Top tip on change communications – start with the right questions

Agenda Strategies’ Liam FitzPatrick claims asking just five basic questions will help you add value to any project from the very beginning.


Sooner or later every communications manager will be drawn in to support a change project. For most of us it’s an opportunity to show where internal communications can make a real difference. Yet it can be a struggle to get stakeholders to understand that it takes more than a memo or a pretty intranet site to get people working differently.

Some of the difficulty is caused by our profession’s confusion about change in the first place.

We’re inundated by pet theories about motivation and haunted by misunderstandings about classic models like the Kubler-Ross change cycle. And it’s easy to fall into the trap of confusing the need to announce changes to processes or facilities with the personal adjustments people have to understand and individually support.

Over the years we’ve found that thinking through a few core issues gets most change programs off to a flying start. Further, by posing questions to internal clients helps them get more from their communications advisors. And the idea of taking your audiences through these steps suggests how you track and evaluate the effectiveness of the change program.

We say there are five main questions to ask:

• Are they aware?

When you work in a change team it is easy to assume that the rest of the world knows a lot more about an impending initiative than they really do. Challenging stakeholders around what has been said so far and how much has actually penetrated ensures your communications has a firm foundation on which to build understanding and excitement.

When you want to create awareness, the normal one-way channels are fine – intranet announcements, posters and screens will do the job – as long as you keep repeating yourself. Normally, it helps people if you create a place where they can pull information from such as an intranet site and continuously populate with material as you progress.

• Do they understand?

As a communicator you know that there is a world of difference between knowledge and understanding; surprisingly not everyone realises this. Before people can support a change they need a space to explore the idea, perhaps asks questions and see how it applies to them personally.

Of course understanding doesn’t guarantee enthusiasm or support, but it’s always easier to work with well-informed sceptics than people who are frightened by a lack of clarity.

It’s at this stage that engaging with people face to face starts to pay dividends; a well briefed line manager is worth a million posters and emails!

• Are they excited?…or at least not obstructive?

We know that emotion is central to even the most rational-seeming decisions so we need to find ways of tapping into personal motivations. Perhaps we need messages that talk about the social benefits of a transformation, maybe we need to show how the world will be a better place or more fun after the change.

Our job is to think about ways of bringing the dry business case to life. Are there personal stories we can tell?  Would a video sharing a customer’s experience touch people’s hearts? 

• Are they competent?

There’s no point explaining the need for change if the tools or support people need are not really there. At the very beginning it is worth challenging the project team about whether the amazing new IT system will actually work or being tough minded about the practical impact of change. After all, who wants to sell a bright new future that doesn’t exist to employees; get this wrong and staff will take years to trust your communications again.

And when you are satisfied that the support and tools are real, your role is to show people how to access them, where to get their training and share their experiences so they can be improved.

• Is it business as usual?

As people start to come through the change it’s time to celebrate and highlight what is working. This could be as grand as a major party or as simple as consistently reporting stories of the experience and things people are learning. Injecting the views of customers and the benefits they are seeing will help maintain momentum.

Naturally, there is overlap between these stages and change communicators are used to going backwards and forwards between these questions over the life of a change program. Tracking sentiment and levels of understanding will give you valuable insight to adjust plans and make your effort more effective. However, getting the basic thinking right stops an organisation trying to drive transformation with a new mouse mat!