In this paper I will discuss one specific reason for failure of effective internal communication of change. My hypothesis is that change is communicated by the wrong people. It is not that these people are unwilling or not experienced enough. But that they are too deeply into the issue. Hence, they simply don’t know how to explain it in an understandable way.
Implications of complexity for change communication
Much has been written about the why and how of internal communication in the context of change. There is no doubt that the reasons, the content and the objective of a change initiative have to be understood by all affected employees in order to
- raise awareness
- get acceptance
- get their full support
- avoid resistance.
One major issue here is complexity. We are living in a complex world full of interdependencies. It is no surprise that change initiatives tend to be complex too.
The more complex the issue to be communicated, the more difficult it gets to get the message across. And the more problems for the success of the initiative can arise when employees don’t understand the issue in total. Experience shows that in particular those more complex initiatives tend to face enormous difficulties to reach everybody in the company.
Examples for failed internal communication of change projects
Let me start with two examples from companies I had worked for or still work for:
New organizational structure
Two large companies, both leaders of their industry, had merged and hence had to give themselves a new joint organizational structure. A bunch of consultants had helped to develop this structure and had produced a new org chart, accompanied by some more PowerPoint slides.
For a global organization with more than 50.000 employees, lots of products and industries served, it was no surprise that this structure was everything but simple. It was a matrix structure with many overlapping responsibilities which aimed to foster cross-departmental communication and reconciliation.
The charts and the slides were approved by top management and the board. After that they were presented to middle and lower managers at several occasions. Those were expected to spread the word within their departments.
The problem was that the org chart was a clear candidate for the title ‘most complex and incomprehensible chart I have ever seen’. And so it was not only for me but for all the others, even for the managers who were supposed to act as multipliers. How should they explain the new structure to their people?
During the first three months in which the company was supposed to work in the new structure, most people in the organization were in fact busy finding out what their new role and responsibilities were, with whom to discuss particular questions, who was entitled to decide what and so on.
New business model
A company that went through a major crisis had finally developed a new business model. This new model really required the whole organization to get rid of some of the old common understanding on how business is done and to develop some new thinking.
Top management was closely involved in the development of this business model. Again, charts were presented to and approved by the board and the shareholders. After that, the same charts presented to the employees on Metaplan boards during a big gathering.
During the following transformation phase it turned out that even some of the managers had not really understood the new way of doing business. Vital functions of the organization constantly tended to fall back into the old thinking.
A reason for failed communication of change
What went wrong?
In both cases the new structure or business model was explained to the whole company by those people who had developed it. They were a natural first choice, because nobody knows more about it. But that is actually the problem.
These people had spent weeks and months with this project. For them every single detail was totally logic and obvious. And of course, these people would naturally use the slides and charts they had prepared during this process. They had spent much time thinking about these charts, optimizing them in every detail. But these slides were initially meant for top management – people that had closely followed the whole process and that are used to comprehend complex and new information.
For the change team, the slides to be presented seemed to be crystal clear. The idea to check if these slides would be so clear for the unprepared audience did not come to their mind. They never tested the information to be communicated with someone from their target audience. So they never realized where they had better added some background knowledge, some intermediate steps, and so on.
During the rollout phase, this whole bundle of information was than presented to people for whom it was entirely new. These people had very different backgrounds and different levels of knowledge about industry structures, strategy processes and management science. They lacked the background knowledge from the process during which the new model / structure evolved gradually.
Nevertheless, these totally unprepared people were expected to understand the whole result at once. Nobody checked if the complex charts would make sense to somebody who had never heard about that topic before.
How to better communicate complex change initiatives
Bring in multipliers from the target audience
I propose not to let those people who had developed the new model or structure prepare the presentation on their own. They tend to take too much background knowledge for granted.
Instead, the new things to be communicated should be explained first to a few people that were not involved in their development. These should not (only) be the people from the communications department but somebody who really is affected by the changes and has to make them come alive. This is the first test of reality – is the planned way of presentation suitable and understandable?
In the next step, these new people should help to prepare the communication process and ideally take part in it. Such people will know best which details need more explanation, what additional questions might arise and so on. They speak the language of their colleagues.
This will have several positive effects
- If those people not involved in the development of the change initiative can understand it, they can also make the communication understandable.
- They know about the background knowledge and thinking patterns of their colleagues. Hence, they know best how to adjust slides and other communication material for maximum understanding.
- They are very close to their colleagues. So they can answer questions and discuss particular points in more detail later on. The inhibition threshold to ask a colleague for details will be much lower than to admit to top management that one hasn’t understood their presentation.
- Such multipliers can give the initiative more credibility and acceptance within the organization than external consultants ever can.
The change communication team
So, depending from the size of the organization, internal communication of major change initiatives should best be prepared and executed by a joint team in which its members take on different roles:
|Top management||Supporter and sponsor of the initiativeMake clear that this is the only accepted way forward|
|Team that has developed the new structure / process etc.||Experts with the most detailed knowledgeCommunicate initiative to multipliersMake sure that everything is communicated correctly|
|Multipliers from around the organization (not involved in the development of the initiative)||Multipliers and direct points of contact for their colleaguesMake sure that communication is understandable and does not leave questions open|
|Communication experts||Bring in their specific knowledge about communication methodsOrganize the communication process|
Complex change initiatives are often difficult to communicate internally. If this communications fails to explain the initiative in a detailed and understandable way, the success of the whole initiative is at risk.
The change project team is often part of this problem. They have such a comprehensive knowledge of every detail that they fail to address the unprepared members of the organization.
One solution is to bring in multipliers from within the organization. Once they fully understood the initiative, they are able to communicate it to their co-workers in a way they understand.
Our book recommendations for internal communication
- Internal Communications: A Manual for Practitioners (PR in Practice)
Liam FitzPatrick and Klavs Valskov
This book draws on examples of best practice in the private, public and non-profit sectors, with case studies of high profile international organizations.