People are afraid of the dark.
Fear of the dark does not always concern darkness itself; it can also be a fear of possible or imagined dangers concealed by darkness. People tell themselves untrue and scary stories when they can’t see.
Not communicating or disjointed communications are certain to inflame your stakeholders.
The purpose of this guide is to trigger you into thinking about how you can keep stakeholders informed, happy, and not becoming a pressure or distraction.
Before, during, and after the implementation of a new system, you need a communications strategy to keep your internal and external stakeholders informed.
A new system is a significant change. Change means what was there before will be displaced. The old status quo will be replaced by a new status quo.
Without information about what is changing and why, and a regular progress update stakeholders will imagine their own version of your story. This is where faith in you is undermined which results in pressure on you and your team.
This is avoidable.
A sensitive communications strategy is not difficult to create and manage. The benefits of a communications strategy are:
- Stakeholders respect being engaged and informed.
- Stakeholders don’t make up their own stories.
- The majority of stakeholders refrain from overloading your team with questions.
For a communications strategy to work effectively it must be:
- based upon one truth or one set of facts
- audience sensitive – different stakeholder audiences need information relevant to them and their respective timelines e.g. the stakeholder needs to satisfy their stakeholders by this date and time.
Organize and communicate the facts
Golden Rule. It’s not about you. Start with the stakeholders and work backward.
Make a list of internal and external stakeholders.
Match the stakeholders with the department. Each stakeholder will have an ongoing relationship with each department. For example:
Create the baseline facts - what, who, when, how, why
Golden Rule. Don’t over reassure or promise. State your vision. Stick to the facts. Be timely. Be proactive.
Your stakeholders are all there for a reason – they want something from you. Most of all they want information. What information they need is specific to them. You shouldn’t have to ask what they want. You should set out what they need to know.
The story of what you are doing and why is key. This is the vision. It probably reads like this:
“Our objective is to improve your experience with us. We’re going to do XYZ. And the benefits to you will be ABC”
State the key problems you’re going to solve and the improvements it will make for them. Stay away from firm dates, use quarters.
Tell them to expect and be able to report issues. Tell them about your comms strategy. Emphasize you are going to listen and record every piece of feedback they have to offer.
Tell them there will be good and bad days. Tell them you are expecting problems, tell them you will be vigilant and respond as fast as is possible to their concerns. Apologize in advance for the issues that will surface.
Create the baseline facts to match the respective stakeholder audiences. Work through who needs to know what. List the top five things by stakeholders and what they will need to know. Focus on what you know is important to them (not you).
Include the good and the bad (you really do need to include this).
Put together a structure of timings – a schedule for comms. Stick, stick, stick to it. “The next update will be Friday at 14:00” Make it an immovable, definite, and 100% reliable event.
Put together a list of project milestones and objectives. We expect to deliver this in week X. Remember releases of the system happen at weekends. So if your milestone depends on fixes or new functionality, make sure you have the facts from your system vendor.
By stakeholder, by message, by date.
Put together a list of stakeholders and the channel they need to receive it on. Keep the list updated. Make the appointed spokesperson responsible for keeping this up to date.
The leader should check these lists.
Sort your presentation and comms method out. Is it a QA call, a Zoom, a video, an email, a report – what is it and how will it be presented (the format I mean). Check with stakeholders what format they need.
There are going to be emergency comms. Make sure you tell the stakeholders this will happen. State why. Apologize in advance.
Appoint an internal ‘spokesperson’
Appoint, and make accountable an internal ‘Spokesperson’ to manage communications with each, or a group of, stakeholders.
Golden Rule. You can’t have one person communicating with everyone.
If you just appoint a central person who is also a problem solver, you take away their time to solve problems – Don’t do this.
Golden Rule. Your problem solvers should be looking for problems to solve, not communicating with stakeholders.
You need a communications team (Comms Team) to which you share the facts, so as they can not only shape, communicate and be responsible for the headlines and the facts, but receive feedback* which can be used to address things you might overlook in your story.
*Feedback? As much as is possible you should insist ALL stakeholder feedback is written and responded to in writing. Every incoming message where the feedback is useful should be logged onto an issue sheet, prioritized by severity*, and assigned to a team member.
*Severity? Create a scale of 1 to 3. Assign a definition based upon the impact on you and the stakeholders. For example, Warehouse can’t ship – Severity 1. Don’t try and predict all of the definitions. List what you know already and refine as it happens.
It’s obvious your comms team needs to be on the same page. They need to be aware of the baseline facts and of incoming questions and answers. There will, of course, be some sensitive information you will need to hold back from the team e.g. banking.
The Team must have a leader. The leader must collate and manage both the baseline facts and feedback.
You should meet with the Comms team as often as there are changes or new updates to the baseline facts and significant feedback. Call it a ‘Comms huddle’. In the meeting communicate the situation, action, and impact or result.
For example, Warehouse down, fix being applied – the worst-case scenario is we can’t ship today. Decide the resulting action and who needs to know. Get the appointed spokesperson to send the message.
Keep a written log of what was communicated to the team and the outcome. Cross it off your list when it’s sorted. Tell the team it’s sorted, send the message. Make the apologies.
Optimise useful communications with your system vendor
We need clarity. Software development and deployment is a highly intellectual and complex process.
Golden Rule. You cannot RUSH QUALITY.
Golden Rule. We solve software problems, you don’t.
You need to be clear about the outcome you need, the priority it has (over other issues), the impact, the immovable deadline.
State the problem and the outcome you need. Let us do the rest. You cannot devise the solution. You are not qualified to do this.
Give us time to think about the problem, what it’s going to take to fix it, and how long it will take.
Send a support ticket.
Communicate with your internal stakeholders
Announce your comms structure and team to EVERYONE in the business. Be clear about who is doing what, and who they go to with a problem.
Dictate (yes dictate!) the format for problem reporting, training requirements, not sure moments – these are the killers. You’re doing volume orders, one misguide individual under pressure can create work for everyone and upset a lot of customers.
In the same way, you organize Comms team huddles, you should get each team in every department together when necessary (and as often as it takes) to tell them what you are doing, why, when, how, where. A five-minute briefing can save hours of wasted time when someone doesn’t know what they need to know. Just do it.
Encourage and confirm they get it, ask them to repeat what you told them.
Listen to their issues, add to the feedback alongside the baseline facts. Act on these just as you would if they were external stakeholders.
Be straight about what’s good and bad. But most of all remember you are dealing with folks you need on your side to get stuff done well. So praise, praise, “you can do it “ tone, PLEASE. And of course, say Thank you.
How to communicate in a crisis situation
I had to add this……
In a crisis you should communicate like this:
- Be open, accessible, and willing to respond as much as possible to those clamoring for information.
- Be accurate and truthful…
- Be compassionate, empathetic, courteous, and considerate…
- Don’t over-reassure…
- Acknowledge uncertainty.
- Be consistent.