During the summer of 2009, Prosci will be releasing a number of "Five tips" tutorials. These tutorials will provide simple, actionable steps to improving change management application. Each tutorial will focus on a particular element of change management, including:
This "Five tips" tutorial looks at better communications. The tips come directly from practitioner experience and benchmarking data from Prosci's six benchmarking studies conducted over the last 12 years.
1. Structure your efforts
Organizations have been communicating since their inception - many even have communication departments dedicated to this crucial task. However, when communication occurs in the context of a change, it is 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 relates to the intentional and sequenced release of messages into the organization. The messages themselves regarding a particular change effort must be structured in their release. An effective communication plan answers particular questions first 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 recipient 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 will be communicated with over the course of the project, but the amount of focus given to each group may shift. 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 real, tangible deliverable for the project. Communicating without planning the communications effort is ineffective. Communications should not be ad hoc, they should be designed and deliberate. The should be captured in a formal communication plan (Prosci's Change Management Toolkit and Change Management Pilot 2008 have communication plan templates and key message templates to help you structure your communication efforts). Effective planning for communication, and integrating these communications into the overall change management and project plan, ensures that information delivery aligns with project progress and there are not missed messages or missed points in the timeline. The creation of a formal communication plan early in the project planning stage with assigned staff to manage and execute the plan was the number three suggestion of what to do differently on the next project in the 2007 benchmarking study.
2. Start earlier
Communications are most effective when they start early in the project lifecycle. Starting communication efforts earlier in the project was the number four suggestion on the list of what to different on the next project in the 2007 benchmarking study. Early communications are more proactive and can mitigate negative consequences of failing to engage employees.
When employees know a change is coming, but they do not have answers to key questions, they tend to make them up. And, the answers they come up with on their own are often different, and usually worse, than the true information. Lack of communication early in a project results in misinformation and rumors that can be devastating to the project. This misinformation can breed resistance and creates large barriers for the project team to overcome later in the project lifecycle.
Even if you do not have all of the details established 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 do not have the solution finalized. Even communicating that you do not have all the answers but giving employees a date for when they can 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 moving around 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.
3. Do it more often
Communicating more often was the top suggestion for what to do differently by participants in the 2007 study. The first time a message is communicated, employees may not always 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 that was 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 or a single kickoff meeting or a single video message by the CEO broadcast on the intranet. Communication is a process - it must utilize multiple mediums to repeat and reinforce key messages throughout the project lifecycle.
Those communicating a message may be uncomfortable with communicating a message multiple times. They may say "but I've already told people this." Change management practitioners are enablers of communicators and must hold them accountable for communicating multiple times with customized messages.
4. Answer the questions people have
Communicating is not simply telling someone 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 that you should anticipate is for a communicator to talk only about what they care about and what they are 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 related to 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 that are at the forefront of what an employee cares about before they move into the specific details of the change.
5. Use preferred senders
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 2007 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, as we must get managers and supervisors on board before they can become an effective communicator. The next tutorial in this series will address managers and supervisors, and Prosci has both a training option and a self-paced toolkit to support managers and supervisors.
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.
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.