Cross-Border Stakeholder Management (the Last 5 Percent)

Recently I was walking in Patna, the main city of Bihar, India, on my way to a meeting with a departmental secretary in the state government. I walked on the side of the road, against the flow of traffic. And just because I was walking against the traffic did not mean I had only to watch out for oncoming traffic. Far from it. I had a reasonable chance of being run over from behind as cars and motorbikes frequently drove the wrong way up the road. Day-to-day life was definitely different to what I knew from living in Australia.

Having spent a year in Bihar, I had come to feel at home in India. I found India similar to South Africa, the country I grew up in. Both countries have a “can-do, make-do” attitude, and people are allowed to do their own thing. If you get hurt or killed because you’re being stupid, then that is on you and you don’t get to sue everybody that you can think of. Australia is different. It is a world where the government tries to legislate safety into every facet of life. Folks are often heard referring to Australia as a nanny state or a nation of headmasters. This quality does not make Australia an unpleasant place to live. On the contrary, it is a very safe country with a great social safety net. A calm, well-structured, predictable society.

And importantly, for me, Australia represented “normal.”It was my yardstick.

Somewhere along my walk I realised that Australia was the odd one out. Australia does not represent normal. If anything, it represents abnormal. It belongs to a minority group of countries, each of which has an advanced social and physical infrastructure. A common characteristic of these countries is that day-to-day life is stable and predictable. Stability provides a secure platform for business and allows change and business managers the luxury of worrying about the smaller things—the cohesiveness of a stakeholder message, the quality of a PowerPoint pack, dress codes, whether staff should take the train or a cab to the airport when travelling, and if staff crossed at the traffic lights in accordance with the safety policy. Or in other words—the last 5 percent.

As an example, working in Australia, I was critiqued in my role as a change manager because a senior stakeholder was given the same briefing from two different change champions. Ideally, you don’t want this to happen, but in the greater scheme of things it is a small issue, a first world problem—the last 5 percent.

By comparison, countries like India are in the majority. These countries are still wrestling with how to develop the basics of their social and physical infrastructures. They are characterised by inadequate sanitation, limited access to clean water, poor heating, questionable health services, excessive bureaucracy, corruption, and an inefficient legal system. For the sake of a label, I term these countries the first 50 percent. For countries in the first 50 percent, day-to-day life is neither predictable nor stable. A bus trip to work could take one hour or six hours. There is no way to know except to take the bus and find out. When you cannot rely on the social and physical infrastructure, you live with a high degree of uncertainty. In Australia, I could travel for business, confident in the knowledge that if a family member needed emergency medical treatment, it would be readily available. The infrastructure would mobilise and my family would receive excellent medical attention. In the first 50 percent, this support is not readily available. Families rely on each other, and in an emergency, it is the family that must immediately respond. It could have disastrous consequences to leave the emergency in the hands of the social infrastructure.

I re-examined the following question, one I had been asked twice in my consulting career. How would you deal with cultural differences with respect to stakeholder management on an international business improvement program? In each case, my answer was strong enough for me to get the role, but with hindsight, I recognise that the question and my answer were both off-target. The question should have been this one. Using the simple definition of culture as “the way we do things around here” and applying it at a state or country level, how would you deal with the operational differences arising in each country as they impact the transformation program?

This wider definition recognises that “the way we do things around here” is largely defined by the (un)predictability of the social and physical infrastructure and that consequential business operating models cater for the degree in variability in either the last 5 percent or the first 50 percent.

What this means for cross-border stakeholder management is that the standard issues of cultural awareness such as presenting a business card with two hands, whether you sit women next to men, whether you wear a head scarf or hat, or if you use formal titles for people you know well, are of lesser concern. What is more important is to understand and respond to how things operate in each market—the physical aspect of “the way we do things around here.”

Any consideration that individuals from the first 50 percent cannot perform at the highest levels expected by the last 5 percent is completely unwarranted. That notion is fully debunked by the performance of almost every person who has physically moved to a last 5 percent working environment. Equally, the impact of the local constraints is often evidenced when a last 5 percent manager moves to a first 50 percent market and is unable to perform at the same level as they achieved in the first 5 percent market.

Consider, two countries, two companies. For the sake of the discussion, country A represents a last 5 percent company and country B, a first 50 percent company.

Country A, Company A                                                   Country B, Company B

Pie-G      Pie-G

The companies are part of a market. Each market has its own culture and each company works effectively within that market. For me, the markets are loosely characterised as follows:

Pie-Cgrey        Pie-Agrey

These cultural norms are reinforced as each company interacts with other companies in the market. I define “market” as any business community working with the same constraints as your own.

Pie-Dgrey      Pie-Bgrey

Market A                                                                  Market B

Each company understands the rules of the local market and the constraints of the local operating environment. This includes tender processes, logistics, payment terms, corruption, and what is generally acceptable behaviour.

The two markets work well when independent of each other. Issues only arise when the two environments are forced to operate as if they were the same business, as is often the case when a company outsources a business function.


In this example, company B is contracted to act as if it is company A. Staff based in the last 50 percent are expected to think and behave as if they are working and living in a last 5 percent country. This expectation is unrealistic. How does a person who deals with two or three power failures a year understand a person working in an environment where they can be a daily occurrence? Can a person who has only ever lived in the last 5 percent understand the priorities of a person who may work in a modern city, but has an ancestral home that has no running water or flush toilets? How does a first 50 percent person understand why a last 5 percent person gets upset because the closest printer to them is not working?

Differences in the social and operational infrastructure in each country have a material impact on how easily staff engage with the nuances of a business improvement project. It is easy to understand why a person who has just caught three buses to work because (once again) their train never showed up, or (once again) they had no breakfast because their water tank failed to fill overnight or because their suburb was (once again) hit with a rolling blackout, would be less concerned with a conversation on whether a manager should have seven or eight direct reports. You can hear them screaming—let’s deal with real issues.

The most significant consequence of working with either an advanced or developing physical and social infrastructure is how each community respects time. The last 5 percent are driven by time. Meetings are expected to start on time; action plans are agreed with an anticipation that the actions will be executed as agreed. Month-end runs to a schedule and the quarterly reporting cycle is predictable. Conversely, the last 50 percent do not hold time in such high esteem. It is not because they don’t want to, but rather because, as much as they might want to be punctual, business has learnt that the inadequacies of the infrastructure mean that life is not always predictable. A phrase frequently heard in India is that IST, Indian standard time, actually means “Indian stretchable time,” as a disparaging comment on the frequent lack of punctuality. Other examples include, “there is no rush in Africa,” or “it’s Island time.” For these markets, there is always a negative impact on productivity.

For a program manager, having a team that has a degree of indifference to the clock is frightening. The most basic requirement for effective stakeholder management is:

Do what you say you will do, when you said you would do it.

In other words, be reliable and consistent.

When a change program loses faith in time, then everything begins to drift. When the senior stakeholder group loses confidence in the business improvement team’s ability to manage to schedule, the change program loses credibility.

The interview question remains unanswered.How do you manage stakeholders when working with or in the first 50 percent?

A better answer to the question would be that thefirst 5 percent should take the time to build relationships based on trust, respect, and a firsthand understanding of the local conditions.

I am quite confident that any program manager would quickly argue that they are a team player and that they respect relationships. I am not talking about being extra polite to each other, or having a sharing session at the start of a workshop. Rather, I am talking about taking one or two months to build a team that fully understands the constraints and pressures experienced in each market and then resource the team appropriately. The phrase“walk in their shoes” is highly relevant. It takes time to understand the local market.

The last 5 percent tend to treat everyone equally and adopt a highly professional approach to business, as in, “You don’t have to be my friend, just do your job.” This approach works well when working within the same market, but is unlikely to work with the first 50 percent.

For the first 50 percent, strong relationships are the glue that holds everything together as the operational difficulties ebb and flow. When you can’t rely on the local infrastructure then all you have left are relationships. Strong relationships build the confidence to rely on each other to help as needed. To go the extra mile when time slips.

My recommendation is that the program manager rents an apartment in the local city for a month and lives as a local. This will earn the respect of the local team and establish insights that cannot be gained from the safe cocoon of a hotel. A firsthand understanding of the local challenges, combined with the ensuing deeper relationships,will mitigate many of the risks facing the change program. Firsthand experience will be invaluable when reviewing issues with the program timeline or budget with senior stakeholders. The reverse applies for the key staff working in the last 50 percent. They need to spend a month in the last 5 percent working environment to understand why managers from that market demand the level of “finish” that they do.

By way of simple example, a company operating in a first 5 percent market was engaged for a project in Saudi Arabia. Despite all the best practice followed when putting the budget and timeline together, they failed to realise that they would frequently encounter situations where the project team could not easily meet with many of the stakeholders as they worked in female-only rooms. When the original project plan was put together, the team evaluated the standard project risks, but did not consider that they would not have free access to the stakeholders. When the client reviewed the plan, they did not call out this restriction as it is such a normal part of their work environment it was not worth mentioning. The consequence was that both extra time and budget were required.

This is a simple example, but it does illustrate the value of in-country experience when establishing a new international business improvement project.

I close with the observation that international projects are generally led from last 5 percent countries. Investing time to build strong relationships founded on a proper understanding of each market, at the start of the change program, will build trust and mutual respect. Trust allows teams who are suffering the “tyranny of distance” that is common in international projects to raise issues earlier and more honestly. This, in turn, will more than compensate the additional costs invested at the start.

Measuring stakeholder engagement

In any business transformation program, there are three primary stakeholder groups: the change team, the business leadership team, and everyone else. The change team is the group of people who work in the change program on behalf of the business. The other two groups represent the business. The difference between the two is defined as those who commission and lead change and those that receive or follow change. For the purposes of this article I will refer to them as leaders and followers respectively, and collectively they are referred to as the business.

I am a strong believer in the principle that the change team cannot change the business. Only the business can change the business. The change team works on behalf of the business. If the business does not want to change, then there is little the change team can do about it.

Simply put, the change team may be responsible for day-to-day change activities, but the business is never absolved of its accountability for the success of the change program.

It is reasonable to say that the central tenet of the change agents’ mandate is to ensure the organisation successfully moves through the business improvement journey with the least amount of disruption to the operations as possible. Or in other words, the mandate is to reduce the depth and width of the change curve.


Typically the change manager will administer a periodic stakeholder engagement survey to predict and evaluate how successfully the business is transitioning across the change curve. Key to achieving success is that the business acknowledges and accepts its accountability for the quality of the deliverable arising from the change program and for ensuring the benefits are released and sustainable.

Predicting future success requires understanding the past. If the survey identifies what has not worked “so far,” then it is reasonably easy to extrapolate what will or won’t work in the future.

The problem is that the surveys don’t pick up the issues early enough. This is because they typically ask the same questions of all stakeholders to support a “compare and contrast” analysis across the organisation. This approach will not provide a complete or relevant picture. That requires the survey to recognise the difference between leaders and followers and to ask questions relevant to each group.

In any organisation, there are only a handful of senior managers with sufficient authority to make decisions that will cause material changes to the business and without doubt, the biggest killer of success for any change program is the inability of the change team to get these leaders to make a decision.

The reasons for not making a decision are varied and include:

  1. The decision-maker does not actually have the authority to make the decision, and won’t admit it.
  2. The decision-maker does not understand the change program and therefore does not understand the consequences of making or not making a decision.
  3. The decision-maker does not have the confidence to make a decision.
  4. The decision requires the approval/endorsement of a committee.

The first three are particularly disruptive. When a manager acts as if they have authority to make decisions and they do not, they destroy the change program’s momentum as it tables decision after decision and nothing happens. This includes the situation where senior management has specifically inserted a manager into the change program without giving them the authority or support to make necessary decisions. At best, a manager like that is a post box who relays messages to senior management. At worst, they can cause the program to fail.

The decision-maker that does not understand the change program is not only disruptive, but also dangerous. It is not necessarily a case of the manager being lazy or disinterested. It may just be that the manager is so busy with their day-to-day activities that they leave the change program to do its own thing. The consequence is that they will not be close enough to the program to appreciate the impact of making or not making the decision. As an example, the manager may decide to extend the delivery date on a change program without realising that it will cause the company to miss key dates in its audit schedule. This may invalidate the insurance cover and leave the company seriously exposed.

These problems are amplified when a committee is involved and especially when the committee meets on a fixed schedule. Any decision that is not taken in one meeting, is held over to the next, or the one following that. These delays can have a significant knock-on effect on the change program.

The leaders’ engagement survey needs to identify if these types of issues exist. Or in other words, do the leaders accept their accountability for the quality of the deliverables arising from the change program and for ensuring the benefits are realised and sustainable?

The survey questions could be as follows. These questions are not intended to be exhaustive.


“Being personally accountable for your actions and omissions.” This presupposes the ability to accept the responsibility to carry out assigned tasks and having sufficient authority to carry them out.

  • Do you fully understand the impact your position can have on the success of the change program?
  • Have you been asked to make a formal decision?
  • Have you been asked to make a decision outside of your delegated authority?
  • Have you followed up to determine if any decision you have taken is being followed?
  • Have you requested an impact statement to understand the impact of decisions you deferred?
  • Are your colleagues aware of the decisions you have made?
  • Are you aware of decisions your colleagues have deferred?
  • Have you or your colleagues changed your behaviour as a result of a decision you have taken?
  • Do you have value to add, but lack the forum to add it?


Working to agreed standards. This requires that the manager is appropriately educated to be able to take responsibility for their actions. It also places responsibility on the manager to maintain their competence by continuing to educate themselves about the deliverables while working within appropriate bounds. 

  • Can you describe what the change program deliverable will look like in your area?
  • Can you describe what you will do differently as a result of the change program?
  • Can you describe what your staff will do differently as a result of the change program?
  • What have you done to satisfy yourself that the deliverables will be fit for purpose?
  • Do you attend a regular briefing on the change program?
  • Have you posed any questions to the change program on the nature of the deliverables?
  • Have you requested further information from the change program?


Deliverables need to be adequate for present needs as well as developing capacity to meet future requirements.

  • Can you clearly describe how you will measure the success of the program?
  • Can you describe what formal actions you are taking today to make sure the change program is successful today and in the future?
  • Do you actively hold your colleagues to account for inadequate support of the change program?
  • Are you implementing additional plans to address related and necessary actions that are out of scope to the change program?

When it comes to the follower group, the questions must necessarily be different to those of the leaders. Followers do not have the authority to make binding decisions on the company. But given the relative volume of this group, they do have the means to derail any change initiative. It is therefore equally important to measure and track the mood of this community.

When measuring the followers’ engagement with the change program, the oft-heard phrase is “resistance to change.” My experience is that a survey seldom, if ever, will identify resistance to change. This is not to say that resistance to change does not exist. Rather when it exists and is material, it is normally so obvious that a survey is not required. Examples could be unionised workplaces, or the resistance is from one highly influential person. This could be the CIO who is having a new IT system imposed on him by the CEO.

It is largely irrelevant if an individual is resistant to change as it is near impossible for the change team to manage change at the individual level. It is acknowledged that there will always be staff who are late adopters of change and it is acceptable to give them time to come around to the need for the change program. Managing these staff is the responsibility of the line manager.

One of the reasons I don’t like the phrase “resistance to change” is that it is easier to brand someone as resistant to change than it is to take the time to find out why an individual or group appears hesitant/resistant to engage more fully with the change program. Just because they have concerns with the change program does not make them resistant to change. Frequently it is only a case that they do not feel ready for the change.

There is an enormous difference between readiness for change and resistance to change. It should be expected that staff will always question if they, or their organisation, is ready for the proposed changes to take effect. This does not mean that they are resisting change. Rather they are confirming for themselves whether the organisation is ready. Unfortunately, this type of hesitancy is frequently interpreted as resistance to change. The consequence is that any concerns staff have about organisational readiness are frequently met with practical indifference by the leadership. I use the phrase “practical indifference” as change programs will readily talk about the importance of measuring stakeholder engagement, but the majority don’t do anything practical about it. They tend to adopt the view that followers should join in or “get off the bus.”

There are two categories associated with readiness: personal readiness and organisational readiness. In this article, the term “readiness” refers to the human level. It excludes technical readiness such as installing technology of some sort.

While the two categories are only loosely related, organisational readiness should follow personal readiness, as sustainable business outcomes require that most stakeholders need to be neutral or better in their support for the change. Organisational change readiness then can be built on the back of this support.

In addition, the survey needs to reflect the phase of the program.

It is common for a change program to have multiple named phases such as “mobilise, analyse, and implement” or “stabilise, transform, and extend.” The labels used will depend on the nature of the change program. Using the same set of questions for each phase would not evaluate the maturity expected from each phase. Asking a stakeholder if they have heard of the change program makes sense in phase 1, but offers little value in future phases. Conversely, by the time the program enters its final phase, it is critical that followers consider themselves competent and capable to operate in the new world.

While the questions should change between phases, it makes sense to use the same headers or categories across all phases. Example categories are Awareness, Acceptance, and Attitude for personal readiness and Alignment, Capability, Capacity, and Competency for organisational readiness.


The following table provides example of the concepts to be tested at each level of maturity.


I close with the observation that a survey does not fix issues and it only provides answers to the questions it asks.

A change program with strong leadership, that demands accountability from the leaders, will always deliver a solid result. You don’t need a survey to tell you that.

Stakeholder messaging strategy

Best practice states that before you begin a business improvement program you will have a detailed business case that clearly describes the endgame and what is required to get there.

The importance of being clear on the endgame cannot be overstated as it provides the bedrock for a successful change program. It becomes the foundation for all messaging and provides the criteria against which the change program is shaped, delivered, and measured. It also defines the hand-over criteria to business as usual.

When there is a clear endgame in place, the role of a change program is simply to establish a schedule of work that will deliver the endgame whilst bringing the organisation along on the journey.

Sounds straightforward, but in practice it is incredibly difficult. A core component to getting this right is ensuring there is alignment and consistency of message across all channels. This is a “must” from day zero of the program. Experience shows that there is a direct correlation between the number of stakeholders that agree on the endgame and the duration of the change program and, by extension, the size of the budget overrun. The lower the number, the bigger the budget overrun.

Getting the wider group of stakeholders to understand and support the endgame requires both a communications strategy and a separate messaging strategy. The communications strategy primarily describes the channels the change program will use to communicate with the stakeholders and the messaging strategy defines what the change program will tell them and when. While these two strategies go hand in hand, it is important that they are treated as different things. Blending them into one tends to be at the expense of the messaging strategy, whereas the messaging strategy should inform the communications strategy.

The biggest threat to the success of a business improvement program is stakeholder apathy. Getting the “business” to do something—make a decision, sign something off, host a get-together—is frequently very difficult. This is because, in the main, stakeholders are comfortable—they have their daily/weekly routines and habits and it is extremely difficult to get a stakeholder to change their behaviour. “Sure there is a change program on the go, but don’t ask me to change. The business needs to change. I don’t need to change.” This is where the importance of getting the messaging right cannot be overstated.

Stakeholders forget that the business is only a collection of people working for a common purpose. The business doesn’t behave. People behave. For the business to be different, people’s behaviour needs to be different.

Effective messaging will assist each stakeholder to move through their own resistance to change and reach the key step of “Understanding” in the least amount of time.

Resistance to change (2)

a person starts to understand why things are as they are, then their objection to the proposed changes starts to decline and their acceptance of the new order grows. Eventually they take ownership of the change and become enlisted in the new direction.

To get stakeholders to be open to changing their behaviour, the change program needs to “turn up” either the “pleasure” or the “pain” threshold in the business. “Pleasure” means making the future look so attractive everybody wants it. “Pain” requires painting a very bleak future for the business if it doesn’t change. Working in the middle of these two parameters is unlikely to yield much success.

Moving the organisation to either end requires understanding from the stakeholders. They need to get it. This is why effective messaging is so critical to the success of the change program. Achieving a critical mass of understanding requires actively talking to the stakeholders in their language. For the best effect, the change program needs to treat the messaging strategy as a propaganda program. All communications need to hang together and they need to be aligned to the endgame. The objective is to cause many people to all see things the same way and for them to become willing to adjust their behaviour as required. Relying on individual project managers to choose what to say about their part of the program, and when to say it, substantially increases the likelihood of leaving the stakeholders under or misinformed about the program.

The following table is a practical means of capturing the high-level messaging strategy. Using broad language, it maps the current behavior by stakeholder group to the required behavior and the associated messaging.

The table assumes the change program is an acquisition. The company is being bought.

Stakeholder messaging and behaviour

The key takeout from the table is that the messages used to sell the project are expected to be different by stakeholder group, but the outbound message, for all stakeholder groups to use when discussing the change program, needs to be consistent.

Consider political parties running for elections. The last thing they need is to confuse the electorate, and on a daily basis the party will issue talking points. This ensures that each politician says essentially the same thing, but from the angle of their portfolio. It doesn’t matter what question they are asked. The politician will trot out some verbiage that bridges from the question to the talking points and then repeats the talking points.

I am not suggesting that the change program adopt the same level of deflection as politicians. But the principle is sound. The change manager needs to work with the stakeholders to ensure they all use the same phrases and messages when describing the change program. As the program matures, the phrases will change and evolve to reflect the new status.

There is a reference to “call to action” in the table. It is there to ensure that the call to action is not forgotten. The call to action is the specific things the change program requires from the stakeholder. It’s remarkable how many communications I see that seek action from the stakeholders or wider community, without actually asking for it. And then the change agent complains that they are being ignored.

It is expected that the call to action will be designed to deliver the desired behavioural changes from each stakeholder group. An effective filter for evaluating a message is to ask, “So what? What do I want the reader/participant to do as a result of receiving the message? Does the message ask them to do that?” In my view, there is always a call to action. Sometimes the action will be quite passive such as the classic “keep calm and carry on.” At other times, it will be a request for active participation such as “log in and check your details.” Always indicate to the stakeholder whether the message requires “noting,” “a decision,” or “discussion.” This will help define the call to action.

It is relatively straightforward to establish effective communication channels between the change program and the business, but it is incredibly difficult to get stakeholders to understand what is meant by a specific message. It is remarkable how people will interpret what was supposed to be a straightforward communication.

What you heard is not what I said, and

What I said is not what I want and

What I want is not what I need.

Same time next week then…

The average stakeholder in a large business is a highly competent professional manager, but when it comes to change they are at best, a part-timer. This means that they speak a different language, see the world through different frameworks, and have a completely different set of priorities when it comes to what’s important for the business. By different language, I mean that manufacturing staff speak Manufacturing, IT staff speak IT, finance staff speak Finance and change practitioners speak the language of Change. It is incumbent on the change practitioner to learn the languages of the stakeholders and talk to them in those languages.

A different language is a different vision of life. Federico Fellini 

For example, when discussing the change program with the financial manager, framing the benefits in terms of how the balance sheet will be improved and which items in the profit and loss statement will be impacted, will likely hold their attention. India uses a different scale when it comes to currency. Indians are comfortable with lakh and crore and Europeans are comfortable with thousands and millions. Two people could be saying exactly the same thing, both speaking English, but in a different language when it comes to numbers. It would not help much if the numbers were written down, as the comma is placed differently in each scale. Without careful attention to detail, a misunderstanding on which are the important numbers could be created very quickly.

I note that one of the most important communication channels, and one that is frequently undervalued, is the hierarchy of meetings within an organisation. There is no one better to put the change message in context for their subordinates than their manager. As noted, a manufacturing manager will speak in manufacturing terms and examples.

It doesn’t matter who the audience is, when it comes to messaging, there are a few universal rules that apply.

  • Value is more important than cost. Going cheap is more likely to damage the image of the change program and could cost substantially more in the long run.
  • Use graphs, charts, tables, and diagrams. “A picture is worth a thousand words.”
  • Be succinct. Use short sharp sentences. This takes time and effort. It is not practical to prepare communications at the last moment. In the words of Mark Twain: “I didn’t have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead.”
  • Repetition works. Use repetition in the same communication and across multiple communications and channels.
  • Write to the individual, not the group.
  • Use sentences or words that indicate willingness by the change program to engage in a larger dialogue with the stakeholders.
  • Select the right channel. Just because there are many communication channels available to the change program does not mean the program needs to use them all, all the time. Blanketing stakeholders with messages can be counterproductive. They just turn off.
  • Exposure does not equal engagement. Just because a million people might watch a show on TV doesn’t mean that the same million people will watch the advertising at halftime. Or in business terms, just because the change program does an email blast, or publishes a newspaper, does not mean the communication will be read.

In summary, write in a way that makes stakeholders want to engage with the message and want to participate in the change program. Stakeholders will naturally spread a message that resonates with them, and just as quickly ignore those that don’t.

As a tail piece to this article, the following is a simple framework that helps to ensure the channel strategy and message strategy are kept separate, but remain related. The key is working out the message summary. Once you know what you want to say per program phase, it becomes easier to complete the rest of the framework. The framework can be modified to suit your needs.

Messaging strategy

Invariably, change programs are sold with three word slogans such as “Transition, Transform, Extend” or “Stabilise, Consolidate, Transform” or similar. The following graphic shows how this principle is used with the above framework.

three stage messaging strategy

The reference to risk is important. It captures risks such as getting the message wrong, the message going public, what happens if the message is misinterpreted, and what happens if the message is not received at all. The author always knows what they intended to say. Asking a third party to review the message in a cold reading will quickly determine whether what was intended to be the message is the actual message conveyed.

What you heard is not what I said, and

What I said is not what I want and

What I want is not what I need.

Same time next week then…

In a holistic approach, these risks should be in the risk register and have mitigations associated with them. The channel strategy should then be refined to help mitigate the risk. For example, some messages are best delivered verbally to ensure a document cannot be leaked to the press. Other documents could be delivered to a restricted audience with a caution for confidentiality.

Managment accountability

A significant challenge for any large business improvement program is how to enlist the senior stakeholder community into the change program and keep them engaged. Senior stakeholders can be relied on to show an interest in the change program when it starts, but their interest will often fade as “business as usual” issues dominate the day-to-day operations.

Then, as the business improvement program progresses, the change team becomes mired in the detail and withdraws into their own world. They spend their time looking at data, completing risk reviews, agreeing the way forward, mapping processes, and preparing papers that will describe the desired outcome. The longer this goes on, the more introspective the change program becomes and the less the senior stakeholders are engaged by the change program.

The seasoned change agent knows that change is not sustainable without tangible support from senior stakeholders, and that getting the senior managers to change their daily routines, habits, and behaviours is very difficult. And it becomes more impossible the longer their behaviour is left unchallenged. The reason it goes unchallenged is that the change team believes that until they have worked through the detail, they don’t have anything meaningful to say, and they don’t want to waste the senior managers’ time.

The problem is that the senior managers run the company, not the change program. It is important that they stay engaged. But if the change agent is going to engage the senior managers, then they need to be able to frame the conversation and have an agenda.

When it comes to change, there is no better agenda than talking to managers about what they are or aren’t accountable for. If you can’t get a manager to agree on their own accountability, then you can be sure that the outcomes of the business improvement program will be less than optimal.

There are many models that support a conversation on accountability. The most common is the R.A.C.I. (RACI) model. It is a simple model, but the practical application of this model is beset with problems, the biggest of which is the question of what the acronym actually stands for.

The generally accepted definition is that it refers to: Responsible, Accountable, Contributor (or Consulted), and Informed.

This definition is misleading. The “A” cannot stand for Accountable as all four dimensions have accountability. A manager is accountable for being informed or contributing. It is not the job of the change agent or process performer to inform management. It’s management’s job to ensure that they are informed. The business holds them accountable to be informed. How can you manage if you are uninformed?

In the same sense, managers are accountable for approving a process outcome. This means they need to know what the outcome should be, what control points they should have considered, and what delegations of authority might apply. If the manager plays an active role in the process, then they are accountable for being responsible for doing their part of the process properly.

In terms of a business improvement program, when the change team approaches a manager designated as a Contributor for comment, that manager is accountable for making time and providing a well-thought-out contribution to the discussion.

Apart from the confusion arising from the fact that all four variables have accountability, there is a second misunderstanding about the RACI model, namely that it only applies within a business process.

Consider the graphic below. When RACI is applied within a process then it can be argued that the Supervisor approves the process outcomes, Role 1 is responsible for Steps 1 and 2, Role 2 contributes to Step 1 and Role 3 is informed by Role 2.


While it is acceptable to use the RACI model within a business process, it is equally acceptable to apply it to, or on, a business process. The difference between the two applications is significant and it makes a material difference in how each term is defined.

When applied to a process, RACI is used to define the architectural elements of the process rather than the transactional accountabilities within a process.

Consider the following scenario.

The managing director walks out of his office after losing a major tender. He turns to the sales director and asks, “Who designed the tender process? Who in their right mind thought that process would be suitable for us to win a tender?”

What he has not asked is, “Who filled in the tender response form? Who participated in the tender process?” Doing that would be to question the transactional aspects of the process. Rather his focus is on determining who the architect of the process was. Who designed the process, who approved it, and who can he hold accountable to ensure the process weakness is resolved and that the next tender is more successful?

Applying RACI on the process changes the definition of the terms as follows.

Responsible – accountable for designing the process.

Contribute – accountable for working with the Responsible person to design a process that was fit for purpose.

Informed – accountable for understanding how the new process works and how it impacts the informed manager’s work environment.

Approve – accountable for signing off that the process is fit for purpose. That when it is followed, it will deliver optimal outcomes. This role owns that process.

In essence, the managing director is asking his team, “To what extent did you apply yourselves as senior managers to ensuring the process your staff were following, was fit for purpose?”

Using these definitions of RACI means that the supervisor (who was previously the Approver) now may become an informed party only and the manager’s manager will approve the process.


The supervisor’s manager is more likely to be Responsible as the architect of the process. While the manager is Responsible for designing the process, it does not mean that they will necessarily do the work. Possibly they will delegate it back to the supervisor, but in this case, delegating the task does not equal delegating the accountability.

The two scenarios, in the process versus on the process, illustrate that depending on how RACI is applied, it will deliver very different levels of management accountability and they could be at opposite ends of the management spectrum. Supervisor versus manager’s manager. Using the single term “Approve” for both situations is going to confuse the organisation and it raises the question: does the organisation want its processes approved by supervisors? It is reasonable to expect that this would not be the case.

The complexity between the two applications of RACI is increased when you consider that it is common for process flows to be modelled against roles and not positions. One position can play many roles. So when RACI is used in a process, it does not necessarily give accountability to a specific position. Rather, any position that happens be performing that role in that instance of the process becomes accountable. The burden this places on the organisation is significant. Just consider the training needs. Then there is the problem of process flows with process steps straddling the lines of responsibility or swim lanes and the issue of mixing roles and positions in process flows. These issues make defining accountability in the process level very confusing.

When RACI is applied on the process, it is applied to positions not roles thereby mitigating the above issue.

The difficulty of working with RACI is exponentially increased when applied to a matrix management organisation. Simplistically, matrix organisations can be broken down into service functions such as Human Resources, IT, Quality, Safety, Health, and Environment, Legal, and Finance, and the do work functions such as Operations, Work Winning, Logistics, Maintenance and Repair, and Customer Service. The service function will define the processes for the do work functions to use. A good example is the Quality, Safety, Health, and Environment function.


The processes defined by the Quality, Safety, Health, and Environment function are used on the shop floor by the do work teams. This means that the quality function is accountable for defining and approving quality management processes that will be used by a completely different function. The RACI model just doesn’t cater for this level of sophistication. When you try and use it across the multiple silos of a matrix organisation it quickly becomes apparent that it just does not have enough variables to account for the organisational complexity and what is required is a different model for defining management accountability.

The best alternate model I have seen is the Linear Responsibility Matrix (LRM) methodology by Anthony Walker.

It is not my intention to repeat Anthony Walker’s methodology here. What follows is my own interpretation of his methodology.I claim no rights to the methodology and I acknowledge Mr. Walker’s ownership of the underlying intellectual property.

My interpretation of the LRM recognises ten functions with accountability. The original methodology had eleven.

  1. Responsible
    • Accountable for defining the process flow and associated artefacts.
  1. Approve
    • Accountable for signing off the process flow and associated artefacts.
  1. Contribute
    • Accountable for working with the Responsible person and helping design the process.
  1. Informed
    • Accountable for being informed on how the process works and the requirements of any artefacts associated with the process.
  1. General Oversight
    • Accountable for ensuring the process architecture is appropriate and fit for purpose.
  1. Direct Oversight
    • Accountable for guiding the Responsible person.
  1. Recommendation
    • Accountable for reviewing the process and ensuring it is fit for purpose. Once satisfied, this role endorses the process for final approval by the approver.
  1. Monitor
    • Accountable for ensuring each instance of the process works as designed in the day-to-day environment.
  1. Maintenance
    • Accountable for ensuring the process is being used as designed. It is quality control.
  1. Boundary
    • Accountable for addressing areas of overlap in scope.


The word “process” in these definitions refers to the process appropriate to the level of management. At the senior level, it is the various value chains: Budget to Report, Contract to Cash, Procure to Pay, Hire to Retire etc. At the lower levels, the process is the transactional flow of a specific sequence of work. For senior management, the word “process” in the definitions can be substituted with specific items such as Policy or broader concepts such as the Governance Model for the organisation or a function.

This methodology is particularly powerful when working with matrix management organisations and the single biggest point to embrace is that the LRM is always on the process. It is never in the process.

In a matrix model, when it comes to defining the operating model for the service functions, the ten accountabilities can be loosely split between the service functions and the do work functions. On a per instance basis, this allocation could change.


What this means is that the change program cannot work with each function in isolation of the other functions and importantly, the other functions do not have leeway to say, “Not my job.” Rather the change agent should be establishing cross-functional teams based on the above separation of accountability to drive the change program and ensure the organisation gets a result that is sustainable and agreed.

Having ten functions with accountability gives the change agent a much wider scope for discussing the accountability of each and why senior management have no option but to become further involved in the business improvement program. You will note the first four functions with accountability largely correspond to RACI when RACI is applied on the process.

A senior manager would readily admit that when it comes to their function, the buck stops with them, but when pushed, it is often the case that these managers cannot easily describe what they are actually accountable for.

The ambiguity is because the names of functional areas (e.g. Quality, Safety, Health, and Environment) do not include verbs. Without a verb, defining the deliverable becomes very difficult. And if you can’t describe the verb at the parent level, then defining the verb for the children and grandchildren levels becomes very difficult.

“Well, if you do that, then what do I do?”

I am not suggesting that the names of functional areas are rewritten to include verbs. Rather, for the purpose of defining management accountability, the verb is inferred. By agreeing the verb, you can agree the deliverable, and only then can you agree the management accountabilities.

For the function Quality, Safety, Health, and Environment consider the difference between the following two verb/deliverable combinations:


It is accepted that the verb/deliverable combinations are not necessarily mutually exclusive and there is natural overlap between them. The verb sets up the focus for the function and will directly impact the way the function sees its role in the organisation and the culture that is established within the function.

The table can now be extended to bring in management accountability. Note how the accountability changes depending on the deliverable being sought.


When the verb is to monitor the Quality, Safety, Health, and Environment function, then the Quality, Safety, Health, and Environment manager cannot approve the deliverable as this would be a conflict of interest. In this case, using the reporting lines in the organisation chart above, only the CEO can approve that the Quality, Safety, Health, and Environment governance model is working effectively. At the senior levels, the do work manager will be watching proceedings to ensure the Quality, Safety, Health, and Environment governance model does not become an unnecessarily large administrative burden on the day-to-day operations of the business.

But if the verb was to deliver Quality, Safety, Health, and Environment, then the Quality, Safety, Health, and Environment manager could approve that the function was working as designed. This is because the deliverable has an operational focus and the senior Quality, Safety, Health, and Environment manager is expected to be the approver. It’s part of the description of the position. The responsibility for delivering Quality, Safety, Health, and Environment on a day-to-day basis moves to the operations function as this is where the work actually happens.

If the verb was transform, then it is unlikely that the CEO would have the authority to approve the new operating model. This is where the LRM methodology really comes alive, as it brings in positions that sit outside the obvious reporting lines and the function accountability table needs to extend to allow for the additional account abilities.


For transform, the Board is now accountable for approving the new operating model for Quality, Safety, Health, and Environment. The CEO can only recommend the new model up for approval, but they will not do so unless they know the senior team has been consulted on the design of the new model.

For deliver, the quality manager is accountable for maintaining the integrity of the Quality processes within the organisation. The senior do work manager is responsible for ensuring the do work function are using the Quality, Safety, Health, and Environment processes across the entire organisation and, in this example, the country manager is accountable for monitoring that the Quality, Safety, Health, and Environment processes are being followed on a daily basis.

For monitor, the CEO is unlikely to approve the governance model unless it is recommended to him for approval by the legal counsel and the country manager. Recommending it for approval implies that they have reviewed it in detail and consider it fit for purpose.

The LRM model is also useful for defining accountabilities within a function.

The following uses the Quality, Safety, Health, and Environment structure referred to above. It has four levels.


The table illustrates how the accountability for Approve and Responsible changes as you move to the lower levels in the organisation.


Each organisational level requires a verb and a deliverable and there should be a natural relationship of deliverable between the organisational levels. It is implied that the accountability of other relevant positions will be included as required.

It is important that Responsible is not delegated below manager level and accountability for Approval is held at the level of manager’s manager or higher.

Organisational level 4 is typically the transactional level in an organisation. This is the level where the business process is operationalised. This requires the supervisor to monitor the process to ensure it is working as defined and correct it as required when the process deviates from design. Maintenance by comparison would be carried out by a representative of the function that designed the process. For example, Quality or Safety.

It is not necessary to recognise all ten accountabilities for each function or process as it will make the model overly complex and confusing. Rather, it is easier to work with the implied hierarchy between the accountabilities and use the dominant accountability. For example, there is no need to state that a manager who is recommending a process for approval is also informed. It stands to reason that they would not recommend something they were not informed on. The same applies for consulted and recommend. It is highly unlikely a manager would be asked to recommend a model they had not been consulted on, in the definition phase.

When defining which positions require to be informed, the “less is more” principle is relevant. Sure, everybody needs to know about changes, but these changes will be rolled out through the organisation structure. All that is required is to define which managers must be formally informed of the changes.

What these management accountability models achieve is to cause the business to change itself.

Without this level of accountability, the responsibility for the success of the change program will, in practice, fall back to the change team, allowing management to point fingers and attribute blame for failure. There is no doubt that change will take longer to achieve when management are correctly held to account, but equally, there is no doubt that the benefits will be sustainable and owned by management when they are forced to be actively involved throughout the change journey.

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.


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.


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.


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.”