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Change Communications

By Wright Communications - 22 August 2016
For the Internal Comms practitioner, managing the comms around change used to be an occasional task or project.

Not anymore it seems.  Organisations striving to stay viable, functional and/or relevant have to confront the need for change pretty much constantly.

It's often personnel-based: shifts in the organisation's people resource brought on by whatever external or internal winds are raging.  That may be shifts in the market or the world we do our business in. Or it's technical and operational:  we change the way we do things, bring in new things.

Something changes and we have to change in line with it.  But as is only human nature, many people don't like change.  It means uncertainties.  Confidence in what you're doing and have done for a long time is eroded.  You don't want it to happen. Can't we avoid it?

Change invariably brings resistance. Motivation falls.  Productivity falls.  Morale falls.

Some change is unnecessary.  It's an over-reaction.  A knee-jerk.  You hope the organisation (or its masters at the top) don't make this error.

But most change is unavoidable. It's going to happen sooner or later (better sooner).  It has to happen.

How should it happen?

Imagine a clock - and for this metaphor I'm indebted to one of the great commentators on this change business - Bill Quirke.  We're at 12 and it becomes clear to us as a senior management team that we need to make some changes to our business or we're in deep doodoo.  We assess the problem - what's really wrong here?  At about one (metaphorically speaking) we agree among ourselves that it's bad and we need to change something or things.  We formulate some options…3 o'clock.  We debate these and decide what the best option is…4pm.  We work out how we would implement the chosen option…5pm.  Then we proceed to roll it out…6pm.

And all hell breaks loose.

People are shocked.  Upset.  How can you do that?  We don't like it.  We don't want it.  Make it go away!

The problem?  You and your senior colleagues who held the discussions and made the decisions and came up with the solution and rolled it out are at 7 o'clock.  But just about everyone else by and large is still at 12 - they don't even see what's wrong.  It hasn't been explained to them.  They thought we were doing OK.

You didn't take them with you on the journey.

Quirke depicts this another way: two funnels overlaying each other - one inverted. The inverted funnel - narrow at top, wide at bottom - represents the decision-making involvement process, ie a few people at the start and everyone at the end when you're rolling out your solution. The right-way-up funnel is the options: wide at the top (lots of options), narrow at the bottom (the one you chose and rolled out).

Get the picture?  This is not rocket science and there is often an attempt to make this change process consultative but it can be a bit of a sham.  Options are laid out but there's one that's already been ordained as the winner.  To be fair it's probably the best or right one, but the process still evokes a sense of cynicism - you've decided already and you're just going through the façade of consulting with us. True debate about the options hasn't occurred.

But the critical stroke is a step earlier than that.  It's the expression of the compelling rationale for the change.  The WHY.  If you haven't made the case strongly for change to happen, you won't get buy-in to the process of working out what to do to fix the problem.  You'll get resistance.

Internal Comms person - this is where you have to thump the big table.  Has the need for change been raised, discussed, and agreed broadly?  You have to make that happen.  Your senior managers lead it, it is face-to-face and robust.  It isn't an indeterminate process - we don't have the luxury of endless time to solve the problem as the worse it gets, the harder it will be to remedy.  We make it democratic but we make it very clear that, for good reasons, doing nothing (status quo-ing) is not an option.

Practically this is about the formula promoted by TJ and Sandar Larkin in their excellent book Communicating Change of face-to-face communications, robust involvement of managers/supervisors to understand and share the messages, and very strong linkage to the future prosperity and survival of the organisation.

Remember, the moment change comes on the agenda employees focus on four questions:

  1. Do I have a job?
  2. If I do, is it the same as my old job?
  3. If it's different, will I be given training and support to do it properly?
  4. If I don't have a job, will the organisation look after me?

Communicating the rationale for change is the Internal Comms Manager's first and biggest task in a change situation.

Do that well, and there is generally a well-established Human Resources guidebook to how change should be rolled out with personnel.  It's underpinned by law and the proper respectful treatment of employees. Comms supports the preparation of information that will be provided to managers and employees - the consultation documents, the emails, the presentations…whatever tools and channels are needed to inform the organisation of what's happening.

There are more face-to-face events than normal, they are more regular and they allow plenty of two-way flow.

The Internal Comms person is also there to ensure management doesn't drop the ball.  Nobody likes bad news, but it happens and if there is a rational explanation for what has happened - it was necessary and unavoidable - in time people will accept it and move on.

But bad news delivered badly scores badly with the punters. That's what they remember.

So you never lie.  You don't make the mistake of not telling them anything because you can't tell them everything.   You tell them what you do know, and what as yet you don't have the answers to…with some indication (as best you can estimate it) of when you will have that missing information.  And promise you'll tell them then. And keep your promise.

And you front.  Top leadership needs to speak.  If you hide, it suggests you have something to hide.

I recall a brave health sector manager fronting a rural NZ community about the impending closure of their hospital. He addressed them on the reasons and got a hostile response, but earned their respect for fronting.  Bad news sure - but delivered in person.

Change communications isn't all about bad news though. The way organisations and people respond to the need for change can shape both the future prosperity and viability of the organisation - but also profoundly influence how employees feel about their workplace. Good comms is the key to that!

By Ron Murray.

 

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