I don't feel guilty though, because I was busy. I was involved in a rather intensive client engagement over the past year or more. And in that time, I did spend time on friends and family and other priorities. I also looked after a couple of other clients with smaller engagements.
My blog suffered, yes, but now that I am surfacing from that big engagement, I thought I would share some of the lessons I learned in my absence.
The project was a bit of a departure. Most of my previous engagements have been focused on communications in support of external marketing, and nearly all of this work has been for small or young technology companies, and occasionally or for smaller groups within larger companies.
This latest gig was spearheading a major internal communications project for a large crown corporation (yes, you heard me -- the federal government).
My job was to develop and execute a plan to support the introduction of a whole new approach to pay and benefits in the 1500-employee organization. I was working as part of a dedicated project team, and surrounded by compensation experts. (There are textbooks on the subject! With lots of math and stuff!! I know, because I was handed one as a reference early on in this engagement.)
I also reported to the internal communications team, and worked with colleagues in that group to deliver the various pieces in the plan.
So, what did I learn? Well, aside from learning lots about the organization, total compensation, and performance management, I learned lots about internal communications and change management.
1. Do not assume people understand the status quo.
This was the single most important takeaway from an engagement filled with learning. I know, I am not the first person to say this. I've read it myself a couple of times. But experience is the best teacher, right?
In this project, I was assured early on by the subject matter experts that most employees had been around long enough to understand the organization's rather complex approach to performance pay, which was being eliminated in favour of a simpler approach.
In fact, there was a disconnect between the official terminology, adopted by those in Human Resources, and the common language and understanding of employees.
I had an inkling of this disconnect a week or two before we "launched" the changes. A valued colleague in internal communications who was reviewing draft materials kept asking me to explain and re-explain the changes to performance pay. We had several discussions about whether or not the concept was well understood.I invited one of the subject matter experts to come in and help walk her through it.
In the race to D-Day, however, I didn't really spend much time beyond these private discussions to test the assumptions. I put my colleague's confusion down to the fact that she was relatively new (although she had a tenure of almost 5 years!) and convinced myself that her perception was not pervasive.
But it soon became clear that her probing questions were the tip of a rather large iceberg. (Needless to say, I got better at trusting this particular colleague's instincts and insights.)
In the end, we had to support the simple statements about what was changing and what was not with Q&As posted on-line (the same question, asked in multiple ways, using plain language), with diagrams, and with scenarios (using sample employees and numbers, to make the examples real). We had to revisit what we had already posted, and develop new material, delivered on-line and in employee sessions.
We lost time (and could have lost ground if not for the incredibly dedicated and adaptable team of subject matter and communications experts) by not having properly assessed this disconnect before the changes were announced.
2. Repetition is good. I repeat: Repetition is good.
Again, this is not new.
The common wisdom goes is that you have to repeat the same thing seven times, in multiple ways, before people get it. We had built this into the communications plan, which included everything from print communiques to presentations, from on-line resources to talking points for managers to use in face-to-face meetings, from newsletter articles to town hall meetings.
Still, I saw clearly that the material that many grasped in the spring still bore repeating in the fall. And again before winter was over.
A colleague who wore the change management hat for the project was invaluable with her ongoing reminders to cover the same ground in new, digestible ways. She also was good at seeking feedback and gathering impressions from the employees, and bringing the significant gaps to my attention and the attention of the project team.
3. Keep it simple.
This applies to the words you use, of course, but it equally applies to the amount of information you cram into any one "message" or event.
In fact, I am quite good at cramming three thoughts and several nuances into any given sentence. I learned that this is precisely the wrong thing to do when communicating for change management.
The turning point for me came when I had a great sit down meeting with the head of internal communications a few months into the project, and he reminded me that we were losing sight of the objective -- to communicate as clearly as possible to the widest possible audience.
It is not the job of communications to handle the exceptions. That is the face-to-face job of a manager or expert. It can also be the focus of targeted communications (which we did lots of, too, especially after this wake-up call).
Again, I know it sounds simple, but it's the kind of thing you can lose sight of when you are just trying to get something reviewed and approved by several layers in an organization.
4. Being an outsider is incredibly valuable.
Outsiders ask perceptive questions. They propose new solutions. Generally, outsiders are more resistant to the jargon that becomes pervasive within an organization.
I have long believed that my principal value as a consultant is that I wear the hat of the outsider, and this project was no exception. It was especially useful as we developed an agreed set of terminology for use by the project team (and by translators) and we were able to keep it relatively simple and jargon free.
5. Being connected to the insiders' ecosystem is invaluable.
Although I am often brought in as an outsider, with a valuable outsider's perspective on things, the nature of this project convinced me of the value of "belonging" to the internal ecosystem.
First, I was very much a part of the project team. My client treated me as one of their own, equipping me with a computer, with a phone line, and with access to their systems.
Second, and even more significant, they arranged the engagement so that I had a dotted-line reporting relationship to the internal communications group. This was at the behest of internal comms, but the project team most definitely reaped a benefit of that relationship.
Over and over again, we avoided missteps by ensuring I was in the loop about what else was going on across the organization. I was able to get familiar more quickly with the resources and tools available to me. I was able to leverage corporate history and experience.
It didn't hurt that the organization in question is full of really smart people with their hearts in the right places.
So, I hope to be posting a bit more regularly this year, now that that big project is in maintenance mode... but if I don't, take heart. I will share with you what I learn when I finally do come back. :)