How you communicate your new organisation to your employees can turn a ‘hard to make’ decision into an infinitely ‘harder to swallow’ one, just ask Liz Truss or P&O. The stakes can be extremely high when announcing a new organisation design – job losses, additional responsibilities, or more challenging roles for people. Get the communication wrong, and whilst you may not hit the headlines, you can easily trigger a negative response. At its worst, it can lead to resource and morale-sapping failure.
Clarity on what you want people to do, feel and know is essential before you start communicating
Rather than hiring a spin doctor to deal with the fallout, follow the seven practical, evidence-based steps we share in this article. Do them well and you can reduce the risk and even increase the level of engagement for the changes you’re proposing. If you’ve been following our series on organisation design you should be well prepared but don’t miss out on these final critical steps.
1. Explain the rationale
Clarity on what you want people to do, feel and know is essential before you start communicating. This should drive both the content and tone of what you say. When we spend months analysing data, identifying forces of change and considering options for our new design it is easy to forget that not everyone has been on the same journey.
We call a town hall meeting to announce our plans and forget to give people time to catch up with us. People will only act on their own conclusions, so we have to give them time. Providing context about the decisions we’ve made, the operating environment, the marketplace and what consumers are doing all helps people understand how the changes link to the bigger picture and build a case for change.
2. Show procedural justice
It’s essential that people perceive the process you followed as fair and transparent. If people think you’ve just been paying lip service to consultation, buy-in is much less likely. It’s important to take people through the process you followed and explain the evidence and the information you considered.
If you haven’t acted on certain opinions and perspectives, explain why. Outline the options you considered along with their pros and cons. Be clear on why you chose the option you did. If people can see that your logic was sound and you acted in good faith then they are more likely to trust your judgment.
3. Be upfront about the trade-offs
Many leaders are guilty of overselling the benefits of their new design, describing it as the silver bullet to many problems. All organisation design decisions involve trade-offs. Matrix structures make reporting lines more complicated while functional structures can lead to greater siloed working. Don’t be tempted to spin the news like Facebook did when communicating a new policy of hotdesking as an ‘innovative employee experience’.
You need to be clear on the likely downsides of your new design. Your people will find these out regardless and talk about them over a Teams chat or coffee. Treating your people as adults and being upfront about the trade-offs gives you a chance to address concerns in the open. We would encourage you to go even further and actively engage people in thinking through solutions or workarounds to these problems. This will increase engagement and people will take greater ownership rather than resenting you if they conclude the decision has made their life more difficult.
Keep paying attention and ensuring it’s front and centre of people’s minds
5. Help people interpret what it means to them
Many new designs fail to spell out exactly what employees will need to do differently in order to operationalise the changes. There are many advantages to sitting down with your people and taking the time to help them interpret what it means to them and their world. You can cover how they might need to adjust their workflow or reprioritise.
What resources they will gain and what they will lose, and how they’re empowered to solve problems that arise. Show empathy and compassion, especially if your change is likely to create an increase in their workload and stress levels while the changes are embedded. Demonstrating you care about them will go a long way.
You shouldn’t forget it’s a two-way process. As you’re taking them through your proposals, they will give you additional information about the impact of your design. They may highlight the unintended consequences of your design. As this new information comes to light, you might need to adapt your design. So be open to new information and receive new insights.
Change inevitably creates anxiety, so you have to help people feel grounded and keep a sense of perspective. Being clear on what isn’t changing can help prevent ambiguity and uncertainty.
6. Follow up and track progress
Once they’ve received the news, people need time to digest and discuss what they’ve heard. Answer their questions as fully as you can. Whilst this can seem like a substantial investment of time, this pales into insignificance compared to the consequences of your design failing.
After the fanfare of the launch, there is always that moment when a new idea or initiative runs out of energy. People become consumed by the next thing. It’s the greatest moment of peril and a real danger that your idea will become just a fad. People will think ‘if we can just keep our heads down this will pass like all the other initiatives.’
Keep paying attention and ensuring it’s front and centre of people’s minds. Put in place a proactive communication plan, be visible, and set performance measures. Follow through on your actions and encourage others to keep to their commitments and their accountabilities too. You’ve got to track progress and celebrate milestones so people can see progress and feel a sense of accomplishment.
When announcing a new organisation design, the stakes can be extremely high
Get practical and see the benefits of communicating your ideas
As you can see, there are a number of practical steps you can take to reduce the risk and even increase the level of engagement and ownership for the changes you’re proposing. When announcing a new organisation design, the stakes can be extremely high – but with the right approach, you can keep your team members feeling excited and inspired about what’s next.