When should change communication start?

About the author

Ann is a co-founder of PR Academy. Her special areas of interest are internal communication, change management and project communication. MSc, Dip CAM, MCIPR

Another big change initiative is being hatched in your organisation. When is the best time to start communicating with staff about it?  I asked Paul Harrison who authored the chapter on change in Exploring Internal Communication for his thoughts, this is what he said:

Not communicating early enough is a commonly quoted reason for failure of change communication campaigns. And poor change communication can be fatal for the change initiative.

There is often a temptation to delay starting change communication until more of the answers to the inevitable questions are known. What a change means for individuals and their teams is always difficult to articulate early on.

And there is a risk that a big communications launch is followed by silence when there seems to be nothing new to say, and as the timetable that was announced starts to slip.

But for individuals, coming to terms with change is a social process and takes time. So change communication must provide lots of opportunities for people to make sense of change and to make it their own.

The traditional big change programme approach is to try to engage everyone in the organisation at the start. This is mocked by Leandro Herrero in his writing on a viral approach to change.

Sometimes changes are piloted. One part of the organisation tries the change first. For the change communicator, this means you don’t have to convince the whole organisation right away, without any evidence of success.

The communications approach can also be trialled. And if the pilot is successful, it can help to persuade the rest of the organisation. Plus, the persuasion can come from peers who have been through the change.

Perhaps this provides the opportunity for combining the more emergent approaches to change – like Herrero’s – with the more traditional linear approaches of Lewin and Kotter. A small-scale pilot, led by managers in one department or team, can demonstrate success before the organisation-wide adoption.

Four of the most common types of change are culture change, IT-based process change, mergers and acquisitions, and restructuring. Is the pilot-first approach feasible in all these cases? Would boards and executive teams have the patience? Would it work for the changes that your organisation is trying to introduce?