Part IV: Balancing the emotional and rational aspects of transformation communication

By Amy Poynton and Dhugal Ford

Organisation communication (comms) exists to inform, persuade and promote engagement and strengthen goodwill across the market, customers and employee groups. Everyday, comms teams are challenged with delivering strategic messages, while also adapting to the changes in current events.  Large scale transformations face these same challenges, but on a more time-critical intense scale.

Transformation comms need to balance the fine line between the emotional aspects: time of great change, need for trust and great transparency, with the rational aspects: strategic imperatives and business outcomes.

In part III of this series, we confirmed that it makes sense to use proven methods and tools for stakeholder management, because leveraging proven existing methods will deliver an immediate productivity gain to the program. The same holds true for comms. Avoiding unnecessary effort (on re-designing methods and tools) means that comms teams can redirect their resources towards strengthening comms activities and channels with leaders and influencers, planning and prioritising the messages and gathering ongoing feedback from customers and employees.

  1. Leaders and Influencers

“Tone at the Top” describes management’s level of commitment towards openness, honesty, integrity, and ethical behaviour. Successful comms programs need stronger and transparent leadership stories and key messages to set the tone for the rest of the organisation to follow.

During transformation, people will naturally turn to trusted leaders to help them understand the changes. Transformation will have a significantly better chance of adapting to the new way of working when leaders are believable and deliver the specific messages that make sense to the variety of audiences that want to know more about what the transformation means for them.

On the flip side, people can quickly get distracted when there is a distrust. More likely than not, the organisation will have pockets of effective teams that are pounding through the changes while others, that are distrusting the changes, will cause disruption by slowing or halting their efforts.

It is the responsibility of the transformation to understand the landscape to make sure everyone is getting the right information at the right time. The program must trust leaders to do the right thing, but there is also a responsibility to confirm that the comms is being delivered, received and is understood. In other words, trust but verify.

A few decades ago, business communication was tightly held and largely delivered ‘top-down’.  The pragmatic need was to find a way to just get the message out, through a group of ‘transformation champions’ that would be responsible for the cascade of key messages. Fast forward to today where we have multiple, easy formal and informal channels. The primary need is no longer merely the delivery mechanism – that is the easy part. Instead, we need to put more focus on being as transparent as possible to build trust with each message.

Influencer: a person or group that has the ability to influence the behaviour or opinions of others. 

The concept of ‘influencers’ has been in the marketing arena for decades (if not centuries!). Essentially, it means that organisation and people with influence (influencers) can strengthen the way people understand and accept the changes being introduced. Contemporary communication, particularly social media channels, have taken the role of influencers to new heights. Influencers are not about hierarchy, so look past the org-charts to find those people that network, connect and are the ‘go-to’ folks around the business as trusted sources. Once identified, it is just as important to monitor the evolution of the influencers based on any number of criteria relevant to the program such as the timeframe, topic, the work area or geography.

If there is a change, such as a new business practice, then your influencers might be the current experts who need to accept the changes first – then, they quickly become the greatest advocates. However, if the program starts to move quickly and the influencer can’t understand the changes, then they can quickly move from advocate to critic. Comms can use stakeholder management planning (Part III) to keep track and support these key influencers.

  1. Roadmap and Prioritisation

An integrated roadmap will go a long way toward building a common understanding of the transformation story, key messages and targeted campaigns for the duration of the program. This can include details such as objectives and activities, identify who will lead each activity, assign a budget, and select metrics to measure success.

The roadmap can give a level of certainty about activities and campaigns underway or soon to be deployed. The challenge is that things change quickly, which can result in the ‘certainty’ being washed away with unexpected waves of change in market conditions, business needs or design changes. Transformation teams must quickly adapt the roadmap based on these changes.

Of course, the roadmap will only be as good as the stories and messages being delivered. Prioritisation of what and when to communicate is an ongoing challenge.  When do we talk about what is happening? If it is too soon, then people are confused and frustrated because there are not enough details to answer questions. If too late, then people become distrusting because it was first heard via inaccurate ‘leaks’ which erodes their belief in what their leaders are saying.

When people understand and believe the facts, then they will be more likely to temper their emotional response. If there is uncertainty, then individuals can start to feel neglected and will tend to lean on informal (and often inaccurate) news as their trusted source.

Sharing the prioritisation criteria will provide a level of certainty about when people will learn more about the program. It will drive an increased level of trust and transparency in the way decisions are being made and information is being shared. For example, one transformation openly talked about the prioritisation criteria using the following guidelines:

  • When we are at least 20% confident of change – then give the teams a ‘heads up’
  • When we are at least 50% confident of the change – then provide team with a briefing
  • When we are at least 70% confident of the change – then share details about key decisions and immediate planning activities

Delivering to the roadmap and adhering consistently to the prioritisation criteria is an effective approach to maintaining trust in the formal communication channels.

3 Employee, Customer and Program Feedback

In transformation, it is critical to test how the change is being accepted and sustained across the business.  Therefore, confirming agreement on the methods of feedback for the specific corporate culture will pay-off.

Success feeds success: transformations that kick-off an early feedback loop are more likely to improve trust. 

Too often though, there is anxiety from leaders regarding how and when to connect with staff and customers to gather feedback. This can lead to an extensive amount of time in questioning the best type of communication (survey, interview, etc.) and channel (email, phone call, meeting etc.). Then, everyone runs out of steam and the effort required to deploy, analyse and summarise the feedback can be rushed or, in some cases, forgotten.

The value of feedback received from employee and customers is immeasurable, so the method and tools (and timing) need to be established early and agreed with key decision makers.  This way, the effort can go into understanding and using the feedback, to better support the transformation and improve the outcomes for the business.

The focus on feedback to the program is critical, however it can cause a one-way, ‘master-servant’ dynamic to emerge. Constantly reacting to the varied and ever-changing wants and needs of a diverse customer group is a trap that the program can easily fall into. This happens when business has more demand for new/ different/ better aspects of the program, while the transformation team is left with no vehicle to provide their own perspectives on what is working and what is not.  It is important to find ways to open the two-way dialogue so that feedback from the transformation program is heard.

‘Lessons Learned’ sessions are an effective way to gather feedback from multiple sources – including the transformation team.  If the programme is just commencing or it is already in flight, there is an opportunity to pause and take stock of the work with three simple questions: What has worked well? What could be different/better?, What actions would you want to see taken to improve/strengthen/sustain the work?

Lessons Learned is a respectful approach that allows the transformation team to weigh in with feedback to the business. It is all about improving the work which diffuses the risk of finger-pointing or blaming when sharing things that have not gone well.  Longer term, the benefits of learned experiences means that teams can test new ideas against real life examples.

 

Remember that comms happens all the time. Every day, teams, contacts and networks will be trading valuable morsels of news (fake or true).  The combination of a proven method, capable trusted leaders & influencers and a solid comms approach will provide people with genuine ongoing support that they need to work through the changes that may impact their jobs, their teams and their customers.

 

This article is the last of a four-part Linked-IN series on large scale transformation including business performance, integrated change, stakeholder management and communication which is based on a Transformation Workshop delivered at Shared Services & Outsourcing week (Sydney 2017). For more information on the series, please contact the authors directly.

 Amy Poynton is a business executive and advisor, mentor and board member with over 20 years experience in business improvement and transformation. She currently splits her time between board commitments, consulting, mentoring, writing and public speaking.

Dhugal Ford is a Director at The Terrace Initiative, with over 15 years experience working within a global business. He now enjoys working as part of an amazing team, with deep expertise and a sense of fun, delivering lasting and transformation change with predictability and speed for his clients.

 

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