Communication Choices during Evolutionary Change

Change may be the only constant, but it’s my observation that over more than a decade of leading change programmes around the world, there is little constant about change.

At Change Factory, while we don’t believe in silver bullet solutions to complex change management problems, there are a few self-evident truths that we have collected, largely via observation. One of those concerns communication, and its importance in the success of any change programme.

This article concerns itself with communication during evolutionary change. Evolutionary change is aimed at improving an aspect or aspects of the business (e.g. existing processes; workforce skills; organisational culture) over time, without the severe physical and/or psychological dislocation of the workforce that tends to occur during revolutionary change. Radical change—that is, change with significant scope or goals—may be effected through evolutionary change with thorough planning, but in evolutionary change, the workforce does not feel that they have been placed in the way of revolutionary change and rarely undergo the classic psychological reactions to revolutionary change (see below). Evolutionary change may be planned or emergent.

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In contrast, whether internally designed or externally inflicted, revolutionary change is always planned. Revolutionary change seeks to change the fabric of the organisation by changing one or more of its goal, strategy, culture and structure. Revolutionary change, by its nature, causes members of the workforce to undergo the classic psychological reactions to change to one degree or another.

Goals of Communication during Evolutionary Change

The key communication consideration in evolutionary change is engagement. The goal of the communication strategy and tactics is to get engagement in the change from all stakeholders with significant power to influence its outcomes and direction.

A second important consideration, alongside engagement, is creating the environment for individuals to adopt and adapt to the change. This is partially the remit of a communication strategy, but not wholly, as performance management and training both have a large contribution to make in creating that environment.

Engagement of an organisation goes through five phases and the communication tactics must help managers and team leaders—those with the power to influence the outcomes and directions of the change—to move through each phase:

  • Understanding
  • Belief & Acceptance
  • Caring
  • Planning, and
  • Implementation

An in-depth description of the phases of engagement is provided in our article: Implementing a Change Strategy-Getting Engagement..A brief description of each stage is provided below.

Understanding

Understanding the change is about more than being able to repeat the mantra from the CEO’s presentation on the topic—it’s about understanding the context of the change in terms of what the drivers of change are, what the intended outcomes are, and the impact of the change on the business.

In evolutionary change it is not essential that all people understand the change at the same time, or to the same degree in a short space of time. There usually is time to build understanding of both the goal of the change and the means of getting there.

Belief & Acceptance

Creating an environment where people understand the goal you wish to achieve is a necessary first step but is insufficient if you want to have people contribute to the continued evolutionary changes required to achieve the goal. People need to believe in the goal and in the first steps to achieve the goal.

Communicating with individuals, with the goal of getting them to believe in and accept the change, will vastly improve your chances of getting a critical mass of people to act as supporters of the change programme.

Caring

This is the pivotal part of engaging people in an evolutionary change. You need to be able to get a critical mass of people to care enough about the change or changes to prioritise time in their day and give mind-space to the change.

What makes people care about a change varies significantly. There will be some managers and team leaders who intrinsically believe in the goal and the first steps postulated by the leader of the organisation. They will immediately begin to prioritise activities which make the achievement of the goal probable.

Some managers and team leaders will not believe in the goal and the change and will not, independent of persuasive instruction, prioritise any activities to do with the goal or the change initiatives involved with it.

The remainder are in a no-man’s land not sure whether to prioritise the change or not. This group is usually a large majority.

The content and channels used in transitioning people from understanding to belief will have had a positive impact on this group. In significant change programmes, however, more must be done.

“What’s in it for me?” remains the most significant motivator of individual managers and team leaders. Communication tactics must be designed that tap into their needs.

The key needs to be addressed include but are not limited to:

  • Recognition: praise managers and team leaders for their accomplishments.
  • Sense of achievement: instil a sense of achievement by regular feedback sessions.
  • Growth and promotional opportunities- demonstrate how the change creates growth and advancement opportunities.
  • Responsibility: Give mangers and team leaders’ responsibility for the work. Minimize your control but retain accountability.
  • Meaningfulness of the work: Ensure the work involved in the change and or the work resulting after the change should be meaningful, interesting and challenging for managers and team leaders.

In addition, for those unlikely to be motivated by recognition or growth opportunities etc., advise them of the help available to make their job easy.

Planning

The objective of communication at this stage is to make planning into a task where the steps are very clear and the process as a simple as can be.

Setting up a system for planning approval that—for example—requires multiple approval steps, each of which collects multiple signatures, communicates quite clearly that there is not a lot of heart in the organisation for the change, whether that is true from an executive manager’s perspective or not.

Implementation

The objective of communication at this stage is to reinforce the goal and the plan for implementation, providing support and encouragement to managers and team leaders to follow a continuous improvement process of Plan, Do, Check, Act.

At this stage some teams will have few if any issues to deal with and some teams will have some clear issues to deal with. The majority of teams will have small problems which the proactive will deal with quickly and the reactive will at best allow to continue unchecked, and at worst will allow to blow out of all proportion.

Communication Channels

Any communications strategy developed to help managers and team leaders through these stages of engagement should consider the channels to be used in communicating the content.

For the purposes of this article, I have broken these channels down into four broad groups:

  • Face to face, where individuals or groups assemble in the same place at the same time to have a one-way conversation (e.g. a presentation) or a two-way conversation (e.g. a workshop).
  • Audio-visual, where individuals need not be in the same place at the same time, but a combination of video or sound is used.
  • Social media, channels designed to promote highly accessible interactive dialogue on a topic.
  • Text-based, where communication is chiefly performed by the written word (whether or not accompanied by pictures, diagrams etc.).

Our recommendations on using each channel are summarised in the table below.

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Face-to-Face Channels

Workshops

Workshops—as distinct from meetings, seminars and presentations—are designed to promote the free exchange of ideas and two-way communication between individuals and groups. Some may not regard workshops of this kind as part of a communication strategy. They are working from far too narrow a definition of what to include in a communication strategy and may be missing a very important planning and design activity in designing the workshops to achieve maximum understanding of the goal of the change.

Workshops are particularly useful in the following stages of engagement:

  • Understanding: conduct Analytical Workshops involve managers, team leaders and subject matter experts across divisions in your organisation in workshops to analyse the problem which needs to be solved by the change. This provides an active learning experience which is more likely to provide deep understanding of the rationale for change than even the most engaging PowerPoint design.
  • Belief & Acceptance: use Challenge Workshops to ensure that all negative thoughts about a strategy or a change have been articulated and properly dealt with, including all genuine known or perceived risks. The result of a well-organised and well-facilitated Challenge Workshop will be a single agreed set of actions, and a better understanding for all participants of the detailed risks and contingencies pertaining to those actions. After completing a Challenge Workshop, staff involved are almost always more committed to seeing the strategy or course of action succeed as a direct result of being consulted for their opinions and expertise. Efficiency and effectiveness is improved, especially in teams. Challenge Workshops also lead to a more stable and structured workplace where there is less uncertainty about what people are doing and why during the evolutionary change. There are also far fewer opportunities for “corridor whispers” to derail a course of action for the change programme after objections have been flushed out.
  • Planning: hold Planning Workshops with managers and their teams to plan how to implement the change in their business unit. Your role here is to be facilitative, not directional. By all means provide the planning team from the business unit with templates and processes, but have them work out the specifics of the activities, timing and resources required to effect the desired change.
  • Planning: use Risk Management Workshops to flush out hitherto unforeseen risk events, the consequences of which if the event is realised, could derail the change. Assist the business unit planning teams by facilitating the workshop providing insights into risk events they may not have thought of. Allow them to determine the likelihood and consequence using facilitative questioning to test their assumptions. Allow them to also determine whether they accept or reject the likelihood and consequence of the risk events unless the risk is beyond what the project or organisation is willing to generally bear.
  • Planning: use Stakeholder Management Workshops at the organisational level—and at the business unit level if required—to help you determine who you need to influence. You will need to identify those individuals with high power to affect the outcome or direction of the change programme, and determine how to move those who exhibit active or passive resistance to at least a neutral stance, and passive supporters to active supporters.

Presentations

Presentations are a mainstay of many communications strategies, and it’s easy to see why: they are cheap, easy to organise, and require little in the way of effort. However, in our experience, if used in isolation, they deliver similarly little in the way of results.

Having said that, there is almost an inbuilt expectation that management will, at some point, make a presentation to staff on any change topic, and so they have become a hygiene factor.

Presentations are useful in the following stages of engagement:

  • Belief & Acceptance: a presentation by senior management followed up by regular appearance updating the progress and plans is the simplest way of getting people to believe that the organisation is serious about the change. It is important that the chief executive is supported by the rest of the executive team in being consistent, insistent and persistent about the messages of change and progress. Create presentation packs for all executives to use to ensure a consistent message. In evolutionary change it is easier to recover from a communication misstep than it is in revolutionary change, but it is still so very important to not leave gaps in the information flow, allowing them to be filled by rumours. It is important that senior managers, when they do not know the actual future timeline of change, talk about the process to determine the exact changes required. If this message can be augmented by one of empowering stakeholders to determine the “how” of the change, then the change is much more likely to be accepted.
  • Implementation: presentations by executives throughout the implementation phase can help people to understand that executive support goes beyond just budget and resources, and extends into driving the implementation itself. Executive presentations throughout the implementation that highlight successes and failures—and the remedial action being undertaken, where required—will give individuals the confidence that the change is being taken seriously at all levels of the organisation.

Feedback & Support

Alongside the structured aspects of a communications strategy, more fluid elements can serve an important role in filling gaps and embedding change into the day-to-day activities of the business. Feedback and support can be used in the following ways:

  • Caring: providing direct feedback on people’s contribution and attitude towards the change can be done successfully in-person, over the phone or using text -based channels. Use face-to-face channels for maximum impact.
  • Implementation: consider using selected people as post implementation support. The responsibility of these people is to help answer any questions about the new way of working, coaching people as they try to do something new for the first time. In an IT implementation this may be in the form of floor walkers. In a Sales environment it may involve the sales manager accompanying salespeople on a visit as a new Sales Process is attempted. In a call centre this might mean sitting in on a call as a new product or service script is used.
  • Implementation: obtaining ongoing support from executives—beyond wheeling them in and out for presentations—can provide a powerful message that the change matters; doing so requires little more than the executives remaining consistent in their communications regarding their ongoing support for the change, with these communications potentially taking place in any channel, although face-to-face is the most effective.

Pilots

A pilot, used as a limited real-world test of the change programme, can act as a communication tool in itself. Its results are even more powerful, and give you a significant topic for discussion. You can use pilots, and their results, in these ways:

  • Belief & Acceptance: consider using pilots of any significant, albeit evolutionary changes, to demonstrate a commitment to “getting it right” and taking into account employee feedback. Pilots have the additional benefits of creating sponsors of the change through a vertical slice of the organisation.
  • Caring: use the output of successful pilots to help people prioritise. A successful outcome demonstrates both the relative benefits of the change and the absence of unintended consequences that may have been preventing people from prioritising the activities required to enact the change.

Audio-Visual Channels

Video

Using video in the workplace is not always commonplace, but as individuals become more familiar with video as a communication medium outside of the work environment (YouTube, anyone?), so it becomes increasingly worthwhile as a medium at work.

Video can be used in the following ways:

  • Understanding: Although this it desirable It is not essential for the leader or sponsor of evolutionary change to visit each location. In large organisations it may be necessary and even advisable to create a 3-5 minute video to help inform people of the change. Typical subject matter for a video includes but is not limited to the:
    • Rationale behind why the change is necessary
    • Goal of the change and any significant objectives
    • Senior management support
    • High-level plan of actions to achieve the goal (do not include timelines; they date the video in long term projects and make a commitment which may have to change)
    • Impact on stakeholders
    • Place to find more information.

Ensure that the video tells a story and includes ‘ordinary’ people as well as senior managers. Shooting a video of the CEO standing awkwardly in front of a camera with bullet pointed slides interspersing the vision are insufficient to hold people’s attention let alone engage them. Get the video designed and shot professionally. A video of this nature has a shelf-life of up to three years before it is obviously outdated.

Use the video for communicating in remote locations, to steam over the intranet and use a part or the whole of it as an introduction to meetings and workshops to undertake analysis to frame them in a consistent manner.

  • Belief & Acceptance: Video can be used effectively for helping people believe in the goal and the way in which change will unfold. In evolutionary change it is important that people believe in the goal and the manner in which the change will unfold and their role in it. Use senior management figures on the video demonstrating that they understand the building blocks of change to reach the goal. Also use a range of frontline and middle management people to give a ‘local’ contextualisation to the change and a use of language which is familiar. Consider, where appropriate, using case studies of other organisations or other divisions.
  • Caring: Use video updates for remote locations. Having set the scene with a more polished video communication, it is now sensible to scale back the production quality and concentrate on the content. This has the impact of making the message appear more important than the form and adds to believability which helps create a bias for action. Senior management and project team members are both suitable as presenters.
  • Planning: Use video to communicate the overall plan and the steps required of business units in completing their own sub-plan as necessary. Keep the production quality simple and direct, concentrating more on the content. Use project team resources and subject matter experts as presenters.
  • Implementation: Use video to communicate case studies of implementations with learning points front and centre of the communication. The production quality requirements of this video will be different for different scales of evolutionary change. The more transformational the change, the higher the production standards need to be with use of graphics and perhaps animation to convey complex messages rather than a talking head. Use executives and subject matter experts as presenters. Also consider a professional presenter.

Web Conferences

A web conference (or related technology like video conferencing) enables face-to-face-like interactions over distance, and is especially useful for organisations with a geographically dispersed workforce. It is generally insufficient, however, to use web conferencing and similar technologies as a means to deliver a one-way lecture.

Ways in which this technology can be used to gain engagement are as follows:

  • Understanding: create activities that are designed to engage the audience to ensure they understand by making use of the functionality of web conferencing software including but not limited to:
    • Slide show presentations
    • Live or Streaming video
    • Meeting Recording for later viewing and/or distribution
    • Whiteboard with annotation allowing the presenter and/or attendees to highlight or mark items on the slide presentation
    • Text chat for live question and answer session
    • Polls and surveys
    • Screen sharing/desktop sharing/application sharing
  • Belief & Acceptance: web conferences can be used to help create belief in the change by engaging a broader cross section of the organisation and allowing questioning of the what and the why of the change. It is possible to run an effective challenge workshop using a web conference.
  • Caring: use web conferences for updates and making sure people are aware who is making progress and who needs help and potentially connecting those people together. Use project team members, human resources and executive management for question and answer questions around the need for the change and the commitment if the organisation to make it happen.
  • Planning: use web conferences to help provide instructions on how to plan, the steps to take, actions to consider, planning constraints and contingencies to be aware of.
  • Implementation: use web conferences to help create a positive environment for lessons learned across the organisation.

Social Media Channels

Applications like Yammer, Telligent Enterprise and Chatter have been slowly reconfiguring corporate expectations since not long after the turn of the millennium. Nowadays, with more than 80 percent of the Fortune 500 using Yammer alone, enterprise social networks are no longer a new-fangled idea—indeed, they can be powerful communication tools when used effectively, being great for both synchronous and asynchronous engagement. They also allow unfiltered feedback to be gathered, with analysis of that feedback then being used to inform any redesign of communications tactics or content.

Which is not to say that older technologies, such as the corporate intranet, blogs, wikis, discussion forums and the like can’t still be useful.

Ways to use social media channels to gain engagement include:

  • Understanding:
  • Use your intranet as a broadcast medium for developing understanding of a change—as long as it is informative and capable of a degree of interactivity. Using the intranet as a one-way channel to help improve understanding is to underutilise the medium. Means of making the intranet more interactive include:
    • Quizzes
    • Frequently asked questions
    • Downloadable checklists
    • Connecting it to other social media channels
    • Connecting it to eLearning about the initiative
    • Blogs are great for sharing individual knowledge and experience, as well as spurring discussion. They are not ideal for project-oriented collaboration.
    • Wikis are well suited to the task of creating shared documentation over time from multiple sources. It is necessary, however, to manage them using an active moderator to make sure they don’t become chaotic and lose their usefulness.
    • Enterprise social networks are suited to engage stakeholders in a Facebook-like application. Services such as Yammer allow for conversation threads to be started by anyone and for collaboration on issues important to the stakeholders as well as broadcast communications.
    • Discussion forums or “bulletin boards” are among the oldest collaborative tools, and still very useful for sharing and discussing ideas around a particular topic. Unfortunately, forums can be hard to navigate and search.
  • Belief & Acceptance: social media channels, where they already exist in your organisation, will be used to form beliefs—regardless of whether you are involved or not. It is better that you provide information and insight into those channels by way of constant updates on progress, asking opinions and answering questions—preferably before they have been asked—by means of constantly updated frequently asked questions. Delegate leadership of discussions and activities to people in the organisation who “get” the change, but have an independent mind and status within the organisation. This is so that discussions are not seen to be propaganda.
  • Caring: social media channels may be either a driver of increased caring or a rapid means of spreading negative feelings and ambiguity about the change. Their use will magnify the impact of your change management efforts. Controlling them heavily has a negative impact. You are better off to extend the advice given to help people believe—and use people who do believe in the change, but who do not come from either the project team, human resources, or executive management—to initiate and moderate discussion, calling on subject matter experts as required.
  • Planning: Use enterprise social networks to get quick feedback on plans. Feedback may be sought from within a team or across business units. Use wikis to create planning documents, but use a moderator well versed in the project and with good project management skills to oversee the content build up.
  • Implementation: Use enterprise social networks to get quick feedback on implementation successes and issues. As a discussion leader, use a person who believes in the change and is experienced in all aspects of the engagement process to date, from understanding to planning.

Text-Based Channels

There is a wide variety of text-based channels available, with each serving a specific purpose:

  • One-way emails are great for quick, simple communication that is not liable to be misunderstood.
  • Two-way emails are a cheap and quick means of holding an asynchronous discussion where deep understanding and questioning is not required.
  • Brochures are good for providing a brief overview of a topic using pictures or diagrams.
  • Newsletters are one-way static communications that could be either paper- or electronically-based. Only newsletters with a high circulation and readership are useful as communication tools.
  • Desktop guides—being typically a more in-depth, lengthier and more structured view of a topic than a brochure—are good for relaying complex information that is easily organised into sections.
  • How-to guides are similar to desktop guides but tend to give more direct instruction.

Our recommendations on the use of text-based channels in engaging the workforce during evolutionary change can be found below.

  • Understanding: to understand a change, people need to be able to question, paraphrase and summarise. For this reason, text-based channels—especially those that are one-way—tend to be less suitable. Use two way emails sparingly to explain a change—and then, only when you can clearly construct an interactive sequence of emails that require recipients to respond. Use two way emails instead for arranging meetings to talk about the change, get a response to a question or advise of timing. Brochures can be effective because they are in a different form to most corporate communications and they stand out from the daily clutter, but they are best used only to get sort sharp messages across and should not be expected to have useful life beyond a few weeks before they find their way into a bin. Internal newsletters are effective means of improving understanding if they have a wide circulation and are widely read; survey the distribution and readership of your internal newsletter to comprehend how useful it may be. Newsletters with high readership levels are better though, for gaining belief.
  • Belief & Acceptance: brochures can explain the why and broad how of a change. A single brochure can help engender both understanding and belief. Internal newsletters, especially if articles are written either by senior management or by people being affected by the change, can be very useful for developing belief. Try to avoid articles written by the project team, as they are always seen as having a vested interest. The best subject-matter for text-based channels at this stage of engagement is the case study, showing how the change has been beneficial in other contexts.
  • Caring: use emails to give feedback and to advise of timelines. Use them also to announce the help that will be available in planning and implementation to make the activities required to action the change appear less involved and time-consuming. Internal newsletters are quite useful in getting people to care enough to prioritise. Use internal newsletters to spread stories of early adoption and success. Provide public praise especially for teams rather than individuals.
  • Planning: Use emails only for communicating simple information including known timelines, risk events, resource constraints. If planning is reasonably complex consider creating some how-to guides. The obvious one is on the planning process itself. Also consider how-to guides on completing process analysis and re-engineering processes.
  • Implementation: Use emails only for communicating simple information including implementation timelines, resource availability and templated feedback. Typically, any implemented change will generate a number of new process and procedure documents that explain the details of the change and how it is meant to work. If you want your workforce to really be engaged with the implementation, though, consider the use of desktop guides or how-to guides as an expansion on that material that is not restricted by the template requirements of formal procedure documentation.

Choosing the appropriate mix of communication channels for your change programme environment and your organisation’s culture is obviously not a simple task. Designing the content also takes skill and experience. We can help to ensure that you are not wasting your time with issuing lots of communications that don’t have the desired impact. Change Factory can help you make the choices and design the content, making change easy.

 

© 2011 Linked Training and Change Factory

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