• Julie

Communication in Change Programs

We live in a world of never-ending change. There are the obvious changes, such as those due to technological advances or to unexpected crises, such as the Covid pandemic we find ourselves in. There are also the less obvious changes, those taking place in, or to, the people around us - changes that are continuously, and subtly, taking place.

For organisations, change often occurs through structured change programs and yet even into the early 2000’s around 70% of change programs were failing (with figures not likely to have improved since then). There are multiple reasons for these failures, many of which are unique to each organisation and there can be no “cookie cutter” approach, as every organisation is built upon it's own experience and knowledge. However, many frameworks and many tools exist do around change and these can be adapted and tailored for each organisation.

Having said that, I am a strong believer in one key element which is critical to all change programs, regardless of the chosen framework and adaptations made, and that is Communication.

Communication, even when not done well, has been argued to assist in change programs as it raises awareness and starts conversations, However, it is the right communication at the right time which no doubt positively impacts organisational change programs. When people are not confused and rumours are not given the opportunity to flourish, but instead there is clarity of vision and an ability to see the bigger picture, only then are people more likely to become engaged in the process. Communication helps people to feel connected to what is happening, as well as to each other, and it is this which encourages engagement in any change process.

Communication is not a one-way street and although change leaders do need to communicate outwards, they also need to listen to communications coming in the other direction. This is important in everyday business, yet even more so during a time of change. Change brings uncertainty and can leave people concerned or anxious about what is going to happen. So, even if the full story is not yet available, being able to lessen worries by explaining what is known and listening to concerns, will show empathy as well as contribute to a foundation for trust and openness.

Communication is not just words. We all know the importance of body language in a one-on-one conversation, so how does this work in an organisation? Well, first it is important to recognise that each individual in the organisation will have an impact on the organisation, so it is still important to be aware of individual behaviour. Also be aware of the overall “energy” or “atmosphere” when people are discussing the change program, or you are communicating. The general feeling is often upfront and centre, and yet sometimes it is easier to ignore it than to acknowledge it. So become aware of the moods and any undercurrents of energy, as these are also providing information.

Communication can come in the form of Resistance. Resistance to change is normal and many people are resistant just because they just don’t want to leave their comfort zone. As a change leader it is important to understand the reasons behind resistance and also to work with it.

  1. There is information in this resistance that will help you as a change leader. There may be something that you were unaware of and need to be considering within the program, or at the very least you can benefit from understanding how people feel about the changes.

  2. As humans we want to be listened to and understood, we want to feel connected to what is happening around us rather than being separated from it. Connecting with people through discussion and taking time to understand any resistance will give people the opportunity to connect to the change. It can also lead to a positive outcome and even highlight possible "change champions”.

  3. Uncertainty often brings anxiety and fear. Being clear on the change and what it will bring to the organisation will help lessen these emotions. Often just knowing the desired results will allow people to open up to the idea of change.

How to begin the “right” communication?

1) A clear vision and purpose for the program is critical, because without a clear vision people won’t know what to expect and won’t be able to support the steps being taken. First understand the WHY. If the change program does not have a clear purpose and vision, then it will be difficult for others to engage with it or to support it.

Working through and planning the communication of the vision is also an opportunity for the sponsors of the program to bring clarity to their own thoughts and to ensure that all stakeholders and impacts have been considered.

2) Defined outcomes. At the beginning, it was mentioned that 70% of change programs fail, but what does this really mean? How is success measured, how is failure measured. Measurement can only really happen if there are defined objectives. When entering a change program, be clear on what the program needs to deliver. Only then, can the program be planned, supported and effectively communicated. Be clear on what the change will bring and how it will be different from how things are now.

3) Alignment amongst the leaders of the organisation. If leaders are not aligned, then communication cannot be open. Ensure the leaders are aligned with the program, the outcomes and the approach. They do not have to be in full agreement, but they do need to be aligned, and if this is a challenge then consider working with a coach. This is important as they need to live and breathe the change on a daily basis.

When leading change it is important you know who are the “champions”, or volunteers as Kotter refers to them, of change. It is these people across the organisation who will help drive the change and they need to be driving the change in the same direction.

4) Acknowledgement of what is being lost with the change. Change is difficult for many as they move out of their comfort zone and into something uncertain and unknown. There is likely to be a sense of loss coupled with concern for what is coming. Be certain to acknowledge this.

5) Recognising the good and bringing it forward. As well as acknowledging what is being lost, change programs need to look at what is currently working well and where possible, bring that forward into the new way of doing things. Any change leader or organisation choosing to ignore what is currently working well and what can continue to be utilised or adapted, is making work for themselves as well as frustrating others. So, be sure to communicate any of the existing elements being retained, as this has the potential to soften the process.

6) Celebration of the “wins-along-the-way”. Even if the change program takes a “big bang” approach (unlikely) there will always be smaller changes made along the way. These need to be celebrated, reviewed in line with the bigger change objectives and celebrated!! Change is hard, so recognise it and communicate it!! Everybody likes a good news story.

Communication takes many forms and methods, whether to groups, one-on-one, discussions, presentations, face-to-face or through technology. The planning of communication methods and the many frameworks in relation to change will be considered in some of my future “spouting of words” (sorry, articles ;-))