Just when you think you can relax, another change comes roaring around the bend:
- A new initiative is launched to transform operations.
- A technology platform is being introduced that will have a major impact on how people work.
- Two divisions are merging or a business is being spun off.
Whatever the nature of the change, you can bet it's going to be tough. Every change comes with roadblocks and unexpected turns. According to an article by Nitin Nohria and Michael Beer in the Harvard Business Review, more than 70% of internal change initiatives fail to meet expectations. And when I talk to leaders, they tell me that managing change is one issue that keeps them up at night. For example, at a recent conference, leaders shared concerns like these:
- We face constant change at both facility and corporate levels. How can we keep employees focused, despite all the change?"
- Our company is trying to get employees engaged to change the culture.
- I need some new ideas for communication that helps employees understand why change is being made.
Because change is so challenging, it's essential for communication professionals to take the lead in making their organizations change-ready. The best way to do so? Build a playbook that articulates a game plan for communicating change. I like the word playbook because it's defined (according to Merriam-Webster) as a stock of usual tactics or methods. Too many organizations have to scramble to reinvent the wheel every time a new change pops up. But that's exhausting and inefficient. It's so much more effective to develop a standard approach to change communication - one that's approved by senior leaders and endorsed by key stakeholders - that you can deploy whenever you need to. What should be in your playbook? Here are five key elements.
1. Your organization's philosophy about change communication
Communication principles are beliefs about how communication should happen within your organization. Principles shape your strategies and demonstrate the rationale for proposing certain tactics. And principles are a good way to keep leaders on track if communication starts to sputter. Here are a few examples:
- We're transparent about decisions.
- We communicate first to employees who are significantly affected by an event/change.
- If we don't know the whole story or can't share it, we tell employees what we can and let them know when they'll hear more.
- Dialogue is our first choice for communication.
2. How you approach telling your change story
When a change is launched, employees want to know what is happening now, what will happen when - and, most importantly, what the change means for them:
- How did we decide to make this change? Why is it important? (context)
- How will we know when the change is done? How is this different from what we're doing now? (vision)
- How will we make this change? (plan)
A story, or set of key messages, helps you curate critical information and clearly explain the situation. It supports leaders to focus on the right topics. And it provides employees with a way to navigate the details - from project teams to focus areas - that are challenging to remember and prioritize. That's why your playbook needs guidelines on how to build a story for every change. Stories are so important because they stick. Most of the information we consume washes over us, but stories capture our attention. They help us learn by creating memorable moments. And they encourage conversation - a key component of knowledge building. Build your narrative by using a story arc, which the Oxford English Dictionary defines as the development or resolution of a narrative or principle theme. An arc maps the key points of your story in a compelling way - and creates a consistent framework for communicating the change.
3. The critical roles that leaders and managers play in supporting change
Read any book or review any case study about successful change and you're sure to find one constant: For people in organizations to accept and act on change, they need consistent and compelling communication from their leaders and managers. Setting expectations for leaders and managers is a fundamental way to address these challenges. Your first step is to define their communication roles, which typically include these core communication tasks:
- Creating meaning by helping employees learn what the change means to them: how they need to do things differently, so company objectives are achieved
- Turning change into actions by linking corporate goals to division/department and individual goals, so employees know what they need to do and at what performance level.
- Encouraging dialogue and giving employees opportunities to share their feedback.
- Answering questions even when the answer is not yet known or can't be shared.
Once roles are clear, your playbook should include methods for how to support leaders and managers so they can be successful change advocates.
4. Your strategy - and supporting tactics - for communication change
Your playbook needs to identify communication tactics that will help employees learn about the change and understand what to do. Consider tactics that will build awareness (such as posters and email), as well as knowledge-building tools (such as workshops and Q&A sessions):
- Leverage existing channels. You likely have a set of communication tools that you use regularly, such as the intranet, an email from the CEO or a newsletter. Put those channels to work. For example, a special section on the intranet could be a helpful place for employees to get the latest information on the change.
- Consider new communication tools. From one-page overviews to meetings and workshops, new tactics will be an important part of your plan. They will help you build knowledge within specific groups and help key stakeholders play their communication roles.
- Mix it up. Don't fall into the trap of sending an email and considering communication complete. When it comes to change communication, the most critical tools encourage dialogue and participation.
5. Methods for measuring effectiveness
When we ask those involved in communication about measuring the impact of theirwork, the reply is usually anecdotal: Employees loved it! Or, Our leaders gave it a thumbs up. The truth is, if we don't measure, you don't know if communication is working. Here are five feedback mechanisms to include in your playbook:
- Spot surveys (three to five questions). A spot survey is a great way to test if you're breaking through. Try fielding a survey after a key moment, such as a town hall meeting or a big announcement.
- Behavioral data. Often communication is designed to encourage a behavior or action, such as enrolling in a plan. Set a goal (for example, 90% will enroll by the end of the month) and track the results.
- Participation data. Are employees using the tools you created? For example, if you created a microsite to keep everyone up to date on a new initiative, do employees visit the site? Which pages are most popular?
- Questions. The topics employees ask about are important clues about what you need to address in your communication plan or follow-up communication. Collect questions during town halls and via email and intranet pages. Then categorize the questions to identify themes.
- Focus groups. Facilitate a focus group to test key elements of your communication plan. And hold another session after you've launched to understand what's missing for employees.
There's no doubt that communicating change is a challenge. But by building a comprehensive playbook, you can use communication to support effective change.
Alison sets the strategic direction for Davis & Company and leads the development of new products and services. Since founding the company in 1984, she has provided senior counsel to clients such as American Water, BD and International Flavors & Fragrances. Alison has written or edited the books 49 Ways to Improve Employee Communications, The Definitive Guide to HR Communication, and Your Attention, Please. An online columnist for Inc.com, she frequently writes articles for leading business and trade publications.