Effective communications are critical to every change management project. As a change management practitioner, you know that an email on Monday for training on Tuesday and go-live on Wednesday doesn't set up impacted employees for success. Communications must focus on the right people at the right times and in the right ways. Based on practitioner experiences and two decades of Prosci Best Practices in Change Management research studies, the following tips can help you 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. Communication in the change management context is just one of the critical tools available to help employees successfully navigate a transition. For communication to drive change at the individual level, it must be focused and structured.
One aspect of structuring communication in a change management context involves intentionally and sequentially releasing messages into the organization. The messages about a particular change effort must be structured. 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 middle 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 that is part of a bigger change management approach, communications may be conveying the wrong information to the wrong groups at the wrong time.
From a more tactical perspective, structuring the communication effort means creating a formal communication plan that is 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. (Prosci's Practioner eToolkit includes a Communications Plan Template and Key Messages Templates for employees at all levels to help you structure your communication efforts.)
Effective planning for communication and then integrating these communications into the overall change management and project plan 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 - 2018 Edition study.
When employees know a change is coming but don't have answers to key questions, they tend to make them up. And, the answers they come up with on their own are often different from, and usually worse than, the true information. 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 the solution finalized. Even 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, when communication starts late the team is in for an uphill battle to share the necessary information and dispel misinformation and rumors.
When asked what they would do differently regarding communications, participants in the Best Practices in Change Management studies 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 communication message they take away. If a message is only communicated once, then employees will never build the understanding intended. Key messages must be communicated over and over. Prosci's methodology says that key messages should be communicated five to seven times to be effective.
Communication should be viewed as process and not an event. Effective communication is not simply a single email, kickoff meeting or video message broadcast by the CEO on the intranet. Communication is a process; it must utilize multiple mediums to repeat and reinforce key messages throughout the project lifecycle.
People communicating a message may be uncomfortable with 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 an order that 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 employees have about the change.
Several of the key questions that need to be answered at the beginning of a change include:
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 an employee cares about before they move into the specific details of the change.
(Try this Communications Outline for Managers as a starting point for change-related discussions and coaching sessions with employees.)
Employees have preferred senders of communication messages in times of change. There are particular people in the organization they want to hear from. In other words, it matters who is communicating to employees. The graph below shows results from the Best Practices in Change Management - 2018 benchmarking study on preferred senders of messages.
For business messages about the change, employees want to hear from someone at the top of the organization or of their division. These business-level messages include why the change is happening, the risks of not changing, the customer or competitor issues causing in 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 top about these issues.
For personal change messages, employees want to hear from their immediate supervisor. Questions best answered by managers and supervisors 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.
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.
Speak with a Prosci professional to learn more about our research, training, resources, advisory services or how to partner with us.
+1 970 203 9332
Considering working with Prosci to build your change capability? Let’s talk! We can define your goals, review your strategy and provide actionable insights to drive your organization forward.
Create a free account and access a wealth of online resources and research-based tools to help you succeed at each level of your change management journey.