Slow change: 4 tips to help you start communicating transitional change

There’s nothing more overwhelming within an organization than change. Whether sudden or expected, inside the boat of a company rowing down the river of change often feels like a mixture of “there are too many captains aboard this vessel,” “is our boat too big or two small?” and “are we carrying all the right passengers and cargo?”

Basically, change is tough. The constantly shifting factors of known and unknown impacts, timelines, and resources can sometimes make a good change effort feel laughable in its never ending-ness. But transitional change can be even more cumbersome (like picking up more passengers and being greeted by adverse weather as you’re making your way downstream). Transition is change over a longer period and involves smaller changes over time before the actual overarching change is considered complete.

Consider the financial market’s transition away from LIBOR as an example. Many global financial institutions have created dedicated in-house task forces to deal with this transition because the switch from LIBOR to alternative reference rates is not just a one-time changeover. There are dozens of points of change over the next two years to consider, and these teams are responsible for hitting each mark on time. With the LIBOR transition in particular, some key work streams include altering financial contracts with customers who have existing credit or loan agreements with the company, communicating to internal employees about how the change from LIBOR to new reference rates will change their operational procedures, and re-configuring back office credit tools/systems to effectively adopt the new rates’ publishing and calculation methodology.

It’s complex stuff. And it all has communication elements to it. But take heart: transition communication within any company can be manageable with some simple prep work and journalist-style sticktuitiveness (also known as persistence).

1. Locate and befriend the one true source of information.

Most times, this source is a person, the whole project’s project manager. This person will be master of the overall project plan, playbook, and series of recurring Outlook meetings with various work streams. They will also know where the base content is for the project; that is, the FAQs, the white papers and industry news, the SharePoint project site or base camp, etc. Create a relationship with this person immediately, before you even put together your communication plan, because they will know the dates, strategy, and key SMEs you’ll need to fabricate your whole plan.

As Gandalf would say, the one to rule them all.

In the event that your one true source is a website (which I hope it never is), I suggest confirming the website’s key messages, dates, timelines, and other potential impacts published with a business leader to make sure everything you’ve read aligns with your company’s execution strategy.

2. Create a communication plan that takes into consideration the “trigger events” taking place during the transition.

This is something I learned later in my career, prompted by the idea that not every communication plan has committed dates. In business, as in life, things happen when they are ready to happen (like tornadoes, a death in a family, recessions, a "hot now" sign at Krispy Kreme). Sometimes you just have to wait for something else to happen before you can act.

In transition communications, trigger events are what prompts you to communicate a certain piece of content because of the events' potential to affect people. In this, you are assuming that without the trigger, the content cannot be published. For example, mergers and acquisitions, regulatory changes, new congressional bills signed into law, and industry events related to the subject matter can all have or be trigger events.

So if your transition is prospective merger or an acquisition, your triggers may include some regulatory check-points. If it's the passing of a new law or bill (ex. Brexit), depending on where you live, your triggers may include referendums, general elections, scheduled announcements from political leaders, the publishing of the law, and the law's effective date.

3. Create a list of subject matter experts.

These will be your de facto besties during this transitional period, the people part of your review process making you appear smart and organized to your bosses. They’ll have in-depth, nerd-level knowledge on the stuff that’s hard to understand such as technical information, legal or compliance jargon, and industry-specific data. They can also help determine if and when different communication vehicles and channels are used (ex. holding a webcast versus sending an email to inform impacted audiences at a specific point during the transition). In transitions, you want to identify SMEs in the following categories: legal, risk/compliance, technology and systems (as necessary), process/operations, and strategy.

The real trick is to get comfortable with them, enough so they know to break everything down for you as if you were in the eighth grade. Jargon is only acceptable if it can be understood by everyone involved. Trust me; you’ll need the simplified version of every idea to communicate it effectively.

4. Templates, templates, templates.

I can’t stress enough the importance and utter convenience of a good template — and I’m not just talking the pretty formatted frame in which you paste the bodies of your communications. You’ll need evergreen key messages, style, and branding, all of which create a look and feel that is consistent throughout your transition communication campaign. Added convenience is linking back to previous content so that you don’t have to repeat yourself allowing your communications to be taut and to the point.

In transition communications, much of the substance of a piece of content will be the section, paragraph, or sequence of bullets where you outline what has most recently changed. Getting to that part quickly in each communication is critical to making sure your audience knows what’s new and (as necessary) where to find more information about the new thing. That’s where your templates come in as handy, ever-ready skeletons which you can dress for any occasion — planned or unplanned — in your transition plan.

There you have it. Four tips to add to your reservoir of knowledge on communication planning. What other transition communication tips do you have? Share in the comments below!

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