Think about the last time you saw a news story about an organization in trouble. If the company representative answered questions with “no comment,” how did it make you feel? What assumptions did you make? You might have felt they were hiding something, right? Did you decide for yourself what was probably going on?
There is no such thing as saying nothing. Silence sends its own message.
We often delay communicating about a change until we have perfect alignment and all facts in order. We believe the risk of a misstep is too high if we start too early. But if we’re always communicating — whether we intend to or not – that means we’re always assuming risk.
And, often, silence holds the greater risk. It leaves room for the imagination. Small, incomplete, or irrelevant facts fill the space where the truth should be. People’s biases and interests color their versions of the story. Often, by the time we decide to send an accurate message and set a course in the right direction, it’s too late – people have already decided what they believe is happening.
Doing it right starts early, and it starts from the top. Ahead of any significant change project, we must get leadership aligned. We do this with our clients using a simple message framework. A group of leaders and sponsors distills the initiative into four key words, which represent the challenge, the solution, the approach and the result. The four words help each member of the leadership team tell the story with consistency and passion. As they do so, the story cascades to all the groups affected by the change.
Doing this early is especially critical when we have a large, complex project. People sense something big coming – they want to know why it’s happening and exactly how it will impact them. In that case, we want leaders, sponsors and other key stakeholders on-message and ready to walk through the story as soon as possible. The more complexity, and the more stakeholders, the greater the challenge. There’s nothing like multiple versions of a message to push a project off the rails. The sooner we move the story through the organization, and get local team leaders and change agents ready to consistently tell the right story, the less risk. We are filling the information gap before it has a chance to grow and become an obstacle. Getting ahead of that gap keeps everyone grounded in accurate information and moving in the right direction.
This simple but critical process – creating an accurate, consistent and compelling story – sets your project on the right course. And it’s much less risky than the sound of silence.