Nicole Gorfer is Global Head Public & Employee Communications for the Roche Group. The Swiss headquartered company is leader in research-focused healthcare with combined strengths in Pharma and Diagnostics. Gorfer is also a Board Member of the European Association of Communication Directors (EACD).mail the author
ITL #211 Change communications: achieving commitment to organisational transformation8 months, 2 weeks ago
It was the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle who was of the profound opinion that one key criteria for a good piece of theatre was that it needs to be over pretty quickly. Yes, a great plot, maybe some complications and a bit of drama – but the direction is set and after three not too long acts, the audience should be left with a feeling of ‘genuine completion’.
Well, don’t we sometimes (secretly, of course) wish this kind of guidance should apply for managing change as well? Communicating change is part of our core competencies as professional communicators. But what if you have to manage and communicate at the same time because your own department is affected by change? Busy with daily tasks and important deliverables, actually no time to carve out an extremely critical stakeholder group that needs to be serviced (communicators!).
Allow me an analogy: change communications feels like consulting on relationships. We are at our best, as long as we are not affected ourselves. So, here’s a quick guide to help remember what’s at stake:
Let’s start with facts, the very basic and most important ingredient to a good story. It may sound simple but surprisingly many companies or departments (hello!) struggle with getting all facts together before kicking off any communication.
Know your story, use your skills to tell it. Based on the facts, what’s your engaging and convincing storyline? Simple but effective, we start with answering the basic questions on what, when, who and how – and it pays off if you can visualise what success looks like. So, what is it that needs to change? What do we stop doing? Why? It helps to explain the adapted role and remit of the team, how this is embedded and rooted in the organisation.
We should know best when communicating that the only constant in life is change. But let’s face it, at the heart of how all individuals function, there is that dream of security at work; security from humiliation, dependence, arbitrary dismissal and yes, uncertainty. And that is exactly what we’re exposing our people to. So be fact oriented. But also mindful and empathetic in the way you deliver.
You know the ‘why’ and you’re able to explain it. Now, do the plan and factor-in your resource needs properly. Resources are all about people, budget and time. It takes manpower to execute change successfully, and more people (and meetings) than you probably think.
We tend to forget it does not take as many hands to kick off initiatives as to keep them up and running. Perfect if you can appoint one person who keeps it all together: the plan, the timelines, the Q&A. However, keeping momentum and meeting deadlines gets difficult when the organisation cries for more information, answers and help.
Don’t forget another challenging part: whom from your leadership team can you actively involve? Anyone directly affected? Make sure your team knows the storyline and can explain the ‘why’ properly. Have a good Q&A at hand and test-drive it. Remember that your stakeholders are communicators and probably the most critical audience you can have in the organisation.
Your most critical resource, though, is time. First, it’s the time needed to make sure people understand the rationale for change. Potentially you also have to nurture the business, customers and their network. Second, it’s your own visibility that’s incremental for a successful change management. Plan this in. And most importantly, if roles are made redundant and you have to let people go, plan enough time with HR and affected team members to discuss this through and do formalities justice.
Stay human and empathetic, though. And because of this, consider speeding up the process to inform those who have to leave as early as possible. Rip off the Band-Aid quickly and in one go! That may sound controversial, but in my experience it has helped people and helped in not losing focus.
Your and your leadership team’s visibility and accessibility have a direct impact on the credibility of the story you tell and therefore, the effectiveness of your communication. Silence produces unnecessary misunderstanding, speculation and concerns. There needs to be a constant drumbeat to guide employees’ thoughts. Make sure you plan in regular meetings with your team, have them in your calendar – even if you have nothing new to say. I started to do regular weekly emails to the team on what keeps me busy and what’s challenging us.
At all cost, stay in regular contact with your people. And ideally, you have a ‘Plan B’ in place in case too much rumour disrupts morale and endangers, a) resources – good people you want to keep who start thinking about leaving, or b) delivery of key projects.
Every transformation plan encompasses a number of activities, kicking off a ride on the classic change curve. Looking ahead, over time we go through four phases in a change process – awareness, understanding, acceptance and commitment.
It is straightforward to create awareness about a company’s or department’s transformation. All employees are curious when they sense changes – could be companywide! So: what does this mean to the business, to my colleagues and maybe, to myself? You will be able to win the understanding part soonish when you answer your basic questions diligently. If the ‘why’ is strong enough, you get people on board pretty quickly. Don’t compromise on this end.
Acceptance is linked to the ability to put changes into a context employees can relate to and that seems meaningful. This basically boils down to how you use examples to make your story tangible. Paint the picture of why this transformation is happening – the business AND the external environment perspective; what the future looks like, what happens if you don’t act and what to expect.
You can easily lose credibility if you stay too abstract or shallow. If employees have to commit to changes, you have to address the ‘what is in it for me?’ question. This takes an open dialogue and is not something you should handle through email.
We are aware that information is a top down approach and to provide for a basic awareness and understanding of what’s happening. But if your leadership team is to be supportive and engaged to come up with ideas on how to shape ‘the New’ meaningfully (you can’t do it all alone, it’s a fact), involve them. Even if there is no time at all: you have to ask for and listen to feedback.
Just don’t fall for mistakes here – don’t go your own way or deny colleagues any real influence. If feedback is not used to optimise or adjust processes or ways of working, disengagement is a likely reaction. “Why bother? I’m not listened to anyway”. And they are right. During any transformation, try to limit the space for personal agendas or big egos – focus must be on what is best for the company.
During any transformation, there has to be a constant flow of information about results, progress, people. However, we often feel there is no news to share – but stay committed to your plan. As said, silence is not a good idea. Another tricky part is to be consistent in your messages. We have a tendency to freestyle when repeating the same messages a thousand times, conveying stories in different ways through different people. Unfortunately, too much room for interpretation erodes every strategy as well as trust. Accept and stay on message.
And don’t forget, your story needs to be dosed. Initially, it is about explaining the big picture, the background and vision. Then you focus on progress. It’s never easy to let people go but don’t fall short on communicating positive developments, too: how change has affected the new ways of working, how collaborations now run maybe smoother…any specific process or product that has improved can be used as a good example.
It’s a fact that authenticity and integrity are rare traits these days. Let’s not forget that most people conform to whatever environment they are in, even if that environment seems to be against their value or belief system. So, when people start gossiping, do you join in?
And please don’t forget to finally say “thanks!” to your team: for their efforts, trust and support.
Trust in physics. You cannot introduce a change to any system without simultaneously causing an influence on the whole system. If you manage to keep the trust in your decision-making high, the level of rumours low (no rumours is unfortunately no option) and communications ongoing, then eventually, your people will begin arranging themselves to better fit with the new.