In a previous “Lessons from the Field” article, we discussed the importance of an effective communication effort when embarking upon an organizational change.  Effective communication engages impacted constituencies and allows them to embrace the new behavior required from the change.  Bottom line – effective communication is a required building block for a successful organization change initiative.

In this paper, we will explore the specifics of developing a communication plan that is customized to your particular change initiative.  From our experience with clients, we believe the work associated with this effort consists of three key activities:

  1. Development of a communication strategy;
  2. Development of a tactical communications plan; and
  3. Implementation and management of the tactical communications plan.

Key Activity #1 - Development of a communication strategy
The first step in an effective communication effort is the development of a change-specific communication strategy.  This strategy defines and documents the key dimensions of a communication effort[1].  The size of the organizational change initiative will drive the length and complexity of the strategy document. We have had client situations where the strategy document was three pages in length and others that were 20 to 25 pages in length.  This shouldn’t be a complicated or onerous activity.

A solid communication strategy will identify the following four dimensions associated with your particular organizational change (see Figure 1): 

  1. Objectives – What do you want to accomplish from your communication effort?  Typical objectives are: increasing constituencies’ level of understanding of the change; engaging constituencies in an active way with the change; and promoting support of the change.  This is an opportunity to explicitly identify what the desired outcomes are from communicating with one or more constituencies.
  2. Approach – The ultimate desired outcome of an effective communication effort is the successful implementation of the organizational change and the adoption of the new behavior within the impacted constituencies.  To accomplish this, we have identified three approach design principles:
    1. Identification of the impacted constituencies;
    2. Increasing the level of awareness and understanding of the organizational change; and
    3. Measuring the effectiveness of the communication efforts.                                                                                                                             Within this section will be a description of the various mechanisms to be deployed during the communication.  Town hall meetings, fact sheets, and intranet presence are examples of how the content will be delivered to the constituencies. 
  3. Constituents – The previously identified objectives will drive the identification of the various constituencies of the organizational change.  Typical constituencies are the executive leadership who are sponsoring the change; the operational and information technology leadership driving the change; the staff of the various organizational units impacted by the change; and external stakeholders, e.g., members, patients, trading partners, and regulatory agencies.  Each constituency may have a unique communication need while also sharing a need with other constituencies. 
  4. Tactical Communications Plan’s Goals – This section of the strategy defines the specific goals by constituency to be accomplished from the communication effort.  While relatively high level, this section melds the output from the previous three dimensions to provide focus around the communications planned and implemented for each constituency.

Development of a communications strategy should be done by a small group of leaders of the organizational change, and then reviewed by the change initiative’s senior leadership sponsor.  While this won’t be a lengthy or time consuming effort, it provides a critical framework for the next step of developing the tactical communications plan.

Key Activity #2 - Development of tactical communications plan

Tactical plan content:

With your communications strategy in hand, development of a tactical communications plan is an easy next task.  The tactical communications plan will provide the specific communication events to occur moving forward.  Our preference is to utilize an Excel-based workbook to document, communicate and monitor our plan.  As such, our tactical communications plans contain the following elements (see Figure 2):

The communication goals utilized in the tactical plan are the same ones identified in the communications strategy.  Typical communication goals are:

  1. Inform and engage;
  2. Provide project status; and
  3. Celebrate progress.

The message represents the content or essence that is to be shared with the receiving constituency. The question you need to ask is ‘What do we want to share with our constituency?’.  For example, under the goal ‘provide project status’, the message would include information around the project’s progress against a deliverable milestone schedule.  We expected to be at this point in the project, and here is the status of the project team.  For the ‘provide project status’ goal, it is a means of sharing with key stakeholders how the project is proceeding and accomplishing interim deliverables to achieve its overall objectives.

One of our clients, a national health insurer, initiated a redesign of their operations with the goals of improving the experience of members and providers, increasing compliance with regulatory requirements and reducing annual operating costs.  This redesign initiative impacted over 500 employees and thousands of members and providers whose experience with the organization would dramatically change.  This type of redesign required active, engaged and committed employees at all levels of the organization to achieve their goals.  Most of their messages focused on the critical and important role that each audience played in the redesign and continually reminded them of what the organization needed from them.

A second client, a regional group of hospitals, embarked upon a standardization of the way in which quality monitoring and reporting was conducted across the group.  The standardization effort was driven by a desire to increase consistency, reduce staffing levels and ensure regulatory compliance.  The standardization portion of this effort was easy in comparison to changing the behavior of both medical center staff and the physicians who practiced in their facilities.  The messaging associated with this project focused on continually reinforcing the importance of their behavior change to accomplish the goals – it was very persuasive in focus.

In both of these client examples, effective communication was a foundational element to the organizations in embracing the significant changes resulting from the projects.  Both clients were successful at completing their projects to achieve their goals, and effective communications was a lynchpin in their organizational change management initiative.

Audience refers to the constituency or stakeholder receiving the message; again, these are identified during the development of the communications strategy, with whom you want to share information.  To whom (typically a group of individuals) do you wish to share information?  Clearly, you may have a similar message that you will want to modify for different audiences.

Given the size and physical distribution of staff and external stakeholders, it is important to utilize a variety of delivery mechanisms.  The message and audience should guide the delivery mechanism, i.e.: organization’s intranet; a webcast; a face-to-face town hall; department staff meetings; e-mails; etc. that will be used to disseminate the information.  Keep in mind that not all individuals respond the same way to a particular delivery mechanism.   So, it is important to have a mix of delivery mechanisms, which should increase the effectiveness of your communication.

One of our Federal government clients created, developed and disseminated an e-mail based newsletter that had a wide distribution list.  We helped them identify and prepare recurring sections (team member changes, accomplishments, kudos from various constituencies and call to action) to a newsletter that was distributed every other week.  The client was very aggressive in terms of expanding the distribution list and received very positive feedback and recognition from the various constituencies in terms of the value of the newsletter.  This client also developed a frequently asked questions document that was housed on the organization’s intranet site and referenced regularly in the e-mail newsletter.  Our client selected an e-mail based newsletter as one of its delivery mechanisms because of the large number of stakeholders and the broad geographic distribution of them.

The regional hospital system we previously referenced adopted a one-page “fact sheet” that was distributed via e-mail, but could easily be printed and placed on bulletin boards throughout each hospital facility.  The “fact sheet” was published monthly and contained the following 4 sections: project goals, progress report (where are we?), engagement ask (how can the reader help?), and who can I contact for more information.  Given the number of hospitals and departments within each hospital that were impacted by the change initiative, the “fact sheet” could be easily and quickly disseminated to key constituencies who could then print and post it in a public location, or forward the e-mail to other constituencies.

As we know, communication requires at least two parties; so the messenger is the individual(s) who will be presenting the information or communication message, whether it is via a blog, an e-mail or a town hall setting.  It is important to have a variety of individuals being the messenger in the tactical communications plan.  One reason is to ensure you can tailor a specific audience’s communication to the individual(s) to whom they are more likely to respond.  For example, the staff of a particular function is more likely to respond favorably to their middle or senior leader than that of another function within the organization.  The second reason to have multiple individuals as the messenger is how it demonstrates the breadth of sponsorship and commitment of leadership within the organization.

As most of us know, effective communication is dependent upon multiple opportunities to share an idea or message.  Therefore, frequency refers to how often the communication will be disseminated.  For example, returning to the previous goal example of ‘provide project status’, this is not a ‘one and done’ need, but rather something that you would want to periodically communicate.  Establishing a set calendar-based frequency at the beginning of the project ensures that communication is an ongoing part of your project’s lifecycle.

To operationalize the stated frequency, identify the specific target delivery date of each communication.  For example, if the frequency stated the ‘first Friday of the month’, create a communication activity on the tactical plan for each ‘first Friday of the month’ for the life of the project and identify the specific date.  This will ensure you fulfill the commitment you made to the audience as well as provide you a better sense of when specific communication-based workload needs to be accomplished.

The final element of a tactical communications plan is status, which allows you to continually monitor completion of the communication activities that are identified in the plan.  It is important to track progress to ensure the implementation portion of your communications planning process is accomplished.  Recognize that missing a single communication activity or a delivery date of a communication is not a reason for concern; however, if you get into a pattern of significant deviation from plan, the project’s leadership should be engaged to resolve the gap.  The chief complaint of audiences who were promised periodic communication is that ‘it starts out strong, and then diminishes as the project progresses’.  It is easy to become so focused on the project’s delivery aspects that ensuring effective communication becomes a lower priority.

Tactical plan format:

As mentioned in the previous section, we used an Excel-based workbook to document our clients’ tactical communication plans (see Figure 3).  Each of the elements previously discussed is a column heading in the Excel-based workbook and include as many rows of individual communication events as needed.  Within each goal and audience, there are a number of combinations developed with the delivery mechanism, messenger and frequency elements.  Specificity was reinforced with the target delivery date for each communication event.

Developing the tactical communication plan within an Excel workbook allowed us to easily and quickly present three different views, by using a different worksheet tab for each view.  Typically we create three views or worksheet tabs: plan by goal, plan by audience and plan by date.  The same content was represented in each view or tab, but we filtered on the three key elements that are used to manage communications – goal, audience and date.

Our original tactical communications plan was developed for a three-month time period, because our experience has shown there are some common communication needs around three-month increments.  At the end of each month, we update the tactical plan and add a ‘new’ third month to it – to create a rolling three-month plan.

Key Activity #3 - Implementation of tactical communications plan

The development of the communications plan is the first step in the journey to keep all constituencies informed regarding the change initiative.   Our experience with a range of communications efforts in a variety of client organizations has informed us of a number of lessons learned.

First, as was previously mentioned, it is important that the organization and project team (including leadership) remain committed to effective communication throughout the lifecycle of the project.  The development of a tactical communications plan and the initiation of the events identified within the plan represent a promise to all of the constituencies to be impacted by the change.  As such, once you embark upon implementing the plan, you must stick with it, as challenging as it may be as the project progresses to a conclusion.  Making a commitment to regularly communicate will help in getting and keeping the constituencies engaged in the project and change.  Not fulfilling this promise will quickly breed uncertainty, fear and disengagement within the constituencies.

Second, it is important to develop a means for evaluating the effectiveness of your communications plan.  We can never forget that effective communications requires two parties (the giver and receiver of information) to align on the same message.  Periodically survey your various constituencies to ensure that the message you are communicating to them is being understood the way you want.  To affect change and human behavior, we must make sure that the message is not just ‘heard’ but ‘understood’.  The question to be addressed is: Did the constituent hear and understand the message AND adopt the desired behavior change to achieve the change initiative’s goals?

At this point of the evaluation, you will want to take this opportunity to assess the delivery mechanism and frequency elements of your tactical communications plan.  Ask yourself, ‘Are we using the correct delivery mechanisms and is the frequency at the level to keep constituencies informed and engaged, but not overwhelmed?’

Third, while we have assisted a number of clients in the area of communications, if your organization has a robust communications capability internally, engage them – they are experts on this.  If you need assistance from a consulting company, leverage them to setup your communications framework and develop content that may be unique to the project.

* * * * *

Whether it is a personal or professional setting, all of us appreciate being ‘kept in the loop’.  An effective communications strategy and tactical plan represent the tools to allow this to happen with an organizational change initiative.  Regardless of the complexity and size of the change initiative, a communication effort must be implemented to increase the success of the change.  We believe that our experience demonstrates that a commitment to a simple straightforward communication approach is doable for most project teams.

[1] This communications strategy and subsequent tactical plan do not address any internal project team communication needs, which would be represented in the overall project work plan.