Initiating Organizational Change: The W’s Come Before the H

“Let chaos storm! Let cloud shapes swarm! I wait for form.”
Robert Frost (1874 – 1963), American poet, Pulitzer Prize winner

imageThe next time you pick up a newspaper or read a news article online, pay close attention to how the news is communicated. As you read from start to finish, you’ll notice that the more general facts are presented at the beginning, while the content becomes more specific and granular at the end.

This standard journalism structure, an upside down triangle in layman’s terms, or an “inverted pyramid”, is present in much of what we read. As the writer travels from the wide top of the pyramid to the point at the bottom, they ask themselves a series of questions in order to shape their story more effectively.

These questions are affectionately known as “The Five W’s” – the what, why, who, when and where of the story. At the end, the reporter finally dives into the nitty gritty that is the “H” – the how.

Journalists aren’t the only ones who use the 5 W’s. Company leaders, presidents and strategic communicators can also benefit from using this format. When leaders introduce a change in their organization, careful consideration of the answers to the often-overlooked 5 W’s – before the H – is crucial to their cause.

The 5 W’s reflect the most basic questions people have about how the change will affect them. Since many people are uncomfortable with change, answering these basic questions helps to smooth the process.

It isn’t always easy for leaders to start with the 5 W’s. Some leaders feel pressure to immediately answer the H and skip the W’s. Others stay silent because they don’t have all the answers. Neither approach offers the best chance of effectively managing the change in your organization.

So, you’re ready to start with the 5 W’s to introduce a change. Before you do anything else, answer these questions:


  • What exactly is changing? For example, are we entering a merger with another company? Are we moving our offices? Are we reorganizing? Make this as clear and to the point as possible.


  • Why do we have to change? Why is this a benefit to me? It’s important to stop and think about your target audience before addressing this W. You don’t want to use overly generalized jargon. Instead, address this W with a clear message that resonates with people being impacted by the change and to whom you are communicating.


  • Who is being impacted by the change, both internally (e.g., all employees, the global technology team) and externally (e.g., country regulators, union groups)? Are all employees being affected similarly, or are some specific groups being impacted differently? As I noted in my last blog, remember to analyze your stakeholders as you are beginning to make a change. Note how both stakeholder groups (e.g., the global finance team) and individuals (e.g., the lead of a company-wide integration program) will be impacted. Expect to refine your stakeholder analysis on an on-going basis. As you further define the change, you will continue to understand the impacts on teams and individuals.


  • When is the change going to occur? This helps people to prepare, so that they aren’t caught off guard by what’s happening. If you don’t know exactly when the change will happen, it helps to give an overall timeline of what you do know, with expected dates for when the rest of the details will be known and shared.


  • Where can we find out more information about the change? Are employees supposed to go to their managers with questions? I also suggest having a tech-based option – a web forum, wiki, email newsletter – where people can find out more about the change on their own time.

Once the 5 W’s are thought through, leaders should start communicating them as soon as possible to address rumors and mitigate fears. Even if all of the answers aren’t available at that precise moment, address the things you do know about, and lay out a timeline for when you will figure out the rest. Treat your employees the way you would want to be treated; be honest, clear and open to questions. It’s a classic case of talking the talk and making sure you walk the walk.

As things progress, you’ll find that you can create some excitement around the change, adding more details and narrowing down to more specific terms.

Building awareness by using the 5 W’s is a crucial first step to reaching the H. While you may feel like you are putting the cart before the horse, resist the temptation to overlook the W’s. You have to be clear about the content of the how before you can figure out the how successfully.

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Sandra Schwan