Thursday, December 7, 2023

You can count the most common organizational communications mistakes on one hand

Margaret knew it was going to be a bad day when she arrived at work to find half her team out for a smoke in the parking lot at 9:15 (including a number of non-smokers) and the other half queued up outside her office looking worried.

It seems a new timekeeping system was launched that morning. No big deal; the old system was more than ready to be put out of its misery. Nevertheless, her team had questions. Why didn’t Margaret warn them? Did Margaret know how to use it? Did Margaret know when the training was happening? Why did the email say “failure to use the system could result in disciplinary action up to and including dismissal”? Did part-time people need to use it? Were old vacation balances being moved over? Was there a mobile app?

And so the day went. Margaret, who was just as surprised as her team about the new system, stopped at the liquor store on her way home.

If this sounds familiar it’s because the vast majority of organizational change initiatives, even relatively minor ones, generally mess up the communications.

Here are five common mistakes.

1.Not defining the stakeholders

It’s a pretty rare corporate change that doesn’t affect different employees, well, differently. Yet if all your employees are getting exactly the same messages, you’re probably not addressing the right pain points or concerns, which is going to create friction, resistance or rampant confusion.

By taking the time to sit down and list all the different audiences the change affects, and by thinking about what specific information they need to make sense of things, we can avoid such unpleasantness. In our example above, we might want to have special messaging for hourly employees or part-timers. And don’t forget external audiences such as suppliers or customers who might be caught up in the change.

2. Forgetting about front-line managers

When we ambush people like Margaret, we not only create pockets of resistance, we create a pile of extra work for everyone, as they try to respond to snarky emails and backfill the information gaps.

Part of the audience planning needs to focus on how and when we are going to enable our managers to be our best communications channel.

3. Measuring the wrong stuff

Not long after Margaret polished off that cheap Pinot Gris, she got a survey from the project team about the new timekeeping system. They wanted to know if she was aware of the change. She clicked yes. They wanted to know if her team was aware of the change. She clicked yes. They also wanted to make sure she understood all the bad things that would happen if people didn’t use the new system. One more click of the yes button. Margaret went to bed and the PMO logged another successfully communicated project.

Here’s the thing: awareness is not actually a useful metric. Neither is intent. What matters in organizational change is whether or not people actually do things and if not, why. In this case, we would want to measure how many employees started using the new system straight away, how many attended the training webinars, how many logged technical tickets, and which departments or locations are under-represented in the system. It’s okay to measure opinions, too. We should also be asking our front-line managers whether they had what they needed to communicate properly to their teams, and whether they had any feedback on how the whole thing was rolled out.

4. Treating change as a task

While a new timekeeping system is not exactly transformational change, it does ask people to behave differently. A lot of communication plans forget that part. We stop at awareness and move on to the next big announcement. To drive behaviour change, we generally need to communicate over and over.

Employees aren’t stupid and they’re not lazy: but most have overflowing inboxes, full to-do lists and a ton of things that aren’t your project to think about. One email is not going to cut it. Your plan needs to include follow up communications to drive home what you want employees to do and how they should go about it.

5. Excluding communications in the planning

That timekeeping system change took months to pull off. There was probably a project manager and a bunch of people on the implementation team. I’ll bet they had bran muffins at the kickoff meeting. There was certainly a Gantt chart. And on that Gantt chart was a line at the very bottom that said something about communication.

When we leave the discussion about communication to the last two weeks of the project, we more or less guarantee there will not be enough time to do a good job of figuring out audiences, metrics and manager messaging. Which is kind of shame given how hard everyone worked to do all the other tasks. If you’re in charge of such things, order an extra muffin or two and make sure your communications folks are part of the project from day one. Oh, and don’t stick poor HR with the job of communication. They don’t make you read labour regulation updates, so fair is fair.


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Elizabeth Williams
Elizabeth Williams
Elizabeth Williams is the President of Candler Chase Inc., a consulting firm specializing in employee communications and branding. She is a survivor of more than 20 years in the telecom, financial services and technology sectors, and can often be found blogging about brands and speaking at conferences. She keeps meaning to write a book.