We can all agree that effective communication is critical to change management efforts. In fact, change practitioners have named it a top contributor to project success in Prosci's Best Practices in Change Management research for more than 20 years. Unfortunately, during times of change organizations often develop and execute communications plans without regard for a change management framework or perspective. Certainly, communications serve an important purpose in project management and other processes, but change management communications differ from these  communications in significant ways. 

Telling Versus communicating

A communications plan that is not part of a bigger change management approach usually won't produce positive results toward managing the people side of change. Instead, such plans result in a telling plan rather than a communications plan. Effective change management communications must target a particular audience, share why the change is happening, address their specific concerns, and meet them where they are in the change process. The timing, content and sender of the messages are also important during change. 

Here's what makes change management communications plans uniquely effective:

  • The Communications Plan is one of five change management plans.
    These plans are part of a holistic, robust change management approach. The other plans include the Sponsor Roadmap (specific activities required by senior leaders), Coaching Plan (how managers and supervisors will engage their direct reports), Training Plan (knowledge and skill-building for employees to adopt the change) and Resistance Management Plan (addressing objections and key areas of concern for employees). These five plans are the levers change management professionals use to support individuals through their own change process.
  • The Communications Plan is part of a larger process.
    Prosci's change management process occurs in three phases: Phase 1 - Preparing for Change, Phase 2 - Managing Change, and Phase 3 - Reinforcing Change. Before you develop the Communications Plan in Phase 2, you must complete Phase 1 by assessing your unique situation and developing a change management strategy. This strategy work in Phase 1 helps you avoid the mistake of creating your communications plan in a vacuum. The result is a strong situational awareness and appreciation for the specific project risks and challenges.
  • The Communications Plan is built on a a foundation of individual change.
    Prosci's ADKAR Model describes how a single individual experiences change. For an individual to make a change successfully, they must have Awareness, Desire, Knowledge, Ability and Reinforcement. Communications built on this premise are grounded in the fact that organizational changes only happen when each individual adopts and uses the required changes to his or her work.
  • The Communications Plan focuses on "them" not "us." 
    Instead of focusing on the project team, those developing the solution, and those implementing the change, the plan must focus on employees impacted by the change—the people who must adopt and use the change in their day-to-day work to make the project successful. This is an important distinction. When change management guides communication efforts, you shift away from telling employees what a project is doing (a focus on us) and toward answering the questions and concerns of impacted employees (a focus on them). In terms of telling versus communicating, maintaining a focus on us usually results in an ineffective telling plan. 

 

Man talking with alphabet letters coming out of his mouth. Communication, information, intelligence concept

Communications With and without change management

The Communications Plan used in change management has a very specific intent, focus, frequency, methods and senders. When organizations develop communications plans without change management, difficulties arise in each of these areas, and can sabotage project success.

Intent

  • With change management – Communications designed to build awareness and engage employees in the process
  • Without change management – Communication that comes from "us" and tells "them" what we're doing

Focus

  • With change management – Answers, "Why is the change happening?" "What's in it for me (WIIFM)?" "What's the risk of not changing?" and "What are the organizational benefits?"
  • Without change management – Project details, design details, status and progress updates, and milestones

Frequency

  • With change management – Dictated by project milestones
  • Without change management – High frequency with repetition of key messages

Methods

  • With change management – Face-to-face interactions, discussions, and a variety of media (always two-way)
  • Without change management – Broadcast messages (typically one-way)

Senders

  • With change management – Sponsors of change (leaders) and direct supervisors
  • Without change management – Project team members and communication specialists

Communications Checklist

If you are communicating without change management, the checklist below can help. While it is not a substitute for a holistic change management approach, it can be useful for aligning your communications with effective change management techniques.

 

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Stop Telling and Start Communicating

When project teams say they already have a communications plan for project changes, we often find that they have developed a plan to tell others in the organization about their work, their progress and their plans. But telling plans like this usually don't lead to successful outcomes during change. Instead, aligning your communications with a reliable change management framework helps you avoid negative consequences while setting you up for change success.

 

Introduction to Change Management - Prosci

Written by
Tim Creasey
Tim Creasey

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.