Stakeholder communications channel strategy

Two of the most substantial change programs I have been fortunate enough to work on over the course of my career couldn’t have been more different from each other. In both cases, the organisation was a multi-billion-dollar company and the scope of each was multinational business transformation. Both programs impacted many thousands of workers and both comprised a suite of projects, each a substantial piece of work in its own right. Both programs were business critical and could bring down the company if they failed.

The first program was substantially more successful than the second.

There are many factors that could be blamed for the comparative failure of the second but, in my opinion, the biggest single cause of the failure was the inability of the program to communicate with the business. This meant that those involved in the day-to-day business did not understand what they needed to do and they got on with their day-to-day work. When they were asked to contribute, their effort was minimal. They did what they were asked and then they went back to work. To get anything done, the program office had to “push” the change into the business. There was no “pull” from the business to embed and own the change.

By comparison, the first program aggressively drove a well-structured communications strategy into the business that gave stakeholders predictability. Predictability of what was going to change, when, and why. When people have the information they need, they are more likely to act in a predictable way and are more likely to be accepting of the outcome, even if it is perceived as negative to them.

Both programs employed traditional communication activities such as town-hall meetings, presentations, email blasts, and monthly newsletters. Equally, both programs employed a group of change champions to represent the program, but with stark differences.

The first program engaged, trained, and deployed a very small group of change champions from the start of the program.

The second program established a very large group of change champions (over one hundred) and only mobilised them two thirds of the way through the program. Joining the program so late meant it was impossible for the change champions to fully grasp the complexity of the project and, as a result, they could not talk fluently about the program. This meant that they had to rely on presentation packs and written prompts. This ensured the delivery of the message was wooden and unengaging. Frequently, they were not able to provide the audience with any further information than what the audience already had. The number of change champions was also an issue. There were so many that they tended to leave it up to each other to communicate with the stakeholders. Naturally, this did not work.

In the first program, the change champion group was purposely designed to be far too small to be able to adequately provide the coverage the program required. Consequently, the change champions were forced to use the stakeholder groups to further promote the message. To this end, the program adopted a leverage model based on a ratio of 1:50.

Slide-13

Every change manager spoke to 50 stakeholders. Those 50 stakeholders spoke to 50 staff. This meant that the 10 change champions spoke to 500 stakeholders who spoke to 25000 staff. This strategy was key in forcing the stakeholders to engage in what was happening. Without their help, the project would fail. The business knew that.

The first program understood that stakeholders generally tend to remain distant and somewhat isolated from the program. To mitigate this issue, every communication included a call to action. The call to action answered the “so what?” questions: Why did you send me the communication? Why should I care, and most importantly, what do you want me to do? The call to action was tailored to the audience. By comparison, the second program adopted a simple communications plan, delivered on a “one shoe fits all” approach in the form of a regular monthly news update that failed to answer the “so what?” questions. Consequently, it completely failed to ask the stakeholders to do anything. There was no call to action and therefore, no action from the business.

Having an effective group of change champions is critical to the success of a change program, but having change champions is not enough. They need to be supported by a highly structured suite of communication activities including:

  • One-to-one presentations
  • One-to-few presentations
  • One-to-many presentations
  • Email
  • Town-hall meetings
  • Theatre
  • Website updates
  • Intranet forums
  • Awareness education
  • Workshops
  • Technical training
  • Posters, brochures, etc.

 

The delivery of these activities cannot be left to chance. To maximise success, a carefully thought through communications calendar is required. The communications calendar is the tool that establishes the rhythm of conversation between the business and the program office. It ensures that a cohesive suite of messages is sent out to the organisation on a predetermined frequency. It provides the foundation for predictability and dictates what type of message will go out on which day, to which audience, and in what format. In this way, the audience is trained to expect a communication on a given day and agree to take specific actions to support and promote the message to their nominated stakeholders.

In the following example of a change calendar, it can be seen that days 3, 4, and 5 are used to update the senior management group in the organisation. This is done in advance of a general email update which would go out on day 8. The internal newspaper is published on day 12. Up to now, communication has largely been one way. Days 15, 17, and 19 are then set aside for the organisation to ask questions directly to the program office and selected managers. The last week has no communications to minimise the issue of over-communicating.

Slide-14

Establishing a communications rhythm seems simple and straightforward. But achieving this level of sophistication is not easy. First, you need agreement on who the stakeholders are. Then, you need to get those stakeholders to agree to listen to the message and, finally, you need to have their agreement that they will actively support and promote the message. This level of engagement is not achieved by email. If you send an email to a senior executive, there is almost zero chance of them reading it, and even less chance of them taking action as a result of it. But if you show up in their office and talk to them and brief them, they will listen and take action as needed. But to keep the stakeholders engaged, the message needs to continue to evolve. More of the same, or irrelevant information, will quickly turn stakeholders off. This brings us back to the final key difference between the two programs.

The first program completed an effective impact analysis. This resulted in agreement on how the stakeholders would be impacted by the various projects and how the stakeholders could influence the success of the program with their action or inaction, as the case may be.

The second program did not complete an impact analysis and it was left up to the various projects to work amongst themselves to determine the impacted stakeholders and the best way to engage them. This meant that key stakeholder groups were omitted and other stakeholders were engaged multiple times as each project reached out to them. This led to increased levels of confusion and irritation as the stakeholders did not receive a cohesive message.

A well-thought-out impact analysis will tell you what is going to happen when. The analysis typically works on the big picture and describes the project in chunks. The fine detail is seldom known in advance and senior stakeholders are not generally interested in the fine detail. It will be worked out later.

The impact analysis is then married to the change calendar. Now the change champions have something to discuss with the stakeholders. These communications should adopt the traditional model of last period, this period, next period. In this way, the change champion can review what has happened and discuss the success and failure of recent activities with the stakeholders. The stakeholder can be encouraged to support the bedding down of recent project activities, to create an environment where the program office is receiving meaningful feedback. The same applies to the current period. It is a discussion on what is currently happening, why it is happening, and what it means to the stakeholder. It is the time when the change champion can ask for the active support of the stakeholder for current activities. Finally, it is an opportunity to tell the stakeholder what to expect in the near and medium term and what will be expected of them in the future.

Slide-15

Irrespective of the volume, nature, and professionalism of delivery of the communications plan, stakeholders are going to say, “No one told me.” A close cousin to this is the change manager who strenuously argues, “But I told them.” These two scenarios cannot be avoided without active management.

The final piece of the communications puzzle: keeping track of who heard what, and when.

The first program used a common off-the-shelf content management system to track communications. Detailed stakeholder lists were created and the program kept track of which stakeholder saw which presentation and who presented it. Questions raised at these presentations were also tracked. Tracking was extended to include email broadcasts and attendance at online forums.

This detailed level of tracking reinforced to the stakeholders and the change champions that the communications were important and necessary. It kept them front of mind for all. It also improved attendance at all meetings and forums and increased the “read rate” of emails.

By contrast, the second program did not track communications and, as the go-live date drew close, the stakeholders took every opportunity to say, “But nobody told me” and “That won’t work.” Faced with a significant resistance to change, the program was forced to delay.

For communications to work, it is mandatory that there is consistency of the message across all channels. Communications that come from multiple authors are extremely distracting to the reader and it is impossible to harmonise the message. Having a single author ensures the look, style, and language are consistent throughout the messaging. Winston Churchill said,“If you have an important point to make, don’t try to be subtle or clever. Use a pile driver. Hit the point once. Then come back and hit it again. Then hit it a third time—a tremendous whack.”

On big projects it is difficult to achieve this, as it is frequently left up to the project managers to write their own communications. They also tend to have discretion on when they will communicate with the stakeholders. I consider both situations to be poor practice. Better practice is that the change manager owns the communications. They can work with a specialist writer as required, but this person must work for the change manager. The change manager should work with the project teams to develop a master slide pack. This pack will develop and grow over the course of the project. For each communication period in the communications calendar, the message will be drawn from this slide pack. Certain slides will be constant in every presentation, reinforcing the primary drivers of the program. These will be supported by new program information. Email broadcasts will reflect exactly the same information as will steering committee updates. Consistency creates momentum and momentum creates change.

The difference between the two programs highlights the fact that effective communication is not an art. It is a management discipline. If a business wants a change program to be effective, then there is no substitute for a consistent, integrated, carefully prepared and executed communications plan. After all, as Voltaire said, “To hold a pen is to be at war.”

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