated to this crucial task. However, when communication occurs in the context of a change, it's not effective to simply tell people facts. To help individual employees successfully navigate a transition, communication must be focused and structured in specific ways.
One aspect of structuring communication for change management involves intentionally and sequentially releasing messages into the organization. An effective communication plan first answers questions related to why the change is occurring and what it means to individuals. Once employees have internalized messages about the need for change, communications shift to focus more on detailed descriptions of the solution and the technical aspects of the change.
A second aspect of structure relates to the receivers of communications. Over the course of the project, the target of communications might shift from senior leaders to people managers to front-line employees. Each of these groups receives communications over the course of the project, but the amount of focus given to each group may adjust. In the absence of a structured communication plan as a part of a bigger change management approach, communications may be conveying the wrong information to the wrong groups at the wrong times.
From a more tactical perspective, structuring the communication effort means creating a formal communication plan as a tangible deliverable for the project. Communications should not be ad hoc. They should be designed and deliberate. Communicating without planning the communications effort is ineffective. Effectively planning for communications and then integrating these communications into the overall change management and project plans ensures that information delivery aligns with project progress without missing messages or points in the timeline.
Communications are most effective when they start early in the project lifecycle. Early communications are more proactive and can mitigate the negative consequences from failing to engage employees. In fact, starting communication efforts earlier in the project was third on the list of what respondents would do differently on the next project in the Best Practices in Change Management –11th Edition report.
When employees know a change is coming but don't have answers to key questions, they tend to make them up. The answers they come up with on their own are often different from and worse than the truth. Lack of communication early in a project results in misinformation and rumors, which can be devastating to the project. This misinformation can breed resistance, and it creates large barriers for the project team to overcome later in the project lifecycle.
Even if you haven't established all the details for the change, you
still need to be communicating to employees. For instance, you can still be sharing information about the need for change and the risk of not changing even if you don't have a finalized solution. Communicating that you don't have all the answers and giving employees a date to expect answers is more effective than remaining silent. Proactive, early communications even when you do not have all the answers allows you to take control of the information circulating in the organization.
Early communication lays the foundation for engaged employees and successful change. When the project hits the go-live point, employees have the information they need to become involved in the solution. Conversely, starting communication late creates an uphill battle for the team who must share the necessary information while dispelling misinformation and rumors.
When asked what they would do differently regarding communications, participants in Prosci's Best Practices in Change Management benchmarking research said they would communicate more, more often, to more people, and to all levels of their organizations.
The first time you communicate a message, employees may not hear or internalize what the business is trying to share. In many instances, the receiver of a communication message is concerned with the personal implications the first time they hear about a change. This orientation influences what parts of a message they take away. If a message is only communicated once, employees will never build the understanding intended. Key messages must be repeated. The Prosci Methodology recommends communicating key messages five to seven times to be effective.
Communication around change is process, not an event. It is not a single email, kickoff meeting, or video message broadcasted by the CEO on the intranet. Communication must utilize multiple mediums to repeat and reinforce key messages throughout the project lifecycle.
People communicating a message may be uncomfortable doing so multiple times. They may say, "But I've already told people this." Yet change management practitioners are enablers of communicators and must hold them accountable for communicating multiple times with customized messages.
Communicating is not simply sharing a message. It is an interactive and iterative approach to building an understanding in someone. As part of a structured, sequenced plan, communication efforts should address key employee questions in the order the employee wants to hear the messages.
One major trap you should anticipate is for a communicator to talk only about what they care about and what they're concerned about. Senior leaders fall into this trap by communicating exclusively about vision and the future of the organization. Project team members fall into this trap by communicating solely about the solution they have arrived at and the alternatives they evaluated. This is not a fault. We want senior leaders to be concerned about the vision of the organization, and we want project team members to be concerned about their solution. However, when it comes to communicating to employees, efforts should aim to answer the most pertinent questions the employees have about the change.
Several key questions need to be answered at the beginning of a change:
Note that the question, "What are the specific details of the change?" does not appear on the list. Communication plans must first address the questions at the forefront of what people care about before they move into the specific details of the change. This Communications Outline for Managers is a useful starting point for such change-related discussions and coaching sessions with employees.
Employees prefer to hear certain communications from certain roles within the organization during times of change. Prosci's Best Practices in Change Management benchmarking research consistently shows who these preferred senders are and the messages they should communicate.
For business messages about the change, employees want to hear from someone at the top of the organization or their division. These business-level messages include why the change is happening, the risks of not changing, the customer or competitor issues causing the change, why the change is happening right now, how the economic climate played a role in the change, and the alignment of this change with the organization's vision and direction. When it comes to the business messages, the voice for change should be executives and senior leaders. Employees want to hear from someone at the top about these issues.
For personal change messages, employees want to hear from their immediate supervisor. Questions best answered by such people managers include: What does this change mean to me? What's in it for me? How will my team be impacted? How will my day-to-day work be impacted? This presents somewhat of a challenge because we must get managers and supervisors on board before they can become an effective communicator to others.
The "voice" of change matters. Even if the content of a message is exactly the same, employees will evaluate the sender of the message. Using preferred senders ensures that messages are received as intended and that the change is taken seriously.
Communicating during change is not a single event that ends when you press "send." An intentional, structured plan with focused messages sent from the right people at the right time helps impacted employees understand and accept the changes faster while heading off problems—all while setting up your project and people for success.
Tim Creasey is Prosci’s Chief Innovation Officer and a globally recognized leader in change management. His work forms the foundation of the largest body of knowledge in the world on managing the people side of change to deliver organizational results.
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