The Four Cs of Change Management Communications

Focus on Fundamentals to Ensure Success

Once upon a time…

The employees at Vandelay Industries are settling in on Monday morning, looking busy, when an email from the CEO lands in email boxes.

“Great news – today Vandelay Industries is launching a new product that will revolutionize the import AND export of quality latex materials. To seize this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, Team Vandelay must rally together to transform operations from top to bottom. A new state-of-the art tech system will help us be more efficient than ever before. It will be hard work – lots of late nights and weekends – but worth it in the end!”

Employees are excited by all the changes coming their way.  They erupt in spontaneous applause, and there’s dancing in the cubicles.

Unfortunately, that’s where the fairy tale ends (or sitcom, as the case may be).  In fact, the employees have a lot of concerns and questions such as:

  • Will my department be less important as we focus on the new product?
  • That’s great about shareholder value – but do I still have a job?
  • If so, will I have the same boss, co-workers and duties?
  • I’ve spent years learning the procedures in the current tech system.  I don’t want to learn a new one.
  • Doesn’t “becoming more efficient” just mean “layoffs are coming?”
  • About those long nights and weekends – what exactly do you mean by, “worth it in the end?”

In other words, Vandelay’s CEO has a compelling vision – but needs to think through a change management communications strategy.  As a certain Italian realist once noted, “…there is nothing more difficult and dangerous, or more doubtful of success, than an attempt to introduce a new order of things.”

Recognizing the challenges, change management has emerged as a structured process. Many large companies have a change management department that supports a variety of initiatives of all sizes. Change management professionals tend to have strong strategic and project management skills, but often seek help in planning executing communications plans critical to achieving goals.

Despite this focused approach, change remains “doubtful of success.”  Poor communications are often cited as a primary reason for the failure of acquisitions – a major change management issue. A recent study found that barely one-fourth of change management efforts succeed in achieving long-term goals.  A separate McKinsey study confirms that, noting that 70 percent of change efforts fail.

Follow these best practices – the 4Cs of change management – to increase your odds of success by ensuring your communications are:

  1. Credible. Rumors, gossip and innuendo are inevitable at times of significant change – but it’s a problem you can manage. The antidote: open communication with timely, accurate updates. Credibility starts by acknowledging the tough questions you know employees have about potential layoffs, changes to reporting structures and time commitments they will make to training and other essentials. You may not have all the answers right away, so let employees know you will share answers as soon as decisions are made. Don’t over-promise, or sugar coat the potential that bad news might be coming.
  2. Coordinated. While the tone must be set at the C level, employees need to hear the details directly from the person who matters most to them day in and day out – their immediate supervisor. Information must flow, or cascade, through the management ranks all the way to frontline employees. To get information to the front line, large companies typically have developed an effective cascade system. That’s an important asset providing clear, well-defined pathways for sharing information from the C-suite to middle management and beyond. It’s a great big game of “telephone” – and simple, direct talking points are critical for ensuring the messages don’t get distorted as they pass through many levels of management. Cascading promotes face-to-face communication, whether through small meetings, conference calls  or one-to-one. Emails, newsletters, bulletin boards and others can be important supplements, but they cannot replace hearing important news from a direct supervisor. Listening is an important element in a well-coordinated campaign. Provide managers, employees and others easy ways to share feedback – surveys, online tools –  to help identify gaps and problem areas.
  3. Consistent. Large-scale change initiatives are a work in progress. While there is often a lot of energy and buzz around the initial announcement, it’s important to sustain interest as project teams get to work on the details of how to make it work. The project team may include several dozen – or several hundred – individuals who are reassigned from regular duties to focus on the change initiative. Their work continues for anywhere from six months to several years, depending on the nature and scope of the project. The project team is typically led by C-level executive and a steering committee comprised of senior leadership. As a part of the change management team, communicators must find ways to establish and maintain a steady flow of information about how the project is progressing – but without distracting from the ongoing work of the business.
  4. Celebratory. As part of the cadence, there will be natural milestones for celebrating the progress towards the project’s goals. Keep in mind, however, that most employees are continuing to do their regular jobs and run the business – and often taking on additional work for their colleagues assigned to the project team. So cheer them on, celebrating a successful product launch or other initiative that might seem routine under less daunting circumstances.

By following these fundamentals, your company can engage employees to achieve the full potential of large-scale organizational change. I’m interested in your insights on successful change management and internal communications strategies –  just make sure they start with a C!


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