Creating a Communication Strategy for Change Success
An often quoted failure rate of organizational change projects is 70% – a number that hasn’t much changed in the last 25 years. In 2013, the Towers Watson Change and Communication ROI Survey found that only 55% of change management initiatives met their initial objectives, and three quarters failed to sustain gains over the long term. Brad Messinger, then a senior change management consultant at Towers Watson, said of the survey:
“Most companies are having a difficult time keeping the momentum of their change management initiatives going. The organizations that are able to sustain change over time are those that focus on the fundamentals that we know drive successful change: communication, training, leadership engagement and measurement.”
Takeaways from this and many other studies include:
- When change leaders are unable to help people understand why change is needed, resistance to change naturally increases
- Without a sustainable momentum for change, gains from the initiative are likely to recede over the long term
I’ve witnessed this experience first-hand, most notably at an organization with whom I worked to turnaround declining performance after a company reorganization. Her are a few main learnings from that client.
Poor Change Communication in Action
I was hired to uncover the reasons behind faltering performance at a company that was changing its operational model. As part of the reorganization, some departments were being split, which involved some downsizing of manpower.
Most employees had been impacted by the change, and performance was falling. Successful implementation of the change was getting further away, and the general manager wanted to hear from his people of what they believed what was getting in the way of sustaining performance. Resistance was bordering on mutiny.
Lack of Communication Was a Consistent Complaint
I conducted a series of interviews with employees, and a consistent complaint emerged: people felt as if they were being kept in the dark. They felt that management wasn’t communicating to its employees. The result was an anxious and confused workforce. One employee told me, “This was not communicated to me by my manager. I heard it from someone else. People are gossiping now.”
Shocked by Reality
Discussing my findings with the general manager and his leadership team, it was clear that communication failures were a shock to them. The general manager expressed his incredulity. I remember him saying, “I don’t understand. We had a town hall meeting the day the change was announced, and I’ve instructed my leadership team to have conversations with each of their groups about the impact of the change. Why would they say we haven’t done a good job communicating?”
He had led successful change initiatives in the past. For this larger-scale change program to be failing because of a poor communication strategy – and one which he had designed – was a bitter pill to swallow.
Communication Perception and Reality are Two Different Things
Unfortunately, this type of feedback is far from unusual. Leadership believes that it has put into place sufficient communication about the change initiative, while the reality is that employees feel neglected and under-communicated. The result is confusion on both sides and the rule of the water cooler.
When change leaders do not communicate effectively, the rumour mill is empowered to lead thought and opinion, and this is never a positive development. If leadership fails to communicate throughout the change process with sufficient quality, quantity and frequency, then messages and positivity will be lost. This leads to heightened resistance and falling performance – and failure of the change initiative.
Four Keys to Effectively Communicating Organizational Change
My experience is reflective of the experiences in the wider market. What I’ve found is that there are four keys to effective communication during organizational change projects. Combined, these help employees to understand and accept the need for change, drive commitment to it, and, ultimately, contribute to the success of any change initiative. These communication keys are:
1. Planning and Preparation
A communication strategy needs comprehensive planning and process. You’ll need to consider:
The content required
How messages are communicated
The channels used to communicate
Who is responsible for each type of communication and content
The frequency of communication required
Follow-up and feedback loops
2. Creating and Maintaining a Two-way Dialogue
A two-way dialogue is essential to develop the wider ownership of organizational change needed to energize enthusiasm for it. You don’t need to take my word for it. The evidence is comprehensive. For example:
In 2010, a survey conducted by McKinsey found that the success of change projects rocketed when employees felt they were a valued contributor, with more than 75% of projects reporting successful achievement of their goals.
In the same year, Google reported that there is an 81% correlation between collaboration and innovation.
In its 2013 report, ‘Managing Employee Engagement During Times of Change’, Aon Hewitt ranked the five drivers of engagement that it had found from its US employee survey data. During any type of change, feeling involved in decision making was the top influencer.
There are various ways in which an organization can promote the two-way dialogue necessary to engage people in decision making. Examples include as follows:
Target takes a marketing approach, relaying messages frequently and soliciting feedback.
Coca-Cola uses an employee brand advocate program, providing the impetus and tools for employees to communicate with external and internal stakeholders about matters concerning the business. As Coca-Cola’s Steve Soltis told Forbes in 2016: “A business cannot generate sustainable value and growth without employees understanding where it’s headed, why, what it’s going to take to get there, and why each employee matters.”
Bayer Corporation has a cutting-edge program engaging almost 200 employees to “gather ongoing feedback about how messages can be better communicated to the company”, and therefore test strategies and tactics.
Two-way dialogue keeps people involved, helps them to co-own the decision-making process and, therefore, engage with decisions that are made.
3. Involve Every Layer
When considering a communication plan, sponsorship by leaders is vital. However, the need for deep engagement of middle and frontline managers should not be underestimated. They can become squeezed in the communication process if their influence is misunderstood.
The reasons employees work are more closely aligned with those of their managers than those of senior executives and business leaders. Therefore, when communicating down the levels of an organization, successive layers of correlation between primary motivators can be used to increase the meaning of messages. To develop connection from the top down and through successive layers of the organizational hierarchy, the following principles apply:
Identify all key stakeholders to ensure engagement and momentum
Confirm the value of the stakeholder through dialogue
Request input and help, and explain what you expect that input to be and help to involve
Provide clarity of the change project to leaders
Ensure that leaders communicate about the change project as often as possible
Prepare middle and front managers as coaches who prepare their people for change
4. Wash, Rinse and Repeat… and repeat… and repeat…
The ability of people to retain information is limited. This is why most people need to undertake a comprehensive revision to pass exams. It is why brands find a slogan and repeat it often. In the book ‘Successful Advertising’, author Thomas Smith reflects on the effect of a message and the frequency it is communicated. His observations run from:
The 1st time people look at an ad, they don’t see it
The 5th time, they actually read the ad
The 9th time, they wonder if they’re missing out on something
The 12th time, they start to think that it must be a good product
The 20th time prospects see the ad, they buy what it is offering
The problem is that change leaders stop communicating way too early. The general manager I worked with above planned for only two levels of communication. According to Thomas Smith’s advertising rule, on the second time of communication, people don’t even notice the advert. Messages that are repeated often are perceived as more truthful – perhaps because of familiarity.
To engage people in change more effectively, the message from marketers is clear: repeat, repeat, repeat. Then continue to repeat.
So, Where do you stop?
The guiding question to ask yourself to keep on track is not, “Have we communicated enough?”, but “Have we reached our people?”
Articulate the urgent case for change, and then communicate frequently and with quantity in as many forums and channels as possible.
Guest Author Bio: Daniel Lock helps organizations unlock value and productivity through process improvement, project and change management. Find out more about him at daniellock.com