Monday 23 October 2017

Early stakeholder buy-in critical to making changes

If you have a question for 'The Communicator' please send an email to Gina in care of sundaybusiness@independent.ie and she'll try to answer it in an upcoming column. (Stock image)
If you have a question for 'The Communicator' please send an email to Gina in care of sundaybusiness@independent.ie and she'll try to answer it in an upcoming column. (Stock image)

Gina London

One of the best of Gary Larson's iconic Far Side cartoons features a man talking to a dog. In the first panel, the man says, "Okay, Ginger, I've had it! Stay out of the garbage! Understand, Ginger? Stay out of the garbage or else!" The next panel reveals what the dog heard, "Blah, blah, Ginger, blah, blah, blah, Ginger, blah, blah."

Like Ginger, many of us have selective hearing when our boss tells us something, especially if that something has to do with "change".

We hear the word "change" pretty much as "more work" and the words, "organisational change" then, as "more work plus uncertainty". Not a great place to start - that's why you need a great communications plan for whatever change you've got planned.

I was recently interviewed on camera as a communications expert for an interactive university text book on human resource management.

Here's how I explained to students the importance of a putting an input-gathering communications and messaging plan in place before any organisational change is announced or implemented.

1 The communications plan is the foundation of any change

If the foundation isn't laid properly, the whole change campaign will collapse. This results in extra, unplanned and not-budgeted time and resources that will have to be dumped into the change project to try to rebuild the foundation.

The change outcomes will likely never be as strong as they could have been if the plan had been executed right the first time. And yet, communications strategies are too often overlooked. Executives may think successful change rests on the simple merits of the change itself. (This is not the time to mention Irish Water, is it?)

But that's wrong. Remember Ginger? Information alone is not enough to convince and persuade employees that the change is in their best interest.

2 The number one thing to allocate is the proper time

Your "transformation lag", as some businesses call it, is at least an 18-month process before the official announcement.

The trouble occurs when the change announcement is made first and then the buy-in is attempted. Successful change happens in the opposite order.

3 Developing the proper messages around your change idea is critical

This should never be done in a vacuum. The person or small confidential team that develops the change idea - must spend time writing out the benefits and positive reasons behind this effort - and prepare for every possible objection and then craft positive responses to them.

But that's not enough. Those messages must be tested.

4 Identifying stakeholders - in tiers -requires delicacy and protocol

You're essentially building a political outreach campaign. What's the number that you need to win? It's different than elections, you're going to strive for more than 51pc for your victory. You want to get as many people on board before you make the official announcement. This all must be done in the proper order. Think of concentric circles. Protocol is key here. You must be careful not to offend anyone in this process.

Your first tier of stakeholders is the 'Influencers'. As the name implies, they have to have a lot of clout and influence among the next-tier stakeholder groups.

Depending on the type of change - you can also consider influencers who are 'third-party advocates'. Here, think of a major vendor or client or board member who may not be part of your organisation but who is respected, well-known and influential anyway.

Test your messages with this group and gather intelligence and responses from them. Incorporate their feedback.

5 Stakeholder fan-out

Next come the other tiers as dictated by their levels of influence and respect, size, etc. You're doing all this in the 'message testing' phase and while you're doing that, you're gathering their input, showing them you value them, and re-calibrating your message if you need to. And you're getting all important buy-in before you announce the change.

The goal here is that by the time you roll out whatever your change is, you have a critical mass of stakeholder buy-in. If you have vetted your message benefits and objections properly, you will have success.

6 Campaign roll-out rewards

Your change campaign doesn't end there - you can't make the announcement and walk away. You should also have a calendar of milestone small reward moments built in. Create incentives to encourage implementation. This is the test drive area.

7 Over time, you can institutionalise the change

Be ready with the framework for writing the change into manuals, handbooks, whatever. This comes after success in the previous steps.

For change communications to be successful, you must devise a two-way street. Getting stakeholder buy-in on message and benefits early, before announcement and implementation may seem like a lot of work, but it will dramatically increase your rate of success and that saves time and money!

How do you feel about public speaking? If you have a question for 'The Communicator' please send an email to Gina in care of sundaybusiness@independent.ie and she'll try to answer it in an upcoming column. Gina London is a former CNN anchor and international campaign strategist who is now a director with Fuzion Communications. She serves as media commentator, emcee and corporate consultant. @TheGinaLondon

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