Communicating organizational changes
The inspiration for this post was a Tweet I’ve bookmarked that goes “Never YOLO the communications plan”, from Julia Grace. Like her other advice it is worth emulating.
Why is it important?
The what and why of the changes are obviously the most critical aspects. However, as Julia’s Tweet indicates, the how of the communication is just as crucial. For leaders a big part of the job is setting context, or as Netflix put it “context not control”. Setting the context is particularly true for significant changes. In rapidly growing organizations, these changes frequently have broad impact, and everyone affected needs to know the information in different forms, in-person, email, team meetings etc. There are probably explicit directions in which you as the person enacting the change want the information flow to occur. Being intentional about communication helps leaders align better and adapt to the organization, and avoid unnecessary friction.
A focus on communication in favour of other action can sometimes be viewed as inefficient or slow and there can be a temptation to get the message out quickly and keep moving. However, I have only seen this work well in larger top-down, mature organizations. This seems to be the case because the rate of change in such organizations is less frequent and other forms of support compensate e.g. well understood and well-run processes, support functions, and a clear hierarchy of information flow that typically follows the organizational hierarchy. In smaller, rapidly growing environments, information flows much more fluidly by design and it is particularly important to have communication done well, to prevent organizational fatigue. Neglecting communication leads to thrash, lack of alignment and a rapid erosion of trust. Think of communication as part of your organization’s DNA.
It is not just obvious changes such as reorgs but can include a far wider scope. If in doubt, I open the template I use (shared below) and take a quick look and find at least a few things I hadn’t thought of or even worse, team members who would be impacted in non-obvious ways. Some instances I have personally used the template for are: leadership changes, arrivals and departures — particularly of people significant to the team, changes in roadmaps, priorities, new organizational initiatives. All of these can benefit from a good communications plan.
I have been using the template, cribbed from one developed by our organization’s HR Business Partner Jaclyn Opritza, and I have used it every few months or more frequently. It’s important to note that I have probably never worked on one of these documents or plans in isolation. These are often shared documents, with contributions from a broad group of people. Almost all communication is reviewed and iterated on, in particular emails going out to a broad audience. The process of working with a group of people on shared documents can in itself be an important part of building alignment, particularly for large changes.
As a part of the roll out of changes, in addition to the initial communication via in-person conversations, team meetings and emails, it is also useful to follow up with forums for people to ask questions and share opinions.
Depending on the change itself, some useful options are:
- In-person or video facilitated question and answer sessions
- Drop-in optional office hours — particularly useful for changes that require work from people affected
- Dedicated Slack channels where people can drop in and ask questions in an async manner
- Mailing list to keep everyone up to date
The in-person forums in particular can seem intimidating to newer leaders and all of these options might also appear to be more work, but they help close the loop and help alignment, particularly where the change itself may be challenging to absorb.
A consistent theme around change management is doing the work and thinking through changes and their impact upfront to avoid pain later.
Hopefully this list of tools helps make them less nerve wracking for a few people reading this.
- What is the change?
- Why is it happening?
- Any major concerns
- Who are the decision makers/people who have to sign-off on the change?
- Who is affected by the change?
- When are the changes effective?
- Target communication date
- FAQ and talking points
- Any emails to be sent can also be drafted in the same documented or linked out.
Timeline for communication
What is happening, Communicator, Date, Done (Y/N), Notes