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Seven steps to communicating change

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The SWWE Branch was very pleased to be able to invite Mark Hill, of Tailor made Communications, to talk about what he had learned from his 20 years' experience of communication management in change projects and how effective communication can help to engage people and encourage them to change their behaviours and embrace the desired change.

Mark explained that as humans we embrace change all the time, social media did not exist until recently, 117,000 people decide to divorce or separate each year, 6 million people move home each year and 1 in 3 are planning to change jobs. People frequently choose to change.

Mark asked why do traditional communication models assume that people don’t want to change? 
He argued that the models focus on the wrong thing, usually about creating ‘the burning platform’. He referred to John Kotter’s classic books on change: Leading Change – the 8 steps, and The Heart of Change.   In the latter Kotter argues that typically the case for change is made at rational level, to appeal to the mind, but to be successful, communicating change must appeal to the heart; ‘speaking to people’s feelings’. A better balance is to have communication with 60% focus on the mind and 40% focus on engaging hearts, which helps to achieve emotional buy-in.

Mark explained how he had reflected back over his 20 years of experience and had identified seven secrets for effective communication to encourage people to buy-in:

  1. Communicate the big picture. People get bored with constant meaningless change which they don’t understand the relevance of. 
    Mark used an example of an outsourcing project to reduce internal costs. Communication was started a year before the change, to explain in steps about the high costs, the need to reduce costs, and the options being looked at. When outsourcing was announced there were no surprises and staff accepted the outcome.
  2. Simplify the Complexity. People hate unnecessary complexity; they want to know what the change means for them personally. Communication needs to be carefully tailored to stakeholder groups. But at the same time, the full detail needs to be available for those who want it; maybe on an intranet.
  3. Honesty and clarity. Be clear and honest, staff will always see through attempts to gloss over issues, and will lose trust in any communications. Trusted communication is essential for high employee engagement and morale.
    It is usually better to tell staff that you don’t know all of the answers early in the project. This helps take them on the journey with you and avoids surprises. Tell staff what you know, when you know it.
  4. Authenticity. Communication needs to feel real, to have that ring of truth from a real person. It is often better to have a ‘raw’ letter from the CEO in their own style rather than one that has been ‘edited’. 
  5. Face to Face. Mark used the ‘communication escalator’ model to explain how two way face to face communication is essential to introduce change successfully, to get involvement and commitment. 
  6. Use Line Managers. It is essential to get Line Managers commitment to the change. Line Managers can provide face to face communication, they can bring authenticity, speak with passion, and are able to tailor the messages in the audiences’ language: to simplify the complexity. Look for the ‘golden moment’, when the audience says that this looks important, you have them on board.
  7. Measure Progress. Communication is about outcomes, about success, about changed behaviours and mindsets, not about outputs: number of newsletters!

Mark recognised that these guiding principles are easy to say, but not easy to do, but if followed will provide excellent communication. The key issue is to include communications in your project plan, build in resources and time for communication: it does not come for free. Effective communication is an essential risk mitigation technique to ensure that the change project’s desired goals and objectives are realised. The risk is that people will get fed up, don’t buy-in and become change survivors, simply pretending to go along, but all the time working to undermine it.

Martin thanked Mark for a really interesting and engaging presentation, and summarised that the seven principles where equally applicable to any level of project or programme communication with any stakeholder group: keep it simple, talk in their language, no surprises, all of which builds and maintains trust.

Mark's presentation can be viewed below:

Martin Gosden
SWWE Branch Chairman



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