change

3 tools and an essential skill to help managers communicate better

Three tools and an essential skill for manager communication

Organisations ask a lot of their operational and line managers. The day-to-day administration of a team while also focusing on delivering business results can be overwhelming for even experienced operational managers. Functional areas such as finance, human resources, property and procurement regularly decentralise activities to people leaders or provide self-service options that also shifts the action to the manager.  

It becomes apparent why managers can struggle in their communication efforts. An employee’s immediate manager has a significant impact on their experience of the organisation they work for. Across a range of communication audits and studies, ‘immediate manager’ is cited as a preferred source of information, and yet the performance of managers is also cited as a challenge.

It’s no surprise then that so many engagement or communication surveys show that manager communication is not meeting employee needs or expectations. Meanwhile, in research across a wide variety of industries and organisations, line managers in organisations have a consistent request:

Make it simpler for me.

Three tools and an essential skill

There are three simple tools that people managers can adopt that will add to their communication competence and increase their effectiveness in communicating with not only their teams but other parts of their organisation and their stakeholders.

“For us this means…”

Being able to complete a very specific sentence is an important capability for line managers in any organisation. That sentence starts with “For us, this means…”

Organisations are complex. It’s almost a cliche to state that, but it remains an unavoidable truism as the nature of work continues to shift and organisations continue to try and deliver their outcomes in perpetually changing circumstances.

The days of control and command where a manager could know everything that was important to their team are gone.

Given this fact, the role of the manager shifts from being the keeper of knowledge to the provider of context. Providing managers with enough information, giving them time to digest and internalise change, and equipping them to translate priorities for their business area equips them to fulfil their role as a credible source for the team and empowers them to do it in an authentic way.

“For us this means…” is the bridge between the universal messages being driven by the CEO or Executive team, or a corporate communication function, and delivering consistent yet relevant information to the parts of the organisation where change actually occurs.

“Elbows out”

Think about how we usually experience the people we work with. We see them at their most normal as they talk to us day to day about their work or their weekend. We see their natural body language. Regardless of whether they are extroverts, introverts or somewhere in between, we can observe their authentic style.

Now think about what usually happens for managers when there is a substantial change they are required to support. They are provided dot points, speaking notes, briefing packs or a script from the project or human resources or a change team. And then they are asked to deliver those messages. For some, this takes the form of holding the script, and ‘seizing up’ as they are constrained in their communication style. What we see is they suddenly become “elbows-in” communicators as they clutch the script in front of them and lose their natural style.

Investing in managers’ communication competence to enable them to be “elbows out” communicators, comfortable to deliver the essence of a message while not being restricted to a script that forces them to sound inauthentic delivers results in terms of credibility and equips them to be the trusted source that their employees and team members want them to be.

Think before you speak

Managers face time pressures and unfortunately too often this translates into a lack of preparation for communication. Planning communication does not need to be difficult or time-consuming. Five simple questions can help a manager prepare for any kind of communication activity. It might be the one to one meeting they are having with a team member, or it might be the monthly all-hands meeting; asking themselves the following five questions to prepare can help them hit the mark on their message and most importantly, focus on the outcome of the communication.

What is the context of this communication: what is going on here, what has already happened,  and how does that affect what I want to happen?

What outcome am I hoping for and what will that look like?

What message does that individual, team, partner, customer, or stakeholder need in order to move them towards that outcome?

Given the context, the message and the desired outcome, what is the most effective method for this communication? Is this something that needs to be communicated face-to-face?

What is required to support this communication activity to ensure the outcomes are achieved? This might be selecting the right place and time, determining what additional information is required, involving others in creating the communication or ensuring there is a feedback process.

It is no coincidence that those considerations form the abbreviation COMMS:

  • Context
  • Outcome
  • Message
  • Method
  • Support

(More information on applying the COMMS planning approach is available freely under a Creative Commons license.)

While simple on the surface, applying these three skills consistently can transform the quality of manager communication.

Listening is the special sauce that brings it all together

Binding these three skills together is a manager’s ability to listen deeply. This includes listening to what the organisation requires them to achieve, as well as listening to what their team needs in order to deliver.

At a time when organisations continue to struggle to engage employees, equipping managers to be effective communicators has a direct benefit and is far from a ‘soft skill’. Investing in developing manager capability in these four areas provides an advantage in terms of reputation, risk, productivity and engagement.

No such thing as BAU: how can internal communication professionals manage in changing times?

Earlier this year I was working with a Head of Communications in a government agency that has undergone significant structural transformation and operational change over the past two years.

She was working on deepening the engagement between leaders and employees in different areas and had asked for some advice on how to ensure communication was flowing two ways. I asked, “What business as usual channels do you rely on today?”

“We don’t use the term BAU any longer. Transformation is going to continue. Change is business as usual and we now adopt a continuous improvement approach” she said.

It was a moment of absolute clarity for me. How many of us think of ‘BAU’ communication as distinct from the projects and initiatives that come through the door, or into the inbox.

BAU is dead. What now?

As part of the IC Kollectif IC In 2017 Project, I had some thoughts at the start of the year about how communicators can work with other areas to learn, innovate and adapt. But this realisation, half way through the year, made me consider what communicators can do in times of perpetual change, not just to service their organisations, but to ready themselves for ‘no more BAU’.

Read my full response on the IC Kollectif IC In 2017 Project.

  • Strength in shared practices. Continue to talk about what works, not just with other communicators, but across disciplines. Ask the questions like “why did this work in this environment?” But don’t just ask communicators. Ask marketers, change managers, leaders and innovators.
  • Invest in development. Don’t wait for your company to value you. Skill up, both communication skills and non-traditional skills: design thinking, user experience and business acumen.
  • Change what you can. Look for the opportunities to add the value that our profession can deliver. Be brave.  
  • “It’s not me, it’s you.” Know when to stop pushing the rock uphill. There are amazing organisations that foster and grow innovation. If yours is not one of them, find one that is.
  • Keep the faith. As a communicator, a great day at the office or in the field is a humbling thing. Bank those experiences as a reminder of why great internal communication matters.

 

 

What does a great day in the office or the field look like?

When did your communication activity lead to an outcome that furthered the organisation, the employees and the leaders? Creating connection, improving performance, perhaps just a moment of insight quoted back to you. Share what your ‘great day in the office’ looks like below.

A Time Of Transition

When the Kotter change model creates a disconnect for mid-size change

Applying the Kotter eight-step model indiscriminately to project-level initiatives and operational change leads to challenges.

Generating a ‘sense of urgency’ for mid-level changes creates unnecessary competition for share of mind.

In a typical large organisation undergoing transformation, there are likely to be dozens of project-level initiatives and concurrent operational change.

The paradox of change urgency (1)There is a paradox. Urgency at an organisational, strategic level provides momentum for the projects and initiatives that are necessary at the deeper levels of the structure. However, at an operational level, the sense of urgency translates into confusion and an inability to absorb the change impacts.

The underlying need for change at the project or operational level needs to be rolled up to the overall strategic imperative. Creating urgency around the detail of the change creates noise. This manifests itself as an increased request for project branding, change-specific communication channels.

Solutions include:

  • Ensure that the narrative of urgency remains at the enterprise level
  • ‘Bundle’ change impacts across programs
  • Implement at an operational or individual level as rapidly as possible based on the capacity for change

Institute change by designing for action

Consider the broader world beyond organisational life. As citizens and consumers, we conduct all kinds of complex behaviours and transactions ‘online’. The online environment changes constantly. Yet there is no change management plan for ‘the internet.’ Methodologies such at UX and User-Centered Design ensure that (successful) apps or sites or technologies are intuitive and based on making action easy to complete.

These disciplines do not apply only to online and technological change. The ability to design the ‘pointy end’ of change within organisations in a way that enables action at the right time without requiring substantial training or commitment becomes an opportunity for making continual concurrent change something that is easy to digest.

As Bill Quirke writes in Making the Connections, “Organisations are short changing themselves by not seeing communication through to the end – converting awareness into action. The real value of internal communication is to help business ends by enabling employees to turn strategy into action” (Quirke, 2008).

This is an excerpt from my chapter Kotter in context: is the classic change model damaging your mid-size change? in A Communicator’s Guide to Successful Change Management, edited by Craig Pearce.

3 Keys to managing multiple change projects in changing contexts

Why change is complex...

Why change is complex…

Writing in Accelerate/XLR8 (2014), Kotter recognised complexity and the shifts in organisational structure and networks, and the need for agile methods of mobilising people within the organisation.

In practice, change at the project level has three qualities that can complicate the effective management and delivery of benefits or the desired outcomes.

Concurrent – there are seldom single projects underway in an organisation. Depending on the degree of internal organisation and prioritisation, these initiatives may or may not be coordinated.

Continuous – while individual projects come to an end (and ideally deliver their targeted benefits), there are typically a sequence of projects being rolled
out. There is no fixed future state, only a series of iterations. The idea of ‘versions’ of the future state is a powerful metaphor for this: change version X.X.

Compound – change impacts from one initiative have flow-on implications for other initiatives. When delivered top-down, the aggregate compound impact of change can be miscalculated. This can be an overestimation of the ability to absorb change at an individual level, or it can be a failure to calculate capacity for the impacts of accumulated incremental change.

In the most effective organisations there is coordination of impacts across the range of concurrent projects. There is strategic value in effective governance that provides alignment of the intention of transformation with the operational reality of the ‘current state’ organisation.

This is an excerpt from my chapter Kotter in context: is the classic change model damaging your mid-size change? in A Communicator’s Guide to Successful Change Management, edited by Craig Pearce, a free resource packed with user-friendly and functional insights and advice on how communication contributes to effective change management.

This post first appeared on LinkedIn Pulse.

Response to ‘Is it time to bin the idea of “Change Management”?’

Employees are human, and their response to change will be driven by that

Employees are human, and their response to change will be driven by that

One of the ironies of change management is that practitioners have the capacity to be resistant to change in their own field.

In this post from Stefan Norrvall from January 2015, there is an argument that it is time to say goodbye to attempting to manage change.

Many change management tools and frameworks seem to come from a view that all change is a top down imposed thing that has to be “sold” to employees or it needs “buy in” from key stakeholders. This just furthers the notion that stakeholder have little input into the change itself and need convincing or manipulation to get into agreement.

Entrenched positions present a problem for all participants in change. Should organisations try to continue to manage change formally, from the top down? The idea is repugnant to Norrval and the #responsiveorg tribe.

Yet we are still not at the stage in most organisations to take away the systems and structures of change that evolved to ensure a balance between participation and deliberative action toward the change outcomes a change program seeks to achieve.

I agree with much of Norrval’s position – change is designed poorly. In so many organisations, change is imposed rather than co-created. Poor strategy leads to poor change management. 

But in the revolution, we need to accept that whether they are the targets of change, or the architects, or the collaborative participants, employees and other organisational agents are human, and their response to the approach to change will be driven first by that.

  • If the context is not clear, people will resist.
  • If the systems and processes of change do not match the scale and nature of change, people will resist.
  • And large scale change (whether an aggregate of small change, or major impacts such as role, location, identity) does have the ability to trigger the human response to loss.

We as change practitioners need to make it simpler – not overly rely on systems and models. But in an effort to be more human in our approach to change we also need to ensure that in replacing ‘change systems’ we don’t simply fail to consider the degree of change required to make this approach a success.

Source: Is it time to bin the idea of “Change Management”?

Everything Changes: The new role of communicators in navigating complexity

The Government Communications Conference #GCASYD2015 has been an inspiring collection of great practice.

My messages for communicators is simple.

  • Change isn’t as hard as we make out, except when we stuff it up within organisations.
  • As communicators, we have a responsibility to help our audiences, customers and partners to sense-make.
  • It’s about context.
  • Comms people need a broader toolkit and skills base to help sensemake in complexity.

Time for comms to be flexible, agile and adaptable.

The shorter COMMS plan is one tool for managing the complexity of change.

References and additional information

Why the 70% of change fails stat is BS

Jennifer Frahm, Conversations of Change

http://conversationsofchange.com.au/2013/09/02/70-of-change-projects-fail-bollocks1/

How to apply PEST for strategic planning

http://www.mindtools.com/pages/article/newTMC_09.htm

The digital divide – Australian’s not connected to internet and digital services

https://theconversation.com/au/topics/digital-divide

Hacktivism as a force for good – Gov Hack 2015

http://www.govhack.org

TEDxParramatta

http://tedxparramatta.com

Hyundai’s message to space

www.youtube.com/watch?v=3EOAXrTrsOE

The rise of mainstream media directly linking to User Generated Content

http://eyewitnessmediahub.com/research/user-generated-content

What is Bitcoin?

https://bitcoin.org/en/faq

Automated email personalisation

http://www.wired.com/2015/04/write-perfect-email-anyone-creepy-site/

Gartner Hype Cycle Research

http://www.gartner.com/technology/research/hype-cycles/

Gaping Void

http://gapingvoid.com/blog/

Edelman Trust Baromoter

http://www.edelman.com.au/trust/

Austin Kleon, Steal Like and Artist

http://austinkleon.com/steal/

Everything is a remix, by Kirby Ferguson

http://everythingisaremix.info

Roadblock or dead end? Handling setbacks in change communication

A roadblock is a temporary state. A dead end is a point from which one must turn around and go back.

There is a moment in the wonderful Pixar film “A Bug’s Life” which simultaneously parodies the masses of self-help self-talk and provides a very simple mantra for change. A leaf falls into the path of the row of ants who are trying to gather food in time for the bully grasshoppers.

The ants freak out, the trail is broken:
Worker Ant #1: I’m lost! Where’s the line? What do I do?
Worker Ant #2: Help!
Worker Ant #3: We’ll be stuck here forever!
Mr. Soil: Do not panic, do not panic. We are trained professionals. Now, stay calm. We are going around the leaf.

All communication plans – in fact all projects – hit road blocks. There is an art to knowing when a roadblock is a temporary situation that can be addressed, or a true dead end. Even experienced project managers can waste resources – time, money, goodwill and energy by not recognising when a dead end is just that.

How do we recognise a dead end?
The signs are clear – “wrong way, go back”. These signs may be in the language of senior leaders, sponsors or customers. Words like never, can’t, forbid, refuse, may be the verbal equivalent of the dead end, or they may be road blocks, placed in the way because people are yet to understand the change.

“Hang on, doesn’t real change require us to break through and not take ‘no’ for an answer?” I hear you cry. Well, yes and no. Leading, managing and communicating change means that we need to continually search for other ways, and to determine how we go decide when to “go around the leaf” and when to wait for the roadblock to be cleared.

A dead end does not mean that the destination is abandoned. Rather, it means that the route there needs to be different.

A roadblock is a temporary state. #change #meaningbusiness

This post was first published in 2006. It remains totally relevant today!

There is always another way to see things

The colourful dress is a great metaphor for the need to remember that people see the world differently.

The colourful dress is a great metaphor for the need to remember that people see the world differently.

I have known that things aren’t always the way you first see them since I was a child. My rainbow does not look the same as the rainbow that the vast majority of you see. I don’t see the explosion of red when bottlebrush is in season and I am just as likely to be wearing a purple tie thinking it is blue as I am a grey one thinking it is green.

I am colourblind.

For the most part, this colour uncertainty is something curious. The most serious consequences for me included not being able to choose being a pilot, a policeman or an electrical engineer as a career.

During a working bee I once spent half an hour looking for tins of green paint that turned out to be the very same tins of pink paint I had moved aside to commence my search. Other volunteers were dispatched to search for me, and when they arrived, they pointed to the cans that I had placed aside. The look on their face told me they couldn’t understand how I couldn’t see this.

Over the last two days I have found it fascinating to see how people have responded to the #thedress, the phenomenon of the photo of a dress that appears to be different colours depending on the viewer.

Original photo from tumblr user swiked.

What has stood out is the degree that people are ready to become entrenched in their position that the dress either has to be white-gold, or blue-black.

This little internet storm highlights one of the biggest challenges to communication. Everyone who is sure the dress is one colour and not the other (just like the working bee paint rescuer) struggle to accept that there could be another way to see things.

This post from arts and culture site Hyperallergic on the philosophical roots of the reaction to #thedress explores the how these experiences of ‘otherness’ challenge our understanding of the world.

But the gift that I have been given by my other-sightedness is a daily sense that there may be another way. Over the past twenty years, my work as a communicator and change manager is to help leaders, project managers, employees consider that blue might be gold and white might be black.

There is always another way to see something.

It is such a great, simple metaphor for differences in perception. Craig Silverman at Poytner has written a wonderful piece on what the whole episode can teach journalists which I recommend to anyone involved in writing, communicating and change. As Silverman writes:

“The simple truth is our brains process information in ways that can lead us astray. This is something every journalist needs to be aware of and account for in the work we do.”

For the record, I have no opinion either way on the colour of the dress. There are some excellent explainers about the phenomenon from New Scientist and IFLScience.

Change is never a straight line.

Change is never a straight line

Change is never a straight line

This is a helpful mindset whatever the project you may be working on.

When to say no to Kotter-style change leadership

The Kotter model of change leadership is excellent for transformational change, but creates problems for communication in organisations when applied to mid-size change. In this extract from the recent webinar ‘The Art of Communication, the Business of Change‘ I explain why.

Audio courtesy of PRIA.