Internal Communications: Strategic support of organizational change

14 Apr

In this part 3 of a 4-part series on internal communications, I’m discussing how communications can be used strategically – not just haphazardly, or after the fact – to support positive organizational change.

Every organization goes through periods of change – either that, or they die. Sometimes the changes are massive, affecting the daily work of hundreds or thousands; other times, the changes seem major at the top, but most folks just continue what they are doing.

In times of organizational change, internal communications always has three strategic moves, and sometimes four:

1. Show an apparent need for change

Clearly, this is the “sometimes” step. We don’t always know when change is coming, and it’s not always appropriate that everyone know.

When it is possible, report the reasons for change. When leadership is considering changes, surface the less-positive news. Let the people know that there are pain points, and that the leadership is aware and willing to take on the problem. Now, I’m not saying that communicators should be out there announcing potential plans before they are ripe, stirring the bees’ nest and bringing work to a standstill.

If you have a culture of transparency and open communications, then this already happens. An indicator of open communications is when people feel free to discuss the shortcomings of the product they work on. If people are empowered to point out flaws, even when they don’t know how to improve it, then an internal communications functionary doesn’t need to help with this step.

For groups with a culture of we-don’t-discuss-the-dirty-laundry: If there is some reason to make a change, then that reason is often not a secret from the people doing the work. Perhaps there are competitors closing in, or a change in the landscape such that the work must be divided differently. Perhaps it is an organization of 1000 people within a company of 10,000 – and the winds of change are already blowing through the other groups.

2. Coordinate messages among leaders for consistent, trustworthy announcements

Employees will compare the message of their top leader (president, CEO, vice-president) to the message of their own supervisor. If those two don’t match, employee confidence – and therefore work – suffers.

Unless the group is very tiny, there are multiple leaders. Before a change announcement is made generally, ensure that the leaders – people managers, peer leadership, and decision makers – are on the same page. A pre-announcement or meeting, led by the top decision maker, can go a long way to ensuring that the right change messages reach deep into the organization.

In groups where multiple leaders are making announcements, it is imperative that their messages speak to the same reasons for change. A communications or HR professional can be invaluable here, holding the messages side-by-side to suggest edits to these complex communications. They can work directly with leadership to ensure that the tone is appropriate to the change, and that the right level of information is surfaced.

Timing can be another consideration: especially when a cascade of emails is appropriate, someone needs to coordinate and inform the leaders about who sends what to whom, and when. If the organization’s email distribution list is several hundred people deep, then it will take some time before everyone is informed. Smaller group emails shouldn’t be sent until the major announcement propagates through the system.

3. Illustrate the change in multiple modalities

The change may be to the organizational hierarchy, may be to the product being made, or to the geography of the company. Whatever the change, prepare to articulate it internally:

  • Visually, in diagrams or pictures. If possible, animating the change is particularly effective to demonstrate the change from what-has-been to what-will-be
  • As a face-to-face speech or presentation, given by the most senior leadership affected or available
  • Written, as in an email or whitepaper, to give all the details
  • Scattershot, as question-and-answer
  • Cheat-sheets for managers: what will their people need throughout the change process?

All of these should be prepared ahead of time to underscore the same core reasons for change: the point is to build trust through transparent, consistent communication. Each of them can (and will) evolve as the change is announced – but planning ahead will free up communicators’ cycles to handle additional needs that may come out of major announcements.

4. Measure and promote success of the new normal as it evolves

Once change has happened, how does anyone know that it was the right decision? The most irritating changes are the capricious ones that seem to require more work, with little to no payoff.

Plan in advance to collect data on how the goals of the change are being met, and/or how people are adjusting to those changes. Early in the communications and announcement process, set some people-oriented goals, and decide how to collect data and feedback. Open channels for communication, and remind people to use them.

Also plan to communicate the successes – and the pain points – back to the organization. Point out what the changes have made possible, and how the goals are being met. If additional changes had to be made, leaders should address them openly and honestly in email, articles or blogs, or in meetings. Regular communication to people managers can be used to keep the whole organization apprised of progress.

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