A while back, we adopted two cats when they were abandoned by their original owners.
This is Boots. —>
She is in no way shy.
She comes running at the sound of our footsteps, races us to the food dish each morning and never misses a chance to nuzzle a leg and beg for attention.
And the grinning cat below… That’s her sidekick Tilly.
Tilly has what you might call “a little communication issue”. Her personality is the exact opposite of Boots. When she hears us coming, she turns her head and pretends not to notice anyone as she slinks away.
She ignores our calls of “Here Kitty, Kitty” and does each and every thing on her own terms. Even when she does what’s expected of her, she waits until she’s good and ready.
In my experience communicating change to impacted stakeholders, I’ve noticed that every organization has its share of Tillys and a few people more like Boots – plus every variation in between. The trick to helping all of them adapt to change is understanding each stakeholder’s unique differences and reaching them in a way that works.
Change Agents are often on the hook for communicating the rationale for change as well as news about how people need to get ready.
We craft elaborate communication plans, map out messages to key stakeholder groups and engage our sponsors to deliver the future vision.
We offer dialogue about the change, feedback channels to help the team get it right and opportunities for stakeholders to shape the change itself. We schedule recurring updates and respond to feedback questions as if each answer could tip the balance toward change adoption.
We do our best to not miss anyone, yet somehow there always seems to be a few people who respond to that message titled “Last Day to Sign Up for Training” with “First I’ve heard of it…”.
We offer the keys to their future, yet even though we may wish each person was as open to our message as Boots seems to be to our affection, sometimes those who most need to hear this information respond more like Tilly probably would:
– They pretend to not hear the subtlest hints or the loudest siren calls in hopes that the change will just go away.
– They saunter off in another direction when change approaches because they have better things to do.
– They act as if listening would surrender some element of control over their future.
– They delete your emails without opening them and blame you for not keeping them in the loop.
What Can Change Agents Do? How can we do a better job of making sure the most important information about a change gets to the right people and elicits the proper action to help them prepare?
Consider these four possible causes for this communication disconnect and four ways to potentially bridge the gap:
Possible Cause #1: Your net has a hole in it.
Sometime we miss key individuals or entire groups of potentially impacted stakeholders when we plan for communicating the change.
What to Try: Beef up your stakeholder mapping process. Early in any change initiative, I recommend that Change Agents do a thorough job of identifying those who are impacted. One rule of thumb that I use when it comes to searching for impacted people is this:
“Start with the entire org chart and only take a person off the direct communication list if you can prove they are absolutely NOT impacted by this change.”
For more information and “how to” advice on stakeholder mapping, read my detailed article here.
Possible Cause #2: You swung hard enough, but you struck out.
What to Try: Mix it up! Even the best content can miss it’s mark if the intended target doesn’t routinely tune in to the channel you’ve used to send it. Send the same message across multiple channels and use several delivery methods.
Some folks read email, others prefer texts, bulletin boards, desk drops or verbal messages in a team setting.
Consider a mix of broadcast methods and direct means. For example, I’ll bet most of you have an intranet or internal employee website that could be used to broadcast information about your change to virtually everyone on your stakeholder map who’s inside your company’s firewall. On some projects, I’ve also built simple, secure websites that can reach anyone with a web browser. If you look around, I’ll bet you could find at least a dozen different ways to deliver the same content.
Try them all. Gather feedback and do some testing to verify which ones give you the best bang for the buck so you can optimize your communication resources.
Possible Cause #3: The quality of your communication didn’t get the job done.
What to Try: Improve the attention-grabbing design and bottom-line content.
The chances of generating action with your communication drop through the floor if you don’t first get their attention.
Like most pets, Tilly responds to signals associated with food. We’ve discovered that the sound of a tin cup clanging against a dinner bowl seems to generate the “come here” response we’re looking for. She still doesn’t jump into our laps, but this communication technique at least gets her through the door so she’ll eat and safely spend the night indoors.
Find out what turns people’s heads in your culture. Remember that using multiple channels and methods can open up a lot of new ways to grab folks’ attention.
Don’t forget that your change message will also fail if the content doesn’t meet the basic needs of the targets.
Provide a bit of context in every message so people remember where you left off. If action is required – tell people up front what they’re expected to do, when that needs to be done and where they can go for more information. Repeat these “action required” messages at several points in the communication window. Measure communication effectiveness periodically to verify that you’re getting through.
Finally, don’t inundate your audience with so many meaningless information updates that they start to delete things automatically and miss the one message that needs an actual response.
Possible Cause #4: “Your” change is not “their” priority.
What to Try: Leverage the cascade of sponsorship to influence individual priorities.
Some companies have mandatory team meetings, a “thou shalt read all emails” policy or an “answer all phone calls within 24 hours” rule that can work in your favor. Don’t be afraid to leverage the iron hand of your Sponsor if stakeholders routinely ignore your official calls for action. Those with position authority can help you remind people of that little line in the rule book covering the simple expectation that members of a team should tune in occasionally to make sure everyone stays on the same page.
Of course, you don’t want to use this heavy-handed approach too often or people may feel as if they are being bullied. But unfortunately, it is sometimes necessary to get people’s attention by invoking voices that no one can afford to ignore.
I also sense that Change Agents sometimes feel communication is their job and they should be able to do it on their own. Others really don’t want to upset the apple cart by telling people they have to do something. I know that asking for help can be difficult if you’re the kind of Change Agent who’d rather be loved than listened to, but I urge you to monitor what’s working, mix it up if that’s warranted and call for help if it’s genuinely needed.
The Bottom Line: As Change Agents, we will probably find ourselves accountable for communicating with some stakeholders who hang on our every word and others who totally ignore us until it’s nearly too late. We need to try every method in our toolkit to reach each type of stakeholder in ways that result in their tuning in and responding with action.
One of the bedrock principles of theBigRocks of Change(c) approach is that you can’t actually make people change. You can only use rational information, perceived rewards and punishments, offers of assistance and organizational/psychological levers to draw them into a dialogue where they honestly consider their options and choose to either prepare to embrace the change or prepare to exit/avoid it. So it’s critical that change agents who expect to reach stakeholders like Tilly seek first to understand the best ways to reach each person before attempting to communicate with them, persuade them or help them through the adoption process.
What matters most is that your change message gets through and the people who are impacted get the input they need to make their own decisions.
Questions for Chatter
– What communications channels work best in your organization? How can you tell?
– Which channels are utterly worthless and shouldn’t be used for important messages about your change?
– Have you ever asked your Sponsor to jump in and remind people that they’re expected to listen to communications about a change?
– What positive results should you expect when you call in your Sponsor(s) for communication reinforcement? What, if any backlash might you anticipate receiving?