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The Missing Part of Change Communication

Maybe it’s time to reevaluate the effort project teams put into change communication.

Pick any study that examines the effectiveness of organizational change and somewhere the results will say that communication is one of the most essential ingredients of success. Some recent examples include:

  • 2016 Robert Half studyreported that 65% of senior manager respondents said that "communicating clearly and frequently" was "most important" when leading organizations through major change.

  • Rick Maurer, author of Beyond the Wall of Resistancesaid the #1 reason why change fails is "lack of communication."

  • Towers Watson reports in studies conducted in 2005/2006, 2007/2008, 2011/2012 and 2013/14 that communication is a leading indicator of financial performance, a critical competency of top performing change managers, and the most effective tool for informing stakeholders.

Dutiful change leaders pay attention to these studies.  They also listen to the feedback from their own organizations that begs for more and better communication.  And each time they begin a new project they invest extraordinary energy into formal and structured communication.

They enlist internal resources, secure external pros, and develop detailed plans using multiple channels, frequent updates, regular meetings, online document repositories, and internal websites, newsletters and posters.  Wanting to wow their stakeholders, they spend days crafting powerful project brands that emblazon mugs, pens, stress balls, hats, t-shirts, email headers and piles and piles of PowerPoints.

Then, when they solicit feedback at the end of a project and ask what they can improve the next time, what's at the top of the list?  Better communication!

At the most simplistic level, formal communication, no matter the volume, is more likely to stick when receivers have an active experience with it.  An email will be more memorable if readers have to reply or click on a link and fill out a form.  A video that tells a story is more memorable than a PowerPoint filled with bullet points and diagrams.  A dialogue with a leader will influence more effectively than a detached presentation in an auditorium.

But improving communication is not the point.  Active experience is.

The desire for more communication comes from the need for active participation and involvement. Instead of communication from the project, survey respondents are really asking for communication with the project.  The need for more communication is actually the need for dialogue and participation.

When project leaders shift from a focus on communication to a focus on engaging and involving, they satisfy the need for more communication in two important ways.

First, participation deepens stakeholder understanding by creating direct experience with the project.  Stakeholders feel more informed because they were part of the conversation.  Even passive observation of a conversation creates a more informed stakeholder than any form of written communication.

Second, stakeholder participation creates more channels of active, participatory communication.  Involved stakeholders spread the word.  They tell their story in their language, and as a result, create a personal, vicarious experience for their audience.  Instead of a detached, formal communication from an unknown project leader, the broader audience hears a first-hand account from a trusted source.

But . . . there is challenge that comes from shifting to dialogue and participation.   It requires time and skill.  Project leaders must build time into project plans to give multiple stakeholder groups opportunities for participation.  This not only includes the standard status updates and review meetings, but more importantly, time for various groups to participate in analysis, problem-solving, and group decision-making.  And to manage these activities well, project leaders must apply soft skills such as listening, conflict resolution and facilitation—skills to help create and sustain an inclusive dialogue.

The biggest challenge for project managers, however, is that inviting active stakeholder participation requires courage.  There is no formula.  There is no manual with step-by-step instructions.  When we invite dialogue, we get it—in its unvarnished, unpredictable and at times, very uncomfortable form.  When we do it well, stakeholders will say what they need to say even if it is not what we want to hear.

But when project managers have the courage to listen, understand and incorporate what they learn, they find their projects have better information, deeper insight, and ultimately more committed stakeholders.  And isn’t that the goal of communication anyway?!


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