Transparent and Engaging Communications for Change Enablement
We often consider communications as a separate pillar within change methodologies. But the truth is, we need to consider communications at every phase of a change initiative. The reason? You cannot enable people for their change journey or expect engagement without being transparent about what is happening. When we disconnect communications from the phases, we lose the true value.
Let us start by looking at the difference between communication and communications. In the organizational context, the key difference between them is that communication focuses on the message itself, whereas communications studies how organizations and their people deliver these messages. To put things into perspective, think about how COVID has impacted elementary schools. Ontario's education system has experienced a lot of change. People are still navigating the transition from in-person classes to hybrid to fully remote learning. With all of these critical decisions, educators and families need to know what is happening to succeed. That is where both communication and communications demonstrate its most significant impact. Without the school boards providing transparency towards the decisions they are making or delivering this information through trusted channels, families would be confused or resistant to any changes. This same concept applies to organizational change; communication and communications are necessary to keep people informed, engaged, and accountable in an organization's change journey. People need to know why the change is happening, what is in it for them, and how it impacts their role to accept it. Today, we're focusing on effective communications and how it can be applied to help you reach the right people, at the right time, in the right way. Change can be intimidating for many people, and effective communications helps facilitate the uncertainty people experience during transformations.
Achieving Effective Communications
While communication involves sending and receiving messages, effective communications is more than just a single event or an exchange of information. Effective communications drives engagement, impacts change adoption, and builds personal accountability, which is essential to enabling your people for change. When done correctly, communications planning should reach the right people, at the right time, the right way. This means understanding your audience, crafting a message that resonates with them, choosing an optimal delivery method, and executing it when appropriate. Different organizations and changes will almost always have different requirements. So, it is important to ask yourselves these simple questions:
What are the objectives?
What are the key messages?
Who are you trying to reach?
When and how will information be disseminated, and what is the relevant timing?
How much information will be provided, and to what level of detail?
How will comments be solicited?
What will be done because of receiving the feedback?
Answering these questions is only the first step. Effective communications means crafting messages that are both heard and understood by your audience.
Historically, we may be used to executives delivering communications to our organization through formal e-mails that simply states what is happening and why. These formal messages rarely consider the audience and are simply for the sake of "you were informed" without building any personal accountability for the audience. This leads to recipients often unsure of what to do with the information given to them.
Think of the ongoing changes occurring in our schools these past few months. The audience, in this case, is the parents of the children and the faculty and staff of the schools. Informing these individuals of what is happening is not enough. Similar to an organization, the school board also has to consider how they can engage their audience by clearly highlighting expectations and soliciting feedback. Enabling your people for change means creating a sense of accountability for it through your messaging.
Establishing what we want our audience to gain from communications is not the only critical component. There also needs to be a clear distinction of who the audience is. Not every message is intended for everyone in an organization. Just as parents and their children are impacted differently from faculty and staff, different people in an organization will have their own change journeys.
Different audiences will have different needs, reactions, and expectations when interpreting communications. Organizations need to have a clear understanding of how various individuals, whether they are directors, managers, or employees, interpret these messages and adapt to their needs.
Although the medium, message, and timing are all crucial pieces of effective communications, the audience directly affects each one and sets the foundation for the rest of your communication strategy.
Choosing your Communications Channel
The different types of communications include:
Written Communication (i.e. e-mail or letters)
Meetings (Including Virtual Meetings)
Chatting with Colleagues
Each type has its own advantages and depends on the audience, the urgency, and the goal of the communication. Different audiences prefer to communicate in different ways. For example, executives might benefit from an e-mail because their schedules are not as flexible, and booking a meeting where they are all available could be challenging. Whereas a meeting for mid-level employees could be advantageous as it allows the individuals to pose questions for more clarification.
This does not mean these are always the best mediums for these audiences. Executives also receive high volumes of e-mails, so there is a good chance any communication delivered via e-mail will get overlooked. In contrast, booking meetings for mid-level employees takes a lot of time and effort to plan and could disrupt day-to-day operations. There is no formula to tell you which messages work best in every scenario; it all comes down to understanding your organization's people and their needs. Communications practitioners are essential to Change Enablement because of their abilities to strategize and plan organizational communications. They take a tremendous amount of pressure off Change Leaders and provide a much-needed benefit to their organization. I started off by mentioning the inaccuracy many organizations have by separating communications as its own pillar. One of the most common causes for this is that there is no communications practitioner to hone in on the business' needs and apply their strategy throughout all phases.
Now that you know our audience and the best way to communicate to them, you need to decide what information needs to be included. Not only does the content need to be relevant, but it needs to be transparent. For example, think about if your audience needs to receive important updates or just general information at a particular stage in their change journey. Being thoughtful about your messages' content and structure will give your information the best chance at being heard and interpreted correctly. You may be asking yourself, why do I keep mentioning transparent communications? Well, that is because, in addition to the message informing the audience what is in it for them, it also needs to provide insight into why the change is necessary. When catering your message to your audience's needs and values, you create a more compelling case for the change.
Timing the Delivery
The last step in delivering communications is delivering the communication. This means answering the question, when does my team need to hear this information? Communications plans need to carefully consider the timeliness of information shared to find the right balance between too little and too much communication. We often lean towards saying there is no such thing as too much communication. Once a message is delivered, you may understand the content right away. However, repetition is typically encouraged because that understanding can be easily forgotten once your focus shifts to your other responsibilities. Still, we need to be careful that we are not overwhelming our audience or delivering irrelevant information that they will dismiss.
A second consideration that needs to be accounted for is the action items in the message. Once communication is delivered, there will be associated action items for the audience. The delivery timing needs to account for the estimated time and effort it will take for the audience to complete those action items. Allocating too little time will create stress in the audience and resistance to understanding the benefit of the change. Meanwhile, giving too much time can lead to procrastination or a lack of importance.
In summary, providing clear and consistent messages along the change journey builds personal accountability and helps the audience feel connected and responsible as true stakeholders in the process.
When applying these four components of effective communications in your strategies and plans, you can take your organization from change-resistant to change-ready.
Let us think back to our school board example one last time and put ourselves in the audience's perspective. I think we can all agree that we would want to be consistently informed regarding what is going on and what our own action items are. We want a clear understanding of why certain safety precautions are put in place regarding COVID-19 and what we can do to support the health and safety of those in our community. We want to be informed promptly so that we do not feel forgotten. We want to be told through a channel that makes it easy to understand the message and provide feedback when appropriate. Achieving these enables us to be a part of the change journey. The same mindset needs to be in place to enable our people for business changes.