Article Archive
September/October 2020

Leadership: Change Management Communication — How It Can Prepare Your Organization for the Silver Tsunami
By Lisa Hannum
Today’s Geriatric Medicine
Vol. 13 No. 5 P. 6

Longer life expectancy and the swelling population of aging older adults are quickly changing health care practices across the United States. The “silver tsunami” is upon us. The US Census Bureau points to 2034 as a milestone year in which older people will outnumber children for the first time in history. Is your organization prepared to serve the care needs of this population? As 2020 is demonstrating, preparation is crucial. It can, and does, save lives.

Change can create disruption in any organization. The health care industry was experiencing an extreme amount of turbulence prepandemic. Current events are opening all the cracks in the system. This level of disruption and turbulence will challenge employee engagement for the long term, making it difficult for vital changes to take root and thrive. Change management is a practice that mitigates negative reactions to change and increases organizational support for new strategic initiatives, helping ensure your organization is ready to adapt and evolve when the time is right.

Many health care organizations have embraced change management as a discipline, yet change initiatives continue to fail. Estimates show 50% of organizational changes will fail or deliver unsatisfactory results. Failure to successfully change and grow will ultimately lead to the failure of the organization.

The Missing Ingredient in Change Management: Communication
People must change for organizations to successfully evolve. Most people, however, are conditioned to resist change. Leaders need to plan for the resistance by clarifying the “why” behind the change. In the case of the silver tsunami, “Why should our organization change to meet the needs of this particular generation?” This understanding is built through purposeful, clear, and consistent communication. Communication provides the context to understand the why, what, and so what of the change. Effective communication answers the most important question on every person’s mind: “What does this change mean to me?” Once people understand the change, they are far more likely to engage in the change and ask, “What’s my role? How can I help?”

How can organizations build this kind of understanding of and support for change? The answer lies in clear, consistent communication.

Change Management Communication Defined
From regulatory and reimbursement shifts to navigating a global pandemic, change is universally accelerating—faster than organizations and employees can keep pace. Effective change drives positive momentum, but change initiatives often fail due to a lack of communication. True transformation requires proactive communication that supports providers, patients, and employees and creates engagement, builds trust, and advances change.

How does change management communication differ from everyday organizational communication? Change management communication is strongly oriented to changing behavior. It must do the following:

• create the climate for change;
• engage a wide range of teams;
• enable the organization to create new behaviors and habits;
• support activation of the change; and
• sustain the change.

Why Change Management Communication Is So Important
Leaders may have a well-reasoned vision for change, but even smart, positive shifts in an organization create disruption. Employees feel changes in the organization long before leaders announce them.

Unfortunately, it’s common for organizations to fixate on change processes and logistics. Organizations should instead focus on the best ways to prepare for and engage employees—from front-line providers to environmental services staff to administrators—in the change. Communication in change management too often is an afterthought when it should be the first thought. That said, change management communication can only be effective if it’s led, modeled, and supported by leaders and physicians.

How to Be an Effective Change Management Leader
Boards of directors, executive leaders, and senior leaders are key to driving change inside and outside organizations. It’s crucial leaders lead and act as front-line change sponsors from beginning to end for a new or evolving strategy.

A well-planned strategic approach to change management communication ensures leaders share the right information, in the right ways, at the right time, with the right audiences. This approach ensures communication happens early and consistently and engages the right stakeholders.

A change management communication plan helps organizations focus on change goals and clearly connect the dots to explain the why, what, and so what of change.

The Foundation of Effective Communication
All change management processes, through every step, must be supported by effective communication. Here’s the five-point foundation for effective change communication.

• Agree on the why of the change. This requires understanding the current state, listening to those responsible for and affected by the change, and reaching agreement among leaders about why the change is right for the business and right for its communities. Harvard professor John Kotter, creator of one of the best-known change models, calls this process identifying “The Big Opportunity.” In the case of delivering care to a growing population of older adults, The Big Opportunity lies in providing new ways of care amid a challenged health care system.

• Tell a compelling change story. Most people don’t respond favorably to being told what to do. The natural response is resistance. People respond more favorably to change when they understand the why, what, so what, and how of change. Your organization must tell an authentic and compelling change story that answers the following questions:

- Why is the organization moving in this direction? Why must the organization change to meet the needs of the silver tsunami?

- What will the change look like and feel like? What will change in my area, and, specifically, what will change for me? Will I need to manage new people? Participate in new training above and beyond my current role?

- How will the change help the organization produce better results and achieve its goals? What happens as a result of successfully advancing this change?

- How is this change better for me, my colleagues, and our patients and families?

- How, specifically, can I, my team, and the overall organization contribute to the change?

• Build a culture that thrives on change. Organizations with strong, resilient cultures—grounded in transparency, positivity, collaboration, and trust—have far higher success rates implementing change at scale. For example, how will your organization shift to provide care in an outpatient setting?

• Engage and empower the organization. Engaged organizations create advocates who are ready to lead, change, and move people in a unified direction. Advocates are invited into change initiatives early, helping create the strategic vision and approach. Advocates must be supported by a continuous flow of transparent information across a range of communication channels.

• Sustain communication. Effective communication is a key element of change management. It’s also a core business strategy. Communicating openly, clearly, and consistently is foundational in every organization. Demonstrating an unwavering commitment to communication helps strengthen work cultures and build trust. Keep in mind, communication channels can also evolve to align with a more tech-savvy aging population.

Change initiatives are more successful when supported by strong communication. Sustaining communication throughout a long, complex change management initiative takes focus and commitment. The end result—a higher likelihood of successful change—will be worth the effort.

Measure Change Management Communication Effectiveness
Every organization needs change initiatives to produce results. These results include full adoption of changes, improvement in targeted metrics, and, ultimately, better business performance. Unfortunately, the majority of change initiatives fail to meet expectations, and most organizations can’t define why. The problem: change resistance.

To combat this enemy of change, organizations need to create a strong communication plan and measure its effectiveness. This includes seeking ongoing input and feedback throughout change initiatives. Leaders will listen and receive input in near real-time about what’s working and what’s not, and they can quickly make adjustments.

Change management experts use many metrics to calculate change management success: adherence to the project plan, adherence to the timeline, and return on investment. These standard metrics are valuable but don’t represent the full change picture. Standard metrics miss the most important element of any successful change: people. To truly understand how well change initiatives are performing, organizations must measure the effectiveness of change management communication.

Feedback Loops Are Critical to Measuring Communication
Measuring change management communication starts with consistent employee input. Feedback loops make it possible to understand how a project is progressing and performing and how employees are experiencing, accepting, and implementing the change.

Early in the change, organizations need to monitor and measure their employees’ attitudes and beliefs about the change. Pulse surveys are an effective tool to gather focused and frequent feedback from communities engaged in the change. Questions could include the following:

• Do you understand your role in the change?
• Do you feel the change is on track?
• What do you believe is working well to advance the change?
• How do you believe the change process could be improved right now?

As the change initiative progresses, organizations will shift to understanding changes in behaviors, attitudes, and beliefs. This information is crucial to measuring change implementation and adoption.

Strategic Communication Resources With Change Management Expertise
In the change planning phase, organizations must identify communication resources within their internal teams. Leaders should ask: “Does my organization have communication strategists with backgrounds in change management?” There may be good communicators throughout the organization. However, if they don’t have the necessary change management expertise, they’ll be challenged to design and implement an effective change management communication plan.

Change management projects put bandwidth pressure on organizations. This typically requires that dedicated communication resources be assigned to support change initiatives. During this high-stakes time, an outside agency partner can offer three primary benefits: additional communication resources, communication experts with a change management focus, and a neutral, third-party perspective.

Once leaders understand the when and who of the change management communication plan, they can move into developing the change management communication plan.

Beating the Change Management Odds
Change management initiatives fail far too often. Organizations don’t have to accept a 50-50 chance of success as the inevitable outcome. The key to overcoming barriers is engaging people through a strong change process and change management communication plan. Change results will exceed expectations when organizations activate all the elements needed to drive lasting change.

— Lisa Hannum is president and CEO of Beehive Strategic Communication.