Effective organisational change needs effective organisational communications

“They say I’m old-fashioned, and live in the past, but sometimes I think progress progresses too fast!” Dr. Seuss

The only thing certain in the world is change. Change is inevitable, a natural and expected part of progress and the need to change, to respond and to evolve has never been greater for organisations. Recent months have seen unprecedented change happen across businesses, educational institutions, and government agencies and departments, all adapting how they operate and deliver services. And there will be more change to come as companies move from surviving under lockdown to adjusting their business to operate under coronavirus, to building in resilience and protection against future pandemics or other crises.

Organisational change can be positive or negative, resulting in increased growth or revenue opportunities on the one hand, or potential cutbacks or jobs losses on the other. Either way, it is often challenging for employees who are impacted by that change. How organisations communicate strategic and operational change to the internal audience is a key influencer on the success of the change they are trying to implement.

Communication is the single most important element in the success or failure of any change management programme. Yet it is the element that companies most often ignore or get wrong.

When communicating changes, it’s important to start with the why and what:

Why is the change needed? Help people to understand the rationale for the change, build the business case for internal audiences as you would for shareholders or investors.

What does it mean for the organisation and importantly, for the individual? Preparing the internal audience for the changes coming can only happen if they are receiving accurate information from the outset. If you don’t address the what, employees will fill in the blanks themselves.

Elsbeth Johnson in the Harvard Business Review talks about the importance of leaders sending clear and effective signals to the organisation. Sending the right signals will ensure that followers understand the new strategic ask and what is expected of them. She says that “Too many followers tasked with delivering strategic change report that their leaders weren’t clear enough about what they wanted the change to achieve or about what it would entail.”

So, ensure you are communicating not just the list of actions you want people to take but the outcomes you expect to achieve. Having a clear vision of the change you want to see delivered and the reasons why, and communicating that vision to the organisation will build engagement and buy-in.

Communicating change to an internal audience is not a ‘one and done’ approach. Sending an all company email or hosting one town hall is not enough to ensure understanding and involvement. Organisations typically have a number of channels for internal communications so use them all – email, video, messaging platforms, intranets, town halls – and use them often.

And remember communication is a two-way process. Leaders need to listen as well as speak.

Building a team of change sponsors who can ensure the message is delivered throughout the organisation is key. Strategic change can take a long time to embed, these change sponsors can ensure that the reason for implementing the change and vision of what is being achieved are always kept front of mind. In addition, they can support the adoption of the new human behaviours needed to drive the business change.

Certain communication principals should be front of mind in any change management process:

  • Be transparent: Trust is key to driving change and hiding information from the organisation will damage that trust.
  • Be frequent: Communicate consistently and often, particularly in the early stages. And importantly when you say you are going to provide an update, do so or explain why you can’t and the new timings.
  • Be honest: Change is not always positive so don’t gloss over the serious impact or downplay difficult decisions.
  • Be proactive: Communication should be proactive. If the rumor mill is already in action, the organisation has waited too long to communicate.
  • Be inclusive: Provide time and channels for people to ask questions, request clarification, and provide input. Involve people in the change to support commitment and cohesion.
  • Be willing to ask for help: If you are changing your IT system, you’ll get an IT expert.  If you want to communicate well, consider supplementing your internal resources with an external communications expert. In the scale of the impact of organisational change, it could be an investment that pays a healthy dividend.  

There are lots of examples in corporate history of change failures, organisations that didn’t evolve in time with their industry, of mergers that didn’t succeed or where companies didn’t adopt the necessary technology in time due to internal resistance. Clear, consistent and effective communication may not have delivered a different result in all of these cases, but it will go a long way to ensuring successful strategic change. Which is more important now than ever.