For employees, understanding organisational change can sometimes be like completing a self assembly project with no clear instructions or picture of the finished product. Internal communicators need to explain change themes not projects, use time travel to help leaders mind their language, and become great storytellers to enable employees to avoid the flat packed confusion.
I recently spent part of a weekend assembling a flat packed wardrobe. If you’ve self-assembled anything flat packed you’ll be familiar with some of the challenges this presents.
You first wrestle to get it out of the packaging and then make the daunting discovery that it’s arrived in what looks like a hundred unrelated pieces. You then spend a not insignificant amount of time poring over the assembly instructions. These are usually helpfully ‘generic’ and contain lots of letters and numbers pertaining to a host of components none of which really look like the bits you just unpacked. These days the instructions are also often pictorial rather than in the written word, but the crucial picture of what the thing is supposed to look like when it’s put together is often absent.
My self-assembly experience reminded me that communicating about change in organisations can also sometimes be like explaining to bemused colleagues how to assemble a flat packed wardrobe. It is all too easy for colleagues to become confused and disengaged when there are lots of bits of apparently unrelated change going on and no clear picture of how it all fits together and what it means to them.
Here are a few tools from inside my communications store cupboard (sorry – couldn’t resist that one!) about how to join up and explain change in organisations to avoid the flat packed confusion.
Communicate about themes not projects
During my time as an internal communicator I’ve worked in several big change programmes and they have all been a confusing confection of many individual projects and activities working towards delivering some kind of bigger organisational transformation. In this situation it’s tempting to communicate about the individual projects and give a running commentary about what they are up to and the progress they are making.
This is the wrong way to communicate about change in organisations because colleagues will only engage with information about things that specifically impact on them and their day job. Abstract and distant explanations of what this and that project is up to won’t satisfy that need and help them to join up the different bits of change that are being delivered by a multitude of projects. They need the picture of the finished product and how they will fit into that to be able to really understand and buy into the assembly process.
The way around this is to communicate about themes not projects and use these themes as the contexts for the projects delivering change outcomes. In the past I’ve used themes such as people, processes, technology, offices and customers to join up change projects and explain what the final picture will look like to colleagues and how they and their jobs fit into that.
To join up the themes successfully to explain the bigger picture, you also need something else which knits them together to create a whole. However, before you do that you should make sure you address another potential barrier to understanding change inside the organisation……time travel.
Past, Present, Future
The point of reference for different groups of people in organisations can be very different. These reference points are the things that define them, shape their experience of work, perspectives and attitudes. Unfortunately, this often gets overlooked by organisations when they communicate about change and you need to be aware of this barrier to understanding if you are to overcome it.
Employees’ perspectives are heavily shaped and influenced by the past. It is their only certain point of reference. For line managers it’s the present that really matters, making sure the team gets the job done and hitting targets. Executives and leaders are way ahead in the future, setting strategy and making plans.
In a change situation it’s this last perspective that often dominates the communication agenda but employees and line managers often don’t speak the language of the future or understand it. This can create confusion when messages using that language are misunderstood. Then out of this confusion, frustration and resentment can develop which obstructs the changes being implemented.
I once worked in a change programme where the leadership were insistent that the communications would be framed in the context of the future and the positive outcomes this offered. In contrast, everything that had happened in the past was referred to negatively and was considered to have been bad for the organisation. With employees perspectives firmly rooted in the past this created resentment as they perceived this as meaning they had been doing a bad job. Of course they hadn’t, and there were lots of good things about the organisational past that needed to be translated into the future.
To successfully translate the past into the future the change communication and leadership approach should be more like a ‘Roman occupation’ than a ‘Norman conquest’. A conquest usually results in the creation of a resistance movement which will eventually topple the new regime. The Roman approach is one of assimilation and blending of the old and new which endures long after the occupation has ended.
Minding your language when communicating about change inside organisations is essential for creating acceptance and understanding. Remember, words are weapons when used in the wrong way. So how, as a communicator, do you achieve time travel and use the right language to assimilate the past, present and future for your audience. That’s simple, tell a story.
What’s the story?
As far as we know, human beings are the only living things on this planet to tell stories to communicate information. It’s something which makes us unique and our brains are wired up to create and interpret stories.
Storytelling has been around since prehistoric times. On one of my frequent visits to South Africa I saw evidence of this when I visited caves in the Drakensberg Mountains which contained rock art. Apparently, these paintings are some of the earliest examples of aids to human storytelling and the oral tradition of sharing information.
As stories are such a powerful communication tool, that appeals to one of our most fundamental human characteristics, don’t overlook them when communicating about organisational change.
Create and repeatedly tell a ‘change story’ which links together the organisations past, present and future within the contexts of the change themes I mentioned earlier. I’ve successfully used this approach to develop a core change narrative for organisations and then provided opportunities for people in the organisation to enhance and embellish this with their own stories to really bring it to life.
Done well, storytelling can be a really powerful human way of delivering information about change. It can aid peoples understanding of where the organisation is ultimately heading, what is happening and why and where they fit in.
I think that sometimes in an organisational context people over complicate creating a story to communicate about change and other matters. It’s not such a tricky thing to do. It’s really just about observing some basic principles of story construction and I recently spotted this excellent blog from Saskia Jones, via H&H Agency, which explains how to create great organisational change stories using the principles of children’s fiction.
Happy ever after….