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Tag Archives: Project Communications

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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If You Build It, Will They Come?

If you build it, he will come.

If you build it, he will come. Photo: Universal Pictures

For many guys of a certain age, the line “If you build it, he will come” is instantly recognizable.

A seminal moment from the 1989 Kevin Costner film ‘Field of Dreams’, it turns out to mean that if Costner’s character, Ray Kinsella, builds a baseball field in his corn he will have the opportunity to rebuild his relationship with his father.  And while it’s memorable for women too, this is principally a father / son / sports thing that transcends any rational explanation.

This instant familiarity is one of the reasons that the line has been paraphrased (sometimes simply as a joke, but also sometimes in earnest) into a management ‘axiom’ that if you set a strategic objective with clear goals and attainable benefits that people understand, then they will naturally gravitate towards it.  “If you build it, they will come”.

Clearly not only is this simplistic view of Change Management wrong, it is positively dangerous.  So much for life imitating art.

Miss Boo - poster girl for DotCom excess

Miss Boo – A salutary lesson in thinking a good idea is all it takes

That is not to say that people will naturally shy away from a good idea.  Venture capitalists will frequently consider first mover advantage as a key factor in making the decision to invest in a completely new business.  Indeed, early this century the emerging DotCom economy provided multiple examples of how first mover advantage was considered to be of primary importance – that having a good idea for filling a gap in the market was almost a guarantee of success if only a company could “get big fast“.

Of course, this was never really the only requirement and when the DotCom bubble burst and investment decisions matured, the tried and tested measurements once again reestablished their importance.  The objective has to be clear, the product or service benefits inescapable, the gap in the market obvious, the customer need well documented, the management skills and experience proven and – most importantly – the financial modeling sound and the ROI expectations reasonable.  If those requirements are met, then and only then does first mover advantage start to carry some weight.

But what about when the case for change, for establishing a new strategic goal, is one that relates to an existing business?  A business that has scale, history, embedded culture but that nonetheless needs to adapt to meet the emerging challenges or capitalize on new opportunities within a particular business sector.

A new competitor, the emergence of new technology, changing consumer preferences or legislation, to name but a few, can all throw a wrench into the workings of an existing, profitable and successful organization, or provide it with ways to enhance its ability to compete.

And of course in many cases, forward-looking organizations will be actively seeking ways to improve their performance, to increase their market penetration or to lower their costs before being faced with a business imperative to do so.  In such ways are great companies built – the ideal time to consider how the business can be improved is not when change is forced on it by external pressures, but proactively, while there is time for maneuver, time to model the options and measure their potential.

Good to Great, by Jim Collins

Good to Great – sound strategic decisions, equally sound implementation

In his excellent 2001 book ‘Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap…and Other Don’t‘, Jim Collins took a group of companies that, for one reason or another, were able to take advantage of a business opportunity or new way of thinking to deliver financial results that saw them outperform a control group of direct comparison companies.

Moreover, they were able to sustain that performance for at least 15 years, a time period that transcends a single new product, or a single visionary CEO, or an extended period of sector-wide growth.

But whether one is facing an immediate external pressure to change or seeking to further improve an already healthy position in order that a business will be better able to meet any potential future challenges, the key hurdle to overcome is that of thinking that recognizing the opportunity and establishing a roadmap and timeline to deliver the benefits is the main challenge.   This is the key pitfall of the “If you build it, they will come” mentality.

Up to 75% of change projects fail

Up to 75% of change projects fail

Over the next few days, I’ll be blogging about some of the key challenges of organizational change, and how communications is a critical enabler that will frequently make the difference between failure and success.

Wherever you look for information about the success rate of business change projects, the figures you will normally see quoted are that between two-thirds and three-quarters of all projects fail.  And with at least two-thirds of competitors failing, consider for a moment the vast opportunities available to those organizations that do it right.

There are a number of communications rules that need to be considered when enabling change within an organization.  They’re not concepts that are hard to understand, and in fact the vast majority can be seen as good old fashioned common sense, but they are nonetheless concepts that are frequently overlooked.

In the blog posts that follow, I’ll be listing what I consider some of these key rules to be.  In doing so, I’ll describe why I consider them important, provide examples and observations, and where possible I’ll also include comments or advice from third parties that I consider to be particularly useful.

Throughout them all please remember that this is not meant to be an exhaustive list, merely a number of key principles that I personally have found to be useful in running communications within change programs over a number of years for both new companies and established multinationals.

Communications is often the last thing to be recognized as having had a positive impact when a change program is successful.  Conversely, it is one of the first to be blamed when the change fails.  But it doesn’t have to be that way.

 
 

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