Change Communication: More than You-Rah-Rah

Change communication – a topic that makes confident leaders into puddles of uncertainty.  But not Aaron.  A financial services company was installing new trading software.  It would significantly change their work processes, standardize many currently autonomous decisions, and result in some layoffs.  Aaron, the CEO, had worked tirelessly with his staff to assure a credible communication plan was crafted, emphasizing why the change was needed: a vision for growing the company and the software easing that growth, along with much better regulatory compliance tracking.  Aaron had not shied away from the question of layoffs in the communication plan.  The plan carefully laid out the numbers, broad timing, how people would be treated, and the desire to absorb as many as possible into other positions into the company.  Finally, the communication plan covered an overall plan for the implementation of the new software, including training.  Aaron planned to talk about the software implementation at each of the company’s bi-monthly all-employee meetings.  He felt pretty good about the company’s communication plan.

Aaron did an above-average job in planning for change communications.  Many leaders’ communication plans around change are little more than cheerleading – “You’re going to love this!”, when they know everyone is going to hate it for a while.  But Aaron might have done even better by thinking about communication along four concurrent paths.

This model, which we developed, is published in Managing Change in Organizations: A Practice Guide (2013, Project Management Institute).

What Aaron focused on was the steady messaging, the continued top-down messaging about goals, plans and expectations.  It is indeed the communication best-suited to top leadership during times of large change.  Aaron might have added a good dose of language around his confidence in the organization and its people to adapt, as they had so often done through past changes.

While Aaron and his staff likely would have addressed it informally at the bi-monthly employee meetings, the company would do well to plan in advance for cyclical messages as well – the continual keeping people in the loop.  For example, while Aaron laid out the high-level plan for layoffs, there are myriad small details involved at each stage, and countless questions:  Who will pick up work of those that leave, if it’s not work associated with the new software?  Will the layoffs happen all at once, or gradually?  There are also new things that are occurring throughout the change implementation – successes and problems, new information developed as plans go deeper.  A good change communication plan identifies who will carry what types of messages, and how the communication decisions will be made.  Often, people closer to the action are the best to carry these messages – the mid-level managers and supervisors of people affected by the change.

Communication does not flow in only one direction.  A good change communication plan establishes the subjects and means of seeking feedback about the change.  How will you obtain peoples’ experience, preferences, concerns, and solution ideas?  Feedback, too, needs to be continual during the change, with well-communicated and highly accessible means for people to offer their input.

Finally, a good change communication plan needs to prepare in advance for the inevitable mini-crises that will occur.  Unforeseen situations will occur that require a pause, some work to investigate and make decisions, and the development of resolutions.  It is wise to plan in advance for who will own these situational communications if and when they occur, and how they will be handled.  It is equally wise to plan how to invite the discovery of these potential difficulties, so that people feel free to raise the questions of risks before they become more than just time bombs.

Change communication is a multi-faceted, two-way effort that is often underestimated.  It too often feels like the words of one of my former bosses in announcing a change to me, “Let me tell you how you’re going to feel about this….”.  When done well, change communication is not cheerleading; it’s the huddle of the team getting ready for the big play.

Written by Marge Combe, VMC Consultant

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2 thoughts on “Change Communication: More than You-Rah-Rah

  1. I love the “….huddle of the team getting ready for the big play.” In the change process, communicating beyond the “huddle” is key to making the change a reality. I love the illustration of the four aspects of change communication. Ineffective use of the feedback loop will definitely destroy the change process.

    Great article. I save it for future use and reference.

  2. David, I’m pleased that you have saved this article for future reference. We hope that many more leaders will find it useful and do the same. Thank you for your comments.


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