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Effective Change and Adoption Communication
Dr Amelia Mosquera-Pardo Change and Adoption Lead Consultant | October 29, 2020
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“We told them all about the [add your change of choice], why won’t they just use it?”

This could be the catchcry of every single transformation program, uttered by frustrated project and program managers the world over—especially when it comes to technology-related transformation.

The short answer to the question above comes in two parts: First, just ‘telling’ people about the change is not going to ‘make’ them adopt the change. Second, often the ‘telling’ is not done in a way that is appropriate for the audience, so it is ignored.

Let’s address the first part quickly: communication is an essential intervention in managing change and driving adoption, but unless the change is really basic, such as ‘you now need to call this new number to reach support’ just telling people about it won’t get the job done—adoption must be planned and designed.

Now that’s out of the way, let’s deal with the second part, and talk about what constitutes effective communication for change and adoption. Which is nothing new, really—it is, in fact, communication 101—but it is shocking how often the basics are forgotten when communicating change, especially IT-related change.

The first rule—you could even say the only rule—of change and adoption communication, or any kind of communication, really, is know your audience, and tailor your communications accordingly. This rule underpins everything else. Get this wrong, and your campaign will fail.

From this first rule, it follows that you need to understand how your audience is segmented—are there different audiences, with differing needs, pain points, resistance levels, work context, and expectations? If the answer to these questions is ‘yes’—and it almost always is—then you must have different communications for each of those audience segments.

Inclusivity is a consideration that should be at the top of your change and adoption communications agenda here. Does your message need to reach people with visual or hearing impairments? Should a visual message be accompanied by an audio description? Alternatively, should a spoken message come with subtitles? Is a colorful interface going to be seen effectively by people with color perception impairments? Does the framing of your message exclude or disadvantage specific groups of people? Just because you do not know anyone who may need an accommodation doesn’t mean that they don’t exist, so assume they do. When in doubt, reach out to diversity and inclusion champions within the organization, and use their networks to test the messages before they go out.

There are four components you need to think about if you want your communications to be effective: content, language and tone, timing and channel, and look and feel.

So, let’s look at those four components in detail:

Content

Two golden rules here: less is more, and tell your audience what they need to know, not what you want to tell them.

We have all experienced that two page email from IT telling us in great detail about all the technical features of this new technology they are rolling out, using incomprehensible technical jargon—which could have been distilled into a screenshot with the caption ‘Click here if you want to chat with Support’.

Admittedly, the audience segment for which the message is intended will influence the length and complexity of the content—some audiences will need fuller or more complex communications than others, but the two golden rules still apply.

There needs to be a recognition, though, that your ability to influence your program’s change and adoption communications will depend greatly on where you sit within the program. Having the support and backing of the program manager/director and/or the sponsor will help make your voice heard.

If your program has a complex, multi-layered internal communications governance, chances are you will struggle with this, as it is likely that everyone in the approvals chain will want to add bits that are important to them—as opposed to what is important for the audience to know—and often those bits will conflict with what other approvers think is important.

This ‘communications by committee’ is the worst case scenario of change and adoption communications, and the only way to avoid it is for the change and adoption role to be given a strong voice within the program.

Language and tone

‘Language’ here is not necessarily whether your message needs to be in English or Simplified Chinese—although that must also be a strong consideration: if your communications need to be in multiple languages, the timelines and cost of translation services must be taken into account in your planning process.

All aspects of language need to be carefully considered when crafting your message, and your choices need to be guided by the characteristics and preferences of your target audience, the organizational culture, and the content and intended goals of the message.

For example, if your target audience is the leadership team, your message will need to be couched in a more or less formal language, depending on the culture of the organization, but in general, it will tend to be more formal than a message targeted at frontline workers.

Similarly, a message about migration to cloud-based services is likely to use complex technical language if it is addressed to the IT establishment, whereas the same message addressed to your average knowledge worker would need to translate the technical information into plain English, and use an easily understood framing.

Tone, which is a function of your choice of language, is also important, as it is used to provide an underlying feeling for the message—does your message convey excitement, hope, sober reflection? Is the tone consistent with the way your audience is likely to feel about the change? Is the ‘tone dissonance’ between the audience’s feelings and the tone of your message justified and designed to change the mood, or is it the result of a lack of engagement or stakeholder analysis?

Tone deaf messaging can be as harmful to the success of your program as a lack of communication, as it can lead to audience disengagement with any future messaging, the transformation program, and the business as a whole.

As with message content, you will need to watch for language and tone shift as your communications progress through the approvals chain, and be prepared to stand firm and justify your recommendations to ensure that the integrity and effectiveness of the message is preserved.

Timing and channel

One of the tenets of change and adoption communications is that you need to tell people often and in many different ways if you want your message to land. The ‘often’ part refers to the timing and frequency of the messages. The ‘different ways’ part refers to the different channels and formats you may use to disseminate your message.

Timing and frequency are often a battleground if your messages need to be delivered through the organization’s internal communications team, as they usually have a complex and busy communications calendar and are reluctant to add to it, worried about ‘communication overload’.

Having the autonomy to choose the timing and frequency of the communications for your transformation program is a battle worth fighting—change and adoption communications need to be delivered at the right time within the transformation cycle, not at a time that fits in with the corporate communications calendar.

Both timing and frequency need to walk the balance between ‘too much/too soon’ and ‘too little/too late’. Where that balance lies will of course depend on your audience’s characteristics and preferences, but the bulk of that balance will be driven by the complexity of your transformation. The more complex it is, you will want more frequent bite-sized messaging, with frequency increasing as ‘go live’ approaches, and then decreasing steadily after.

As for channel… most programs’ communications rely solely on email, because that is ‘the only channel available’. I would like to challenge this concept.

First, we all know that most people have hundreds of unread emails in their inbox on any given day, so email is a notoriously ineffective way of communicating, especially if what you are communicating has a sense of urgency attached to it. The fact that you send an email to all in the organization doesn’t mean that it will be seen, or acted on, by all—or at least not within the timeframe you need.

Second, there are numerous other channels available to most organizations. Individually, they may not have the nominal reach that a ‘send to all’ email may have, but what we are aiming for is weaving a tapestry using a wide variety of threads to ensure that our messages reach everyone who needs to be aware of them.

Think about banners, pop ups and articles on corporate intranet (bonus points if it is well designed and engaging), your internal social media channels (e.g., Yammer, Chatter), your internal display screens, computer screensavers and login screens. Use your change/champion networks, your management networks, your collaboration tools (e.g., Teams, Slack), town halls and other scheduled meetings, push messaging on any apps that people use regularly (e.g., your L&D, HR, time management or pay slip portals), and yes, even physical posters and leaflets for areas of your organization that have a lower digital profile.

These are all valid channels to get communications about your program to the organization, and they should all be used to get your message across and engage people with the change—and remember, the look and feel of the messages delivered through each of those channels will need to be designed to fit the channel.

Look and feel

Last, but not least, you need to design the look/sound and feel of your message—the interface that allows people to engage with it, or, if not adequately designed, prevent them from engaging.

The question to ask here is: ‘How do I modify the design of the interface to fit the message’s purpose, content, channel and intended audience, so that I can give it the best chances of landing?’

Whatever the purpose, content, channel, or audience, the first rule here is to make the communication engaging, and to most of us this means ‘visually engaging’ or ‘good graphic design’—good layout, good color scheme, good typography, good visuals.

But we tend to forget that for many people sound is just as important as the visuals, if not more. Nothing worse than a lovely looking and well designed video narrated by a robotic or grating voice—except perhaps a terribly designed video narrated by a robotic or grating voice!

And for those members of your audience who may have a visual impairment, the sound landscape of your message becomes essential to enable them to experience and engage with the communication.

So, this section should really be called look/sound and feel… but it doesn’t sound quite so snappy.

A note of caution: what is ‘good design’ for a specific purpose, channel, and audience may become ‘bad design’ for a different one. Unless you are a design expert, this is probably the area of change and adoption communications where getting specialist input provides the greatest payoff.

The ‘feel’ of the message is a combination of everything we have talked about, one of those ‘I know it when I see it (or hear it)’ situations.

It is important to have a clear brief as to what the ‘feel’ should be, and that ‘feel’ must be consistent with the message, organizational culture and target audience—the caution regarding ‘tone dissonance’ applies to ‘feel dissonance’ too.

For example, a lot of change communications use cartoon characters as vehicles for a ‘fun’ and ‘light’ feel. However, depending on the nature of the message, the organizational culture, or the target audience, cartoon characters may come across as ‘childish’, ‘disrespectful’, or ‘patronizing’.

If you have the time and resources, it is worth testing your final designs with representative samples of your audience, and using their feedback to improve their look/sound and feel.

Effective change and adoption communications are an essential component of the success of any transformation programme

Final Thought

Effective change and adoption communications are an essential component of the success of any transformation program, so if you are a transformation program director/manager, plan for success by:

  • including people with the skills and expertise needed to design and deliver change and adoption communications in your transformation team
  • giving those people a strong voice within the program
  • supporting their recommendations
  • providing them access to the resources they need to produce the required communication artefacts to the agreed level of quality.

Otherwise, next time this will be you:

“We told them all about the [add your change of choice], why won’t they just use it?”