Communicating Changes - Foundations of Leadership
The Foundations of Leadership series is built to help new managers and technical leaders ramp up their effectiveness quickly. Until you've developed your leadership style, these templates and tools help you create effective leadership habits. (view all posts in the series)
Communicating changes at scale is a challenge for even the most seasoned leaders. With every interaction, there’s a chance for someone to misinterpret the change, its motivation, or its impact. Great leaders make sure they’ve written down their plan, keeping everyone on the same page.
"If a leader can't get a message across clearly and motivate others to act on it, then having a message doesn't even matter." ー Gilbert Amelio, President and CEO of National Semiconductor Corp.
Inform Others: Our need to communicate with teams other than our own will grow with the size of the company. When teams are small, you can usually communicate changes informally and without much friction. As organizations grow, the informality of smaller companies often results in individuals being passed over during communication efforts.
Consistent Message: Building a communication plan provides a written record of the change, the rationale, and documents the rollout of the communication. Additionally, the document serves as a source of truth when communication around changes is not written (i.e. a meeting, all hands, or hallway conversation).
Determine the Size of Impact: The size of the impact is frequently, but not always, proportional to the size of the change made. Assessing impact requires answering the question “who’s work will be changed by this?” and building a list of individuals in response. Then, list those individual’s managers. The reason for this is two-fold. First, these managers are the ones most likely to be left out of the loop on changes. Second, these managers may also be aware of other individuals who will need the information you are distributing. If you have high confidence in mailing lists, slack @groups, or other distribution channels, you can use those in place of individuals for determining the size of the impact.
Determine the Method: A single email notification is insufficient for any change that impacts a reasonable number of people. Good communication plans involve both some number of message formats and messengers. Consider at a minimum the following archetypes:
A manager - responsible for communicating the business value of the impact and directing questions. Often will be a point of contact for non-engineering stakeholders.
A technical lead - responsible for communicating the technical impact and receiving and resolving questions from engineers.
While this can be the same individual, in practice the division of roles improves all written documents due to the use of multiple messengers.
Determine the Lead and Follow Time: The time required to absorb and respond to a communication scales with the size of impact. Changes that radically alter daily work need significant communication time leading up to the change, while long-tail changes such as reorganizations or metrics-related items require substantial investments of time after the change occurred.
Build the Change Communication Plan: At a minimum, a communication plan needs to contain the change and its significance. However, it should also include a summary of the impact, planned messages, and the communication timeline. The final plan should live in a document that can support tracking changes and comments. Google Docs, Quip, Coda, or any other collaboration tool can meet this requirement.
With the first draft of the communication plan ready, involve individuals who will need to weigh in on the plan, communication, and strategy. Most commonly these are the manager and technical leads identified above, but may also include HR partners.
Follow-Through on Communication: In complex communications, the messengers should connect with one another regularly to capture any discovered questions, concerns, or reactions. If needed, the communication plan can be quickly amended as it is being rolled out.
At the backbone of good change communication is a template. It reduces errors, improves consistency, and lets you focus on the people, not the mechanics. Build your own, or grab the pre-made template below as a starting point. You'll see more consistent communication instantly.
Great communication starts with a template that lets you shift your focus to helping people understand the message. Pulled from my time communicating changes at Pinterest, grab this and use it for anything from backwards incompatible technology changes to a department reorg. You’ve got this.