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Change management communication planning: The Role of IC in 10 Steps

Tim VaughanTim Vaughan·
Change management communication planning

Sometimes you don’t fully realize you’re living through history as it’s being made, but 1990 was different.

After the tumultuous disintegration of the Soviet Union the previous year, Germany was reunified, Berlin became one city again and Poland marked its newfound independence by electing Lech Walesa as President. And in South Africa, Nelson Mandela had the eyes of the world on his long walk to freedom.

Meanwhile, in quiet obscurity on the French-Swiss border near Geneva as all this was going on, the genius of a British scientist working on a computer built by Steve Jobs was about to change the world. Tim Berners-Lee had invented the World Wide Web.

At the same time across the Atlantic, an American academic was midway through a 10-year study of organizational change in over 100 companies. John Kotter’s subsequent book, Leading Change, was a bestseller and is to this day regarded as a seminal work in the field of change management.

Between them, Berners-Lee and Jobs have, of course, changed the world beyond recognition since the 1990s. But over 20 years after John Kotter published the results of his decade-long change management study, one of its main findings remains stubbornly unchanged: bad or inadequate communication of a company’s change vision is one of the main reasons why any attempt to change will fail.

In fact, Kotter said, the change vision is frequently “under-communicated by a factor of 10 (or 100 or even 1,000)”. In the intervening years, countless studies have come to the same conclusion as to why an astonishing 70% of change projects fail: communication is always one of the main reasons why three out of four change initiatives are unsuccessful.

All of which place internal communicators in a uniquely pivotal position to influence organizational change  But it’s one thing knowing that communications can make or break a transition plan, the real question is how to ensure your company doesn’t end up on the wrong side of those failure stats.

Here are some measures to help you avoid that fate and in the process enhance the role of the IC function. As you will see, there is at the outset particular emphasis on gaining the support of senior leaders and ensuring they understand the role communications play, because if they don’t realize or appreciate that then any change initiative is doomed before it starts.

1. Get inside senior leadership, get their backing. Leaders will, in theory, know how crucial effective communications are for successful change management but it doesn’t always translate into practice. Before even thinking about a comms strategy you and your team must do everything possible to ensure senior leadership is aware of the consequences if appropriate consideration, planning, and resources are not allocated to the project. If senior leaders falter here then failure will be inevitable.

2.  Don’t wait for leaders to approach you.  Communicators need to be brought into the change planning process at the start, not simply to create a comms plan when the leadership feels it’s time to tell everybody what’s happening.  As change management expert Priya Bates pointed out in her Poppulo webinar Time for Change: A communicator’s role in change programs’  there is real merit in being proactive and just making a case to senior management to be involved from the get-go, outlining the proven benefits and potential disaster if communications are not what they need to be and IC is restricted to input that is merely reactive.

3. Give them a crash course on what communication isn’t. It’s a two-way process, not a one-way street – and listening to all stakeholders, especially employees is as important as telling them what’s being planned.  Leaders need to understand that just because the company has spoken and audiences have listened, it doesn’t necessarily follow that the message has been heard and understood.  There will be a need to communicate and communicate, and communicate……and this means that….

4….it’s important for leaders to realize that change takes time.  Senior management will typically want to effect change rapidly and be tempted to rush communications, with disastrous results. John Kotter found that realizing change can take a long time can improve the chances of success. So internal communicators need to influence their leaders to take a long-term view, perhaps over several years.

5. The components of effective communication.  The very wise HR expert Susan Heathfield says effective comms require four components that are interlinked “to create a shared meaning, a favorite definition of communication”.  They are:

  • The individual sending the message must present it clearly and in detail, and radiate integrity and authenticity.
  • The person receiving the message must decide to listen, ask questions for clarity, and trust the sender of the message.
  • The delivery method chosen must suit the circumstances and the needs of both the sender and the receiver.
  • The content of the message must resonate and connect, on some level, with the already-held beliefs of the receiver. It must contain the information that the employee wants to hear. It must answer the employee’s most cherished and cared about questions.

And as Susan says, with all of this going on in a communication it’s a wonder that organizations ever do it well!

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6. Think team, before the comms strategy and plan.  According to Priya Bates, one of the most important aspects of change communication is who’s on the team behind it, and this should most certainly not be about ‘ownership’ of the communications.  Whether it’s the Executive, HR, IT, Legal, Training etc, the important question to ask, she said, is ‘who needs to be at the decision-making table in order for this process to be successful’? “Communicators should point out who they believe are missing from the table, for example, key influencers who do not happen to be part of the organization’s leadership,” she said.

7.  Aim for a quick easy win for a positive reaction.  Plan your change process to allow a quick and easy small success to engender confidence in the wider change project. Evidently positive impact as a result of change has a self-perpetuating effect and help alleviate concern.

8. Forming your communication strategy:  Assess the impacted change audiences (who’s going to be affected, how and when).  Conduct a communications audit. Develop an overall communications plan for each phase of the change process. Design and develop detailed components of the comms plan (e.g objectives, messages, sender, medium, frequency and feedback mechanisms).

9. The communication plan:  What is going to be included in the plan, what’s it going to look like? Most importantly it must first answer the what and why of the planned changes. What are they and why are they happening, why are they being put forward?

After that, it’s the who, how and when. Who’s going to be impacted, in what way and when is it going to kick in for them

It’s not just a cliché that most people don’t like change. And the most natural instinct for anybody when they’re hearing about change is: how is this going to affect me. But prior to any communication, management should carefully consider another question: how do they anticipate those impacted will react.

Put together a plan that provides the right message to the right stakeholder at the right time, taking people through the process and its various milestones, with solid communication programs along the way.

10.  Be clear, be consistent, be open, be honest: my four cardinal rules of change communication.  If you’re not clear you’re going to confuse, if you’re not consistent you’re going to cause chaos,  if you’re not open you’re not going to be trusted, and if you’re not honest you’re going to be dead.  


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