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Communicating Organisational Change

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Open and honest communication is essential in your business in order to keep staff engaged. When your business is about to implement some substantial change such as significant expansion, changing procedures, building a new team, changing business models like going from bricks and mortar to online, communication becomes even more critical.

When you want to open communications channels about organisational change, you need to send the right message to the right people at the right time. These messages need to be custom-built to the audience and the stage of progress, they need to address fear, they need to deal with natural resistance to change, and they need to use different media.
The key is – what is appropriate to the specific stakeholder?
The importance of communication in organisational change cannot be over-stated. Handled badly and you could end up with a vision that is misunderstood, as against all stakeholders involved attaining a common understanding of the goals and direction of change. It can be the difference between fear and resistance versus motivation and co-ordination.
However, the enormity of the task cannot be under-stated.
A management school study found that the total amount of information given to an employee in three months averaged 2.3 million words and numbers. A typical communication about change within those three months involved a 30 minute speech plus a one-hour meeting plus one memo and one internal news article that included 13,400 words and numbers. So the typical communication about change consisted of 0.58% of total communication!

No wonder most significant change efforts end with people in fear and acting in resistance to change.
In my 30 years’ experience dealing with companies around the world, no matter what cultural differences there may be, communicating change must follow seven principles:-
  1. Keep it simple – your message needs to get through; keep explanations simple and understandable.
  2. Use metaphor, analogy and example – tell a story, which is the way the best messages have been conveyed throughout history.
  3. Use multiple forums – different people pay attention in different ways; some people like to read things, others like to listen or debate, yet others like pictures as against words.
  4. Repeat (often!) – like James Bond, once is not enough; if the message is important it needs to be repeated, tell it once and it reduces in significance to the listener.
  5. Walk the talk – if the message is credible and truthful, then you need to follow it by walking the talk.
  6. Explain apparent inconsistencies – from time to time there may be apparent inconsistencies, and if so make them public; explain why some actions seem to be different from the message (and if you don’t have an explanation, make it consistent!).
  7. Listen and be listened to – communication is a two-way street; and hey, you might learn something!
Creating the message for the specific stakeholder also needs some planning. As the old saying goes “we hear what we want to hear, we hear what we need to hear.”
So what are the steps to craft the message?
First decide if it is one message or a number of messages that support the one vision. For example different people may see the one view from different perspectives – the technical, the human, the numerical, etc.
Identify the different stakeholders and their different needs, then identify the part of the message that meets those identified needs.
Keep the message short and simple, quantify it wherever possible for that stakeholder. For example tell about how much time can be saved, or how many steps in a process have been eliminated.
Use appropriate forums and vehicles to deliver the message, then demand feedback from those deliveries, and repeat the message again. Always provide pathways for the converted to spread the message – team meetings, newsletters and so on.
In crafting the message you need to address the fears of specific stakeholders. After all the reasons why people don’t listen can be numerous. There may be a general human resistance to change, they question if the pain is worth the gain, there may be limited knowledge or learning to understand detail, there may be a simple fear of the new. You need to understand the impact of the message and allow the fears to emerge.
Once you know what people’s fears are you can look for the answers in the change implementation plan. If they are not there, and the fears rest in something valid, that tells you that you may have overlooked something in the planning. Provide the answers from the plan.
If indeed the fear is baseless, then take the time to explain to them why it is baseless – don’t dismiss it out of hand, show them why it is baseless.
What if the issue is not fear but actually a natural human resistance to change? It exists – think of your own habits.
In this case deal once again with the different reasons for resistance of each stakeholder group. Motivate them with a clear and inspiring explanation of the Vision, plant a bold target that will appeal to them, and walk the talk. Deal with inconsistencies openly and let the individual critic wither on the vine.
In summary, communication is the key to implementing change in your business. In order to make that communication effective, pump up the volume by repeatedly repeating, using different media, and reinforcing through action. Make sure you understand the 7 successful elements of communicating organisational change, engage through specific messages to different stakeholder groups, address fear explicitly, understand resistance and provide answers to resistance from the plan.
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