Much has been written about the why and how of internal communication in the context of change. So I am not going to repeat all of that. However, due to personal experience one aspect really got my attention. Not surprisingly, the more complex the issue to be communicated, the more difficult it gets to get the message across – and the more problems for the success of the initiative can arise when employees simply don’t understand the issue in total. From my personal experience, one of the primary reasons for failure is that change is communicated by the wrong people. It is not that these people are unwilling or not experienced enough but that they are too deeply into the issue and simply don’t know how to explain it in an understandable way.
Let me give you two examples from companies I had worked for or still work for:
- Two large companies, both leaders of their industry, had merged and hence had to give themselves a new joint organisational structure. A bunch of consultants helped to develop this structure and produced a new org chart, accompanied by some more PowerPoint slides. For a global organisation with more than 50.000 employees, lots of products and industries served it was no surprise that this structure was everything but simple. The charts and the slides were presented to the managers at several occasions and those were expected to spread the word within their departments. The problem was that the org chart was a clear candidate for the title of ‘most complex and incomprehensible chart I have ever seen’. And so it was for all the others, even for the managers. How should they explain the new structure to their people? I guess that about 90 % of the whole company did not fully understand the structure in which they were supposed to work in the beginning.
- A company that went through a major crisis had finally developed a new business model. This new model really required the whole organisation to get rid of some of the old common understanding on how business is done and to develop some new thinking. After the whole thing was developed, it was presented to the employees on Metaplan boards during a big gathering. During the following transformation phase it turned out that even some of the managers had not really understood the new way of doing business.
What went wrong?
My personal explanation is that in both cases the new structure / business model was explained to the whole company by those people who had developed it. They were first choice, because nobody knows more about it. And that is actually the problem. These people had spent weeks and months with their baby. For them every single detail is so logic and obvious. On top of that, these people will naturally use the slides and charts they had prepared during this process. But these charts were initially meant for top management – people that had closely followed the whole process and that are used to read such slides.
This whole bundle is than presented to people for whom it is entirely new. These people have very different backgrounds and different levels of knowledge about industry structures, strategy processes and management science. How should they understand a new business model or organisational structure that is presented in such a way at the first sight?
My solution is to explain the new things to be communicated to a few people that were not involved in their development and than have them help to prepare the communication. These should not be the guys from the communications department but somebody who really is affected by the changes and has to make them come alive. Such people will know best which details need more explanation, what additional questions might arise and so on. They speak the language of their colleagues. If they can understand the whole thing, they can also make the communication understandable.