Communication fail in change management

One of the most powerful attributes of professional communication is redundant in change management communication. As such, the strategic power of this (internal) form of public relations is profoundly underutilised when it comes to the challenging change management process.

Change management communication

Two-way symmetrical communication is the professional communication (aka public relations) attribute to which I refer. It is an approach which identifies and/or anticipates, then provides, feedback from the target audience to the service, product or issue (in this case, the product/issue is change) decision makers.

This feedback prompts the decision makers (in this case the organisation’s executive and their advisors) to modify the product so it is more likely to be bought (or bought into) by the target audience.

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This process, clearly, is likely to entail compromise from those wanting the sell the product, but it will also enable a higher degree of buy-in and, hence, success in embedding the change so it becomes business as usual.

By the time the change product has been given to the professional communicator, there is generally little chance of it being adjusted based on target audience feedback. So the role of the professional communicator becomes one of a spruiker and issues management consultant:

  • On one hand the positive attributes of the change, the WIIFM* factor and the benefits to the organisation are sold
  • On the other, potential barriers to change and weaknesses in the change product (as determined by those the change will impact on) are identified and communication approaches are put into place to mitigate their negative impact on the change and, more broadly, on organisational culture itself.

Strategic thinking in change management

In saying the professional power of professional communication is being radically under-utilised in change, however, there are two factors to bear in mind:

  • Before the change product is handed to the communicator to work his or her magic on, it has been thoroughly scoped out by the business
  • The issues management dimension of the change, the nature of the communication itself and the way in which it is integrated into the entire change process (e.g. awareness, desire, knowledge, ability, reinforcement – or ADKAR) makes the contribution of communication – if it chooses to exercise the opportunity, of course – immensely strategic.

No organisation is simply going to implement change without investing a great deal of thought into the process. It is being implemented for the long-term benefit of the organisation.

One of the key factors business analysts/management consultants/organisational leadership will consider is how will the change become embedded into the business? And part of that is addressing the questions of how will those the change is impacting upon receive the change and how will the business evolve due to this change?

One can only hope this is the case, anyway.

So there is an argument that professional communicators shouldn’t get too uppity about being simply handed the change product; the two-way symmetrical communication dimension may have already been embedded into the change product development process.

Challenging orthodoxies to improve outcomes

One of the most useful characteristics of the strategic professional communicator, however, is their ability to challenge presumed thinking (groupthink) and, metaphorically speaking, call out the emperor’s new clothes. This is not done out of ego and wilful negativity, it is undertaken to add rigour to the business and communication process.

No discipline has the capability to understand target audiences and predict their reaction to the promulgation of a product or service, especially if it is an issues-laden one, better then a public relations professional. An organisation which chooses to ignore and/or underutilise this capability is doing itself no favours at all and, in fact, is not taking the soundest possible approach to risk management.

Do you think the professional power of public relations is effectively utilised in the change management process? Where and how can public relations be best utilised in change? Is two-way symmetrical communication irrelevant to change management? Do you have faith the best possible change ‘product’ will always be handed to the change team (including communication) before it is asked to embed the change into business as usual?

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* WIIFM – what’s in it for me

Leadership imperative to change management

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:

  • Awareness
  • Reinforcement.

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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Silence: public relations’ secret weapon

With the torrent of information that courses through the multiplicity of channels which exist to get in our faces, get inside our minds and change our behaviours, is silence the most underrated approach to communication a public relations professional possesses? Silence would certainly seem to offer the greatest point of difference – and, therefore, power? – a communicator possesses.

Nobel Prize winning author, Herta Muller, being interviewed in The Paris Review, said, “Silence is also a form of speaking. They’re exactly alike. It’s a basic component of language. For me, silence had always been another form of communication.”

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It’s tempting to think the noise of communication must be subscribed to, in western societies at least. Get on public transport, have a look around: the person not scrolling through texts or webpages on their smart phone, or talking on it, is the exception. How often do people who are in conversations with others put that face-to-face interaction on hold while they address the intrusive phone call? A lot, in my experience.

It seems humans are evolving so they thrive on being interrupted, on being intruded upon, on being habitually reliant on the ‘torrent of information’ noted earlier. Studies have identified the compromised business-relevant productivity this is delivering and whilst I haven’t seen studies which relate to the socio-emotional equivalent, my guess is the information deluge and conversation interruptus smart phones are delivering is having a profound effect on how we relate to each other as humans.

Competitiveness of noise in communication

It is a temptation – and a grave error – to think, and then apply, the notion that we need to communicate vociferously and frequently as a matter of course. It is natural to feel the fear of:

  • not being seen to communicate (i.e. perceptions of being professional, doing the job etc)
  • watching the competition create noise and attention while you are buttoning the (public) lip
  • the information vacuum: is this giving rise to target audience uncertainty? Is – the vacuum or the uncertainty – a bad thing?

Or perhaps the ‘vacuum’ is leading to a sense of expectation, the thirst for which can be slaked at a strategically appropriate juncture? A negative outcome of the vacuum often discussed is that disinformation thrives in a vacuum, which is one influencing factor on dissatisfaction and negative behaviours, activities not normally in the best interests of an organisation.

As Herta Muller has pointed out, however, “silence is a form of speaking”. Silence can help an organisation or person position themselves as being above the fray (i.e. the ‘statesman’ effect). In other words, let the mud be flung but I won’t be part of it’. It’s amazing how much respect silence can generate, but so few organisations or professional communicators possess the self-control that allows them resist entering this ‘fray’.

The milieu of internal communication provides an excellent example of where information can be overkill. Organisations can fall victim to the perceived necessity that all employees need to know all information relevant to different parts of the business, when in fact what is occurring in distant parts of the business is of no interest to them, nor does it motivate them and doesn’t help them undertake the tasks which they have been employed to do.

“There is no speech nor language; their voice is not heard.” Psalm 19 *As quoted by Marilynne Robinson in Lila.

Yes, as in all communication, there is the beneficial sense of being part of a community. But so is there the factor of ‘is this information distracting me from doing what I am meant to be doing?’ The same thinking can be applied to selling a product. Is all this information/marketing/PR helping to sell the product, or is it ultimately dazzling me with science and confusing the decision making/sale process?

Silence and power

The race to making communication noise, whether it is organisational marketing or business meetings or personal conversations, is undertaken at the risk of:

  • being disseminated before the recipient is ready to process the ‘noise’/information
  • being used before the information is sophisticated enough to make the optimum impact
  • making the communicator seem imprudent or, worse, obtuse or, worse still – in a business/profit generating/reputation enhancement dimension – negatively impacting on sales reputation et al.

There is power in the gap, the lack, the…pause. It carries weight. It speaks of restraint and thoughtfulness. It builds an expectation that when communication does occur, it is an activity worth paying heed to.

Yes, no matter how few or how many words or images are used, it may still be too many or too little or it may be effective or ineffective. But it’s tempting to deduce that the sage organisation/person speaks when it will create a desired effect, not simply because there is a vacuum to be filled or because the incipient modern day malaise of fearing silence is bearing, tsunami-like, down on the tortured mind.

Where have you found silence to be the communicator’s friend? Do you agree the amount of communication noise in society and in marketing more specifically is making it difficult for any organisation to have its voice heard? What is your advice on how to approach the noise-silence dialectic?

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By |December 4th, 2014|Public relations, Strategic communication|3 Comments