What Makes Change Communication Different?

Change communication is fast becoming one of the hottest areas of specialization in our industry. As change becomes the new normal, organizations require communication practitioners with the skill, know-how and savvy to advance transformation. 

The place to start is to zoom in on understanding the essential difference between communication during a period of stability and change communication. I think it comes down to three things:

Change communication focuses more on the emotional, rather than the intellectual, side of content. For example, resistance is an almost ubiquitous response to change. A communicator’s instinct might be to send numerous emails explaining a change and detailing its benefits. In truth, there is no one email that is going to solve the problem of resistance. Designing a tactical messaging approach that has a strong emotive appeal will help ensure that you reach employees on an individual level.

Communication tends to be a messy business; change assignments even more so. From a strategic planning perspective, it can be very difficult to apply the rigor of a results-based approach to a change initiative. Canada’s pre-eminent management guru Henry Mintzberg offers useful insight here in explaining that strategy walks on two feet: one deliberate, and one emergent. This is especially relevant to change assignments that certainly benefit from a plan, but require more agility and focus on the emergent aspect than do traditional communication plans.

Change communication success happens at an executive or leadership level, not a functional one. This again is a significant difference from traditional communication. The line becomes blurred between what is effective change sponsorship and what is effective communication. The way I look at it, nothing can change without communication, so this is a fundamental aspect of successful change leadership.

Because the discipline of change communication differs significantly from other forms of communication, it requires a particular set of best practices. These principles can help set the course:

  1. Not communicating is communicating something. The first casualty of change is often information. Keep in mind that in the absence of communication, employees will fill the void—this will put the change initiative in a deficit situation in terms of communication, as you will first be forced to dig out of a hole of misinformation, and then establish messaging.
  2. Change is about energy, and energy is emotion. Consider opportunities to shape the experience of the change, ensuring that the form and content of communication appeals positively on an emotional plane. It’s vital to understand the key drivers of employees’ intrinsic motivation and shape communication messages and activities to appeal on that level.
  3. Communicate through words, symbols and behaviors. Change communication must go beyond mere information and words—employees can be reached more powerfully through symbols, and by watching behaviors around them. Consider change communication activities that go beyond words and that appeal at the emotional, experiential level through symbols and behaviors. (For an example, see this blog post on “A Case Study in Symbols” from the new Government of Canada.)
  4. Conversation is the smallest unit of change. The organizational change process happens through conversations, most of which take place informally. A change communication initiative should focus on maximizing opportunities for conversations to happen through both structured meetings and spontaneous exchanges that happen day-to-day.
  5. Communication is the drumbeat of change. Through a tumultuous period of transformation, communication should be established as the drumbeat of change—a regular, predictable and reassuring touch point for employees. It’s important for the communication drumbeat to keep the pace of change, speeding up or slowing down according to the phases of transformation.
  6. Trust is the currency of change. A successful change initiative requires careful consideration of trust as an essential asset. Change leaders and agents must ensure that they nurture trust through authentic, honest and transparent communication.

Case study: University of Ottawa

The University of Ottawa’s Facilities team is made up of 175 employees who provide building planning, architecture, construction, maintenance and operational services. The team’s work is critical to the functioning of the university’s 90 buildings, serving a community of 43,000 students and staff.

Faced with a rising demand for services due to expansion, and a fixed budget, Facilities had to find a way to do more with less. It needed to reimagine its service delivery model in a way that responded to increasing and constantly evolving client expectations.

My organization, Ingenium, partnered with the Facilities team to provide integrated change management and communication support. A large-scale transformation initiative was launched to shift the organization’s structure, culture and operations with the goal of increasing client satisfaction and delivering maximum value to the university.

The theme of the employee engagement campaign was “We Power Ideas.” The concept was to animate how the critical contributions of Facilities helped enable the university’s academic and research work. The campaign showcased this connection and celebrated employees as being at the heart of the university’s functioning. It was delivered in partnership with Ingenium’s creative partner Alphabet.

As part of the change communication program supporting transformation, videos were produced to help foster employee engagement. The focus of the videos was to tap into the intrinsic Facilities team culture, and dial up the employees’ sense of pride for making meaningful, behind the scenes contributions to the university’s functioning.


The results?

  • To date, the transformation has delivered CDN$2.3 million in increased productivity.
  • While the square metres of building space managed by Facilities increased, the operational cost per square meter declined by almost 5 percent.
  • Overtime costs decreased by 45 percent.
  • Client satisfaction and positive impressions of Facilities increased.
  • Employee satisfaction and engagement increased.

You can read more about the project here. It was recognized with an  IABC Gold Quill Best of the Best Award in 2016.

Learn more

Interested in exploring change communication further? Here are some resources that might help:

Written by Caoline Kealey for CW Magazine