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Lost in Translation

How Communication Mishaps Derail Organisational Change

Organisational change is no small matter. It’s like building a giant Lego structure, with countless 'bricks' in play—business units, departments, functions, processes, and, most crucially, people.

Each staff member brings their unique priorities and perspectives, making effective change adoption vital. In the world of sustainable organisations, communication is the primary currency. It's the lifeblood of daily operations and becomes even more critical during change initiatives.

Through our experience of delivering and enabling change in partnership with global clients, we’ve discovered many of the common barriers to the effective implementation of long-term change, many of which relate to communication.  

Barrier #1: Communication is directed at the wrong level

For change to take root and thrive within an organisation, it must connect with employees at the right level, in the right place, and at the right time. Simon Sinek, in his book ‘Start with Why’, elaborates on the three layers of the ‘Golden Circle’ framework – ‘why”, ‘how’, and ‘what’.

WHY: signifies the higher-level purpose

HOW: represents the strategy

WHAT: pertains to the actual tactics of change

For a change to ‘land’ and resonate with individuals, they must be able to align their purpose with that of the change, and the organisation.

Regrettably, many organisations often skip the 'why' layer, jumping directly into strategy and tactics—the 'doing.' While both are crucial, they need to operate within the broader context of the change's intended outcomes. Focusing on tactics might fuel action for a year, and strategy for three, but aligning with purpose positions the organisation for lasting and sustainable change and evolution.

Barrier #2: Communication is driven exclusively from the top down

Even if a change initiative, program, or strategic direction seems 'right' on paper, it doesn't guarantee buy-in from the very people who must champion its success— your staff. Many organisations overemphasize the logic, numbers, and rationale behind the change, focusing their energy on pushing this information onto their employees. While reason serves as the basis for justifying change, it falls short in inspiring people to come aboard. What's needed is a deliberate partnership that values the input and perspectives of individuals across the organisation.

This two-way approach, unfortunately lacking in many cases, is estimated to boost change success by 32% according to Gartner.

Barrier #3: A lack of follow-through post-communication

It's evident that change requires effective communication, with the volume and complexity of messages varying depending on the change's scale. Typically, organisations do reasonably well with the initial communication phase of their initiatives or programs. They articulate their intent, rationale, and the scope of the work ahead.

While challenges and resistance are expected, initial messaging usually isn't the problem. What's far more common is that after the initial mobilisation, communication, and engagement between leadership (initiative owners) and the rest of the organisation wane and fizzle out. This breakdown can erode staff and key stakeholder buy-in and commitment. Change isn't just about the change itself, whether it's transforming a Customer Function or optimising an Operating Model. It's also about continuously providing those affected with relevant updates (like a well-executed X / Twitter feed) and a clear channel for raising questions and addressing challenges. In our work, 'follow-through' is a cornerstone of our approach, precisely for this reason. In the realm of organisational change, the adage holds true: 'It's very hard to over-communicate.'

Navigating the communication minefield 

To steer clear of the common communication pitfalls that can derail your organisational change, consider these actionable steps:

A. Embrace the 'Why':
Start by championing the 'why' behind the change. Make it the North Star for your communication strategy. Before delving into the 'how' and 'what,' ensure your teams understand and resonate with the higher-level purpose. This sets the stage for lasting buy-in and alignment.

B. Inclusivity is Key:
Involve employees from all levels of the organization in shaping your communication strategy. Collect their insights, concerns, and ideas to create a comprehensive and engaging narrative. This two-way dialogue can break down silos and increase the likelihood of change success.

C. Establish a Communication Roadmap:
Plan for continuous and relevant communication throughout the change journey. Designate communication checkpoints at various stages, complete with clear messages and channels. This proactive approach will help maintain engagement and address questions as they arise.

D. Celebrate Small Wins:
Acknowledge and celebrate progress and achievements along the way. Recognising small victories can keep motivation high and maintain momentum.

Remember, in the realm of organisational change, over-communication is often the key to success. Clear, purpose-driven, and inclusive communication can turn potential barriers into catalysts for positive transformation.

Veriteer, the Change Agency, has experience in the design and implementation of transformative change initiatives, including optimised operating models for global brands. Our partnership approach is based on bringing our customers on the journey with us, underpinned by simple and straightforward communication with all stakeholders.

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Author: Oisín Lenehan
Expertise:  Customer Strategy, Operating model design, Customer-led growth
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