The missing message in change

ChangHolybrook Associates_4412b_resizee. There’s a lot of it about. Some of it good. Some of it not-so-good. Some of it just plain baffling. And lots of it – in my experience anyway – badly communicated.

There are, of course, fantastic examples of change communication, where everyone who is affected feels informed and engaged. They understand what is happening, when and, most importantly, why. In these examples, individuals who are negatively impacted by what’s changed can still see why it has to happen – the communication allows space for them to hold two views at the same time (I understand why this is good for the organisation, but I’m also upset that it has a bad effect on me).

And for those who are less interested in the touchy-feely aspects of making people feel good about change, these positive approaches are also successful operationally. If everyone understands what needs to change and why they will be motivated to act on it – whether that be taking up a new process, aligning themselves with a new strategy or getting used to a new boss.

Good for business and good for individuals. Sounds like a win-win to me.

So why have I seen so much badly-communicated change? Why have we all seen so much badly-communicated change?

There are many answers here and many aspects of change communication that I could talk about in this article. The (lack of) planning. (Failure to) put yourself in others’ shoes to consider their perspective, motivations and information needs. The (lack of) strong, compelling narrative or case for change. I could go on, but I know we all have limited time. So today I am restricting myself to one aspect that I notice again and again.

The missing message

How many times during a badly-managed restructure do you hear people say ‘they’re expecting us to do more with less’? And after the badly-managed restructure, for that matter. Understandably, if your job is put at risk during a restructure or your team’s numbers are reduced, the immediate impact you feel is that there is still a pile of invoices on your desk, a queue of people to see or an inbox full of queries to answer, only there are now fewer people to do it.

The message that you hear is:

‘We need to do all this with fewer people because that will save money’.

However, often the aim is to do things differently, using new processes, technologies and priorities – with the result that fewer people will be needed to do it. A subtle but important difference. Sometimes people can be freed up to work on other areas or in different ways.

So the message should be:

‘In order to compete in our current market and offer the goods/services we are known for, we need to do things differently’.

The difference here is that the message is first and foremost about new ways of working. It’s not about numbers of people or volumes of current paperwork.

You have to start by putting in the time and effort to engage people to understand this message – and it will take time for them to work through all the implications and come to a point where they understand and agree (or not, in which case they are in a better position to make an informed decision about their own actions). Then you can start to talk about what that means in terms of change and new ways of doing things. This will inevitably lead to discussions around numbers of people or roles and money saved, but with a more solid foundation.

Change communication is a nuanced and complex activity. You need strong messages, genuine openness and trust and support for local managers in their day-to-day communication. It won’t just happen on its own