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Managing "Change Management" Through Communications

Updated on July 15, 2013
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Dr. Middlebrook is a self-publishing expert, author (pen name Beax Rivers), online course developer, and former university professor.

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The only constant in the world of business is change. For this reason, more than ever, organizations must remain ready and able to change. Change management refers to business management activities that help to move a company or organization from a current condition/status, to a desired future condition/status. Just as change is constant in life, it is also constant in business. Because change will always occur, the goal of change management is to attempt to control the negative effects of change as much as possible in order to accentuate benefits to the company/organization. It works to eliminate, or, at least to minimize, confusion and distractions that often accompany change.

Change management communications are crucial to the success of change management. In fact, they are so important to this process that a change management communication plan needs to be included among other major components of a larger change management strategy.

The change management communications plan is needed to strategically manage "the people side" of change by developing communications targeting different audiences, making sure everyone affected understands why change is occurring and how it will affect them. The plan also implements measures to address concerns and questions, while helping everyone in the organization understand where they are in the change process, and how changes will affect and need to be implemented in their daily tasks/responsibilities.

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In this Hub, I am going to look at some of the major considerations that are part of communicating about organizational change. I will discuss many of the communications efforts that must take place in business environments undergoing change, that have developed a strategy for managing change.

While studying for my doctorate in business administration and management at Walden University, organizational change and the management of it was included as a component of nearly every course. Therefore, through education and experience, I’ve learned a lot about the need for well-designed communications plans and strategies that will be effective in helping an organization where leaders understand the need to manage change.

In my career, I've worked as a marketing and communications professor and as a communications professional and consultant, for a combined total of more than 25 years. My experience has involved a variety of business environments and settings, and I’ve held leadership positions in corporations and non-profit organizations that were undergoing some type of organization-wide change. As a communications professional, my knowledge and skills have often been relied upon to help design and execute change management communications.

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Change Management: A Process

According to John Kotter, Chief Innovation Officer of Kotter International, change management is “a set of basic tools or structures intended to keep any change effort under control. The goal is often to minimize the distractions and impacts of the change.”

Change management is a process that attempts to help all organizational stakeholders understand, accept, and incorporate the effects of change in the business environment. Change management communications are developed to help individuals, teams, and employees and executives at all levels to understand and embrace change in the way business operates before, during, and after changes occur.

The Communication Challenge in Business

Communicating is always a challenge, whether or not a company or organization is facing significant change. Understanding the need for effective communication is a key business advantage; doing it well is one of the primary contributing factors to business success.

Because this is true, most large and medium-sized companies have entire departments and/or key personnel dedicated to developing and implementing communications plans, strategies, and tactics to ensure business success as most operate within highly competitive marketing environments. In times of change, the need for effective internal and external communications becomes even more of a daily challenge, and therefore it is of even greater importance that communication is viewed as a central element in managing the effects of change.

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Communicating Change

In the 1940’s, a man named Kurt Lewin (who was a physicist as well as a social scientist), developed a model for understanding organizational change. In fact, the model he developed, which is known as, “Unfreeze – Change – Refreeze,” is still considered one of the “cornerstones” for understanding organizational change. Lewin believed in the need to look at organizational change as a process with three distinct stages. Being a physicist, he thought of the process as being similar to the stages you would need to implement if you wanted to change a whole ice cube from a square block of ice, to a pointed cone of ice. Using the ice cube analogy, Lewin labeled his change process stages as “unfreeze, change, and refreeze.”

A company getting ready to implement change must first make sure the organization is receptive to change (you must “unfreeze” it). After ensuring receptivity, the organization must be molded into the desired shape (you must change it). After molding it into the desired shape, the last step in the process is to solidify the new desired shape (you must “refreeze” it).

Using Lewin's model, in the next several segments of this Hub I will examine the role that change management communications must play in each stage of the change management process.

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Unfreezing the Organization

As the organization is being “unfrozen,” stakeholders will have a need to understand and to accept the inevitability and necessity of change. The change management strategic plan has been developed and is now being executed. Communications messages have been designed to help management break down the existing structures in order to create a foundation for new operating structures. Tactical execution of the communications plan needs to be precise and powerful in order to persuade and convince stakeholders why the "old ways" are no longer viable, and therefore, why they must not be continued. Messages will need to be developed to create awareness of change while building and engaging everyone in the change process.

Intense and passionate reactions to change must be anticipated, and should be viewed as normal and expected. For meaningful change to be implemented, stakeholder buy-in must occur at all levels. Changes in the way things are done will necessarily and automatically create uncertainty. And that is good, because it is honest. This honesty will become the foundation for addressing objections and concerns while breaking down resistance to a new way of functioning. Of vital importance will be message content, timing, and authority (who will send the message).

The first stage in the process of change management is development of the change management strategy. This is usually the most stressful part of the process, but it ensures that change management communications plans will be created with an understanding of and appreciation for challenges that will be addressed as part of the overall change management efforts.

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Communicating the Implementation of Change

The second stage in the process of change management is the actual “change.” In this stage, all of the uncertainty and passionate reactions to change are in full force, and this is the time when the change communications management plan is put to the test. As the plan is being executed, it should help begin the process of restoring balance to the organization. Measures must be included in the plan to address and/or resolve any vagueness, ambiguity, and insecurity that might occur as the organization begins changing to new ways of doing things. The change management communications plan must be a "living" document capable of helping people to understand and to believe in the need for change, and of guiding them toward actions they can employ to endorse and support the new direction.

The second stage is "where the rubber meets the road." The best change management communications plans, therefore, are results-oriented, able to become implemented on an individualized basis. That is, the plan must be developed with personal transitions in mind because it must help ensure that every employee, guided by precision-focused communications, will understand, embrace, and make needed changes in the way his or her work is performed. It must take into consideration that there will be those in the organization who are heavily invested in the existing state of affairs who will feel hurt, not helped, by change. And it is the role of an effective change management communications plan to control and minimize the “sting” of the transition. This can be achieved by communicating with employees frequently, helping them understand how to adapt changes to their roles and/or responsibilities.

The change management communications plan must be executed using a variety of tactics, such as face-to-face/interpersonal interaction, one-on-one discussions, and a mix of media vehicles that invite individual responses as a way of providing needed feedback. Organizational leaders, managers, directors, and supervisors must be communicating with those who report to them making sure every employee is invited to become allied with the organization, united in the purpose of change. Communications at this stage are not simply creating and building awareness of change, they are involving employees, connecting them and their work with the processes, as well as with the objectives, of change.

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Refreezing the "New Way"

The third and final stage is “refreezing.” Using Lewin’s analogy, this would be the stage where the ice cube, which has now been unfrozen and reshaped from a square cube to a cone with a pointed tip, is now ready to be refrozen—in order to solidify the new shape. In the same way, once a major change has become institutionalized across the organization, the refreezing stage is accomplished by “solidifying” or reinforcing the change.

Why is the third stage necessary? Remember that the organization has dismantled and then reassembled its core. It has broken down a state of comfort; “the way things have always been done” is no longer. It has been replaced by the rolling out and implementation of a new way of doing things, and by the expectation that everyone will do things in the new way. In order to keep things changed, to keep people from reverting back to the old way, change must become internalized by every employee. The “new balance” of the organization must become locked in.

It might seem that since change is something that is constant, that it would be risky to solidify or reinforce the changed state of the organization. But the risks associated with a lack of reinforcement are an even greater threat to the stability of the organization. Why? Because unless everyone adopts change as the new way things are done, there won’t be full “investment” in the effort, confidence levels about how things are to be done will be lowered, and the goals of change will not be fully realized.

To help with the refreezing process, change management communications, in the final stage, must be used to:

  • Officially acknowledge attainment of the change. The organization’s top leader should make it official when change has been achieved to help stakeholders find “closure.” Closure brings a feeling of finality to events affiliated with change by encouraging an atmosphere of contentment with the change.
  • Offer praise and gratitude, officially and from the top leader, to everyone for cooperating and completing the work needed to make the change. Also, other organization leaders, managers, directors, and supervisors should communicate with those reporting to them, making sure each employee is thanked for helping the company realize success in the change initiative. Doing this also provides leaders with another opportunity to emphasize the importance of having everyone stick with the new way.
  • Officially acknowledge, from the top leader and then through subordinate leaders, that achievement of change is a good thing, and that it has helped to prepare employees for the future, when there is a need, once again, for change. Effective communications at this stage should provide avenues for ensuring that future change efforts will be embraced, supported, and finally realized, allowing the organization to continue its pursuit of operational excellence as it strives to remain competitive and successful.

© 2012 Sallie B Middlebrook PhD

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