Announcing change? Top 10 ways communication cascades fail

Jeff Cole

Good communication is essential to any change initiative. But when cascading your message from top management on down things can go seriously wrong, says columnist Jeff Cole. Here are the 10 most common ways those cascades can fail.

Want to make a change fail quickly? It’s pretty simple really – just do a lousy job communicating it.

Poor communication is, unfortunately, a core competency in many organizations today. Thus, it’s no wonder the odds are stacked against us on any change project. Many change agents rely on a method called "cascading communications" to ensure their change is properly communicated by the right person to the right audience at the right time and via the best communication medium.

What is a communication cascade?

The idea is this: assume a director has some managers reporting to her and those managers have individual contributors reporting to them. The individual contributors are the targets of this change (they will be impacted). We need to announce a change.

The cascade approach says the director (the change sponsor) first presents the change to her managers (as targets). She gets them on board the change and indicates that they need to sponsor this change in their respective organizations, asking them to repeat the session they’ve just been in with their direct reports.

Rough waters ahead for your communication cascade?

The managers (sponsors for their own departments) then cascade this communication to the individuals in their organizations. This works very well as people tend to do what their immediate boss asks them to do. Everyone is hearing about the change in a very consistent way from their direct boss.

As simple as this approach is, it can and does fail often. Here are some of the main reasons:

#1: The initial sponsor goes off-message

The person kicking off the change gives the wrong messages about the change. At best this causes confusion. At worst it kills the change.

#2: Subsequent sponsors go off-message

Like the game of "telephone" as a child where you whisper a message into someone’s ear and so forth around the room. By the time the message returns to you it has changed significantly. If you have many layers of management through which to cascade your message (especially if it’s a verbal presentation), this is a very real risk.

#3: A sponsor skips a level

What happens when a busy worker hears of a new change? They often ask their boss "Do I really have to do this?" If that person’s boss has been skipped in the cascade it creates confusion, trust issues, and losses of productivity and momentum.

#4: Failure to prepare subsequent sponsors to conduct further cascades

This is where you want someone to cascade your message but you don’t provide them any standardized resources (i.e. a script or talking points, a presentation or memo, etc.) leaving them to their own devices. This leads to variation in the messaging and confused workers potentially doing the wrong things at the wrong time.

#5: Cascade stops part-way through

Once a cascade is launched, the initial sponsor makes the fatal mistake of assuming it will all just work out ok. There is no follow-up or management of the cascade to ensure it happens as planned and it limps to a halt in one or more places, leading to uninformed workers and management.

#6: Cascade delegated / wrong people communicating

Change agents understand the importance of having the right people communicate the messages. If this gets delegated, all of a sudden the initiative becomes "an HR thing" or a "quality department effort" rather than something the whole organization owns.

#7: Message communicated to only part of audience with no catch-up for absentees

If you are in a large organization, you may never get everyone together at the same time. How will you ensure everyone in the organization hears the message?

#8: Message too complicated

Taking 1000 words to describe a 100 word concept is bad. So is not breaking it down into smaller understandable pieces. Management might communicate, check off they did it, but nobody they communicated with understands what they said.

#9: Words don’t match actions / coerced compliance

Good sponsorship does not involve rolling one’s eyes and sarcastically saying "I was told by corporate I had to read this to you". Nor does it involve an ad-lib at the end of the nature "I really don’t care if you do this or not"….

#10: Stapled-on – no accountability, consequences or follow-up

Until cascading communications becomes second nature and a core competency for an organization, it is wise to monitor the cascade like any managed activity with owners, due dates, spot audits, consequence management, etc.

Ok, but so what?

You may be thinking thanks for the tips, but what do I do about it? Sure, simply emailing around a memo or presentation is easier to do, but experienced change agents will tell you that the face to face communications are often more powerful.

The answer here again is rather simple – leverage the quality tools you already know. In this case a Failure Modes and Effects Analysis (FMEA) is an excellent way to proactively look at your upcoming communication cascade, and ask yourself "What might go wrong with this" and "how can I error-proof this cascade"?

For further tips on communciation techniques and messages that you can use to better communicate with your executive team about BPM do take a look at our upcoming webinar on 24 July that addresses this specifically.

For more information on using the FMEA tool, click here to re-visit my column from 2009: New Uses for Old Tools: FMEA

Happy communicating!