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Comms Principle #4: Multi Faceted Communications

Yes, they are all different

Yes, they are all different

With the multiple forms of communication that are at our disposal these days, it is inexcusable not to engage with stakeholders to determine whether communications are being well received, or whether they are leaving gaps. The problem in many cases though is that if you have several hundred, or even thousands of stakeholders to manage, catering to such a broad range of feedback, requests or issues is going to be tough.

And this is where we begin to see the exhaustively detailed work done during the stakeholder mapping and segmentation process start to pay dividends.

A thorough understanding of who your stakeholders are, their level of influence, their background and who they interact with will provide you with a clear picture of the form or forms that your response needs to take.

Once you have all your stakeholders mapped, you need to set up properly in order to provide a streamlined approach to handling responses.  By “streamlined”, I mean considering the development of a number of potential channels and matrix structures.  So let’s take a look at how this can be achieved.

Firstly, you need to make sure that the obvious issues are well in hand.  Assuming you are a member of an experienced and knowledgable Project Team, the first steps should be self evident – development of a list of terminologies or acronyms commonly used, and a list of Frequently Asked Questions.

specialist_versus_generalistNot only will the development of these two vital communications pieces provide you with a sound platform for understanding the scope of the communications challenge, they will also help you personally to understand the detail.  Most Comms Managers are generalists, not specialists, but in order to make the best use of your time you need to develop at least a reasonable grasp of your subject matter.

Use the experts on you project team to help with this.  Initially, they will probably be quite willing to help, but may become a bit more resistant as you push them to provide you with better answers.  And don’t forget, the answers they provide will not be the end of the story – many stakeholders may not believe the answers, or believe that they are wrong, incomplete, or miss a number of issues.  Only once you have got the position recorded can you start to build a picture of where the gaps exist, but at least you can make a start on trying to get everyone onto the same page.

One other point on this.  People tend to view a new Comms Manager as someone who will communicate innately, someone capable of filling a gap while operating in a vacuum.  This, of course, is a pipe dream.  You will need their help and their expertise in order to develop messages that resonate.  As you increase your own understanding they will expect you to be able to do more on your own, but of course your greater understanding will also mean that you will notice gaps or inconsistencies more readily, and when this happens you will start to challenge the answers your peers have provided.

At this point, it is likely that you will start to experience some push back, and be told “Oh, don’t worry about that” or “That’s not really an issue”, or perhaps “You’re going into this in too much depth”.

A necessary evil

A necessary evil

Don’t EVER accept that.  It is your job not only to represent their views to the stakeholders but just as importantly to represent the views of the stakeholders to the project team.  Like an interviewer, your job is to consider both sides of the story.  Ignoring stakeholder concerns and questions because they are inconvenient is the quickest route to failure.

Playing devil’s advocate is often a tiresome activity, and one that may on occasion provoke a degree of frustration within the project team, but it is an entirely necessary process, so make a point of explaining why you’re doing it.  If the answers you get don’t convince you, they won’t convince your stakeholders either.

Next, you need to designate comms representatives and build alliances.  If you have several hundred stakeholders to manage, there is no way you can manage them all personally.  However, there will be individuals across the stakeholder landscape who are predisposed to support your project.  Nurture them.  Find out who they interact with and who they may be able to influence.  Providing them with the opportunity to feed back to you any issues that they may have or that they may have heard others have is going to improve the relevance of the communications you provide immeasurably.

Recognize the fact that in many cases the communications you provide will not come directly from you.  They may be cascaded through the organization, and in fact this cascade process may well be a part of your design.  However, communications often follow relationship or expertise pathways, rather than reporting lines.  I have known communications materials to be shared across continents by people who work in entirely different departments and roles.  Why?  Well, perhaps they used to work together.  Perhaps they met on a training course.  Maybe they have the same personal interests.  Relationships form in all kinds of ways that you may not understand.

It is therefore critical to remember that while communications can certainly cascade along hard reporting lines, they can also cascade functionally, among dotted line reports, and along completely informal interpersonal lines.  Where you are able to build relationships, find out who people are talking to, and what they are hearing.  See whether these relationships can be leveraged to become a living part of the comms process.

The materials you will provide need to resonate with each audience.  That does not mean that every comms piece has to be produced to an extreme level of functional granularity, but rather that nobody should ever directly receive a comms piece and, having read it, think to themselves “Why the hell did they think that I would have any interest in that?”.  Every piece of information that they receive directly from you must have something that is of value to them.  These are busy people.  If they are suspicious of the objectives of the project then any comms piece that they feel wastes their time is a nail in your personal comms coffin.

Don't assume your audience listens when you want it to

Don’t assume your audience will be listening when you want them to listen.

In addition to the comms channels that you select, and these will vary based on your organization, it is important to remember that most stakeholders will at best only glance at the materials you send them at the time they receive them, but will quite possibly want to return to them when they have the time or the inclination to find out more.

It is imperative to provide them with a means of accessing these materials in their own time, and making sure that they know where to go to find them.

The internet makes this possible almost without exception.  Everyone you want to interact with will have access to a database, or an intranet site, or a dropbox.  Communicate the location of this information and how it can be accessed consistently.  Make sure they know where to go.  Make sure the only versions of documents that appear in this ‘database’ are the current versions.  Make sure that the database is structured in a manner that makes the relevant information easy to locate.

There are a host of other observations that I could add on this subject, but this post is already quite long and therefore I will add only one further piece of advice.  Please, please, please make an effort to actively seek feedback that can inform the process.

thumb_surveymonkeyFacilities such as ‘Survey Monkey’ make it possible to solicit feedback from widely dispersed groups of stakeholders.  Structuring a survey correctly will allow you to see how well your comms strategy is working, and to get a feel for areas where there are issues to be overcome.

However, it is important to remember that initiating a survey is first and foremost for the purpose of improving the comms process.  Far too many people use it as a means to cover their ass, structuring the questions so as to be able to deflect criticism of the comms process and make themselves look better.

I understand the reason for this – as I believe I recall saying in my first post of this series comms usually gets little of the credit when things go right and the lion’s share of the blame when things go wrong.  However, if you are truly looking to improve the comms process then taking a dispassionate approach to surveys must be paramount.

In the next post, I’m going to be blogging about engagement with Senior Management.  I’ve seen many examples of where this critical element was mismanaged.  But I’ve also seen examples where it was done exceptionally well, and I’ll share some of these experiences in Principle #5.

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Posted by on March 2, 2013 in Change Management, Communications

 

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Comms Principle #1: If it Ain’t Broke…

The world is overloaded with information

Information overload and channel multiplicity – how do you get your message heard through the background noise?

How do you consume information?  And why?

Well, if you’re anything like me, you used to read a lot of newspapers, a few magazines. You watched the TV news and perhaps listened to the radio.  And when you found something that was of particular interest, maybe you bought a book. And why? Because you had an interest in the subjects being discussed.  And of course in the modern world a plethora of other ways exist to receive, retrieve and consume information, with more seemingly added every month.

In business communications however, and particularly as it relates to Change Management, there are a host of other, more specific reasons.  Some people want to develop professionally and are actively looking to be educated about a particular subject.  Others may be developing a new strategy and are looking for examples, precedents and case histories.  While still others are quite happy with the status quo, but are faced with a need to change ways of working or learn new skills because of a new strategic business imperative.

As a Communications Manager, you have to cater to all the requirements of this diverse audience.  And when I say cater to them, I do not mean send them a few emails, the occasional powerpoint slide and a couple of spreadsheets.  If it were that easy I wouldn’t be writing this, but unfortunately that’s often exactly how easy people think it is, and what some people consider to be a perfectly reasonable Comms approach.

Interconnected people, different requirements

Interconnected people, different requirements

But let’s consider a worst case scenario.  Let’s imagine you have to provide compelling and accessible communications about a new change project to an audience of 500 people – people in different roles, in different offices and maybe even in different countries.  The change in question has been tried before in a previous project, and failed.  Everyone spent a lot of time on it, and the months of effort delivered nothing.  In fact, those that worked on the project – and that includes you – are considered to have failed, and everyone has a view on why.  There is now an atmosphere of mistrust about the new project.  Your audience is at best ambivalent and, even worse, there are 30 or 40 people in your key stakeholder group who are actively hostile to any further innovation or change activity in this area.  Many of these doubters have the expertise, the influence, the seniority to derail the project.

Now let’s throw out the term “worst case scenario”, because that’s the way most business change projects begin.  So, you need to write and run a Comms strategy that takes account of all these complicating factors.

Before you even begin getting your head around the information that needs to be communicated, the best way to move forward is to step back.

Step back and think about a handful of Comms principles that will not only make writing the strategy easier, but will also improve the likelihood of success, the retention of the messages and the engagement level of your stakeholders.

It is these key principles that I will be blogging about over the next several posts, taking a single facet at a time.  I’ll be talking about stakeholder mapping, the importance of dialogue, developing a multi-faceted comms approach, engaging senior management, and translating strategy into execution.  But I’m going to start with what I consider to be the most important enabler of all – that of channel selection.

Channel selection - likely the most critical part of a communications strategy

Channel selection – likely the most critical enabler of a sound communications strategy

When I started this post, I asked how you consumed information.  It was not an idle or rhetorical question.  Every project will be different, and the selection of the appropriate comms channels will be one of the most important decisions you will be faced with.

I have seen, on numerous occasions, communications activities fail because a comms strategy tried to force a method of communication down the throats of stakeholders.  Expensive new brochures have been produced, databases set up, swathes of email sent out with slides, spreadsheets, gantt charts attached.  Then three months later the Project Board members scratch their collective heads as the Comms Manager is forced to admit that despite all this activity, many stakeholders don’t know what the objectives are, don’t know where to get more information, don’t agree with the information they have received, and do not support the project.

And the simple reason for this is that the Comms Strategy never took account of the relationships that exist, the venues that were already available.  Instead, the strategy drove activity in a manner that required stakeholders to learn the methods of communicating before learning about the project.  In effect, it treated stakeholders like sheep, requiring them to consume information when and where they were supposed to, not when they wanted to, not when they needed it.

You will never engage stakeholders
by herding them

This group of stakeholders, many of whom started off as suspicious or hostile, now have

  • A beautifully printed brochure gathering dust in a drawer
  • A dozen emails with huge attachments that are somewhere among the thousands of emails received over those 3 months
  • Access to a database that contains all the relevant information – but they don’t know where the database is located, or how to access it.  Even if they do, the database contains so many documents that finding the pieces relevant to their questions is a nightmare

Most worryingly of all, because they are not engaged and do not know who to talk to or where to go to get themselves up to speed, their first reaction is to complain about a lack of communication.  Because they don’t know where to go to get the facts, this complaint gains traction. And the moment it reaches that point, your job becomes twice as hard.

So, how do you avoid getting into this position?

To answer that, we need to go back to the original question “How do you consume information” and remember that the “you” is not you the Comms Manager, it is you the stakeholders – how do they consume information.

What relationships exist around the enterprise?  Are reporting lines (hard or dotted line) affecting resistance? Who shares information naturally with whom? What existing platforms are in place with which your stakeholders are already familiar?  Are there any conferences or events planned that your stakeholders are likely to attend or follow?  Equally importantly, assuming your stakeholders don’t always avidly read the communications you transmit the second you send them, how can they go back to them and access them hours, days or even weeks later?  Where do they find them?  If they have questions, who do they talk to?

Stop.jpgDon’t try and reinvent the comms wheel by developing new channels – first use the ones that are already known, then think about whether these channels need to be augmented.

By using new channels, you may engage early adopters (those who actively seek new information channels) but you are unlikely to reach traditionalists, and traditionalists are likely to be the majority.  This isn’t about impressing people with your knowledge of social media, or database management, or intranet development.  It’s not about you at all.  It’s about the stakeholders.

Don’t think that if someone has questions about what comms materials exist that they will come to you and ask.  Some people may not even know you exist.  They may not really like you, or may be worried that if they approach you they’ll be told “I already sent it to you 3 times”.  This is not about making them feel stupid. It’s about making them feel engaged.

Don’t brush aside feedback that indicates people aren’t getting it.  It may well be their fault, but it’s your problem.  Abdicating responsibility for ensuring that stakeholders have the facts, or know where to get them, or know who to talk to, is the best way to ensure hostility from the very people on whose positive engagement the success of the project relies.

Most importantly of all, do everything you can to ensure that if your stakeholders are determined to be critical of the timeline, budget assumptions or deliverables of a project that their criticism is related to the facts rather than to incorrect assumptions.  A quick review of Politifact’s ‘Truth-o-Meter’ is an excellent example of how a half-truth or an outright lie can derail debate of the facts to the point where further discussion is pointless, even after the truth has been made known.

Politifact's 'Truth-o-Meter'

Politifact’s ‘Truth-o-Meter’

Churchill once said “A lie gets half way around the world before the truth has a chance to get its pants on”. Never was this more apt than where change is concerned.  There is no such thing as a communications vacuum, since rumor, supposition and in some cases deliberate misinformation will always breed in any gaps left by factual communication. Once the rumors gain traction, the requirement to disprove them is time consuming and frustrating. Most importantly, it does not move the project forwards – it merely stops it going backwards.

Don’t give troublesome stakeholders the opportunity to attack the project by attacking the communications. Make it as difficult as possible for them to avoid the real issues by saying “I didn’t know that, nobody told me”. If you can achieve that, you are more than halfway to winning the battle.

In post #2, I’ll be looking at another critical comms principle – that of Stakeholder Segmentation.

 
 

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