From the Comms Cupboard

Understanding the impact of a change programme

Change programmes rely on good, transparent communication. John and Shaun focus on the steps that mitigate the impact of organisational change.

Our hosts discuss the importance of company values, honesty, avoiding business-speak, Milky Bars and holding on to valuable people.

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Episode transcript

Shaun: I think I’m going through the change.

John: Oh yeah? Which one?

Shaun: Colour of hair, taste in music – although that changed quite some time ago. Perhaps I need to hire a change manager to help me with these things.

John: Maybe a shrink 😆

Shaun: Maybe a shrink. You are, in my opinion, somewhat of an extremely experienced specialist in change management, so I’m going to ask you a few questions.

John: Oh that’s set me up, hasn’t it.

Shaun: It’s set you up – the pressure is on. It will take us to coffee, should you require that support. Here goes my first question: What’s the first thing anyone needs to do when a change programme is about to be launched in a business? Sit down and meditate! 🧘🏼‍♀️

John: Yeah, cry in the corner! It’s got to be understanding the impact change is going to have on people. I think we go round and round and round, with organisations saying people are their most important asset or the most important thing. If we do this change, who do we impact and how do we impact them? It's a good role a communications specialist can bring.

Shaun: That's a lovely first example because it would be too easy for you to answer with a practical thing to do, when actually it was philosophical. Step back, see the bigger picture and ask why we're doing this before we actually proceed.

John: Absolutely.

Shaun: See, that's why you're good at this.

John: Allegedly. When you think about it, change is tough for everyone, and that's why we need to think about how we communicate with them. So it could be something horrendous like your favourite chocolate bar has been discontinued. That's a change.

Shaun: Did you see what they did to Milky Bar?

John: I heard.

Shaun: It tastes rubbish now. There's a change I wasn't ready for.

John: Exactly. And then it could be something like an organisation restructure at work and you've heard that 2000 jobs are going to be cut this week. These are obviously at two ends of the spectrum, but they are both going to impact you and you’ll find it tough whatever the change is going to be because you're not prepared for it. Something just happens. There are lots of important things you need to do to help people adapt to that change. I guess that's where professional communicators come in.

Shaun: The professional communicator has to rely on senior management as well, to get onboard with that change. I've got an interesting statistic for you here from a study that found that 68% of senior managers understood why organisational change was happening. Then the number falls from there. Only 53% of middle managers get the message of why change is happening, and only 40% of frontline supervisors understand the change. Now these people are crucial to helping change happen, but if middle management are not getting why you need to change, that's going to make it so hard from the get-go isn't it?

John: Absolutely, yeah.

Shaun: How do you counter that?

John: A lot of it is to do with being really open very early and bringing more people in if you can.

Shaun: Like recruiting an army of believers – I believe in this change! 🙋🏻

John: These changes may impact those middle managers. Often, middle managers can be casualties of big restructures and changes. It really comes down to what your tone is as an organisation. Are you open and transparent about what you're doing? Do you hide everything because you fear that they're not going to be able to do their jobs, and that's going to hit your bottom line, and that's more important? It really depends how you are, what your values are, which we've talked about a lot: what your values are as an organisation and how you want to treat people. I think one of the good things to do at the start of a change programme is set out how you're going to interact with people. Are you going to be open and honest? Are you going to tell people as soon as possible? Are you going to be timely in how you do things? What language do you use? You talked a little bit about people understanding things – people tend to get into these business-speaky, acronym-full, certainly-not-plain-English (or plain in any language) ways of communicating. It makes everything feel very strategic and important, when actually you need to go back to how it will impact people and what they're going to care about. Fundamentally we care about our own job, and hopefully we care about the future of the organisation as well.

Shaun: I think that's an important point there about not just transparency – because you need transparency more than secrecy – but keeping everything really clear. That's something I've been involved in as the writer of the in-house messages that go out to people. I've received very complex, authoritative Big Brother “here's what we're doing”, and I've rewritten it to sound more like you're with us through this.

John: You're helping them to sell that vision of the future.

Shaun: Yes, but that you're involved in it. This isn't coming from top-down.

John: And we want you to be a part of it.

Shaun: Yes.

John: That's such a big deal because even if you're restructuring, there's going to be a huge amount of people that are going to stay and you want them to be part of the future. You don't want them to be pissed off through this process; to feel like they didn't know what was happening or to feel they weren't valued. Because when it comes to the end of it, they may look to leave and you're going to lose the people you didn't want to lose.

Shaun: And the practical side of that – I know it's hard to hear this – but those pissed-off people can really put a spanner in the works of the change programme.

John: Yeah, absolutely.

Shaun: In my experience, you don't change to go backwards. You change to go forwards. It's always a good thing, even if there are casualties in terms of redundancies and that sort of thing, it's always a good thing. There is something better we want to make ourselves.

John: One of the things you need to do there is listen to those people.

Shaun: Listen to those people that may be made redundant?

John: Well, listen to everyone but maybe those people that you don't want to be made redundant. Listen to everybody because they're going to give you feedback, so take it on and change what you're doing. Actually listen to what people are saying. If everyone is being negative, then you're not doing your job properly. Be humble and say we need to change this – let's change what we're doing and let's take a different approach because ... Again, it's probably your values to listen to people and value people, so realise that a change is not just a senior leadership thing that they're doing to people. Lots of people are interacting with it and there are lots of experts and lots of experience in your company.

Shaun: Is it important to have someone called a change ambassador?

John: You could have something like that. You can have change champions or ambassadors.

Shaun: And they're not necessarily leaders are they?

John: They are people who are a lot lower down in the food chain, I guess, who help to speak to people at a local level. If you're working across hundreds of countries around the world, it's impossible that a couple of people sat in London or New York could talk to all those people and engage those people. I know we have tools that could ‘send to all’ or do webinars for everybody, but it's not quite the same. Through change, you look to people you can trust, and that's going to be someone you know better.

Shaun: I like that engagement with people because we often just use email.

John: Yeah! It's push communications.

Shaun: I've got a statistic here that says important and relevant email makes only 38% of your employees’ inboxes. People don't read them! 🤨 And don't you hate it when someone comes up to you and says: "I didn't hear that message." Even though you hounded them with emails and Slack messages and newsletters and podcasts, and they still said they didn't get it. To me, that person was just resistant to change. They knew it was happening but they don't want it to happen. But you're saying be nice to that person and get to understand where they're coming from.

John: A change programme isn't glamorous, is it? You see lots of these roles advertised. Doing change comms is not like launching a new product or doing a great campaign for something. It's disruption. It's tough. It's usually got some form of negative connotation behind it, so think it through. Think about what the negatives will be for people and think about how you might mitigate them. Something that came up a lot in our early podcasts was planning. Change is a lot about planning. It's thinking through what the outcomes are for people. A comms person really has to think about what the outcomes are for those people and what we need them to be. This ‘think, feel, do' thing. As a result of these communications, what do we want the outcome to be for those people? That's what we could track and that's how we can see if we're doing our jobs properly.

Shaun: Well, I'm thinking of a Baileys right now.

John: Yeah? What are you feeling?

Shaun: Er, an ice cube. I think I'm gonna do it.

🧊

Photo by Katerina Holmes from Pexels

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