How many times have you heard a discussion at your bank lamenting a failed change where everyone felt that the change was the right strategy but it didn’t succeed? It is very likely that a failed implementation program was the problem not the change itself. Change cannot be implemented without an effective communication program.
There are four keys to planning for effective organizational change:
- Special Groups—The use of special problem solving groups for change increases creativity by minimizing typical organizational pressures for conformity.
- Total Organizational Representation—Unless all parts of the organization are represented in the change planning process, unintended consequences are likely to overwhelm the success of the change.
- Balance of Authority and Information—The problem solving group must combine individuals from lower organizational levels who have knowledge of how the organization functions with individuals at the top of the organization who have the authority to make a change happen.
- External Change Agents—Changes are most likely to be effective when a perspective outside of the organization assists the internal team in seeing the situation without the biases that are inherent among all organizational members.
These keys are just as important when you set about implementing/communicating the change as they are when you are designing the change. Note a similar perspective in a recent article by the World Bank.
Earlier in my career, I was involved in a change communication program for a leading corporate bank. It was losing market share to competing banks, and analyses showed that, while it was perceived poorly by retail customers, retail banking was likely to become even more important in its marketplace. The bank decided on a radical change revamping the functioning of its retail branch structure to emphasize customer service. This new structure created a “one stop” banking opportunity for retail customers. The bank realized that this was more than just a structural change—it was a cultural change. In an attempt to deal with such a monumental change, the bank focused as much on change implementation as it did on the change itself:
- Special Groups—A special change group was established to guide the implementation of the change process. This was not merely a group from the communications division. Rather it drew on individuals from both retail and corporate banking.
- Total Organizational Representation—The special group did not just depend on its diversity to give it access to an organization-wide understanding of perceptions. It undertook a series of surveys of the perceptions of employees on both customer service and the strategy that the bank was currently taking in retail banking. They were surprised by the misconceptions they found about both the importance of customer service as well as the rationale for the new program.
- Balance of Authority and Information—Membership in the special group ranged from tellers to senior vice presidents. While such hierarchical diversity was a challenge to manage, the insights were critical to developing appropriate communication strategies; and the authority gained from vice presidents was important to making group decisions stick.
- External Change Agents—The external consultants assisted the group in looking at the change process in an “out of the box” fashion. The resulting change implementation incorporated many elements that, while best practice in organizations in general, had never been tried in this bank. In particular, the focus was on the use of multiple coordinated media for the communication program.
In the end, the bank implemented the change using a radically different internal communication program. Furthermore, it was able to coordinate the internal communication program with the external marketing campaign. Our research indicated that the change was effective moving the bank into a retail system that was more focused on customer service and changing the public’s perception from that of a corporate bank to one more focused on retail customers. None of this could have been accomplished without an effective communication plan. Our research verified that the communication plan was able to change perceptions of both individuals within and outside of retail banking.
Thus, the next time that you are planning for change in your organization start thinking about how you will communicate that change at the same time that you begin thinking about the design of the change itself. Your chances of having a successful change will improve dramatically.
 Huseman, R.C., Hayes, M.A., and Alexander, E.R. (1977) “Communicating Organizational Change: A Case Study,” in Readings in Interpersonal and Organizational Communication (3rd Edition), Huseman, R.C., Logue, C.M., and Freshley, D.L. (eds.) Boston: Holbrook Press.