Igniting change

As an internal communicator how can you ignite change in your organisation without burning the house down and creating lots of resistance to it? This starts by adopting a particular mindset in how you think about change, before you try to communicate anything about it.  

It’s sometimes said that change communication is now a part of every internal communicator’s role and that it is no longer a distinct area of practice. However, I’m seeing more and more internal communication roles which are badged as being purely about the planning and implementation of change communication. This suggests that, in these turbulent times, more organisations are seeing change communication as a distinct role, with a unique skillset and focus

Over the course of my career, I’ve had several change communication roles, supporting change programmes and projects big and small, and a grateful CEO once thanked me for ‘igniting our change’.

As an internal communicator how can you ignite change in your organisation without burning the house down and creating lots of resistance to it? I think this starts by adopting a particular mindset in how you think about change, before you try to communicate anything about it.  

Not all change is the same

This might seem to be a rather obvious statement. Change, for example, can be about processes, people, technology, shifting strategy and a whole host of other practical things, right? This is often our starting point for planning change communication. However, it is often worth looking at change through a higher-level and more semantic lens to identify its characteristics before getting into the detail about how to communicate the specifics about it.

Depending on its characteristics, change could be classified as being incremental or transformational, reactive or proactive, planned or emergent or somewhere in between these extremes. Starting out by thinking about where the change you need to communicate about falls in these continuums can be helpful to identify the communication approach that is needed.

For example, planned change, often delivered through projects, usually needs an equally formal and planned communication approach, whereas emergent (or viral) change might need a communications approach which is much more fluid and adaptive.

Thinking about the high-level characteristics of change can also be a good starting point for working out what the internal and external drivers of the change are, which brings me to my next point.

Context is all

Organisations are bubbles, and sometimes the people working in them can’t clearly see what is happening outside the bubble and driving the change within it.

That’s why it’s important as a change communicator to keep bringing the outside, inside to set the context for the changes that are happening in the organisation.

Some refer to this as establishing an initial ‘burning platform’ for change (another fire starter!) at the start of the communication sequence. I think that this is simplistic and sometimes the drivers for change are more complex, shifting and subtle requiring a deeper and continuing explanation to establish the context and build understanding of it.

I once worked in higher education, which is a sector continually battered by hurricane force winds of change driven by a jet stream of issues which just keep on coming. This required a continuing narrative about ‘why’ changes were necessary before trying to communicate anything about the specifics.

It is easy for employees inside the apparently protective bubble of an organisation to ‘deny change’, or more specifically the external reasons why it is happening. Particularly, if these reasons are unclear and not communicated properly.

The true nature of organisations

Organisations are not products, processes, brands and buildings, they are people. Or more specifically, the relationships that exist between those people which enables them to get things done.

Change is a disruptor and breaks relationships, particularly if that change is some kind of organisational restructure.  

That’s why it’s important, in any programme of change and change communication to build in some opportunities for people to rebuild relationships or establish new ones.

Unlike some aspects of change, this doesn’t happen overnight, which brings me to my next point.  

Change is a transition (for people)

Change can be implemented suddenly and happen rapidly, or more accurately, the practical stuff such as systems, processes, structures and technology can be changed quickly often by the click of a switch. Unfortunately, people are a different kettle of fish, and when change happens they are almost always in catch up mode.

This is often a stressful experience for employees, however well planned the implementation of the changes. For them, change is a transition which takes time to come to terms with and this needs to be factored into the change activity.

For change communication, the practical implication of this is that change communication cannot be a ‘one and done’ activity. It needs to be aligned to the transition curve which employees experience, and adaptive repetition of messaging, using employee listening and feedback to shape this, is a better change communication strategy with a more human perspective.    

Resistance is futile

Remember the Borg? Fans of the Star Trek franchise will be familiar with their refrain ‘we are the Borg, resistance is futile, you will be assimilated.’ I suspect that some employees will have experienced similar messaging from insensitive senior managers in a change situation. In other words, ‘get on the (change related) bus or leave.’

In the context of organisational change, assimilation is not necessarily a bad thing and perhaps a more preferable option for employees than a ‘conquest’ led by management

How change is presented in organisations is important if resistance (however futile) is to be avoided.

I once learned from consultants working with me on a change programme that change is often best positioned as being more like a ‘Roman occupation’ than a ‘Norman conquest’. A conquest usually results in the creation of a resistance movement which will eventually topple the new regime. The Roman approach is one of assimilation and a blending of the old and new which endures long after the occupation has ended.

Wise words, which I have not forgotten.

Past, Present, Future

Blending the old and the new means understanding the points of reference for different groups of people in the organisation. These reference points can be very different and are the things that define people, shape their experience of work, perspectives and attitudes. Unfortunately, this often gets overlooked by organisations when they communicate about change and as a change communicator you need to be aware of this barrier to understanding if you are to overcome it.

Employees’ perspectives are heavily shaped and influenced by the past. It is their only certain point of reference.  For line managers it’s the present that really matters, making sure the team gets the job done and hitting targets.  Executives and leaders are way ahead in the future, setting strategy and making plans.

In a change situation it’s this last perspective that often dominates the communication agenda but employees and line managers often don’t speak the language of the future or understand it. This can create confusion when messages using that language are misunderstood. Then out of this confusion, frustration and resentment can develop which obstructs the changes being implemented.

Avoid solely using a narrative for change that only focuses on the future. It is important to link the future to the organisations past and present within that story, to establish a continuity which employees can understand and ultimately buy-in to.  


Image by Amy from Pixabay 

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