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Ensure your change communication strategy first aligns with the external business environment

01 Jun, 2020 Change communication

This article was originally published in 2015 and has been completely updated in 2020.

It is crucial for you to start each of your major change communication programs by showing how the changes are caused directly by pressures in the external business environment. This conveys important authenticity to your employees. They can perceive these pressures for themselves, becoming aware of what is happening elsewhere. Otherwise, they will invariably have doubts about your messaging when you start communicating at the team and individual level. Therefore, you need to set the scene by showing the pressure from external factors before turning inwards within the organization.

Unfortunately, one of the influential external sources of change information has been a business myth that began in a book titled Re-engineering the Organization. It was sparked by a passing comment in the book that “…as many as 50 per cent to 70 per cent of the organizations that undertake a re-engineering effort do not achieve the dramatic result they intended” (Hammer & Champy 1993, p. 200). This 70% ‘fact’ has been taken as truth within the business environment for more than 25 years, and yet change management activities have been proven to be more successful than that, as observed by change expert Jennifer Frahm. Measuring the success of a change implementation project is much more complex than drawing simplistic conclusions. More on this subject below in this article. Being able to refute the 70% claim may prove valuable in your discussions with management and employees if the claim is mentioned.

Workplace change tends to be a dreaded experience because it is often fumbled badly by management. Employees know this from their own experience as well as what they hear from other sources. I know this from my own direct experience as well. In my earlier days as an employee, I personally experienced bungled change management three times – in a public company, a power utility and a university. Although I offered to help with communication, upper management blundered along regardless, and in one of those cases the organization was successfully sued by disgruntled staff. Later, in other organizations as a member of the executive team in my position as corporate affairs manager, I was able to advise management on better practice (although they still didn’t really understand the importance of change communication).

Nothing is as constant as change

We all experience change – it affects everyone in various ways. It is a deceptively simple, one-syllable word that has a vast range of meanings and applications. We change as our lives change in response to our surrounding environment – near and far, in our personal experience and what we observe happening to others, including the workplace.

Some consultants like US change expert Robert Schaffer say that all management is the management of change, and that leaders should view change not as an occasional disruptor but as the very essence of the management job. Continuous improvement?

However, some things can remain relatively constant and relatively comforting, even in times of change. If you can refer to some of these workplace factors in your change communication, you reduce your employees’ sense of disruption. These stabilizing factors can include relationships with other employees and their boss as well as shared activities with other departments.

Organizational change is not an isolated happening. Change tends to happen at various levels simultaneously, at the individual level as well as group/team and organizational levels. What’s more, all these levels affect each other and are impacted by the changing external and internal business context.

Many external background factors influence the need for change management in the workplace. These need to be taken into account as the context for successful change communication. We look at some of these factors now because they are crucial to successful change initiatives and therefore change communication, which I also discuss in a forthcoming article.

Change is forced on your organization by external influences

Communication takes place to support organizational change management initiatives that are invariably caused by external influences.

Wendy Hirsch’s chart below shows a whole spectrum of change, from the highest level down to individual employees. All these influences affect each other, and many happen at the same time:

  • changes affecting the cultures of countries, such as changed attitudes of the general population toward immigration inflows and the economic consequences
  • changes affecting whole economies of countries caused by new tariffs or other government regulatory changes
  • changes within whole industries, such as technological change or actions by competitors
  • changes at organizational level resulting from new policies or financial results as well as changes at the macro level in countries and industries
  • changed activities for teams required to create new efficiencies resulting from external changes affecting their organization
  • changes of awareness, understanding, and behavior of individuals to implement more efficient and effective performance resulting from external changes.

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As a communicator, you need to be aware of these broad background factors that most apply to your organization so your initial change messaging strikes a genuine chord with employees. Otherwise, you are just a messenger being told what to do by management without establishing the credibility of your message, yourself or your management. In doing this analysis, you may even become more aware of the overall picture than many of the senior managers, and may be able to strengthen your own standing with such managers as a result of this important knowledge.

Set the scene for employees

If you are a member of your organization’s executive committee you will become aware of forthcoming organizational changes. If you aren’t a member, you can still meet with your boss, who is presumably a senior manager, and request to be informed well in advance of such information due to its importance.

What’s more, if you have been monitoring the business environment and reporting to management on the intelligence you have collected, then you will be aware of likely changes in your sector.

This will give you time to set the scene for the approaching changes. You can develop a series of strategic messages from top management through various communication channels. These messages would point to the pressures in the surrounding business environment.

At each of the levels shown in the above diagram, a range of variables come into play within every organization, so it is important for senior management – and you as communicator – to take these into account so your messages stand up to scrutiny and are trusted by employees. These variables can include:

  • your organization’s policies and standards
  • the type of sector in which the organization is based
  • the size of the organization
  • recent operating performance of the organization
  • the extent of physical and financial assets
  • the organization’s past history in managing change
  • how secure management feel in their roles
  • how competent managers actually are and are perceived as such
  • management’s priorities
  • personalities, expectations and culture at all levels

As communicators, we need to be mindful of the big picture. It is pointless to start change communication without taking into account all the factors – mainly external – that cause senior management to start a change implementation process. You don’t want to communicate about necessary change when you are not aware of all the external factors forcing change – or even when senior management may not be taking all these factors into account. This may leave you stranded if you are not including factors that may influence the cooperation of employees with the proposed change program.

Remember that distrust is triggered more quickly than trust

Consider the power of story as a change management tool

Neuroscientists have discovered that the patterns of activity in the brain when listening to a story mirror the patterns that are seen when experiencing the actual event. The brain responds to stories as if they are real, so use stories to support your change argument – and make them authentic.

Trust and distrust

Change causes uncertainty; uncertainty triggers both trust and distrust. You can reframe both individual messages and the overall communication strategy to build trust. Here are some ways to build trust. Try thinking of some more:

  • Engage in two-way conversations; encourage questions
  • Encourage two-way communications
  • Engage employees in shaping the strategy and its execution
  • Clearly communicate how employees will be supported in navigating uncertainty
  • Support experimentation
  • Recognize and draw lessons from mistakes
  • Encourage sharing of ideas, best practices, and anything that will help achieve success

Use examples and anecdotes, not just facts and data, to establish the context for employees

Communicating to employees about the pressing need for broad change are generally more convincing than merely referring to facts and data, despite the fact that senior managers tend to be more comfortable with facts and data. Your workers can see for themselves the changes happening in the business world. They would be wondering about the changes and discussing the implications for them. Those perceived changes would be making them feel uncertain about their future. Matt Stoyka from AlleyWatch has some valuable thoughts on this, which I have adapted:

Start by using an example to talk about the wider problem

Every good story starts with a problem, which you can use as an example of the larger issue/s facing your organization. Employees need to relate to the problem, so you need to discuss it terms they can personally understand.

Be authentic in discussing the problem with employees

Identifying a key problem is the foundation for a good story, and also critical to fixing the problem. Organizational change is less troubling for staff if they know their leaders are being honest with them. Your employees will be able to tell if your CEO and senior managers are not giving genuine reasons for a particular organizational change. Referring to genuine external pressures helps to make their messages more real and authentic.

Tell stories that motivate employees

While your executive team may be mainly motivated by creating value for the company and its shareholders, research shows that managers and employees are also motivated to do their work because of the impact it has on society, on the customer, on their working team, and on themselves personally. If the story you’re telling is a story of creating more value for shareholders or better serving customers, you’re missing important motivators. Be sure to tell stories include the motivations of employees.

Get employees to discuss genuine external situations they are observing

Inviting your workers to participate in a storytelling process about the pressing need for change they have identified in the business environment is a powerful motivator for them. They can identify what needs to change and come up with a vision for how to make it happen.

Repeat the story to all your employees and stakeholders

As a communicator, work with your senior management and your comms team to develop an internal communication plan for distributing your stories widely.

For instance, your organizational change might require a significant restructuring to respond to external circumstances more adeptly. One of your stories could be about how employees across business units, who had not previously worked together, quickly created a new product to meet a new customer demand. This product is enabling your organization to respond better to competitors’ initiatives.

This story should be communicated at staff meetings, through the company intranet, in the employee newsletter or an email from the CEO, with different angles to address the different motivations for change. For example:

  • A video with two employees talking about how working cross-functionally enabled the team members to gain great satisfaction from helping to tackle the pressures in the marketplace.
  • A case study showing how customers enjoy using the product
  • Statistics or facts within a story highlighting the features of the product that make it environmentally-friendly.

Finding a simple measure for the success of a change project is very difficult

The success of a change implementation project can’t reasonably be measured on a simplistic ‘yes’ or ‘no’ basis – an ‘all or nothing’ approach. Life is more complex than that. Degrees of success can be better measured on various dimensions. Wendy Hirsch recommends measuring based on these three variables:

  1. All the planned elements of the implementation are completed, and are within the intended time frame.
  2. The intended performance and outcomes are achieved.
  3. Stakeholders are satisfied with the extent to which implementation process and outcomes are achieved.

Change expert Jennifer Frahm and others raise further questions like:

The definition of ‘change project’ is questionable

Any project by definition relates to change – it is created to change something, to organize something, and improve something. But not all projects are ‘change projects.’ A change project needs to have a change management methodology employed and change management resourcing.

The definition of ‘success’ is questionable

What constitutes failure? Is it missing one target? Not fulfilling one customer requirement? Is it running over-time or over-budget? Failure comes in as many different shades as implementation programs.

Change success is rarely measured in absolutes. Things change during the course of an initiative. Sometimes dramatically. It is a discovery process. Quite often the goals shift as the project progresses. What emerges sometimes is different from the original intent. Also, often business sponsors have an unrealistic expectation of what success looks like and when it will happen.

Success is measured at the wrong time

Successful change takes time, and depends on the type of change and the type of organization. “Was the project delivered in full and on time” is simply not a “change success” metric. Culture change can take many years to embed, and so expectations based on time need to be realistic.

The units of analysis are different

Various studies refer to different types of companies, industries and types of change. Therefore, the units of analysis are not comparable. Changing a culture has very different success factors, time frames and methodology to a large-scale system implementation.

How to develop an effective change communication strategy

In a forthcoming article I will discuss important internal factors that influence the success of change communication strategies.

About the author Kim Harrison

Kim Harrison loves sharing actionable ideas and information about professional communication and business management. He has wide experience as a corporate affairs manager, consultant, author, lecturer, and CEO of a non-profit organization. Kim is a Fellow and former national board member of the Public Relations Institute of Australia, and he ran his State’s professional development program for 7 years, helping many practitioners to strengthen their communication skills. People from 115 countries benefit from the practical knowledge shared in his monthly newsletter and in the eBooks available from cuttingedgepr.com.

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