Case study: Communicating a business improvement project

In 2014, I was asked to develop an internal communications plan for a new business improvement initiative in a university. I would need to think about how to ‘launch’ the project, raise its profile and engage relevant colleagues.

Process improvement communications - portrait cropThis was the perfect assignment for me – it appealed to my interest in organisational change and gave me the opportunity to contribute at the beginning of a brand new piece of work.

Under pressure to demonstrate progress, project managers can often be keen to churn out communications as quickly as possible, without stopping to think about what they’re trying to say and who they need to say it to.

In this case, I had the time to prepare a simple but detailed plan that helped to ensure that communications from the project were consistent and effective. How? By considering Why, Who, What, How and When.

Why are you communicating?

What do you actually want to achieve? How is this contributing to the overall goal of the project? Are you trying to raise awareness? Are you asking people to participate? Are you building up to change?

I start by asking these sort of questions, and then work in partnership with a team to develop some objectives for the communications. (I often write a first draft and then revisit it to make the objectives SMARTer.)

In this case, the team wanted to begin by educating colleagues about the benefits of process improvement and how it could help make their working lives easier. Then, with the groundwork laid, they would start to encourage colleagues to participate, generate their own ideas and train as facilitators.

Who do you actually need to communicate with?

It’s tempting to say ‘everyone!’ – but that’s rarely the case.

When I get a team together to think about their stakeholders, they are always surprised. There are normally far more individual groups than they realise – and those groups often have very different levels of involvement and awareness.

I like to meet with stakeholders, so I can hear first hand what their views are and whether there are any early misconceptions that need to be tackled. Once I’ve done that, I work with a project team to prioritise the list and think generally about:

  • What the stakeholders already know
  • Who/what they’re influenced by
  • What the team want them to do
  • What the stakeholders need in order to do this

For example, the CEO of your organisation might be on your list. They might not be directly involved with your project, but you might want them to be on message if asked about it in open meetings or by the press. A simple briefing every few months by the project sponsor could be the solution.

In the case of this project, the team knew that a certain level of ‘middle manager’ was most likely to initiate or approve new process improvement work, so we targeted them first. Then we provided templates to help them talk to their own staff about the work.

What do you actually want to say?

I always start by developing three simple messages, to be used consistently by a project.

This can often be the hardest part of the planning process. I take in a lot of information from a team, listen to the language that they use and distill it all down to the most important details.

This simplicity and consistency increases the overall impact.

I include supplementary messages and information in the plan – for example, anything that might be targeted at particular stakeholders.

I also start to think about how the language can be used to influence behaviours or engagement (creating social norms, for example) or where I might need some analogies to explain complex details.

Finally, I summarise a piece of work in less than 140 characters, because if I can’t do that then it’s still too complicated.

How will you communicate with your stakeholders?

What channels will you use? Sometime this might be as simple as a face-to-face conversation, or a regular email. For an internal campaign, you might make use of existing corporate channels, such as blogs, intranet news feeds and newsletters. You might decide that it’s necessary to create a new channel if, for example, you have hard to reach groups, like staff who don’t have regular access to a computer.

In a plan, I note some practical information, such as who is in charge of the channel, how often we should aim to use it and, of course, who the main audience is.

For this project, I experimented with using Twitter to promote the team’s activities internally. With so many different workshops taking place on campus, I predicted that we wouldn’t be short of content, and that Twitter could help the team communicate with hard to reach academics, as well as sharing best practice with process improvement groups in other organisations.

When will you communicate?

With the first four questions answered, I start to prepare a week-by-week plan that aligns with a team’s work and priorities, plus other relevant events and activities. These are normally fairly flexible.

I like to think about how different activities are linked – if, for example, I was planning something that was going to capture a lot of people’s attention in week 6, I’d want to make sure I had something to follow up with in weeks 7, 8 and 9.

For really busy projects, with lots of important deadlines, these plans might be day-by-day. Maybe even hour-by-hour.

Measure, refine, measure, refine

Finally, I document how the communications will be measured, so that a team can judge the effectiveness and refine when necessary.

This includes regularly capturing feedback – from chance comments in a staff room through to more detailed survey outcomes – and using this to adapt the work.

A quick note on choosing the right visuals

A single image, or set of images, can help create consistency across your communications, and make them more recognisable to your audience.

(Finding an image that fits with your message and can be adapted for different channels isn’t easy, though.)

Changing the image after a period of time can then help to signify a shift in your work – e.g. the start of a new phase.

I commissioned a professional but reasonably priced photographer to come into one of this team’s workshops and get some shots of a big group of staff collaborating to improve a process. Anyone who’s been involved in this sort of work in the past will know these are very active sessions, with people up on their feet and scribbling on post-it notes with chunky markers. Far better for a photographer than most meetings!

Just an hour with this photographer gave the team their ‘key’ image, as well as a set of other good quality, consistent photos that they could use in their materials.

Day-to-day

Having prepared this plan, I was commissioned to help deliver it. I spent, on average, 3-4 days a month with the project team over the course of a year. In that time, the work grew into a fully-staffed and in-demand unit, running regular improvement workshops, hosting lunchtime seminars and training a network of staff as facilitators.

The strong relationship that I built with the team meant that I could always stay one or two steps ahead with the communications, preparing content in advance, predicting what would come next for the their work and identifying new colleagues to engage. Sensing my obvious interest in the subject, they increasingly involved me in their wider work, including how to measure the impact of the improvements and how to create lasting, meaningful change across the institution.

It was one of my most rewarding projects to date.

If I can help you plan the communications for your own project, do get in touch.