5 reasons change communications fail

Communication is one of the most essential elements of delivering a successful change programme but one of the hardest to get right. So often, during change programmes, those impacted complain that they don’t know what’s going on, aren’t involved or don’t understand why we’re having do this (often followed by a disgruntled…again!). So what’s going wrong? These are the top five mistakes I see organisations making when it comes to communicating a programme of change.

  1. Broadcasting – telling people about what is changing, how, why and when is really important but if all you do is 'tell' your comms won’t focus on what is truly important to your stakeholders. Two-way comms is hard, it takes effort and resource but without it the time (and money) you’ve invested in the reports, updates, websites, newsletters…. won’t work. When your comms tell people about the stuff they’re really interested in or worried about engagement in your programme will increase dramatically. When we feel understood and listened to we are almost always more inclined to trust and engage. Find ways to understand your stakeholder groups and what's important to them before you start compiling your messaging.

  2. Perspective – when you are in a programme team and all or most of your day job is about making this change happen you can make huge assumptions about how well everyone else understands what’s happening and how interested they are in it. The rest of the organisation is likely to be at a very different stage on the change curve from those leading and managing the change. If you feel like something is too obvious to say or has been said before so is not worth repeating, take a step back and check where you are hearing it and saying it. Chances are you feel like these things are obvious because they consume all of your working day. For almost everyone else this isn’t the case. Make sure you regularly shift your perspective and view the change from others’ standpoint.

  3. What vs Why – it’s really important to let people know what is changing and how the programme is progressing but all too often updates focus entirely on the 'wha't rather than the 'why'. Every piece of communication you put out – written or verbal – should link back to the ‘why’. The reason you are making this change needs to be obvious to everyone. In no more than three sentences or two minutes anyone impacted by your programme should be able to explain why this change is happening. They may not agree with it but they should have a clear understanding of why it’s happening.

  4. Language – so often communication fails to engage its audience because of the language used. I have seen so many instances of project teams updating on their project entirely in project management technical language. This creates a barrier between the project team and the wider organisation. Get to know what style works for the teams (and in the case of key stakeholders, individuals) you are working with. If you can become fluent in the cultural language of the organisation or team you are working with, people will listen.

  5. Resource – comms is something most people feel they can do. Everyone has an opinion on it as we all have a preference for how we like to receive and digest information. This is exacerbated during times of change when we may be feeling anxious. If you try to wing communication by doing it yourself (if you’re not a comms expert!) or plugging it on to an already over-stretched project managers day job you are putting your whole programme at risk. I would argue that comms resource is one of the most important elements of your project team. Proceed without it at your peril!

Caroline Doran is a project consultant working with busy senior leaders at times of change and transition. She works with organisations to translate strategic ideas into operational realities.

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