Need help guiding employees through change? Imagine hosting a dinner party

Take these four steps when planning change communication efforts.

Handle change like a dinner party

You open your email and see a message from a senior leader in your organization.

The subject line is “Change communication plan.” Here you are again, tasked with writing another communication plan for a large change. As you dive into the work, you wonder, “What can I do differently to make this an easier process?”

Here’s an analogy that will help you break down the assignment: hosting a large, formal dinner party. As the host, the orchestrator of the party, your job is to plan the evening, take on tasks and enlist others to make sure everything runs smoothly.

Put on your host hat, and work through four steps designed to efficiently create and implement a great change communication plan.

1. Get the party started.

Your first step as host is to figure out the team (who will plan logistics, order food, decorate, cook, serve and attend) and get everyone up to speed.

The same is true for change communication. Start with getting people on board and enthusiastic about what’s ahead. Members of the planning team might be fully committed, but other key stakeholders, especially leaders, must understand the change before it is introduced to the entire organization.

To get stakeholders and leaders on the same page:

  • Investigate the change. Ask tough questions of the team leading the change, and conduct preliminary research to explore how the change might affect employees.
  • Articulate the change story. Explain the what, when and how in a clear way to help stakeholders and leaders understand the details.
  • Ensure everyone agrees on the scope. Facilitate working sessions to make sure stakeholders and leaders truly understand the impact of what’s about to occur. Also, give leaders time to internalize the change for themselves and agree on how the change will be communicated.

2. Conduct prep, prep and more prep.

Once you have everyone on board for your upcoming party, it’s time to work out the details: send invitations, plan the menu, and shop, etc. It’s crucial to clarify and plot out the logistics.

Similarly, a great change communication plan will summarize deliverables and logistics. Consider it a playbook for managing the communication process as decisions about the change are made.

Try these approaches to figure out the details of your plan:

  • Segment employees by impact, and set objectives. Define audiences by how they will be affected by the change, then create objectives by audience. This will help you move from communication that is high level (and ignored by most employees) to information that’s specific and helpful.
  • Select existing tactics, and create new ones. Consider tactics that will build awareness (such as posters and email), as well as knowledge-building tools (such as workshops and Q&A sessions). When it comes to change communication, it’s important to encourage dialogue and participation.
  • Define communication roles. When change hits, leaders and managers often avoid tough conversations. Make sure leaders and managers know what is expected of them when it comes to communication, whether it’s translating the change for their employees or answering tough questions.

3. Be ready for showtime.

It’s party day, and it’s time to ramp up your role as you work on delivering the best experience for your guests.

When it’s time to go live with your communication plan, consider the overall experience for employees, too. Your efforts should compassionately drive awareness of the change—and build deep knowledge to inspire new behaviors.

Here are three key elements to ensure you drive awareness beyond simply announcing a change:

  • Make the change tangible. Be specific about what is changing, and help employees envision it.
  • Get the timing right. Give employees enough time to process the change, but not so much time that they ignore your communication: “I don’t have to worry about that. It’s weeks away.”
  • Demonstrate that change is a priority. Leaders signal that a change is important when they reinforce messages in their meetings, emails, podcasts and blogs.

If you want employees to do something differently, you must build deep knowledge. Here’s how to do so:

  • Help leaders and managers fulfill their communication roles. Share why it’s important, and give them the tools they need to be successful.
  • Include interactive experiences. Hold sessions in formats that encourage dialogue and interaction. Encourage leaders to answer questions, and ask employees to brainstorm solutions to potential problems
  • Focus on questions. Talk to employees to generate real and difficult questions. Use those questions to create a robust set of frequently asked questions and answers.

4. Read the room.

Your party is in full swing, but that doesn’t mean the job is done. You’ll want to scan the room to see how everything is going. Does everyone have what he or she needs? More drinks? More appetizers? Are the servers attentive?

Just as a host will often make adjustments based on how the party unfolds, you must gauge the effectiveness of your communication efforts. The truth is: If you don’t measure (or ask) , it’s a challenge to know if communication is working.

To measure change communication:

  • Gather data. Use spot surveys, focus groups and participation data (email open and click rates, intranet hits). Also collect behavior data (such as enrollment in a new plan) to get data about your communication efforts.
  • Share results. Let key stakeholders know how your plan is working. This will position you as an expert and garner support for updates to the communication plan.
  • Adjust your plan. Tweaks can take the form of changing key messages in tactics or changing communication channels altogether.

Now, back to our grand dinner party. The guests had a great time and can’t stop talking about the magical evening. As a communicator, ask yourself: What would it take for employees to say the same thing about their next change experience?

David Pitre is president of Davis & Co.

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