This article is the fourth in a series that discusses the key attributes to successfully navigating change and transformation from practical experience. The aim of the articles is to discuss my five pillars to successful change and/or transformation initiatives, which are not concerned with the different methodologies available within the market sector. Instead they talk through the common pitfalls of change and transformation that can, if used correctly, become key components to its success.
One of the tell-tale signs of a failing relationship is the breakdown of communication. No-one knows how the other person feels, you begin to feel cut off from one another and it’s only a matter of time before you hear the words “it’s not you….”! Maybe the relationship wasn’t salvageable, but I bet the breakup would have been less painful if the people had just communicated and expressed their feelings.
There are many ways to communicate; vocally, written, visually or non-verbally (body language, gestures etc), and in our daily lives we do it often without thinking. But my experience with communication in change and transformation is a different ball game to my personal life.
To quote Caldwell “Comms that are well thought out and engaging inform, involve and motivate collaboration to participate in projects” (Caldwell 1993).
When and what to communicate
There’s a temptation to communicate the good news stories only. At the start of the project it’s all clear blue skies, “look what we’re about to do” and so on, and at the end it’s “look what we did”! Then keep the noise to a minimum during the in-between part, where the workload gets heavy, the priorities are changing, and things don’t run as smoothly as they were meant to.
This approach is likely to meet resistance from your colleagues when you need their participation. “It’s not the destination, it’s the journey” – there’s worth in bringing your colleagues on a journey from the onset and being transparent builds trust and allows others to support the work and engages influencers.
Tailored communications to the target audience to ensure they’re getting the information they need, e.g. progress updates, key events, educational comms.
To set these comms up for success, a good place to start with is a clear vision/mission statement. Work with your team to discuss what you’re trying to achieve and write down all suggestions. It will probably
start off as a series of bullet points, or a list of words like “innovation”, “collaboration” and “success”. Over the next few weeks revisit the statement with the intention of simplifying it. With each attempt it will shorten until you’re left with a slogan or sorts. Oxfam’s mission statement is “A world without poverty” – that’s about as clear and concise as you can get, and probably took a few goes to get there. This will become your slogan that’s instantly recognisable with those that you communicate to, and it’s a good place to build from.
Who to Communicate to:
Communicating to all stakeholders improves the project experience and builds trust for everyone involved and indirectly impacted by the change.
Up to this point I’ve been talking about stakeholders, i.e. those in the business that support the project. It’s easy to forget your project team, but they, like any relationship, need communication too. Assuming that everyone in the project knows the latest status, the reason why things are changing is a great way of making your team feel confused and segregated. Not only do you risk them losing motivation and trust in you, but there’s the added danger of them miscommunicating to the project stakeholders.
Lastly, even the more challenging stakeholders need communication. In the earlier stages of my career I would intentionally avoid speaking to colleagues who were easy to overreact or always responding with more challenges than solutions. In particular, one of my previous colleagues would regularly respond negatively on emails and challenge me on calls to the point where I felt like I was being attacked. Avoiding them was my initial response, but this didn’t improve the situation, more likely it made it worse. At the same time, I was completing Agile’s MSP course and I asked my coach what they would do. They’re advice was simple – pick up the phone and talk to them – ask their thoughts on your plans and see how they’re doing. Chances are not a lot of people are doing that. My coach was right. They were a little taken back to hear from me, but undoubtably appreciated being listened to, and whilst we didn’t become best friends, we were able to better support one another through the challenges of the project.
How – Communication Tools:
“How a programme engages it stakeholders is crucial to its success” (Managing Successful Programmes 2013).
To make communication effective, the project should take time to think through what tools it should use. What works for the business and what doesn’t, irrespective if they’ve not been used before.
Going through this exercise will give a clearer picture of how the audience wants to be communicated with. Why not go a step further and see what new tools can be used – this is your opportunity to provide stakeholders with a fresh and innovative approach.
Here are some examples of available tools that can be used:
· Presentations, webinars, Q&A sessions
· Articles, weekly round up
· Discussions boards
· Status meetings
The above isn’t a complete list, a quick google search will no doubt highlight other, and maybe better tools. My point is to not limit your project with your predecessor’s choices. Take the opportunity to learn from them, adapt the communication strategy and improve the outcomes.
What works, what doesn’t:
· Consistent clear messaging from the outset that is free of all project jargon and gives your stakeholders the right level of information
· Utilise communication tools used by the business and trial new ones
· Create a recognisable vision/mission statement that becomes the project’s slogan
· Listen to the wishes of your stakeholders and your team. Don’t overload inboxes in an attempt to show how busy you are – it will only frustrate people if their inbox count has gone up again for the tenth time today!
· Encourage two-way comms between the project and its stakeholders
· Last minute communication – in the infamous words of the fat controller, it creates “confusion and delay”! It’s also a missed opportunity for beneficial collaboration and doesn’t nurture a relationship for future work
· Assume that you understand the concerns of the business and that the outcome of the project will revolutionise their world
· Assume that everyone knows what’s happening just because you are privy to all the information
· Emotional comms – avoid expressing negative emotions
· A rushed communication plan for the sake of ticking of a box. Doing the bare minimum in such an important part of the process will ultimately impact the project
· Limiting the communications to good news only. A balance can be met where there’s honesty about the difficulties a project faces without overwhelming your stakeholders of the nitty gritty details
In my experience the best strategies are often the simplest ones. They’re easy to understand and to execute.
The key ingredients for a good strategy consider the why, what, when, who and how. I’d typically see this in a communication plan, which captures the events that require communication, the key messages needed for each event, the audience and the communication channels that will be used.
Starting from the perspective of the project’s stakeholder is a useful tool to consider what this change means for them and how they want to be communicated with.
At the start of this article I used the analogy of why communication is important in a failing relationship. Flash forward a few months to when you have an opportunity to speak to someone new. Assume that person is the one you’re destined to spend your life with. Knowing that, you’ll put all your energy into making that first conversation go as well as possible, even if you do stumble over a few words. Good communication is a solid foundation to build a relationship of trust, understanding and respect for one another.
If we approach communicating about a new project in the same way (I don’t mean taking your stakeholders for dinner and drinks), putting your energy into that communication and being honest from the get-go can be one of the first building blocks for success.
So communicate early, communicate proudly and create a project environment built upon trust, leaving behind a legacy for future projects.