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Change communications - it's not just about the push

When we think about ‘push’ communication in relation to change it can often mean having a strong core narrative which the leadership has developed. It can also mean having a series of consistent messages that can be repeated and reinforced.

That all sounds good right?

Well, the risk is that if we only do push communications they can become static, one way and inflexible. We know that change programmes can constantly change so we need to be able to adapt and to do that we need to ensure that change communications should be audience-led.

Change communications are often developed in conjunction with senior leaders reflecting what they want to convey, the emphasis is about the message coming from the sender, not about the person receiving that message. And that’s understandable as it’s senior leaders who set the direction.

However, to get more cut-through we need to move beyond that and spend careful time thinking about what the audience needs from the communication. At Marlowe we are advocates of four audience-led actions that will lead to a greater impact on the success of change programmes.

1. Have a strong story to tell

If people are going to commit to the change, they need to understand the context; why the change needs to happen, how it is going to impact them and what the benefits are.

It’s important to work closely with senior leaders and wider stakeholders to translate their ideas into a credible, coherent and compelling narrative. The narrative is often about the end goal of the change (where we’re going) but often says little about what this means in practice for people affected by the change.

Beyond the narrative we should also deploy a range of creative communication techniques (including storytelling) to engage the workforce.

  • Be transparent. There needs to congruence between the narrative and the realities of what the change means for people. If the change is about cost savings for example, then say it how it is.

  • Make it practical. People need to know how it’s going to affect them. Your story has to quickly get down to levels of detail and where possible use real-life examples and case studies to help people understand how to act and behave differently.

  • Use story telling. There should be a good balance between the big picture, vision, inspiration and nitty gritty detail.

2. Don’t tell everyone everything

Too often communications can be top-down and not targeted to the right people. Sometimes they’re not targeted at all, and people are bombarded with information about a change that can be irrelevant to them. Communicating is not about ticking a box against a delivery milestone.

Too often programme managers fall into the trap of oversharing by talking about the programme efforts as opposed to just telling the audience what the changes will mean for them.

Effective engagement through change means providing the right information, at the right time in the right way. This requires some planning and insight work to understand the impacts of the change on different groups through a structured business change management approach – for example by conducting a change impact assessment.

This will help us understand our audience and segment them into different groups. And this doesn’t just mean looking at people’s roles or grades but thinking about what they really want to know, for example: Will this change impact my personal life / working hours? Will ways of working change? Will my team or manager change?

We know there will always be occasions where you can’t tailor all messages such as when the change is market sensitive or regulatory but it’s still important to invest the time to understand your audience as best as you can.

3. Equip leaders to listen

A further part of making the change relevant is ensuring leaders and managers have the practical tools, training and support to engage their colleagues and put the change into local context. Those managers and leaders close to the workforce will have significant influence on making change happen.

Providing them with the right tools to engage their teams is essential to enable local change delivery throughout the process of change - ensuring that communication remains credible, relevant and meaningful. In addition, we need to look at the communication preferences of leaders and managers – are they comfortable presenting to large groups, do they prefer smaller groups? Are there gaps in their skill set that need closing – do they need training?

It's a tried and trusted technique that leaders and / or managers are briefed in advance. Bring them together, have someone with a deep understanding of the change to walk through it, the communications, the timelines and always allow for questions or people to share concerns. Be sure to give time for rehearsals if needed. The job of leaders is to then help prepare their direct reports for similar conversations with their own teams.

But in addition to this ‘push’ technique there should be more emphasis on listening versus presenting. Managers need to understand the challenges, opportunities, risks and issues presented by implementing change.

4. Give employees a voice

A fundamental aspect of engagement is ensuring that those impacted by change feel they are being listened to. ‘Employee voice’ is one of the key levers of employee engagement and if we genuinely want people to engage with change listening is critical.

Therefore, we need to equip managers to have these conversations, to ask great questions, to actively listen, to gather feedback and insight that will improve the chances of embedding the change. Consider putting in place an effective listening and feedback mechanism be that a survey, focus groups or an internal chat facility such as Yammer.

It’s important that leaders ‘acknowledge’ the feedback given even if that feedback can’t be acted upon. There is still value in allowing people to get (usually negative) reactions out of their system. Where you can act upon feedback then make sure you tell them how their input has made a difference, it will increase programme engagement.

In summary

Don’t be lulled into thinking that pushing out your change narrative means you’ve done your job on communicating. If you want people to engage with the change you need to be led by what their needs are.

1. Have a strong story to tell (rooted in reality)

  • It’s important to have a strong change narrative to help set context and provide a vision for the future.

  • Make sure it is rooted in reality – there needs to be congruence between what we’re saying about the change and what’s happening on the ground.

2. Make it relevant (you don’t need to tell everyone everything)

  • Make sure your communications are driven by the audience needs and less by the project’s critical path.

  • Consider segmenting your audiences so people receive information that is most relevant to them.

  • Work across project workstreams to deliver an integrated and engaging experience for people impacted by change.

3. Equip leaders and managers to actively listen

  • Preparing leaders and managers to communicate about the change is critical – they can put things into local context (and are a trusted source).

  • Remember, it shouldn’t just be about delivering pre-prepared key messages.

  • Managers need to be able to listen, gather feedback and share insights with the central project team – this will help refine project comms and possibly influence wider project decisions.

4. Give employees a voice

  • Try to give employees a voice in the change process - this will help drive wider engagement and ownership – ultimately helping to embed the change.


About Marlowe

Marlowe Consulting specialises in business change and change communications to support organisations who are undergoing transformational, technological, and cultural change. With over 30 years of business change experience, we are adept at adapting! Please contact us if you would like to know more about delivering exceptional business change.

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