The Communication Dilemma

Posted on Feb 20, 2015

One of the most common conversations I have with client executives is about when to start communicating a change.

It’s a universal dilemma – we want to communicate early enough to own the messaging but, at the same time, wait until we know all of the answers. What to do?

Generally, I find that projects wait too long to start communicating and this is a problem for several reasons. First and foremost, most organizations have what I like to call very healthy informal communication networks, so information about your change will start to spread whether you decide to communicate or not. Then, you find yourself in the situation of having to reset expectations, rather than just set them accurately from the beginning. You have also now lost credibility because you are seen as withholding information, even if that was not your intent.

A second problem that arises from waiting too long to start communicating is that you are so focused on finding all of the answers, you haven’t yet ensured that you have all of the right questions. One of the main benefits to casting a wide net and engaging with all of your stakeholder groups as early as possible is that they’ll help you identify gaps in your plan. This isn’t usually the most enjoyable part of the process, but it is incredibly valuable. If an issue comes out of left field later in the project lifecycle, your stakeholders will still be on board because they didn’t see that issue coming either. Otherwise, you’re in the unenviable position of hearing, “Well, if you had asked us earlier …” and that is not where you want to be.

It’s true that, if you start communicating early, you run the risk of having dates move or scope shift. One way to mitigate that risk is to remember to include what you DON’T know yet in your communication events. That way, your stakeholders are clear on the unknown factors and won’t be surprised when, once you have those answers, it causes an adjustment in the plan. You also need to make sure you have solid project management in place. The best change management plan in the world won’t do you much good if your project consistently fails to meet dates or deliver against expectations.

Remember that communications are not supposed to be one-sided. Too often, I see events or emails meant to inform, but nothing geared towards collaboration or real engagement. Ironically, this can result from waiting too long to start talking to people – by the time you do, there is no longer time in the schedule to allow for changes, so you just tell people what has already been decided.

Start early, communicate often, be up front about the unknowns, and keep collaboration in mind. Your change implementation will be much smoother as a result.