4 Obstacles to Communicating Change

Miki Reilly-Howe

Inside large organizations, transformation is often painful. Some of that is just par for the course, but some of that hardship is self-inflicted. 

For the last six years, our company has helped leaders in a variety of industries communicate change internally. We’ve found a few common things that get in the way of transformation efforts. Eliminating these obstacles will ensure a faster transition with fewer pain points.


Obstacle #1: Communicating the Wrong Thing

When it comes time to communicate a strategic shift to employees, leaders are well-versed in the reasons behind the change and why they believe it will work. They’ve been discussing the topic for months, so leaders are anxious to communicate the situation the way they see it.

The COO might believe that people need to understand how to execute the changes, while the CEO believes the communication should focus on the future of the industry. HR might be concerned with upcoming workforce reductions and how to prepare employees for this before announcements are made externally.

The truth is none of them are right – or wrong. It’s just that employees aren’t likely to see the situation the same way.

The only way to successfully communicate change is to truly understand how individuals throughout the organization see the current situation. Give them a chance to help you craft the right message by understanding what they think of the new direction. What questions do they ask first? What is their immediate reaction to the message? What emotions are present?

We typically conduct 75-100 one-on-one depth interviews with people across the organization, from management to the back office to the front lines. As we discuss the business and the changes to come, we get a clearer picture of how people see the situation. We use this as the basis for change communication, addressing common questions early and focusing on what matters most to employees.

It’s amazing how this small step – taking the time to interview a few dozen people – can help create communication that accelerates change.


Obstacle #2: Change Management

The word management comes with a few assumptions. Like order and hierarchy. Milestones and gates and stages. The assumption of Change Management is that chaos can be directed.

Organizations that transform quickly are good at responding to change, not managing it. Not charting it in Excel. Not creating PowerPoints. Not appointing Project Managers to create timelines and set up meetings to pressure people for deliverables.

The companies who respond best to change see it coming. Change happens outside in the marketplace, so leaders who are in touch with customers, have open dialog with departments that interact with customers (like sales and customer service), and pay attention to feedback from both groups are more prepared. They see change as it emerges.

These companies practice response management, implementing small solutions while leaders evaluate whether the issue is likely to spread across multiple lines of business or product groups. If the situation dictates a broader strategic change, each division is already responding to the situation and investigating solutions by the time the CEO officially announces a company-wide transformation.


Obstacle #3: The Cascade

Consider this: No one had to “cascade” the iPhone when it was introduced.

Communication about a major shift in an organization should be immediate and compelling. It should be an intentional campaign that appeals to the emotions of an organization, while providing rationale for the change. If the strategy is sound, it will clearly state the problem and the organization’s focused response – not a laundry list of wishes. Communication should be dramatic and motivating, like the launch of a revolutionary new product.

That doesn’t mean the communication should be falsely optimistic. Many transformations carry tough decisions like combining divisions, closing locations and eliminating jobs. The launch of any change campaign should create a deep desire to be part of the new direction while acknowledging the realities of the situation. Remember, all participation is voluntary.

Change communication will include waves of more action-oriented dialog. That’s when smaller groups of people work together with managers to redefine the role they play in the new world. Don’t confuse this with communicating the change itself.


Obstacle #4: TMI (Too Many Initiatives)

There will never be a time when a major transformation is the only communication going out to employees. In any given month, there are dozens of initiatives that require an employee’s attention. There will always be attendance required at a training, steps for certifications, recurring conference calls and progress reports.

Attention is your scarcest resource. In the midst of so much communication, it’s easy for employees to feel fatigued. When the change communication comes out, it’s often competing with many other important topics and doesn’t get the attention it deserves.

One simple solution is to design a Priority of Communication for internal communications. At the beginning of an initiative, determine its level of importance. Use a numeric scale (1-5) or a letter grade (A-F) to assign to each type of initiative.

Some initiatives may only merit an email. Some might require attendance at a meeting. Save the most impactful channels for big initiatives – things like webcasts or Town Halls with leadership. Beware the hammer effect; using a high-impact channel too frequently ruins its effectiveness.

Transformation doesn’t have to painful, and communication done well can speed up the organization’s response. Make sure you understand how employees see the situation. Work to build a culture that is in touch with customers and open to feedback from the front lines. When a transformation is necessary, launch a focused, emotional campaign that builds desire and uses high-impact channels to deliver the message.

You’ll be surprised at how quickly things change.

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