Five steps to winning change communication

There are lots of books that talk in detail about communicating change. They discuss the theories about what works and why. Of course, many of them are interesting but more can be gained by spending time with other organisations outside where we work. I was really grateful this week to be able to spend some time with the senior team at Sheffield Hallam University Business School.

On the face of it there is little that is similar between an academic institution and a police force. And while the day was to discuss leadership styles and change management, for me the key was always to understand how all that relates to, and can improve, our communication efforts.  Stepping outside my normal working life was a hugely beneficial and left me considering what the essential elements of successful change and communication may be.

I am no academic but there are five top tips that I have in relation to successful communication to support change management, and I decided to share them. There are for me five fundamental elements to introducing a new vision.

1. Have a clear vision

This sounds really simple but you would be amazed the number of companies and organisations who have endless words about who they are and what they do. The key is to keep it simple – know what you want to be and keep the key elements to a handful of bullet points. If you do that then the vision should be easy to articulate to anyone in the organisation.

2. Make that vision relevant to staff

The words are fine but they need to be grounded in the reality of the business. If it isn’t able to be easily connected to what people do then you are going to struggle to embed it into the psyche of the organisation. Most organisations include a huge range of skills and backgrounds among their workforce. They need to be continually connected to the core of the business and then they can easily understand what the future is and what their role in it may be.

3. Keep the vision at the core of business

If you have articulated a clear vision for the organisation and ensured that it is something that can be understood by all staff – what next? You now need to make sure that everything is aligned to this vision. If the work you are doing does not support the vision then you shouldn’t be doing it. All the business planning and development must make a clear link to this central vision that has been created. The more the vision is kept central to everything that happens the more it will be easily embedded into the organisation.

4. Live the vision

If those fine words about the organisation are just available in public locations and put up on walls in offices then the leadership has failed. Fundamental to any change is that once the vision had been articulated it must be lived and breathed on a daily basis by those at the most senior levels of the business. If the chief executive cannot demonstrate the vision in everything they do then it will never really change the culture. The whole workforce looks to the leaders in the organisation to see if things are really changing and they have it entrusted to them to make the vision live. Do it well and you will succeed but demonstrate behaviours that are contrary to the vision and it will spread swiftly through the organisations grapevine.

Change communication model

5. Check the vision is understood

If the other four elements have been achieved how do you know they have? You must be satisfied that you have really achieved those elements. So, as you are making the changes find key ways to check that the vision is understood. Do this at all levels so that managers are clearly able to cascade the themes. If those managers understand the vision and see a senior leadership team that are living it then they are more likely to live it themselves.  Above all it is reality checking and can help target your communication activity so you are hitting where it matters.

Finally, make sure you keep communicating through all methods available but above all don’t forget the opportunity from maximising face-to-face conversations. In large organisations there is often an over-reliance on electronic communication, newsletters and even the old staple of posters. One of the hardest things to do in a cost-effective way is face-to-face communication which is why having leaders that are bought into the vision is critical. They can make the connections for their staff every day in the work they are doing.

Living in the new vision can only really happen if you are clear what you are and what you want to be, you tell people what that is, you show in the smallest gestures that you are living the vision and you check people understand it. In short that simple checklist was what had put Sheffield Hallam University Business School among the top in the country with a very small drop-out rate. There may not have been anything radically new in what I saw in Sheffield, but it did help to clarify in my mind that simplicity is the key to cultural change and communication.

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