Five principles to ensure profitable change communication


29 August 2016

Change communication is key when implementing change with impact in organisations. Nevertheless, communication too often is added as a last-minute varnish when implementing a new strategy, a new process or a new system. After having worked with change communication for years, these are our reflections on and free-to-use principles of how to design communication with impact in organisations.

How do you explain a capsized strategy or a failed transformation of your business? Was the strategy process handled in the wrong way? Was it due to insufficient data or maybe a poorly conducted analysis? Was it lack of commitment in the execution phase? No matter what, please ask yourself this: What was done to win support and create engagement in the organisation? It’s a simple question, and it might also sound a bit “soft” when planning a new corporate strategy or a major organisational change. But here’s a fact: Only 33% of change-related strategy projects are considered to have been implemented with success. Why is that?

According to the Project Management Institute, poor communication is the primary reason why 56% of projects fail. Other research shows that the gap between the management’s strategy and visions and the reality of the organisation that is about to change is the weak spot. For example, 55% of the executives asked say that their organisation doesn’t focus on strategy execution, and 42% say that their organisation doesn’t understand or even resist the strategy. These conclusions give us a hint as to why strategic changes often fail or fall short when it comes to delivering impact and thereby profitable change in organisations.

We wish to pass on some fundamental principles that we have learnt from working with communication in change projects for many years. We don’t claim that these principles alone will do the job, but in our experience they are valuable cornerstones of working with change communication.

Before we introduce the principles, an important and fundamental distinction has to be made.

Information vs. communication

Information and communication are not the same, but effective change communication needs to balance the two. Information is a one-way street, which is typically formal in its tone and appeals to people’s rationality by comprising facts, KPI’s, plans and roadmaps. Communication, on the other hand, takes the form of storytelling that puts things into perspective, creates sense-making and starts meaningful conversations. Communication has a more emotional appeal, and working in this field we strongly believe that when it comes to organisational change, this form of appeal is more effective than logic and executive ethos.

Most projects contain plenty of information due to the fact that most projects are full of numbers, checklists and plans. Strategy is pushed out by managers at meetings and in presentations and emails. This isn’t the way to win people over, because there is a total absence of willingness to involve and engage people and start conversations. Often, projects completely lack communication.

With this distinction in place, here are our reflections on and free-to-use principles of how to conduct communication with impact in organisations:

Build a common ground

If you have the intention of leading a group and making them walk on the same path, you must create a common starting point, language and sense of urgency to move in the same direction. Don’t be biblical about this image. You don’t need to cross a desert. You need to be specific, acknowledging, receptive and involving.

Make it simple and be honest

Strategy and organisational change can be complex, but communication cannot. Simple and concise messaging eliminates all nonsense and amplifies your credibility. Equip your audience with a language and arguments that are easy to use in conversations.

Be authentic to win people’s hearts

Management and employees are made of the same flesh and blood. So don’t rush into your comfort zone equipped with charts, facts and management jargon. Be human to human beings and think about what wins you over. We have come to the realisation that winning people over involves a fine balance between rationality and emotions. Especially in terms of internal communication, we believe that emotions are the most prevalent form of appeal.

“Kill your darlings” – and sharpen your messages

Use your insight and test your messages. But let’s be honest. Sometimes you don’t hit the bull’s-eye. Don’t waste your time on trying to explain why the message went wrong. Change it, sharpen it and repeat it. Kill your darlings and go with what actually works. You will experience that it isn’t numbers but conversations and observations that will get you to the root of the problem.

Keep the communication alive

If a strategy is to “fly”, even after a large presentation, you need to bolster it and provide wind under its wings. This already starts before the presentation through involvement, but don’t rest on your laurels. Keep the communication alive and do engagement projects, even after the presentation. This is where real change happens. This is the tip of the iceberg approach to our principles of change communications. No two companies are the same, but we see similarities in group synergies among employees.

Notes and references

1: The Project Management Institute (PMI), Pulse of the Profession 2013

2: PwC, 2014

3: PwC, 2014

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