Effective communication is one of the foundational building blocks of change management. Without it, change cannot begin to occur, nor will it stick; it will remain ‘change’ – and as such a thorny and alien beast – and not become embedded as ‘business as usual’.
Change management is analogous to much of business activity in the sense that it is tempting to view communication as relatively peripheral, something that is nice to do but hardly essential to achievement. Communication, for instance, doesn’t devise new products or buy and sell companies and/or integrate them into the business. It does, however, help:
- understand the needs and wants of potential product purchasers, enabling companies to customise the product so it more effectively meets that need and want
- make potential customers aware of the new product and, to a degree, want the product
- ensure companies meet their obligations in the buying and selling of companies, whether they be stock exchange/fiduciary obligations, or communicating with important stakeholders such as shareholders.
And the list goes on.
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Where communication fits into change management
When it comes to change management, if you subscribe to Prosci’s ADKAR model of change management (and as it’s one of the most respected constructs for change management in the world, there are plenty of companies that do!), then change cannot successfully take place within an organisation without communication’s vigorous, active involvement in at least two of change’s five components:
In full, the five change management components/steps as Prosci sees it are as follows:
- Awareness – making those who going to experience the change aware of what will be occurring, why, and how it is relevant to them (WIIFM*)
- Desire – galvanising change targets to welcome, want and embrace the change
- Knowledge – giving those experiencing change the information which enables them to enact the change (primarily a learning and development process)
- Ability – similar to knowledge, this gives those enacting the change the capability to put it into practice (again, primarily a learning and development process)
- Reinforcement – reiterating the rationale for change, celebrating successes, addressing weaknesses before they become a disease which cripples the embedding of change.
The change management product: harbinger of successful change
The desire component of ADKAR is one of its more interesting elements. It’s one thing to make people aware of change; it’s another thing entirely to expect them to welcome and embrace it. This is particularly so when you consider a common characteristic of change is people losing their jobs as an organisation seek to achieve efficiencies, including lower costs.
Changing is inherently difficult for many (most?) people. It takes effort, effort that is perceived as being extraordinary. For each situation and person, then, a different degree of desire is necessitated and can be expected.
Whilst communication has a role to play in the desire component of change management, ultimately it is about the change ‘product’ that is being promulgated which will ensure buy-in or rejection. Going back to our analogy of devising and selling a product, if the product is one which the potential customer has no need for, then why would they purchase it?
Of course, in the case of change, there is the argument that the decision has been made to enact change by the organisation’s executive, so you can either get on the bus and trundle off towards the ‘desired’ destination, or you can literally leave the organisation and take another path more to your liking.
The reality of the situation may be somewhere in the middle, as if key people within the organisation decide to go their own way as a result of the change (and/or the change process), then it may undermine the organisation’s ability to achieve both the business AND the change results it is seeking. And you also have the factor that some key leaders may not like the way change is occurring and do not buy into the process, making the change objectives almost impossible to achieve.
So which professional discipline is chiefly responsible for enacting/driving the desire component of change, as prescribed by the ADKAR model?
The division of roles in change management
Professional communicators are chiefly responsible for the awareness component of change and have a key role to play in the reinforcement component. Learning and development (as a sub-set of human resources) are chiefly responsible for the knowledge and ability components.
Underpinning all of the activity in change are professionally trained change leaders. Working with the support of project managers, they coordinate all contributions to the change process and are, ultimately, responsible for effective change management (along with those who devised the change product, of course!).
When it comes to desire, we revert to one of the most fundamental truisms of all, business or otherwise: accountability. Specifically, leaders’ accountability.
It is those in charge of the relevant areas who need to subscribe to and lead change. These are, formally speaking, leaders. Whether they are leaders in the sense of enacting leadership in its classic sense – most simply encapsulated in the walking the talkphrase – is the critical point in this context.
Leadership key to desire in change management
The formal leaders have a contractual and moral obligation to advocate the change. But give them (and the whole collaborative change team) a dodgy (change) product to sell, and the organisation is making it very difficult for this to occur.
So for desire to effectively take place, arguably there are two key components:
- Make sure the change product is one that can be effectively sold
- Make sure that formal leadership buys into the process and advocates it.
Without doubt, the content for communication is chiefly the responsibility of the professional communicator. This includes messaging that is focused upon and making the business aware of likely sensitivities and how to navigate them (i.e. issues management).
The communication content and strategic approach is largely determined by the change product and the organisation’s culture. The former is simply handed to the communicator, whilst culture is a long-term game in which communication is but one player, not the sole or pivotal factor.
As change often, as previously noted, involves people leaving the business, it will generally have some negatively perceived characteristics. Whilst it is harsh, it is also commercially pragmatic to state that, to some degree, those leaving the organisation do not need to subscribe to the change. It is those staying who are the most important resources to the organisation.
So the rationale for the change – the positive outcomes it will achieve – is key to it taking place. Employees are not stupid. They will understand the rationale and feel the outcome. Communication is clearly key to this, but, most importantly, leadership is critical.
Generating desire, therefore, is the responsibility of executive leadership (those who decide on the change and are accountable for organisational culture) and the leadership which directly impacts upon those (the directors of traffic, so to speak) doing the lion’s share of the change.
Leaders need to be advocates. They need to be communicators. They must exemplify the carrot and the stick. Most importantly, they need to be role models, they need to….walk the talk.
What are the most important aspects of change management for professional communicators to undertake? Can we provide strategic advice on change that goes beyond the communication dimension, or is that where we should stay? Can communication professionals impact on the nature of the change ‘product’ at all? What is your perception of the role leadership should play in change? And what discipline is responsible for motivating those being impacted on to actually ‘desire’ the change?
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