Change Management - Communications

For some old school Project Managers, 'Communication' is more stuff for the tree huggers. To others, it is old news - to the point of being an overused and hackneyed term. We all know how to communicate don't we?  Well, don't we?

Sure we do, but communicating at this level is a little more complex than calling the troops in for a rally. At this level, a plan of attack is required.  A communication strategy helps to ensure a thorough approach.  Consideration needs to be given to:

  • Who are the stakeholders
  • What are the messages 
  • Timing 
  • Who delivers the messages
  • Different approaches for different audiences
  • A two way process

Who are the stakeholders?
Often (but not always) project stakeholders would have been identified early in the project lifecycle. Obvious stakeholders are the project team, management and executive. Depending on the project, consider the impact on your retail channel, clients / customers, suppliers, business partners, regulatory bodies, government agencies, and the community. What about printers, legal firms, advertising agencies etc?  

What messages need to get out?
The list of potential topics for your communications plan is almost endless, but it helps once you have identified your stakeholders. Ask 'if the project went live tomorrow, what would stakeholder X need to know?'  The organisational executive team will need formal, written reports on project plans, progress, costs etc.  Operational management and staff need to know what impact the project will have on them, how the project is progressing, what training is being organised, and when they will be receiving it. 

Each group of stakeholders will have specific requirements, although overlap is likely. It is essential that there be a person or work unit coordinating the communications effort to ensure a consistent message.

Timing is critical if every stakeholder is to have the information they need in time for them to make any necessary preparation. Stakeholders have their own priorities, and your project may not be high on their list. Yet their cooperation may be crucial to your success.  Clients, customers, channel partners and suppliers may not be willing or able to cooperate if not given enough notice.

Repetition is important in many instances. Perhaps face-to-face presentations can be backed up with newsletters. Never assume that because the message has gone out, people will understand and remember it.  If it is important, it is worth repeating over and over until you can be reasonably sure that you have 'saturated' your audience.

Who delivers the message?

Another critical issue!  The content and timing of the communications will most often make it impossible for one person, or even one small group, to deliver all communications. Nor is this always appropriate. Depending on the audience and nature of the communication, the presenter may be different. It may be appropriate for the CEO to deliver high level staff presentations, whereas the marketing manager may be the best person to deal with the retail channel. Local managers may be best suited to hold local group discussions about impacts on work practices. This aspect of communication requires analysis, and can require a heavy investment to complete the logistics of delivery.

Different strokes..
The communications strategy should identify all of the communication options open to you. This may include such things as:
  • Road shows (large scale presentations delivered at different locations)
  • Video tapes of the CEO or Sponsor's presentation
  • Regular newsletters
  • Memoranda
  • E-mails
  • Intranet / Internet facilities
  • Manuals
  • Brochures
  • Focus / Discussion Groups

The options will depend on the facilities appropriate to the organisation, the makeup of the stakeholder groups, and the type of information being communicated. It is obviously not appropriate for example, to wait for the quarterly report to send out urgent information!

There are also many variations on each theme. In one large project we were involved in, we found that the 'Cascading Information Flow' was a useful model.  The information was prepared by the communications team, and delivered by the CEO to the senior management team. These in turn met with their direct reports, who then spoke to their assembled staff in work units.  We found that this worked provided that each manager in turn was given a 'script' to ensure a consistent message. However, we also found in another large project that this approach was not successful.  It just didn't fit with the culture of the business. As we said, different strokes...

Communication is a two way street.
The basic level of communication is a simple discussion between two people. My Old Dad used to say 'remember that you have two ears, but just one mouth.'  It is important when devising a communication strategy to develop a two way process. 

It will help the effectiveness of your communications if you set up effective processes to listen to the concerns and requirements of your stakeholders. It can be a big mistake to assume you can guess what there concerns will be.

Photo used under Creative Commons from LuMaxArt