The Seven Constants of Internal Change Communications
Warren Buffett, quoting Mark Twain, once said, "History doesn't repeat itself, but it does rhyme." Similarly, throughout the relatively short history of internal communications, there are certain recurring motifs and patterns common to those strategies that are most effective -- particularly when an organization is undergoing an important transition or change. This is something all too common in these days of market volatility, economic uncertainty and increased competition.
For most companies, transition can take many forms. For example, this can include being taken public, a merger or acquisition, a sell-off, or a consolidation. A large, fragmented conglomerate may be striving to build a unified company brand. Another company may have taken the initiative to fundamentally alter their entire business strategy, creating doubt and uncertainty in the minds of their employees. Or the challenge could take the shape of regulatory reform in their respective industry, redefining the way in which consumers approach their product.
Whatever the scenario, it's more vital than ever that everyone in the organization be engaged, informed and motivated when change comes knocking. This is the audience you have to win over; thanks to evolution of a knowledge-based economy, employees have become a sophisticated, educated, aware group of people.
Regardless of client, industry or tactical trigger, the process of readying leadership and employees for radical change can go a lot smoother if strategy is designed and executed around the application of the Seven Constants. Adhering to these simple guides will help companies craft and sustain a successful internal communications programs.
1. Simplicity: Know the Company Soul.
The compass of employee communications must always point toward being simple and straightforward. This usually takes the form of a few keywords that articulate the expectation of the organization in simple, plain language. Invoke the "Rule of Three" to distill this message. Acknowledging that it's difficult to change behavior always informs the first step: to engage the audience with something that is easy to understand and memorable.
2. Context: Know What Drives the Need.
Whether the underlying business challenge is trying to address how to simplify and unify, remind and motivate, or focus and inspire, ensure that this need consistently spurs and directs all messages. It's crucial to reinforce the core ideas over and over again during a program. Discipline and repetition are not the enemies of creativity. They are essential to success.
3. Confidence: Tone Matters.
Positive psychology is as impactful in the workplace as it is in everyday life. It's critical to impart to employees a sense of confidence and trust - reminding them that they should have it and why. Empty motivational messages will fall on deaf ears. Therefore, base inspiring messages on fact, on the true legacy of the company, on examples - especially those that recall and highlight relevant achievements, in order to instill a greater sense of belief and pride.
4. Credibility: The Messenger and the Message Matter.
Who delivers the message is key. Ideally, for maximum credibility, it should be the CEO. However, the messaging, too, must be credible. The effect of aspirational communications will be severely undermined if their objectives seem too lofty. Employees must feel that it's reasonable to expect that what is being asked of them is within the collective capability of the company.
5. Clarity: The Point Matters.
The employee communication plan and related messages must be founded on clear, comprehensible takeaways. "Flavor of the month" variations can damage the consistency of both messaging and the behavior it's intended to inspire. Leadership must accordingly play the long game, be constant and committed to seeing things through over time. This involves laying out goals, continuously reinforcing the message and providing updates on progress.
6. Content: The Truth Matters.
This seems obvious, but it's not. Too often, leaders underestimate their employees' sophistication and their understanding of the "state of affairs" within the company. Therefore, if the message and idea are not true to the spirit of an organization, the communications will not work. This is especially the case if the content itself is not true to its aims and to its audience. Hope is not a communications strategy, nor is selective intelligence, "spinning" a point or excessive marketing. People are too smart, too cynical and too quick to see through something that is not authentic. Directness and candor are the watchwords.
7. Channels: Delivery Matters.
There are many ways to make contact with employees today, and one size doesn't fit all. Select the channels through which they prefer to be engaged, those that are most likely to reach and resonate with them. Helping build and reinforce a message within a culture means knowing the media that will have the most impact.
Today's workforce is intergenerational. If there's any "gap" to be aware of, it's the one related to the use of technology to communicate. While technology is a great enabler of productivity and efficiency, it also enables individuals to avoid having face-to-face interactions, or even a basic phone conversation. One has to wonder why people who sit side-by-side feel more comfortable sending an email or a text message to each other rather than engaging one-to-one with an associate. There are those who would argue that it's the modern version of the Water Cooler; however, the real thing - talk, dialogue, exchange - remains the best catalyst for engagement and understanding.
Internal communications exist in a transparent, global, fast-paced and multi-channel environment. It's an environment where there's no difference between strategy and execution; time compressions and the immediacy of today's communications demand that the two are in sync. It's also an environment where there are precious few secrets. Despite being originally designed as internal, all company communications inevitably find their way onto a larger, external stage, exposed to a wider audience. Accordingly, the mantra "say what you mean and mean what you say" has never been more important.
In this time of constant change, these Seven Constants serve as a reliable reference guide in planning how an organization can literally and figuratively address the future. After all, internal communication has always been about looking forward, addressing both the now and the next. In summary, Peter Drucker may have put it best when he wrote, "The greatest danger in times of turbulence is not the turbulence; it is to act with yesterday's logic."
Moving on: Three Big "Gets" Once You Get Going
1. Get On With It: Acting with a sense of urgency helps, acting with a sense of panic doesn't. It is important to know the difference. Solidify the strategy and begin executing it in a voice that is familiar, that is true to the company. This is often hard due to concerns about legal issues; however, the more human and empathetic the delivery, the quicker the word spreads and is absorbed. This is why the best way to sustain institutional memory is to have the right people deliver the right messages on a one-on-one basis. That way, key influencers and stakeholders are seen to be staying, delivering on and living the mandate being put forward.
2. Get Stronger: Times of turmoil are the perfect time to reallocate resources where they can have the greatest impact. This can't be achieved by simply cutting; you have to invest in what works. Investment can take many forms beyond financial. It can be about setting new priorities, or enabling employees to have a greater say and sense of ownership in the company and their professional development. By showing focus and a level of commitment, you ensure opportunities, momentum and morale are maximized.
3. Get Used To It: Whatever the driver of change, suggesting that it "will take care of itself" or that "it will pass" to allow the resumption of business as usual is not a communications strategy. Acknowledge and embrace complexity and change: they, too, are constants of the business environment now - and they aren't going anywhere. The expectation has to be communicated that adapting to change is part of everyone's job today, and not just company leadership.
Ron Cappello is the founder and CEO of Infinia Group, a brand strategy and design firm based in New York City. He can be contacted at 212-463-5101 and firstname.lastname@example.org.