Modernizing Change Communication

“change communication is almost always training and newsletters…what would it take to shift towards modern practices that enable meaningful dialogue?”

This was from a 20+ year experienced change and communication professional who came to one of my workshops recently.

Google change communication and you’re likely to find a whack of best practise, and statements like:

“It’s important to craft and communicate a strong narrative”

“You must communicate frequently, clearly and consistently through multiple channels!”

“Tell people what’s in it for them!”

“Be specific about what will be different!”

“Ensure your employees understand what’s happening so they can adopt the change!”

Every one of those statements makes sense, yet none of them are useful in helping you figure out what to do to engage people. This post is part of the #ChangeBlogChallenge

Think of it this way, if you’re a change agent, whether it be an agile coach, change manager, change leader, or change <insert noun here>, think of the last job you had where a change happened to you. Now imagine some annoying change person came up to you and said: “Hi Biff, this is what’s in it for you, are you ready to adopt the change?” Or “Hey Biff, here’s specifically what we are changing about your job, please tell me what percentage of adoption of the new mindset you are at for our report.” What would you do?

Yes, those are both silly statements, but sometimes we sound like our communications training came directly from Brian Fugere et el’s book; Why Business People Speak Like Idiots.

Unlimited and Instant Information Flow, Limited Processing and Storage Capability

The term change communication made sense 20 years ago when you went to the mailbox once a day, and received 2 phone calls a day, but today’s world of instant information exchange has changed that. Back then, what was said to be change communication was simply broadcasting and that made a lot of sense when there were 11 TV channels, 30-minute news segments once a day, and no social media.

For the sake of argument, and to frame some of the ideas, practical techniques and thoughts below, here are some things we use change communications strategies and tactics for:

  • Informing people of stuff (emails, newsletters, blog posts, posters on the wall etc)
  • For governance for a variety of reasons (regulations, CYA etc)
  • To show change sponsors/stakeholders that we’re actually doing something
  • To collect feedback about the change (surveys sent via email etc)
  • Hosting workshops/town halls and other in-person things
  • Coaching managers behind closed doors so they can broadcast the message to their people
  • Training, support, building momentum through success stories etc

We can’t not do these things, but these are all largely broadcasting techniques. Town halls are usually scripted, questions are either curated by the comms professional, or filtered in some way, and collecting open and honest feedback is sometimes an exercise in optics.

I’m not entirely sure how much change communicators are aware of the power they have. I’ve seen executives parrot what their comms people have come up with so be careful.

Do You want Dialogue or to Be Communicated At?

20 years ago I was promoted to the Director of Storefront Development when the startup I was employee #3 at was acquired. I came into work one day and saw a box of business cards on my desk labeled “Jason Little, Director of Storefront Development” 

Up until then I was doing ringtone music production, and back office development work, and running our mobile content stores, back catalogue, and licensing reporting. By the way, if you downloaded images and ringtones in the early 2000’s, I probably made it, and there’s a good chance you had a picture of my cat on your phone.

Captured on a FILM camera!

Anyway, when I saw the business cards on my desk, my brain said, “cool! Hey wait, am I gunna get more money?

My boss, who to this day is the greatest leader I have ever worked for (ok, he’s tied with another guy), became my mentor, challenged me, pushed me, called me on my own bullshit, but otherwise listened to me, knew what I was all about and ‘managed’ me based on what he knew I needed.

He didn’t communicate at me through many re-platforms, company strategy shifts, launches into new markets, re-organizations, the implementation of time tracking, and structure changes as a result of insane growth, he just did his thing.

I’ve been fired, downsized, forced to move teams, forced to adopt a new tool/technology/process and in every case I can remember, I wanted to go to the source of the change – which meant the leader/manager/exec –  for dialogue.

First, Precursors.

Painfully Obvious Statement #1 – The Big Picture, “Change Comms Strategy”, or whatever you want to call it.

Know what the change is, have an idea of how it’ll be received, what should be open and transparent and what should stay hidden.  For example, if your change is laying off 100 people, transparency *might* not be the best idea in the short term. Know your culture and how “it” typically responds to change.

Painfully Obvious Statement #2 – Why/When/How/How Much/How to get feedback, and what to do with it

Your change isn’t the only thing that’s competing for the real-estate inside of people’s heads. In the last week, over 1000 things have been vying for my attention:

The scary thing about that report is, I turned off email notifications months ago so add another few hundred to that figure. 20 years ago, 3 things would have been vying for my attention so my brain had the luxury of time and the attention span of ….uh….um….sorry, can’t think of something off the top of my head.

We are all oversaturated with incoming information so when you’re figuring out your approach, here are some ideas that may be useful.

Broadcasting – When you need to send out information

  • Think like a marketer: drip campaigns, workflow automation, message tracking etc. If you can use marketing automation platforms like SendLane, or Active Campaign, you’ll be able to customize messages for individuals and groups of people. For example, if some people open and interact with every message, they probably need less followup messages, and more dialogue. For people who never open the messages, they might need a one-on-one, or the change really doesn’t impact them very much. Either way, thinking like a marketer is extremely helpful to understand your ‘customers’
  • Broadcasting should lead to dialogue. Know who your movers are, and how they influence people in the organization. As I mentioned above, the people interacting with your marketing campaigns are the ones who are already bought in, enlist them into your extended change network.
  • Advertise where people are. This isn’t a secret, walk into any office and there’s tons of crap all over the walls advertising internal meetups, new employee programs and more. The key is, how can you get your message heard through all the noise?

A sign on a walking path near my house advertising a 5K charity walk. Odds are people who walk on the trails might join.

Insert False Rumours: Yeah, that’s right. Put wrong information into the rumour mill and see what it stirs up. I’ve heard a few stories of companies who use Slack or other anonymous forums that allow employees to post rumours for confirmation or debunking.

Dialogue – When you need meaningful discussion, alignment, and meaning

1 Use Lean Coffee….properly.

Lean Coffee is dialogue. You, as the change person, are the facilitator. Whatever the group decides to talk about, gets talked about. Learn more about lean coffee here. 

Make notes of who’s coming, what questions they have, their body language, disposition, general attitude and how others react to the dialogue.

For example, I facilitated a lean coffee hosted by executives during a transformation. The number one voted question was how to get reimbursed for training because the current process was frustrating for people. Our theme was the transformation, but this is what the group wanted to talk about, so we talked about it. Resist the desire to control the conversation and to stay on message. It’s more important to let the dialogue go where it needs to go.

2) If you *have to* have a change comms plan, visualize it

I shouldn’t have to explain this. If you can’t see the work, you can’t manage it. The picture below shows a communication plan for an enterprise system replacement.  This team visualized their existing plan and once the wall was populated they ended up removing half of the touch points because they felt is was too overwhelming.

That led to a discussion about how to measure the effectiveness of each medium the broadcasting was going through.

timeline, communication mediums, target groups, message types, and measurements

3) No Spin, No Seed Questions

At in-person town halls, events etc, use or some other tool to get feedback in a safe way. Don’t spin the messages, don’t seed the questions, and don’t curate them at all. Employees see right through that.

CEO and CTO take anonymous questions that are voted on in real-time. At the event the following year, IT had blocked so we found another similar tool!

4) Never Say “but I TOLD you that already!!”

5) Diversity and Inclusiveness

Invite everyone to open spaces, lean coffees or other dialogue-enabling sessions. Mix people from different department and hierarchical levels so they can share perspectives. 

6) Social Proof

During dialogue sessions, let people tell stories about their experience, or use lightning talks to share bursts of information followed by a world cafe style session.

For me, what’s most important is the stance you’re taking whether you’re broadcasting or facilitating meaningful dialogue. Your stance is the most important factor that influences how you apply these techniques.

If you’re worried about getting off message, you may want to control more. If you’re worried that people won’t come up with topics to discuss at an open space or lean coffee, you’ll be tempted to seed topics. If you host an open space and no one has a topic, you stop the open space and give people the gift of time instead.

Finding Balance

There are a time and a place for broadcasting and dialogue. What I’m proposing is to stop using the phrase change communications, because a shift in language can make a big difference in your approach. Now I’m sure someone will make a comment that communication is important, but don’t forget about 2-way communication!

I don’t believe 2-way communication is the same as dialogue. Sometimes what is meant by 2-way communication is taking feedback about what you broadcasted and clarifying the point you wanted to make.

To me, that’s not dialogue so I prefer to shift my language and use the tools I learned when I was a product manager and marketer because that helped me come from a place of making sense of what people really want and need versus what I want them to want and need.


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