Change management is not just about what is changing; it’s equally about how changes are communicated and who delivers the message. According to Prosci, a leading organization in change management research, the most crucial aspects of Organizational Change Management (OCM) revolve around the content of communication (the “What”) and the messenger (the “Who”).

Don’t Ignore the Messenger!

While project teams are essential in implementing new systems or processes and help answer the “What”, the business leaders and people managers are critical in affecting change by playing the role of the messenger. Unlike project team members, business leaders and managers can generate buy-in from impacted members of the organization.

In fact, Prosci’s research demonstrates that sponsors are so critical to change efforts that they can make or break a project or initiative:

Clearly, the messengers (aka. The “Who”) are arguably the most important components of any change management campaign. 

Change Management’s Greatest Challenge

Imagine requesting your mailman to deliver 100 invitations to your friends and family. Despite his vested interest in ensuring all mail reaches its destination, he may prioritize urgent mail over yours, especially if it’s off his usual route. Consequently, your invitations might be delayed significantly, possibly causing your event to pass before they’re even delivered!

This is the systemic challenge project teams face when asking executive sponsors and managers to flow down their communications. These requests are often deprioritized in the mix of other “urgent” requests and are seen to cause additional overhead for already busy leaders. The result: impacted employees don’t engage with the change. After all, if it’s not coming from the top, how important can it be?

So how do project teams effectively have communications flow top-down (aka. With proper sponsorship) without gambling on leadership’s time investment?

Flowing Down Sponsorship as an Organizational Process

Executive sponsors constantly encounter changes impacting their corner of the organization, whether it is a new technology or process. Although no change is quite alike, often the common denominator is the end user community. This means that changes impacting the same end user community have predictable sponsor flow down patterns, and where there’s a pattern (ding, ding, ding!), there’s opportunity to create a repeatable process.

  • Establish a Defined Coalition Map

A change coalition map visually outlines key stakeholders and their influence on an organizational change. By understanding who these stakeholders are and how they connect to the end-user community, organizations can effectively strategize the flow down of sponsorship for any given change.

Since leaders are well versed in the various relationships/power dynamics (including informal ones), they can create a blueprint for how communication can trickle top-down most effectively.

  • Defining Communication Vehicles

Effective communication that builds strong awareness and desire must be communicated frequently through multiple appropriate communication vehicles. 

Project teams (especially external contractors) often struggle to identify established communication channels, processes to engage in town halls or staff meetings, and preferred communication methods within organizations. Leaders can provide valuable insight into these aspects, as they vary between organizations.

Leaders have the authority to define how executive communications trickle down to managers and the rest of the staff. Ideally, there is a communication channel between each layer of the coalition. This way, messages have proper sponsorship, resistance to change can be mitigated, and information can be shared in a fast, collectively exhaustive fashion. 

  • Establish Communication Flow-Down Practices

By establishing a “sponsor flow-down model,” leaders can ensure that messages reach all levels effectively, utilizing the most effective communication channels to reach lower levels in the organization. 

The flow-down of sponsorship should be consistent for projects that fall under the same sponsor in an organization, bringing consistency even as projects change. This will help build confidence within the organization over the business leaders’ sponsored projects. 

  • Manage Change Through the Bird’s Eye View

Understandably, project teams have a siloed view of their one project and are unaware of the competing initiatives & changes occurring at the same time as their project.

Leaders oversee multiple initiatives and can help ensure messages shared with the end user community are not contradictory, timed effectively, and even leverage each other to mitigate change fatigue.

Collaboration with Project Teams  

While the organization should own the flow down of sponsorship and play the role of the messenger, project teams possess in-depth knowledge of the changes being implemented. 

Communication content should be crafted so that leaders can autonomously inform and engage the organization. The content needs to be regular and engaging but also executed in a way that sounds natural to the business leader. Short videos can be an effective and engaging way to share important information about the change and help avoid broken telephones when cascading information through multiple layers of the organization.

Project team members have little control over the commitment, frequency, and timeliness of communication when asking leaders to flow down key information about the change. This high dependence and low control over a critical change management success factor makes it difficult for project teams to own the sponsor flow-down aspect of a change management campaign. By having organizational leaders take ownership of defining communication flow-down systems and practices, change can be brought on smoother and faster.