Changes to organizations and business strategies create disruption. This disruption challenges employee engagement, making it difficult for changes to take root and thrive. Change management is a practice that mitigates negative reaction to change and increases organizational support for change initiatives.
Change management is important for every organization. It is critical when experiencing:
- Business transformations
- Mergers and acquisitions
- Executive leadership changes
- Facilities and footprint changes
- Policy changes
- Compensation and benefit changes
Many organizations have embraced change management as a business discipline yet change initiatives continue to fail. Estimates show that 50% of organizational changes will fail or deliver unsatisfactory results. Failure to successfully change and grow will ultimately lead to the failure of the business.
The missing ingredient in change management
For people to change, they first must understand the why behind the change. This understanding is built through purposeful, clear and consistent communication. Communication provides the context to understand the why, what and so what of the change. Effective communication answers the most important question on every person’s mind: “What does this change mean to me?” Once people understand the change, they are far more likely to engage in the change and ask, “How can I help?”
How can organizations build this kind of understanding of and support for change?
The answer lies in strong communication. Is communication as simple as an email from the leader or an announcement at a meeting? Or does true change require something more transformative? Let’s consider the power of change management communication.
This guide aims to improve change management success by providing an overview of the role communication plays in successful change. We’ll explore the role of change in business, what change management communication is and why it’s so important. By the end, you’ll have a clear framework for successfully approaching change management communication in your organization.
Change is universally accelerating, faster than organizations and employees can keep pace. Research shows that the number of significant changes an employee experiences per year has increased from 1.75 in 2012 to 3 in 2018.
The continuous nature of change within organizations creates exhaustion, fear and a reluctance to advance change. Some leaders and employees prefer the disadvantages of the status quo to the challenge of advancing meaningful change and positive cultural shifts.
Business success doesn’t lead to a positive culture. It’s the other way around. — Francesca Gino, Faculty, Harvard Business School
Postponing change can damage operations, productivity, employee morale and culture. As corporate culture degrades, business results crumble.
Instead of being viewed as a hardship, change should be viewed as the lifeblood of business. Effective change enhances company culture and employee engagement. It also helps companies stay relevant, differentiate and be resilient in quickly evolving markets.
How can organizations make change less daunting while ensuring it sticks?
Follow an effective change management model
Change is not an event. It’s a process. Following a change management model gives leaders and teams the clarity to connect business strategy to action. This, in turn, increases the likelihood for successful change. Global change management consultancy Prosci identifies following a structured change management model as being key to change and business transformation.
Popular change management models include Prosci’s ADKAR model, Lewin’s Change Management Model, the McKinsey 7-S Framework, Nudge Theory and Kotter’s Change Model, among others. Each approach has distinct benefits, but most follow the same core tenets. They provide the steps for identifying needs, planning for and implementing change.
Kotter’s Change Model differs in focus, making it a strong option for many organizations. Instead of emphasizing the mechanics of change, it focuses on the true driver of successful change management: people.
Successful change management prioritizes people. Leaders must recognize that people are at the heart of every change. The success of any change management initiative will parallel the degree to which employees are engaged in the change — from strategy through organizational integration to transformation.
Change starts with support
Create true urgency
After extensive implementation and additional research, Kotter in his 2014 book “Accelerate” updated his change management model to emphasize creating healthy urgency and momentum to support The Big Opportunity.
Enlist an army
Kotter also added a new step among his “eight Accelerators:” enlist a volunteer army. In his Harvard Business Review (HBR) story, Kotter writes, “I have found that with less than 50% of managers and employees feeling that urgency, you’re very vulnerable to failure.”
A case for Kotter 3.0
Kotter’s model is strong, but it’s not perfect. For example, it’s limited in the ways it involves employees in decision-making and incorporates their feedback. It’s also unclear about how to bridge the communication gap between leaders and employees. Envision a Kotter Model 3.0 that emphasizes the need for continuous communication flowing across the organization throughout the change initiative.
Bridging the communication gap is one of the most difficult things to do in any change initiative. Even if leadership is fully engaged in the change, it doesn’t mean there won’t be complacency, disruption, fear and resistance from employees. Leaders must create a culture shift that engages employees in the change and energizes them to achieve lasting results.
Let’s create your army of change champions.
… A sense of urgency around a big opportunity can create powerful and sustainable action,” Kotter wrote in Harvard Business Review. “The opportunity must be real and clear, of course. And it must be described and communicated about in ways that people can relate to and that draws on people’s feelings, not just their intellects. Remember: hearts and minds. Without this kind of positive energy at the core, no significant change effort can succeed.
Prosci, in two decades of reporting, found “active and visible executive sponsorship” at the top of the list of key contributors to the success of change initiatives. “Though much has changed in the field of change management over the last two decades, the importance of the leader’s role in change has remained constant.”
Leaders must champion organizational change and stay closely involved through its completion. When executive leaders convey and model belief in The Big Opportunity and create a true sense of urgency, the volunteer army will join the change movement. Leaders alone cannot create lasting change. They do, however, have the power to build critical momentum and influence others to advance change.
The most important factor in successful change has always been people. Leaders, sponsors, champions, change agents and employees must all be engaged for change to succeed.
Communicate why change is happening and start building support
For people to change, they must understand the why of the change. This understanding is built through purposeful, clear and consistent communication. Communication provides the context to understand the why, what and so what of the change. Effective communication answers the most important question on every person’s mind: What does this change mean to me? Once people understand the change, they are far more likely to engage in the change and ask, “How can I help?”
How can organizations build an understanding of and support for change?
The answer lies in strong communication.
If businesses aren’t changing, they’re dying. Effective change drives positive momentum across organizations and on balance sheets, but it often fails due to a lack of communication. True transformation requires proactive communication that supports employees, creates engagement, builds trust and advances change.
How does change management communication differ from standard corporate communication? It comes down to its overarching goals of:
- Creating the climate for change
- Engaging the team
- Enabling organizations to affect change
- Implementing and sustaining change
How companies fail at change management communication
Companies fail to drive meaningful, lasting change when they fail to communicate. They need to communicate why change is necessary, what individual contributions look like and how success will be measured. Organizations typically oversimplify change management communication by viewing it as a one-time transfer of information. Rather, organizations need to educate, inspire and create new habits. Change management communication requires commitment, clarity and consistency. This is how trust is earned across the organization.
Leaders need to personally embrace the change, clearly communicate the desired chance and engage employees in the change plan. Change initiatives fail when leaders don’t remain committed to the change management process, which will take months or years to fully implement and produce lasting results.
Leaders need to take the reigns and be the champions of their change strategies by harnessing communication. Why is this one element so critical?
When the trust account is high, communication is easy, instant, and effective.
—Stephen R. Covey, Author of The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People
Authentic, consistent communication builds trust in uncertain times
An organization’s most valuable asset is not its products, services, processes or technology. It’s people. Understanding how people think, work and communicate is crucial to successful change management.
Leaders should start by acknowledging that change can be difficult for people inside and outside the organization. It is human instinct to fear change. Change creates uncertainty.
When employees observe leaders working behind closed doors for hours and days, they anticipate change is coming. They start asking questions and creating their own stories; they often assume the worst. Employees begin to wonder, “How is this going to affect me, my role at the company and my life?”
Leaders make change easier when they engage employees in the change. Leaders accomplish this through proactive communication that builds urgency across the workforce. When the team understands The Big Opportunity, it keeps positive change from turning into negative rumors and speculation.
Change management communication requires that leaders have a strategic plan that is understanding of communities and culture.
Strong communication requires empathy
Ninety percent of respondents in a survey by the Brightline Initiative admitted they fail to reach all of their strategic goals because they “don’t implement well,” and more than half said that “weakness in delivering strategy puts them at a competitive disadvantage.” A well-planned communication strategy is key to counteracting these weaknesses. To be effective, organizations need empathy.
Careful consideration and knowledge of the organization are essential in designing a communication approach. Part of the planning involves understanding organizational culture and how it will respond to different actions. Only then can organizations communicate in a way that gets communities and change leaders on the same team. Let’s look at how organizations are successfully using change management communication to gain organization-wide adoption.
Change initiatives in organizations
While no two change initiatives are identical, there are valuable lessons to be learned by analyzing successful change management programs. For example, let’s look at Santander. In 2008 it wanted to establish a stronghold in the banking industry. Part of its strategy was to acquire UK financial institutions Abbey National, Bradford and Bingley, and Alliance and Leicester.
Mergers are challenging, and Santander was not trying to merge two organizations but three. How could they change the mindsets of these heritage-focused banks, some that had been doing business for more than 150 years?
Santander CEO António Horta-Osório employed several communication-focused strategies:
- Communicate The Big Opportunity. First, he needed stakeholders to understand the value of shedding the old ways and embracing a new era in banking.
- Understand the communities. Each of the three banks had its own unique culture, and national commonality couldn’t be used as a communication crutch. This meant a custom approach was needed for each bank.
- Embrace full transparency. Transparent communication was pivotal in getting communities to embrace the change. Santander did this by discussing potential risks and issues with all who would be impacted. Inbranch teams were prepared to talk to clients. Even those not directly affected by the merger received clear communication about the future.
Was Santander able to successfully carry out its change initiative? In 2013, just three years after launching Santander UK, it became one of the region’s leading retail banks. Today, Santander has expanded even further into the competitive U.S. market.
Lead change with communication
Santander was able to successfully revitalize three banks stuck in the past and fundamentally change their organizational cultures. This wasn’t a chance outcome. It was the result of intentional change management backed by a strategic communication plan.
Change of this magnitude can only succeed with the support of the people who make up the organization. This understanding led Santander’s leadership team to prioritize clear communication with all stakeholders. Santander was successful in articulating The Big Opportunity and building the employee coalition it needed to establish its UK brand.
Lessons learned from Santander’s change management strategy
Creating open, collaborative communication across communities will reduce change uncertainty from beginning to end. Creating avenues for transparent, honest communication diminishes fear and builds trust and confidence across the organization.
Collaborative communication requires leaders to create feedback loops between all parties. Everyone from leadership to stakeholders should listen and learn. Giving every stakeholder a voice allows organizations to promote understanding, trust and willing adoption of the changes.
Leadership may have a well-reasoned vision for change, but even smart, positive shifts in an organization will create disruption. Employees feel changes in the organization long before leaders announce them. Harvard Business Review reminds us, “As leaders, we are far more visible than we realize, and we are sending signals to followers all the time, even when we don’t realize it.”
Unfortunately, it is common for organizations to fixate on the process and logistics of change. Instead, organizations should focus on the best ways to prepare for and engage employees in the change. Communication in change management too often is an afterthought when it should be the first thought. The numbers prove that poor communication costs companies millions of dollars. The Cost of Poor Communications, which surveyed 400 companies with at least 100,000 employees each, cited an average loss per company of $62.4 million per year because of inadequate communication to and between employees.
What impact can clear communication have on employee engagement, particularly during times of change?
Clear communication activates employee engagement
The role of the CEO is to enable people to excel, help them discover their own wisdom, engage themselves entirely in their work, and accept responsibility for making change.
HCL Technologies, a global technology company, takes employee engagement to a new level with its employees-first philosophy. Vineet Nayar started this movement while he was CEO of HLC Technologies. His goal was to employ 21st-century management strategies and make management accountable to employees and vice versa.
The employees-first model was designed to flip the organizational pyramid. Vineet wanted to fully engage employees, promote transparency and blow open communication channels. How did stakeholders respond to this rebellion against conventional wisdom?
Employees praise the program and often mention company transparency when doing so. This quote from Alistair Mcintosh, a business development director at HCL Technologies is especially compelling, “The access they give you to information — the openness and control — is pretty motivating,” he said. “It positively impacts the level of service I’m able to offer customers.”
Transparency can engage employees and even improve their job satisfaction. What about its effect on change? Is there a correlation? Let’s look at HCL Technologies one more time. In 2005, when it started making a shift to the employees-first management model, the company was struggling to compete with global brands. Three years after implementing this new model, HCL was able to radically change the organization. Here are some business results from HCL Technologies’ playbook:
- Realized compound annual growth rate of 24% and increased its market capitalization by 186% over three years
- Revenue per employee is among the highest in the Indian IT industry today
- Featured as one of the most innovative and disruptive companies globally
What can organizations learn about change management communication?
Employee engagement is a powerful force for change. Not only can it strengthen support for change, but it can turn employees into advocates both inside and outside the organization. The goal of change management communication is to help companies create lasting change. Leaders should also consider the far-reaching benefits that clear, consistent communication has across the entire organization.
Don’t wait until your organization is struggling. Early and consistent change management communication creates clarity. And clarity is the key to employee engagement that drives action.
Why do so many people procrastinate when faced with a complex task? The problem isn’t incompetence, but instead, a lack of clarity. Not knowing what steps are required to start and finish a project will leave it to languish on a to-do list.
At an organizational level, the stakes of putting off change are much higher. Add to this, that the speed of change is at an all-time high and only getting faster. Organizations can’t afford to procrastinate. Competitors will surge ahead of them, and they may never recover.
Clear communication helps employees navigate complex changes. Organizations that prioritize and successfully manage change communication will experience:
- Consistent action, momentum and support for change
- Stronger innovation and creativity
- Increased loyalty and trust with key audiences inside and outside the organization
- Better business results
Change management communication can only be effective if it’s led, modeled and supported by leaders. How are your organization’s leaders leading on change?
Respondents in a recent Prosci survey cited “active and visible executive sponsorship” as the top reason their change initiatives succeeded. Boards of directors, executive leadership and senior leadership teams are the key to driving change inside and outside organizations. It’s crucial leaders lead and act as frontline change sponsors from beginning to end.
Leaders set the strategy and are responsible for achieving the goals of the change. Making an announcement to their teams doesn’t free them from this responsibility. They need to stay tightly engaged to ensure the change achieves the desired business outcomes.
What role do leaders have in engaging communities to embrace change initiatives? What challenges hold leaders back?
The challenges facing change leaders
Change signifies progress. Change keeps organizations competitive and differentiated. Change is vital for growth.
But if change is positive, why does it fail so often?
Leaders don’t grasp their impact on change adoption. Some leaders expect that once a strategic change is confirmed, their work is done. They expect others in the organization will implement the work, and they move onto the next burning need. In reality, leaders are the most visible change champions in organizations. They must be engaged, vocal and visible from beginning to completion of the change management process.
Insufficient buy-in. One roadblock to change is stakeholder resistance. Getting stakeholder buy-in is crucial for all the steps in Kotter’s model — especially when building a coalition and enlisting an army to support the change. Leaders can’t just tell stakeholders about the change. They need to own it, advocate for it and model adoption of the change. Leaders need to avoid the “do as I say, not as I do” mindset. This mindset isn’t motivating, and it causes doubt among employees about the importance of the change initiative.
Not promoting progress. Business results are the measure of success for leaders. This can create reluctance to promote progress throughout a change management initiative. What if something doesn’t work? What if the organization needs to shift direction mid-project? What if the initiative fails to gain traction? Change is a dynamic, fluid and iterative process. Promoting progress and short-term wins through clear, consistent communication is the best way to keep building momentum.
Not communicating the vision for change with consistency. Kotter’s model calls for the strategic vision of the change to be clear, make sense and energize people to want to support it. Leaders have a responsibility to get the vision out of their heads and communicate it in ways that are understood and embraced by all. Announcing the change won’t create a sense of urgency. It’s up to leaders to ignite the urgency for change by engaging people from across the organization to build a coalition that will embrace the urgency and drive the change. As momentum builds, leaders must champion the change through their behaviors, actions and consistent communication.
Leadership is about making others better as a result of your presence and making sure that impact lasts in your absence.
It’s clear that process without communication and strong leadership is the path to change failure. How can organizations turn the tide of failed change initiatives? One important step is creating an understanding of and accountability for the different roles of change management leadership.
What are the roles in change management leadership?
Why do business leaders fail to positively affect change? According to HBR, “Too many leaders want transformation to happen at unrealistic speeds, with minimal effort and everywhere but within themselves.” This mindset is a non-starter when it comes to business transformation. Leaders need to understand the different roles within change management, know where they fit and advance change accordingly.
Sponsors are an organization’s executive and senior leaders. These leaders hold the vision for the change and shoulder responsibility for achieving the goal from start to finish.
These are senior leaders, middle leaders and business unit leaders. They help the organization understand and interpret what the change means for them and their teams. The senior leadership team works on behalf of the executive team who has sponsored and signed off on funding, hiring and everything that supports implementing a significant change. Champions are members of Kotter’s “change coalition.”
Change agents also need to be champions for the change. They ultimately have implementation responsibility, lead the project team and ensure integration up, down and across the organization. Change agents are part of the coalition Kotter refers to in his change model. They make sure that those who enable any organizational change stay actively involved.
Change agents surface issues and focus, refocus and refine implementation throughout the change process. They need to be comfortable working at all levels of the organization, and they must be strong trust builders. They should be open listeners and strong communicators with excellent EQ skills. Change agents keep the train on the tracks and need to be ready to switch directions, choose a new path or create a new way if it becomes necessary.
Stakeholders or Communities
These are the people inside and outside the organization who change champions call on to implement, live, advance and optimize any strategy to achieve the company’s vision. In Kotter’s model, this is the “volunteer army.” This happens before the change ever reaches an end user or customer. These communities include an organization’s business partners, vendors and contract employees.
These change management roles are widely held as essential for effective change management. Yet even initiatives that clearly define these roles fail due to poor communication. What role is missing for meaningful, lasting change to happen?
The case for a new change management leadership role
University of Chicago researchers Ed O’Brien and Nadav Klein found through a series of studies that we assume failure is a more likely outcome than success. This instills a mindset where failure is just another possible outcome. Leaders don’t have to accept the status quo, especially when the biggest change problem they are facing is a solvable one.
Change initiatives more likely to fail when there isn’t communication early, often and with clarity and consistency. To establish and facilitate clear channels of communication, leaders need a new role. Introducing the change integrator.
Change integrators work across change initiatives and within all the roles. Their primary responsibility is to ensure sponsors and champions understand their ongoing roles in creating positive momentum for the change by playing a central role in change communication. The change integrator also works closely with sponsors and champions to help them avoid dropping into a process-driven view.
Change integrators work closely with change agents keep to the communication, inspiration, education and progress points front and center at all levels of the organization. Change integrators know how to build and sustain communication ecosystems and implement tools to advance the change process and gain support every step of the way.
The role of change integrators
Change integrators support leaders in evaluating and understanding the organization’s current state and readiness for change. Change integrators work closely with Human Resources leaders to interpret engagement and culture survey data. Do the organization’s communities view the organization’s culture as transparent, open and clear? The answer to this question will indicate the current level of trust and begin to reveal where growth is needed. Does the organization have the energy for the change? Change fatigue is real for people and businesses. Change integrators help organizations pinpoint where openness for change is strong and where there may be barriers.
Change integrators also develop strong relationships with communication and marketing leaders. Integrators collaborate closely with these internal teams to evaluate current communication channels and optimize the communication ecosystem to support transformation.
Once change integrators understand where the organization is, they build from there. Change integrators are strategic communicators. They are adept at moving The Big Opportunity of change with senior leaders. They know how to create momentum by working collaboratively with change coalition leaders — from human resources, communications and marketing to legal, information technology and operations — to leverage the organization’s strengths in support of change.
How effectively leaders communicate change significantly influences the success of change initiatives. Some may credit this to a leader’s authority or high level of skill, but these are rarely success drivers. The most impactful driver of successful change is a well-executed communication plan.
A well-planned strategic approach to change management communication ensures leaders share the right information, in the right ways, at the right time, to the right audiences. This approach ensures communication happens early, often and engages the right stakeholders.
A change management communication plan helps organizations focus on The Big Opportunity and clearly connect the dots to explain the why, what and so what of change.
Change communication focuses on the big picture
Communication succeeds when there’s agreement and clarity on The Big Opportunity. Kotter’s Change Model provides the eight Accelerators for achieving change and says effective communication is essential. However, Kotter’s and other popular change management models don’t provide guidance about how organizations should communicate. This may cause organizations to default to standard corporate communication practices, which are likely to fall short of what’s needed to support complex organizational change.
Defaulting to standard communication tactics may lead organizations toward several pitfalls, including:
- Sponsors communicating at the beginning of the change process and then leaving change implementation and communication to middle managers and direct supervisors. These leaders may not have the necessary skills, tools and resources to successfully lead the change management communication plan.
- Under communicating to the organization rather than creating momentum and celebrating wins throughout the change process. This reduces opportunities to build trust and support across the organization.
- Using a limited number of communication channels and tools, such as relying too heavily on email and newsletters. This approach may isolate some employee groups. It also falsely assumes that the message has been received and internalized. This can cause a serious strategy-action gap and stall change process.
A sense of urgency around a big opportunity can create powerful and sustainable action. The opportunity must be real and clear, of course. And it must be described and communicated about in ways that people can relate to and that draws on people’s feelings, not just their intellects.
These communication pitfalls will deepen change resistance over time. This can make new change initiatives difficult to implement and will decrease the organization’s ability to transform. How can organizations adapt? In a Prosci survey, organizations cited exceptional communication as their number one method for fighting change resistance. Prosci summarizes how these organizations plan to use exceptional communication as follows:
- Participants reported creating a detailed plan for communicating about the change that went beyond normal communication on a project
- Participants planned to use communication that was face-to-face, open (allowing honest and transparent feedback), and “bite-sized” (small pieces) to ensure that impacted groups did not get overwhelmed.
- Participants also planned to increase the amount of communication that normally occurred on a project, communicate early, and ensure that communication came from various levels in the organization.
Effective change management communication is holistic. It threads consistent messages and actions across a wide range of communication channels during the entire change process. This communication strategy drives clarity, understanding and change acceptance.
What elements contribute to holistic change management communication?
The art of communication is the language of leadership.
The foundation of effective communication
All change management processes must be supported by effective communication through every step. Here’s a five-point foundation for effective change communication.
- Agree on the why of the change. This requires learning about the organization, listening to those who will be responsible for and affected by the change, and creating agreement among leaders about why the change is right for the business and right for its communities. Kotter calls this process identifying The Big Opportunity. Remember, the change itself is not The Big Opportunity.
- Create the change story. Most people don’t respond favorably to being told what to do. The natural response is resistance. The same is true for people in organizations. People respond more favorably to change when they understand the why, what, so what and how of change. The change story must answer these fundamental questions:
- Why is the organization moving in this direction? Why must the organization change?
- What will the change look like and feel like? What will change in my area and, specifically, what will change for me?
- How will the change help the organization produce better results and achieve its goals? How, specifically, can I, my team and my community contribute to the change?
- Create a culture that thrives on change. Organizations with strong, resilient cultures — grounded in transparency, positivity, collaboration and trust — have far higher success rates implementing change at scale. What if your organization’s culture needs work? Culture transformation takes time and focus. Culture and change initiatives move on parallel paths and, sometimes, change can be an excellent catalyst to accelerate culture changes.
- Engage and enable the organization. Engaged organizations have advocates who are ready to drive change and move in a unified direction. Advocates are invited into the change early, helping to create the strategic vision and approach. They act as proxies for senior leaders and are on the frontline of what Kotter calls a “volunteer army,” moving the change forward throughout the organization. Advocates must be supported by a continuous flow of transparent information across a range of communication channels. This includes creating channels that facilitate quickly identifying and removing barriers to change. Advocates also are the primary source of news on wins and results, which will be shared and celebrated to create momentum.
- Sustain communication. Effective communication is a key element of change management. But communicating openly, clearly and consistently should be a core strategy in every organization, not only during big changes. Demonstrating an unwavering commitment to communication helps evolve cultures and build trust. Leaders should sustain change management communication strategies during day-to-day operations.
Change initiatives are more successful when supported by strong communication. Sustaining communication throughout a long, complex change management initiative takes focus and commitment. The end result — higher likelihood of successful change — will be worth the effort.
What’s the cost of change? Depending on the organization, implementing a change initiative could cost anywhere between a few thousand and several million dollars.
Well-thought-out changes generally pay for themselves. When properly planned and implemented, change initiatives will stay close to estimated budgets and deliver positive results for the organization.
There are hidden costs to change management — especially when a change is poorly managed, lacks strong communication and loses momentum. Insufficiently planned change can open organizations up to larger risks with unforeseen consequences.
What risks do organizations need to be aware of? How should these risks affect change management planning and implementation?
The risks of poor change management
Change can disrupt organizations to an extreme degree. A simple process update is rarely simple and a poorly managed merger can divide and weaken, rather than unite. The effects of an organization’s inability to manage change are so far-reaching that even its brand reputation is at risk.
What are the unexpected side effects of poor change management?
Reduced change ROI: Factors like people’s sense of urgency, speed of implementation and proficiency all contribute to the ROI of any change. Poorly managed change will drag action, slow adoption and hurt employee productivity. Failing to effectively communicate with employees about the change is enough to cause them to miss The Big Opportunity and fail to pivot toward the change.
Organizational consequences: A relatively simple change, say from one project management software to another, can have a massive ripple effect across an organization. Poorly led and communicated, this change could harm team collaboration and productivity which, in turn, can reduce morale and lessen work quality. This simple change could cause so much frustration that top-performing employees decide to leave. Such a simple change may seem routine, but it can cause severe damage when mismanaged.
External consequences: If work quality declines or deadlines aren’t met, customers will feel the pain of the change and may choose to find another partner, resulting in loss of business and damage to reputation. A mismanaged change can also create uncertainty among leaders, partners and investors. Companies with a history of failed change are more likely to struggle to attract strong talent and partners, inhibiting growth.
Damage to culture: Employees quickly recognize when change initiatives lose momentum and are at risk of failure. In fact, most people have been through more failed than successful changes. Failed change initiatives will create both active and passive change resistance across the organization. Then comes change fatigue, which will make it nearly impossible for any new changes to advance, no matter how much support they have from leadership.
Poor change management communication is a common denominator for all of these risks and costs.
How can organizations protect themselves from the risks of poor change management?
Understand why poor change management happens
Despite all the change management research, models and best practices, leaders still make a dangerous assumption. They assume that once a change initiative is approved it will be reliably implemented by their employees.
Leaders who operate under this assumption will under-communicate during the change management process. This affects the organization in two significant ways:
- It creates organizational misalignment. Everyone needs to understand the goal and strategy behind a change. When those driving and implementing the change don’t fully understand the why, what, so what and how of change, it prevents them from acting and advancing decisively.
- It impedes progress. When there’s spotty communication about how change is progressing, employees will either stand still or make assumptions. Both of these reactions stop, or at a minimum slow, progress. This creates confusion that can build to chaos and refusal to advance the change.
Leaders can’t assume their visions will happen on autopilot. They need to understand their roles as sponsors and be willing to champion both the change and the communication strategy.
Taking a strategic approach to communication
Change management communication must follow a strategic approach in which the story narrative, communication channels and timelines are carefully developed. These elements are all part of a comprehensive change management communication plan (covered in chapter 8).
Every organization needs its change initiatives to produce results. These results include full adoption of changes, improvement in targeted metrics and, ultimately, better business performance. Unfortunately, the majority of change initiatives fail to meet expectations and most organizations can’t define why. The problem: change resistance.
To combat this enemy of change, organizations need to create a strong communication plan and measure its effectiveness. This includes seeking ongoing input and feedback throughout change initiatives, which allows leaders to listen in near real-time about what’s working and what’s not. When leaders embrace the natural cycle of communication — communicate, listen, learn, adjust and communicate — they get valuable feedback to inform the change process.
Change management experts use many metrics to calculate change management success: adherence to the project plan, adherence to the timeline and ROI. These standard metrics are valuable but don’t represent the full change picture.
Standard metrics miss the most important element of any successful change: people. Without understanding and adoption from stakeholders, change can’t be sustained. To truly understand how well change initiatives are performing, organizations must measure the effectiveness of change management communication.
Why feedback loops are critical to measuring communication
Measuring change management communication starts with consistent employee input. Feedback loops make it possible to understand how a project is progressing and performing and how employees are experiencing the change.
Employees may fear how change will affect them. HBR highlights ten reasons people resist change, which include uncertainty, past resentments and fear of the potential ripple effects.
Leaders need to know how employees are feeling. They need to understand if the change process and communication are creating support and momentum or if people are experiencing fear and resistance. Specifically, organizations need to monitor and measure their employees’ attitudes and beliefs about the change. Pulse surveys are an effective tool to gather focused and frequent feedback from communities engaged in the change.
Other feedback channels include post-event surveys, dedicated feedback email addresses, voicemail channels, deeper engagement surveys and internal chat and discussion boards. Leaders can use these channels to participate in transparent question and answer exchanges. No matter what feedback loops an organization deploys, leaders must be prepared to listen and act on the input received. A frequent complaint from employees, and even from customers, is that organizations don’t acknowledge or act on feedback. This perception, real or perceived, breeds discontent and erodes trust in leaders. When organizations ask for feedback, they must be prepared to listen, respond and take action.
The KPI that too many organizations leave out
Organizations must make their feedback loops easy to implement and monitor. Too much data will make it difficult to take action on the input. This could lead to misunderstandings, a lack of participation in feedback loops and, ultimately, resistance and lack of buy-in from stakeholders.
An organization’s attitudinal KPI should be part of the project dashboard and be viewed as an important metric to measure project success. The goal is to closely monitor shifts in employee attitudes and stay connected to the organization throughout the change process. Creating feedback loops will help leadership achieve both goals. Here are some questions an organization might use to understand the attitudinal KPI (overall support for the change) within the company:
- Do you understand your role in the change?
- Do you feel the change is on track?
- Do you believe the change will support the organization to achieve its goals?
- What do you believe is working well to advance the change?
- How do you believe the change process could be improved right now?
Most organizations operate with clear goals, supported by strategies designed to drive results. Business planning 101. In fact, all strategies — including change management strategies — likely have detailed project implementation plans to keep the work and team moving forward, on time and on budget.
Unfortunately, business plans and strategies rarely have communication plans embedded in them from the start. This is also true for change management initiatives. Change management communication plans are commonly bolted onto the change management plan. The most successful change management plans have communication at the core — not as an afterthought.
Estimates show that 50% of organizational changes fail or deliver unsatisfactory results. Failure to successfully change and grow will ultimately lead to the failure of the strategy or of the business. In hindsight, executive leaders often lament the failure to create understanding for the change. They wish the communication would have been better.
How can organizations prepare for successful change initiatives through a communication plan?
Communication is the cornerstone for building essential employee engagement and support for business transformation. Without understanding, support and participation from people across the organization, initiatives are more likely to fail.
Let’s discuss what a change management communication plan is, when to start it, who should create it and what it looks like.
It takes as much energy to wish as it does to plan.
Change management communication plans power action and results
An effective change management communication plan starts with clearly articulating “The Big Opportunity” for the business. This is not the change itself, but, rather, the projected results of the change for the business and its communities. For people to support an organization’s change initiative, they must first understand why the change is important, what it means to them and the business, and how the change will happen.
It’s crucial the communication plan be embedded in every step of the change management process. Employee understanding, support and participation are needed from beginning to end. This level of communication avoids misalignment and continuously engages employees to take actions that drive the change.
Change management communication can’t be an afterthought
The change management communication plan should be developed on a parallel path with the change management project plan. The communication plan will evolve as the project progresses, so change integrators need to be flexible and ready to pivot. This approach minimizes the risk of early communication gaps and maximizes the opportunity to build understanding through each phase of change.
Has a change project been approved or have leaders made a shift in business strategy? These are indicators that an organization needs to create its communication plan. Leaders minimize the risk of failure by assigning communication resources to the project team as soon as decisions are made to advance change.
Now that we understand when the change management communication plan should be created, who’s responsible for its development? Leaders, project management teams or other resources?
Organizations need strategic communication resources with change management expertise
Organizations should start by identifying communication resources within their internal teams. Leaders should ask: “Does my organization have communication strategists with backgrounds in change management?” There may be good communicators throughout the organization. However, if they don’t have the necessary change management expertise, they’ll be challenged to design and implement an effective change management communication plan.
Change management projects put heavy pressure on organizations. This typically requires that dedicated communication resources be assigned to support change initiatives. During this high-stakes time an outside agency partner can offer three primary benefits: additional communication resources, communication experts with a change management focus and a neutral, third-party perspective.
Once leaders understand the when and who of the change management communication plan, they can move into developing the change management communication plan.
Advancing leader and employee engagement through thoughtful change management communication planning
Beehive Strategic Communication aligns change management communication planning to Kotter’s Change Model. This approach can be adapted to flow with other change management processes, including Prosci’s ADKAR model, Lewin’s Change Management Model and the McKinsey 7-S Framework.
Change management communication planning begins by learning, listening and agreeing on the strategic communication approach. Beehive begins by developing a deep understanding of the organization’s culture and assessing its change readiness. Does the organization have the resources to make the change? Are conditions right and ready for the change? Is there commitment for the change?
This learning will guide listening sessions, where we seek candid input from executive leaders and the core change project team. This also is the point where Beehive partners with internal teams to audit the organization’s current communication channels and tools. It takes progressive thinking and modern communication tools to support change in today’s marketplace.
These inputs guide agreement on the rationale — the why — for The Big Opportunity, the communication strategy and the communication activation roadmap. This is the foundation of the change management communication plan that is built around eight fundamental steps.
- Create clarity and urgency. The change story narrative is the foundation for creating understanding and urgency for the change. It must clearly define the big-picture opportunity for the organization. It needs to include both context and vision for the change. The strong narrative connects the change to the organization’s purpose, and creates a clear vision for how it will shape the business now and into the future. The narrative helps people see what will be different for the business and the communities it serves, including employees. Working with a clear, consistent story, change sponsors and champions are ready to introduce The Big Opportunity — making clear the importance of acting with urgency. This is the first step in building the change coalition.
- Build a coalition of change leaders. Every change needs a coalition of believers to guide it, implement it and communicate its progress. The most effective coalitions include leaders and influencers — change agents — from across the organization who authentically support the change and are willing to drive the process with urgency and positivity. Change champions need to guide the formation of the coalition. Change agents often emerge when they are invited into an opportunity. Build this invitation into the communication plan and support it with a preliminary framework for roles and responsibilities. As coalition leaders emerge, support them to define the strategic initiatives and design the change communication work plan.
- Design the communication ecosystem. Leaders need to actively make the case for change across the organization as the change coalition takes form. Communication strategies are essential at this stage in the change process. A modern communication ecosystem, including digital, in-person and trusted channels, needs to be designed and built for plan implementation. This will support leaders to effectively share the strategic vision and introduce the key initiatives that will move the change forward with urgency and focus. A strong communication ecosystem will become the heart of the change management communication plan and can eventually power the organization’s communication strategy for the future.
- Rally changemakers. Large-scale changes succeed when many people rally around a common belief or opportunity. This is the change management stage in which change leaders and coalitions expand their work into the broader workforce. Workgroups take shape, subject matter experts are identified, change ambassadors emerge and action creates momentum. Kotter calls these change makers the “volunteer army.” Theses change makers can also grow into an army of authentic, real-time communicators of change information and progress.
- Enable action by removing barriers. The change process will hit barriers that create friction and slow down, or completely stall, progress. Leaders need to proactively plan for the barriers by creating a clear, communication-driven approach to quickly remove obstacles. A well-implemented change management process is an effective way to identify outdated operations, inefficient processes and broken structures. Barriers are effectively removed when the change team listens, learns and co-creates solutions designed to move the change forward. Each barrier that falls is an opportunity to share a mini success story with employees, reinforcing the power of collaboration and change progress.
- Share short-term wins. Big and small wins are the building blocks of change and, eventually, measurable business results. Wins must be tracked, marked and celebrated across the organization. Wins are a measure of progress, and consistently communicating these milestones creates momentum to keep people engaged, focused and moving the change forward.
- Sustain acceleration. Change takes time, energy and sustained commitment. It’s human for focus to wander or be redirected over time. However, change initiatives need continuous support to be successful. Change teams, especially sponsors, champions, change agents and change integrators, must be relentless in their commitment to steward the change all the way through successful implementation. The change management communication plan should include periodic “all-in” moments and experiences to fuel momentum. Use these high-profile activations to:
- Showcase big “firsts” that emerge from the change work
- Profile change leaders and team collaboration
- Share testimonials from partners, customers and employee communities
- Seek input about the change process and the progress being made.
- Integrate change into the culture. Consistently leverage the communication ecosystem to make and share connections between new processes and new behaviors resulting from the change initiative. This serves to integrate the change into an organization’s culture. Kotter, in his book “Accelerate”, writes, “When this happens with more and more changes, there is a cumulative effect.”
Every change is different, but the core tenets of change management communication planning are the same. Through thoughtful planning and communication, leaders can ensure their change initiatives are successful.
Beating the change management odds
Change management initiatives fail far too often. Organizations don’t have to accept a fifty-fifty chance of success as the inevitable outcome. In this guide we discussed barriers like change resistance, change fatigue, and disengaged leadership and employees. What do these barriers have in common?
The key to overcoming these barriers is engaging people through a strong change process and change management communication plan. This guide answers the what and so what of change management communication. It also provides a roadmap for how organizations can get the support they need to ensure big changes succeed. Change results will exceed expectations when organizations activate all the elements needed to drive lasting change.
Ready to overcome change barriers and drive growth?