What does good communication sound like?

Often referred to as a Zen koan, the question “If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?”, actually isn’t a Zen koan at all. It has a scientific answer, and the answer is no. The falling will produce a vibration in the air, but it only becomes sound if there is someone with auditory senses to translate that vibration into a sound.

The question can be extended to many other topics, with pretty much the same answer. A question that fascinates me is the question on whether “if an organizational change is realized in a company, but few people know about it, will it make an impact.” And the answer remains no. Let’s examine this in a bit more detail.

What use is change?

Change projects are started in organisations in order to improve a specific functioning which is considered to be sub-par. And dedicated people work hard to make the change happen, and spend long days and nights ensuring the change project reaches its objective … only to be disappointed by the lack of recognition they receive. Change projects can lead to a high degree of demotivation for its participants, because they do not feel adequate appreciation from their peers and the hierarchy.

But, to answer the question, change has no use unless it is known, understood and used, ideally in the correct manner.

Knowing what happened – the hook

Before we can ask people to work with a change, they need to be aware the change exists. This requires an information push which informs them of the change. It’s amazing how often this is not adequately understood.

It is not because you put the document on Sharepoint that everyone is aware of its contents. It is not because you publish something on the company’s intranet that all of a sudden everyone will be aware of what you have written or done. Your information will drown in the multitude of other information shared on these platforms … and that is assuming that all relevant collaborators have access and time to review all the information posted there. Yet quite often change managers are surprised that people never heard of their project, even after it figured on the intranet.

Creating understanding by supporting curiosity – the line

The best possible result of such an information push is not a fully aware collaborator, but a curious collaborator. She or he needs to be triggered enough by the information push to start taking actions themselves to find more information. This is the information pull by the collaborator and it can be facilitated by providing easy access to repositories or other sources of additional, more detailed information. But that is not enough.

Using the information by seeking contact – the sinker

But even after reading more detailed information, a collaborator will likely not come to a full understanding of what the change entails and how to use it. This requires that collaborator actively reaching out to the team that had been working on the change to fully comprehend the impacts of the change and how to work with it.

A well drafted communication

A well drafted communication therefore needs to consist of three distinct elements which draw the relevant, interested collaborator into a funnel. Based on the relevance, the collaborator will self-select whether or not she or he will take the next step.

  • By pushing limited information through multiple channels (see below) we invite any collaborator into an initial discovery of the change. We do not give to much away, but enough to tickle the curiousity of any party that may feel they will find a benefit from better understanding the change. This is the hook. This does not require any action from the collaborator except for the reception of the information. In this phase we are spreading limited information as widely as possible.
  • By linking that information push to sources which the collaborator can explore herself or himself, the collaborator auto-selects for relevance. The interested collaborator pulls the information for further exploration. This is the line. The line requires a bit more commitment from the collaborator. Here the information can already become more specific, but should not go into too much hard detail.
  • Finally, the collaborator needs to go and actively search for more, less readily available information. This is the sinker where the collaborator engages actively with the team or the relics (for example, a documented life stream of an explanation) the team has left for a very interested collaborator to explore. This is where the entire change is visible to the collaborator in order to help her or him better understand and use the change.

Any communication needs to be tailored to the audience

If it were this easy, anyone could develop a good communication. But of course it is not. Because the audience consists of people, and different people are triggered differently. Where someone may prefer an email, someone else may like to see a short video, or even a Powerpoint presentation. And within the channel, tone can influence interest as well.

So it is important to know the needs of your audience. Ideally, the members of the audience self-declare their preferred way of receiving that first hook, that first communication. In case that is not possible, I can only recommend that you try to get to know the audience you are targeting first.

Because otherwise you risk being confronted with the fact that an organisational change which no one knows about, cannot have any impact. And that is a loss of good work, for all involved.