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.”

The importance of optics

Common wisdom tells us that if something looks like a duck, walks like a duck, and talks like a duck, then most likely, it is a duck. We all know, however, that this is not always true.

The idea of optics is captured perfectly in a scene from the movie “The Tuxedo.” Jackie Chan is working for a millionaire and in the scene the millionaire turns to Jackie and says, “It’s 90% the suit.”

What he is referring to is the optics of a situation–what perception the picture creates.

In Australian politics, the Federal Treasurer, Mr. Joe Hockey, was photographed smoking a cigar at the time when he was bringing down a tough budget in parliament. The imagery was all wrong and the press had a field day depicting Mr. Hockey as a fat cat, smoking cigars while the common man battled. The depiction was completely unfair and most people knew it, but it was an association Mr. Hockey was never able to fully shake.

Optics is the non-verbal, subliminal messaging that surrounds the actual message. When it comes to stakeholder management, optics is central to everything. It is the backbone to effective communications.

Optics are why politicians kiss a baby whenever there is a camera about. They are demonstrating their support for families and that they are in touch with the community. It is most certainly not because they like kissing babies.

A key feature of optics is that they are primarily associated with a person or a business and are not time sensitive. It is common for people to unconsciously develop a view of a person over a period of time simply by watching how they handle themselves in and around the office. This will include how they dress, the hours they work, or even their punctuality at meetings.

What this means is that, when it comes to stakeholder management, what you do and what you don’t do, and how and when you say something are as important as what you say, and possibly even more important.

The best example I have of this is a client I worked with a few years ago. He asked for me to analyse a significant body of data. This assignment was beyond my skill set and I invited a colleague to join the project to complete this piece of work. My colleague had a PhD in Physics and was undoubtedly the best person for the job. Unfortunately, he also had numerous tattoos and body piercings. My client was unable to see past the earrings and tattoos and requested that he be removed from the project. I argued that he was a PhD and was highly professional. My client was unrepentant. He was unwilling to accept that a person who looked like my colleague could ever produce a creditable outcome. He was concerned that if the project outcome was suboptimal, then he would be blamed for giving the work to such a person.

The words “What were you thinking?” were already ringing in his ears.

Optics can extend beyond the person to the theatre in which the message is delivered. When Tony Abbott was shadow prime minister he spoke at a political rally. I don’t remember what he was talking about, but I clearly remember him standing in front of various signboards that said “Ditch the witch” and similar slogans. The slogans all referred to the then Prime Minister Ms. Julia Gillard and while these slogans had nothing to do with Mr. Abbott, he did make the decision to stand in front of them. His poor choice of theatre gave Ms. Gillard significant political capital and she went on to portray Mr. Abbott as someone who disrespected women and consistently brought up his apparent misogyny at every opportunity. There was not a lot Mr Abbott could do in response, as he had put himself in front of the signs. The message he delivered that day was lost, dwarfed by the poor choice of the theatre in which he chose to deliver the message. The optics of that day were just wrong.

Optics generally refer to the perception that a person creates by their behaviour, dress, and choice of presentation theatre. The term can also subsequently extend to the spoken word. I say subsequently as the audience will already have formed an impression about the speaker long before the person starts to speak. I witnessed this firsthand when I was working with a senior IT executive. We had arranged for a supplier to showcase their solution. Unfortunately, the presenter was young and he pronounced the word “something” as “some think.” He also said “yous” when referring to my client’s company. The combination of youth and pronunciation errors irritated my client so much he stopped listening to what the person was saying and worried only about how he was saying it. The relationship with the supplier died in that meeting. My client felt disrespected and that his time had been wasted. It is worth noting that had my client wanted to buy expertise on social media, then the presenter’s youth probably would have been an asset.

The take out is that effective stakeholder management requires the speaker to look the part, sound the part, and to manage the theatre in which the message is delivered.

This can include everything from how a person dresses to how long they took to prepare a presentation. Consider a manager going out to a factory to address the staff. If they wear a suit and cuff links, the factory staff will find it difficult to see past the suit and hear the message. All they will see is a stuffed shirt coming from head office to give them news they assume they don’t want to hear.

Equally, if the manager arrived wearing factory uniform, the staff would question who the manager was trying to impress. They might reject the approach, and say, “You are not one of us.” Once again, the message would be discounted.

There is no right answer. It really depends on the message. If it is bad news, I would counsel the manager not to stand behind a table or lectern or on a stage. Rather they should stand in front of the staff with no barriers and no ceremony. The manager will look sincere and will have a much better chance of being heard. After addressing the staff, the manager should leave through the same door as the staff, at the same time. All these cues will reinforce the subliminal message the manager respects the staff and sees them as equals.

The opposite can hold true when addressing a senior audience. In this case the manager should wear a tie, have polished shoes, and be on time. When the manager enters the room, the senior team will immediately make a judgement on the quality of the information they are about to hear. The quality of the presentation is important. It should look like the presenter took the time to do a good job. A great message poorly portrayed will have less traction with the stakeholders than a well-presented weaker message.

Managing the optics is especially important when a country suffers a natural disaster. An unfortunate but excellent example is how the U.S. federal government responded to Hurricane Katrina.

You will recall that in the days and weeks after Katrina flattened New Orleans and the surrounding countryside, the world’s press beamed live pictures of people who had lost everything. The implication was that the government had failed in its duties. The press repeatedly asked, “When is help coming? Why weren’t people warned? Etc

The optics were that the government was caught napping, was incompetent, and indifferent.

In the lessons learnt document published in the months following Katrina, the author notes:

On September 1, conflicting views of New Orleans emerged with positive statements by some Federal officials that contradicted a more desperate picture painted by reporters in the streets. The media, operating 24/7, gathered and aired uncorroborated information which interfered with ongoing emergency response efforts.

The truth of the matter is that the local, state, and federal administrations had put substantial preparation and risk mitigation strategies into place prior to the storm. The media ignored this and only presented half the story.

This example reinforces the point that the optics created about you or your company can be created just as much by a third party as they can be by you. And no matter who creates them, or how accurate they are, they do need to be managed.

My mom taught me not to judge a book by its cover. I would love to say I don’t, but I know that I do. We all do. In business terms, when it comes to successfully managing stakeholders, it is essential that you are highly sensitive to your “cover” and that you manage the perception it creates. Fail to do this and your audience may never take the time to really listen to what you have to say.

The problem is that you can only do what you can do. The stereotypes, bigotry, baggage, biases, and cultural differences that your audience brings with them are largely beyond your control. I say largely because you can still mitigate for these hidden filters with some consideration of who your stakeholders are and what they represent.

If you are talking to an older audience, you should expect them to be more conservative and unlikely to make a quick decision. If you are talking to women, then swearing is unlikely to be well received. Equally, a young underdressed female presenter is unlikely to get a warm reception from senior executives, male or female. Engineers are generally detail people. They will forgive a few faux pas if the presenter knows their topic in detail. By contrast, senior managers do not want detail. German audiences respect formal dress and titles and Japanese audiences respect the past. Younger audiences are more receptive to a technology demonstration and frequently less hung up on the formalities that senior audiences appreciate. Having said that, it would be a mistake not to take a young audience seriously.

For each one of these examples, there will be folks immediately quoting examples that contradict me. That’s to be expected because when it comes to stakeholder management, you have to deal with individuals and known groups. Stereotypes may not apply.

The take out is this. Always respect the theater in which you work.


Consultants and other business advisors are frequently brought in by senior management to establish and lead a change program within the business. This brings to mind an old joke. How many consultants does it take to change a light bulb? Just one, but the light bulb has to want to change. An old joke for sure, but it reinforces the inescapable truth that a consultant cannot change a business. Only the business can change the business. If the business does not want to change, then there is nothing the consultant can do.

But who is the business? The business is a collection of people working together to achieve a common objective. For change to be successful, these same people need to band together to build a momentum for change that cannot be stopped. The organisation must push over the tipping point to make change inevitable.

The problem is that, in large organisations, whilst most staff support the overall business objectives, they don’t necessarily agree on the best way to achieve them. A characteristic of large organisations is the proliferation of subcultures throughout the business. These subcultures are normally aligned to the different stakeholder communities or silos that make up the business. Depending on the specifics of each subculture, change will be met with a range of mindsets. Some will say, “I have been here fifteen years and I’ve seen it all before. It didn’t work then and it won’t work now.” Others will say, “If it isn’t broke, don’t fix it.” And still others will say, “We welcome the opportunity to change.”

For change to be successful, these individual communities need to be recognised, understood, and engaged as stakeholders in the change program. The trick is identifying each different stakeholder community and determining how change will individually and collectively impact each community and how each will respond to the proposed changes.

This paper will not discuss in detail how to identify individual stakeholder groups. Rather, it will examine how to evaluate the impact of a change program on stakeholder groups and how these same groups can impact the change program.

It is common practice to start an impact analysis with a stakeholder identification exercise, the rationale being that once you know who the stakeholders are, you can evaluate the impact change will have on them. My experience is that an effective stakeholder impact analysis must start with an analysis of the impact of change on the business. After all, how can you be confident that you have identified the complete and correct set of stakeholders, never mind the impact of change on these stakeholders, until you have fully understood the impact change will have on the business as a whole?

I have found that while most change practitioners agree with the above, they also frequently attempt to complete both analyses at the same time. Inevitably, this will deliver a skewed and incomplete result. It is important to complete the studies sequentially.

To understand the business impact, it is easiest to use the traditional variables of people, process, and technology, with the addition of foundation items such as culture, strategy, policy, and rules. Collectively, these variables will provide the necessary width to complete a suitably comprehensive business impact analysis.

The objective of the study is to agree what will be different in the business as a result of the change. The following framework can assist.

Business impact table

The table is a summary of the impact of change on the business.

You will note that the framework breaks the headers of people, process, technology into their component parts. It is the component parts that are analysed, not the header itself.

A key part of any change program is effective communication in order to ensure senior managers understand the need for change. To be successful, it is vital that a senior stakeholder is able to quickly assimilate and understand the issues. It is not uncommon for an overly detailed analysis to be put in the “too hard basket,” causing the findings to be partially ignored or even lost entirely.

If the table is detailed, it can be supplemented with Harvey Balls to provide a quick summary of the extent of the change.

Dark (red) indicates a high degree of change.

Business impact table withHB

Using the Harvey Balls as a guide, it can be seen that the proposed changes will have a moderate impact on the business processes and a high impact on people, management practice, structure, and culture. There will be limited impact on strategy, policy, and business rules.

This summary is highly significant, as the common practice in business improvement programs is to map the business processes. In this case, understanding the business processes may be important, but it is not where the real game is. Rather, a strong focus on people and culture is more likely to deliver the desired business benefits. The detail in each cell describes the nature of the change.

Depending on its size, a change program will comprise multiple projects or work streams, each focusing on a different aspect of change such as Quality, HR, IT, or operational improvements.

The framework can be used for each project within the program. As before, Harvey Balls can be used to indicate the magnitude of the change within each project.

consolidated business impact table withHB

This type of analysis will provide a manager with a ready snapshot of the impact of each project’s specific changes on the business. While this view is valuable, it is incomplete.

What is required is a consolidated picture of change across all projects.

Project summary unclassified

The table provides a consolidated and immediate insight into how the projects will individually and collectively impact the business. You will note that the subcategories of “people” have been removed. This is to support the principle of “easy to understand.” Senior stakeholders will want to know how much change will impact their people. The fine detail is unlikely to be important at this time.

In the example, project 3 is anticipated to have the biggest impact across the entire business, and management practice, access to information, and culture will be most heavily impacted across all projects.

Project summary

This table now becomes the basis for determining the real stakeholder groups. Given that process flows are not a top three priority, it is unlikely that the process operators are going to be a primary stakeholder. Conversely, their managers are identified as a primary stakeholder. This is reinforced when you consider management’s impact on culture and access to information.

With this insight, that change program can set its priorities and tailor the messaging appropriately.

To understand how the change program will impact a specific stakeholder group requires the application of a consistent numerical scale. Such a scale could be:

  1. No impact
  2. Low impact
  3. Moderate impact
  4. High impact
  5. Maximum impact

Each stakeholder group is then evaluated according to this scale and the results are tabulated as follows. The stakeholders are listed down the page. The types of change the stakeholders will go through are listed across the top of the table. Once again the variables of people, process, and Technology are used to guide the analysis. It is unlikely that the detail will be a mirror of the business impact table, but is expected that the business impact table will inform the variables used in this study.

Stakeholder summary table

The table is completed once the totals column is complete. To really make sense of the table, graph it and rank it from highest impact to lowest.  It is clear that the first six stakeholder groups will be most impacted by the program and the last four stakeholder groups will be least impacted.

The primary difference between the stakeholders on the left hand side of the graph and those on the right is that those on the left will typically be operational staff and those on the right will be senior managers and executives. The seniority of these managers means that they are unlikely to be substantially impacted by the technical aspects of the change program.

stakeholder graph with circles

This type of stakeholder analysis is common practice and in the normal course of events, the change program would target the top six with specific interventions and deal with the bottom four with general interventions. The stakeholders in between would gradually move from specific to general.

By general activity, I refer to interventions aimed at groups, rather than individuals. It would be brilliant if a company had the time and resources to work with each person in the company individually. This luxury is seldom, if ever, open to large companies and so change is addressed with general activities.

My critique is that this is a one-way study, in that it only evaluates how the change program impacts the stakeholders.

In my opinion, a far more critical analysis is an evaluation of how the same set of stakeholders could impact the success of the change program through their actions, be they positive or negative, or simply through inaction.

The point of this second study is to determine which individual stakeholder groups could substantially impact the success of the project if they wanted to. Consider: if the executive team chose to, they could terminate a specific project or even the entire program, a particularly substantial impact. If the service desk became disenchanted, they could reduce the quality of the customer service they provide. This would dilute all the good work done on the rest of the project. It would not stop the project, but it would have a detrimental effect on customer satisfaction.

To complete this study, the scoring can again be on a simple low to high scale, as the evaluation is more subjective than objective.

  1. No impact
  2. Low impact
  3. Medium impact
  4. High impact

When completing the analysis to determine how stakeholders could impact the change program, it is important to use the same stakeholders that were evaluated in the first study.

Stakeholder impact on project

As before, the scores are graphed. It is important that the stakeholder sequence is kept constant as per the first graph.

reverse stakeholder graph

It can be seen that, unlike the initial study that produced a smooth graph, this study produces a saw-toothed result, indicating that there are stakeholders across the full spectrum that can significantly impact the project.

Of particular interest are the stakeholders on the right. In the first graph these stakeholders were scored very low as they were deemed to be senior or executive managers and therefore largely unaffected by the technical aspects of change. But in this second graph, they have a very high score as they have the position and power to substantially impact the project.

The full strength of the analysis is evident when the two graphs are compared.

stakeholder graph comparison

As expected, there is a strong two-way impact across the first four stakeholder groups. These are the primary stakeholders impacted by the project and, if the change program does not fully enlist them in the change program, then it will be almost impossible to achieve sustainable business improvements.

Equally, when looking only at the first graph, it is unlikely that stakeholder groups 8 and 9 would have been considered particularly important stakeholder groups. But when combined with the second graph, they become high priority stakeholders.

The first graph is an analysis of the technical aspects of the change program. It evaluates which stakeholders will be impacted by the change and the data behind the graph will tell you why they are impacted. In many respects, change will happen to these stakeholders whether they want it or not. This does not diminish the responsibility of the change manager to minimize their resistance to change as much as possible.

By comparison, the second graph reflects the political aspects of the change. While these stakeholders may or may not be directly impacted by the technical changes, they will be acutely aware of how the change program could impact the business financially and their own reputations within the business and the market place. These two considerations make them a particularly important set of stakeholders. This is particularly true as you move towards the right. The change manager needs to work very closely with these stakeholders as they are not directly impacted by the change program, “whether they want it or not” and can choose their own level of involvement.

This dual analysis is of critical importance when it comes to communicating with each stakeholder group. The primary stakeholders in the first analysis will need to be sold on how important the change program is to the business and how important they are to its success. At the other extreme are the priority stakeholders identified in the second analysis. As per the first group, these stakeholders will also need to be convinced that the change program is strategically important to the business. But they will also need to be convinced that the business improvement program is being well managed and that it is unlikely to have a detrimental impact on the reputation, operations or finances of the business. If any of these tests fail, then the program runs into the very real risk of being cancelled.

There is a further relationship between the two graphs. The senior stakeholders on the right will frequently have the organisational position and authority to instruct the stakeholders on the left. This makes these senior stakeholders even more important when it comes to designing the initial communications and prioritizing which stakeholders need to be engaged with first.

There is one other stakeholder group that needs to be considered as part of the impact analysis, namely the business improvement team. This is the group of people who are working full-time or close to it on delivering the business improvement project. They may or may not be part of the program office and frequently this team will be a blend of full-time employees and contractor staff.

For me, this is one of the most important stakeholder groups on the project. This team is a catalyst for change in the sense that they create change, but are not themselves changed. They are also a temporary group, constituted for the life of the program. For these reasons, they are seldom, if ever, evaluated as part of the impact study.

A key responsibility of this team is executing an effective communications strategy. They will decide on what messaging is communicated to which stakeholder group, on what frequency and format. The importance of getting this strategy right cannot be underestimated as it will directly influence how the business perceives the change program.

It is therefore vital that the health and competence of the team is measured and managed. If this team becomes disillusioned or suffers from poor morale, the consequences for the success of the program would be significant. Equally if this team does not have a common understanding of the objectives of the program or how the various projects fit together, then they will be prone to delivering mixed messages to the business and undermining the very change they are trying to create.