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.


I am frequently asked to write on the mechanics of change management, a level of detail I have tried hard to avoid until now. The reason is simple—change management is complex, it is difficult, and it should not be reduced to a series of “cookie cutter” activities. I will never understand why large business improvement programs frequently refuse to pay a decent wage for the change manager’s role. On less than successful programs, it is common to hear statements to the effect of “the change management work stream failed” or “we would have delivered a better program if we had started the change piece earlier” or other words similar in nature. These statements assume that the business improvement program had any change management at all. Frequently, this is not the case.

No doubt, each unsuccessful program would have involved the completion of a stakeholder analysis, the delivery of training, and the publishing of communications. But I doubt all of this was delivered in a cohesive, integrated broadside to the organisation. I use the word “broadside” deliberately. Treating them as activities is why business improvement programs fail to deliver the required changes in organisational behaviour. Activities tend to get completed sequentially and then signed off as complete when delivered. In this case, the business improvement program has at best, a change coordinator. “We have done the stakeholder analysis.”—tick.

When it comes to change, the most fundamental question to ask is: so what? What has been learnt from a change activity? What is the business going to do with the information?

Note that the question does not ask what the program team is going to do with the information. That is of lesser importance than what the business is going to do with it. This distinction is vital, as the program team cannot change the business. Only the business (line management) can change the business. The program team will do all the heavy lifting required to meet the agreed deliverables. It just won’t change the business. If the business does not want to change, then the program office, despite its best efforts, will deliver a sub-optimal result and the senior management team will once again wonder what went wrong. By the time they realise that they had abdicated their responsibility for achieving a successful outcome, it will be too late to make corrections without the need to invest significantly more money into the program than what was budgeted for. Effective stakeholder management substantially reduces this risk.

Effective stakeholder management starts with the program sponsor. The sponsor is accountable for achieving the business benefits and this, by necessity, must include accountability for the change management work stream. Consider: if the business was serious about improvement, then it would hardly make sense to make a support function (change manager) accountable for achieving the structural and cultural change necessary to deliver the desired business benefits. The change manager’s role then becomes one of a subject matter expert designated to guide the sponsor through the difficulties associated with change. This would not exempt the change manager from their responsibility to prepare traditional deliverables such as impact studies, training packs, communications, etc.

A primary variable in any change program is people’s behavior, as individuals and as groups, and the key objective of the change program is to establish predictability of behavior. Predictability cuts both ways. The change program must provide predictability to those staff impacted by the change so they know what to expect, and equally the change manager, working through the sponsor, must provide management with predictability of how those staff will respond to the change and what is required from them as a senior leadership group. When people know what to expect, then they will be more accepting of the change when it happens, even if the change has a negative impact on them.

In practice, predictability and stakeholder management are synonymous terms and this means stakeholder management moves from being a discrete task in a change management plan to being the backbone of all the change management activities. To further illustrate this point, consider the following typical change management plan.

Change plan

To actively manage stakeholders requires agreement on who the stakeholders are. A stakeholder impact analysis workshop will help to identify the extended set of stakeholders. Stakeholders can be individuals or groups. For example, the CFO is part of the executive team, a key stakeholder group, and yet the CFO is important enough for the role to be identified as its own stakeholder group. In this way the CFO is referenced twice in the stakeholder management plan.

The impact analysis is a determination of how widely the “ripples” of the business improvement program will be felt. Ripples are typically operational, financial, or reputational. I define these terms in the broadest possible way.

The above methodology table indicates that the impact analysis is completed prior to the stakeholder management workshop. In practice, the two activities are iterative aseach informs the other.

Once the stakeholder groups are identified, then the next step is to determine the best means to engage with each group, to bring them into the change program and cause them to actively participate. Basic psychology says that this is best achieved by engaging them on topics that interest them, in a manner that interests them. To this end a simple 2×2 matrix that cross references Power (the capability to influence the direction or outcome of the program) to Interest (the desire to influence the direction or outcome of the program) is a frequently used methodology.

Power interest matrix

This type of analysis is only valuable if the terms Power and Interest are understood.

In her article posted on the American Express OPEN forum, (

psychologist Nicole Lipkin discusses seven types of power, namely:

Legitimate Power is where a person in a higher position has control over people in a lower position in an organisation.

“If you have this power, it’s essential that you understand that this power was given to you (and can be taken away), so don’t abuse it,” Lipkin says. ”If Diane rises to the position of CEO and her employees believe she deserves this position, they will respond favourably when she exercises her legitimate power. On the other hand, if Diane rises to the position of CEO, but people don’t believe that she deserves this power, it will be a bad move for the company as a whole.”

Coercive Power is where a person leads by threats and force. It is unlikely to win respect and loyalty from employees for long.

“There is not a time of day when you should use it,” Lipkin tells us. “Ultimately, you can’t build credibility with coercive influence—you can think of it like bullying in the workplace.”

Expert Power is the result of the perception that one possesses superior skills or knowledge.

“If Diane holds an MBA and a PhD in statistical analysis, her colleagues and reports are more inclined to accede to her expertise,” Lipkin says.

In order to keep their status and influence, however, experts need to continue learning and improving.

Informational Power is where a person possesses needed or wanted information. This is a short-term power that doesn’t necessarily influence or build credibility.

For example, a program manager may have all the information for a specific program, and that will give her “informational power.” But it’s hard for a person to keep this power for long, and eventually this information will be released. This should not be a long-term strategy.

Reward Power is where a person motivates others by offering raises, promotions, and awards.

“When you start talking financial livelihood, power takes on a whole new meaning,” Lipkin says. For example, “both Diane and Bob hold a certain amount of reward power if they administer performance reviews that determine raises and bonuses for their people.”

Connection Power is where a person attains influence by gaining favour or simply acquaintance with a powerful person. This power is all about networking.

“If I have a connection with someone that you want to get to, that’s going to give me power. That’s politics in a way,” Lipkin says. “People employing this power build important coalitions with others … Diane’s natural ability to forge such connections with individuals and assemble them into coalitions gives her strong connection power.”

Referent Power is the ability to convey a sense of personal acceptance or approval. It is held by people with charisma, integrity, and other positive qualities. It is the most valuable type of power.

The most frequently used definition of power is legitimate power and using this definition alone is short-sighted. Staff who have relatively low legitimate power can have very high power when it comes to influencing the success of the program. This is especially true for subject matter experts who have expert power.

Once you consider all seven types of power, then it is likely that the set of identified stakeholder groups will be refined and expanded.

Equally, Interest can have multiple variables. I recommend using the sameas those used to determine the “ripples”in the impact analysis, namely:

Operational Interest is a primary focus on structure, strategy, environment, and implementation; a desire to improve the operational effectiveness and efficiency of the business.

Financial Interest is a primary focus on the ROI and the impact on the balance sheet.

Reputational Interest isa primary focus on the company’s reputation in the market or the individual stakeholder’s own brand value.

Typically, all three variables will apply to each stakeholder group, but each group will have a leaning to one or another of them. For example, a middle manager will have a high interest in the operational benefits of the program and a lower interest in the financial aspects. They get their salary no matter what, so financially the program may not change their situation much, but operationally, the program could materially impact their work environment.

Then there is a forth variable to interest—self-interest.

Self-Interest is a primary focus on oneself. The WIIFM question or “what’s in it for me?” How will the program impact an individual’s personal circumstances?

This analysis gets interesting when it is used to evaluate how the nature of a stakeholder group’s interest will change depending on the health of the program.

To fully consider the relationship between the power and interest variables, it makes more sense to use a table rather than a simple 2×2 grid.


In this example, “Executive Management” has legitimate power with a primary interest in the financial results of the program. They are focused on ensuring the program is on budget and is delivering the promised ROI. They will also want to be sure that the change program is enhancing or has a neutral impact on the reputation of the company. As they are senior managers, they are less interested in the day-to-day operations and should be least worried about their “Self-Interest.”Obviously, depending on the specific circumstances of any given change program, the priority between the four interest types will change.

The above prioritisation should remain true while the business improvement program is going well. It will change if the health of the program declines and starts to have an adverse impact on business operations. When this happens, executive management will want to ensure that the business can still run and consequently, they will become less worried about delivering the program on budget. Their primary interest will switch from “Financial” to “Operational” and they will start to release additional funds. “Financial Interest” is reprioritised to second place and “Reputation” moves to third.

If the program health declines further, they may switch their primary interest to “Reputation” and start to take action to ensure reputational damage is minimised and operations are stabilised. “Financial Interest” moves to third priority.

In these examples, I have left “Self-Interest” at priority four, assuming that the executives are all professionals. It is realistic, however, to believe that individual executives will start to reprioritise self-interest higher up the scale depending on their exposure to the consequences of a failed program.

By comparison, the stakeholder group “Subject Matter Expert” is characterised by technically competent staff who are experts in their field. This group will typically have a high “Operational Interest” in the program, especially if it relies on their expertise and enhances their reputation (“Reputational Interest”). They will also want the business reputation to grow as it helps their CV. These staff may never rise to the senior levels of management and are less interested in “Financials.” Stereotypically, as long as the company keeps funding their budget they are happy. With a healthy program, their “Self-Interest” is the lowest priority.

If the program health declines, then their Self-Interest will very quickly get reprioritised to the top of the list, as a subject matter expert typically does not want to be associated with a failed program, particularly in their area of speciality.

As the program health changes, so should the mode of the interaction the program has with each stakeholder group.

The 2×2 matrix can now be used as a guide to determine the best means of interacting with a specific stakeholder group with the caveat that Power is changed to Power type and Interest is changed to Interest type and the message is tailored to suit.

The quadrant into which a stakeholder falls, dictates the suite of preferred interaction styles that could be used to engage with that stakeholder. Interaction types include:

  • One-to-one interactions
  • One-to-few
  • One-to-many
  • Email
  • Town-hall meetings
  • Theatre
  • Website updates
  • Intranet forums (chat rooms)
  • Awareness education
  • Workshops
  • Delegations of authority*
  • Technical training
  • Posters, brochures, and other marketing collateral.


* Delegations of authority refers to the degree to which a position or role can make a decision that will bind the company. Pushing delegation levels lower into the company should result in higher levels of involvement in the program as the applicable manager responds to the fact that they can make a meaningful and sustainable difference to the change program.

It should be noted that all types of interaction are relevant. What changes is the importance and reliance that should be placed on a specific type as a means to effectively engage a specific stakeholder group, with a realisation that the most effective mode will change with the health of the program.

Subject matter experts will probably respond to detailed website updates and awareness education sessions far better than to face-to-face meetings. Executives, on the other hand, will most likely respond better to succinct emails and face-to-face briefings. Tied to this, is the content of the interaction. As a stakeholder’s interest changes with the health of the program, so should the content covered in each interaction.

The matrix now looks as follows:

Power interest matrix with comm type

I close with a reinforcement of the principle that only the business can change itself and that the change manager must ensure that their activities do not absolve the sponsor and other key stakeholders from their accountability to make the program successful.