When an organizational change needs to be communicated, your first thought is likely to be: “We’ll email an announcement.” After all, you’d like to quickly convey the news that you’re bringing on a new leader, the organizational structure is shifting or reporting relationships will now be different.
But while it’s essential to share this information, consider this: An organizational announcement is actually the least effective way to communicate.
- For employees who are directly impacted — they may have a new boss or their team’s scope is different — learning about the change through an email raises questions that the announcement can’t answer. That creates anxiety.
- For everyone else, announcements are usually a waste of time. Since these emails emphasize the facts (often in painful detail), they don’t provide context. So employees quickly conclude that the information isn’t relevant and hit the “delete” button.
If announcements aren’t the answer, what is the most effective approach for managing organizational change? A six-step process that ensures you’re designing communication to meet employees’ needs.
I know you’re pressed for time, and six steps seem like a lot of work, but this approach is more efficient than drafting an organizational announcement and enduring nine rounds of edits. (Plus, it’s dramatically more effective.)
1. Segment your employee audience.
Audience segmentation is a time-tested method of dividing people into subgroups so you can tailor communication to meet their needs. It’s based on the premise that one size rarely fits all; any change affects different employees in different ways.
For communicating organizational change, segmentation is essential to ensure that employees are engaged. This technique will help you move from high-level communication — that isn’t relevant to most employees — to information that is specific and helpful. Plus, the more employees are affected, the harder communication will need to work to make change stick. That means you’ll need tactics that encourage interaction, such as team meetings with managers or virtual workshops.
Here’s an example:
- Let’s say your company (we’ll call it Acme) has five divisions: A, B, C, D and E. The decision is made to merge division C and D because they serve the same customer base.
- Your first step is to create one employee segment for divisions C and D because the change has more impact on those people. You create a second segment for the other divisions (A, B and E) because nothing changes for those employees; they just need to be informed.
2. Map the change.
Next, drill down to build a more detailed analysis of employee subgroups, based on how deeply people will be affected. Work with leaders or others who are managing the change to determine impacts.
The most efficient way to do so is to facilitate a whiteboard exercise where you create a table:
- The top row lists types of people (leaders, managers, employees in different groups or roles).
- In the columns below, you capture how they’re affected or what actions they need to take.
At Acme, which is combining divisions C and D, decide whether there are subsegments within the soon-to-be-merged organization. For instance, managers may need to play a big role in changing the way their teams work, so they need special attention. Or employees in one function may have new responsibilities, so they require more intense communication.
3. Ask questions — and find out the answers.
Once you understand who you’re communicating with, determine what employees need to know.
The fastest method? Create an expansive list of questions designed to uncover the details of a change. Work with colleagues to imagine the toughest questions employees will ask and collaborate on responses. You’ll find this process is also a helpful way to identify gaps: details the experts haven’t considered or have yet to figure out.
Let’s go back to Acme and its organizational change. Start by asking questions like these:
- What is changing?
- Why are we changing?
- When are changes taking place?
- Who is impacted?
- Will employees’ responsibilities be affected?
- Will jobs be eliminated as a result?
- Will there be additional changes in the future?
Once you’ve a good list of questions, put them into categories, such as why we’re changing, who’s affected, what employees need to do differently and when change will occur.
4. Draft a key message.
At this point, you’ve got all the information you need to draft an elevator statement, which Business Dictionary defines as a “very concise presentation of an idea covering all of its critical aspects and delivered within a few seconds (the approximate duration of an elevator ride).”
The elevator concept may not be new, but it’s still sound: By reducing your message to its very essence, you ensure that employees will instantly understand what’s changing. You also have the foundation for such elements as headlines, subject lines and digital screen content.
Begin by answering this question: What’s the most important thing employees need to know about the change? As you write the answer, limit your response to 15 to 35 words (or less).
Here’s the elevator statement you draft for Acme:
To deliver better service to our customers, Acme is combining division A and B to create one cohesive organization. We’re announcing the new leadership structure today; over the next three months, we’ll determine other organizational changes.
5. Create content that resonates.
I know you need to share more than just the elevator overview, so complete your messages by using a handy structure called “the inverted pyramid.”
If you don’t know the inverted pyramid, picture one of those iconic Egyptian burial monuments shaped…well, like a pyramid, with a big base and a pointy top. Now imagine that we’re going to take the pyramid and turn it upside down, so the point is on the ground and the base is aimed at the sky.
In journalism, the inverted pyramid has long been used as a way to put the most important information first. The inverted pyramid came into use in the days of the telegraph, when unreliable service meant that if a reporter wanted to make sure she got a story through, she put the most important information at the beginning.
According to Ken Blake, Ph.D., associate professor of journalism at Middle Tennessee State University, “the broad base represents the most newsworthy information…the narrow tip represents the least newsworthy information.”
Using the inverted pyramid helps you in two ways: You have a simple, logical way to organize your content. And employees will quickly get the message without getting lost in the details.
While you’re creating messages, keep employees in mind, referring to your questions and answers to include the most relevant information. And use these tips:
- Streamline messages into simple, bite-size chunks.
- Avoid corporate-speak.
- Be candid and direct.
- Use language that’s accessible. Don’t use terms that only have meaning to some.
- Put change in context by referring to your organization’s goals, strategy or values.
- Articulate how the change affects groups, teams or individuals.
By the way, remember your question-gathering effort? Once your core message is complete, create one more content component: FAQs (Frequently Asked Questions) for leaders and managers to use when discussing the change.
6. Develop your approach.
Now you’re ready to identify communication tactics that will help each group learn about the change and understand what to do.
This is where you step away from conventional thinking (buh-bye, organizational announcement) and use design thinking to decide how to communicate.
Wait, what’s “design thinking”? Jennifer Brandel, CEO of the tech company Hearken, describes it as “a way of understanding the needs of the people you’re building a solution for, and testing that solution with them before creating it.”
For change communication, design thinking means that after you have a full understanding of employees (see #1), you take a blank sheet of paper and design communication that works for them.
As you do so, consider this advice:
- Show, don’t tell. For example, if there’s a change in the organizational structure or reporting relationships, create an org. chart to illustrate and illuminate.
- If you must send an email, make it short and simple.
- Consider workplace communication for non-wired employees — those in the manufacturing plant, store, warehouse or other facility. These folks walk through an entrance, clock in (if they’re hourly), visit the restroom and wait in line in the cafeteria. And while they do so, they could be learning about the change by looking at posters, bulletin boards or electronic signs or screens.
- For employees (and managers) who are most affected by the change, choose communication methods that build knowledge and answer people’s questions. Many organizations hold workshops or Q&A sessions, inviting employees to spend time with leaders or change experts to get all the information employees need.
The result of taking these six steps? You create communication that helps employees understand what’s changing and what it means to them.