When a client had just completed a merger, they were shooting for the top spot in the market. While the physical aspects of the merger, such as housing and IT, went well, the cultural merger was dragging behind. The company struggled to overhaul work procedures and create a general work philosophy across all units. As a result, performance and morale were fading, and client satisfaction dropped.
Every business I’ve ever worked with had a ’communication issue’, according to people we interviewed at the start of a project. Blaming communication is a different way of describing that there is a lack of change leadership, and no change management system in place.
Organizations regularly cause significant damage by neglecting the need for such systems. There are various change management models, such as Kübler-Ross, Adkar, or McKinsey’s 7S.. I won’t discuss these models here, and instead focus on what they have in common: the importance of communication.
There Is No One-Size Fits All Approach for Communication
Every organization is different and needs a dovetailed communication approach based on an organization’s general culture, its current mood, expectations, and experience.
There are some implications around culture depending on the type of organization you are leading. Imagine the different approaches, for example, regarding risk-taking or change readiness, when comparing a traditional, risk-averse ’old economy’ company and a venture capital-backed, hyper-growth startup.
As opposed to the general culture, the current mood of an organization characterizes how people within an organization feel at a certain moment in time. While a company can have a certain culture, for example hierarchical with centralized decision making and slow to adopt change, its current mood can be very different. Mood may be triggered by external factors, or a sudden awareness that their business stands in flames. Panic and fear as well as hopes and desires, have the power to influence an organization’s mood strongly.
As a result, with a proper communication approach, leaders might be able to push for a level of change that would seem impossible in regular times. These inflection points present great opportunities or threats and require a swift answer, like an unexpected change in an industry’s regulatory environment.
Expectations and experience of an organization about strategy and change should inform your communication approach as well. Analyze what types of communication worked well in the past, and why; you can build on these experiences. Also, there might be communication you should avoid to prevent overwhelming your people.
Are people expecting leadership to just lead, and they will follow, because they fully trust in their capabilities? Or do they want to have a say and take an active part in shaping identity? How can we engage them early on? How much communication, about what topics, will the organization expect, and need?
Communication Goes Both Ways – Establish a Dialog
Organizations are usually not democracies. Leadership decides, management executes – but making organizational identity a one-way road, a purely top-down led approach is certainly not helpful. Engage your organization early on, in meaningful two-way conversations about strategy, impact, and values. Listen to what people want to contribute and let them take an active role in workshops, focus groups, and surveys. Foster a participatory approach.
It might slow down the design process in the beginning: more opinions, more problems. But once you’ve worked through the cacophony, a new organizational identity will stand on a broad and stable basis, as opposed to having created it in a smaller team, start to end – if you do that don’t expect people to love what they see when you present the final product.
Try to over-communicate (even if it’s not possible)
Engage your people early, communicate, and listen. This will make your life way easier when you start rolling out a new identity. Ultimately, people are more likely to support a world that they co-create.
For the client I mentioned at the beginning of this article, a true test came when the leadership announced they would shut down a site, consolidating operations into one hub. Leadership expected that morale and productivity would plummet, when the opposite happened: employees showed understanding of the decision.
They had internalized the company strategy through relentless communication. An unexpectedly high number of employees from the closing site applied for other jobs in the new hub, even if this meant moving halfway across the country. Trying to over-communicate helped leadership reach their people and bring them along the journey of strategic change.
Main Image by Bamagal