In recent blogs I have touched on internal communication and its importance in getting employee engagement. Today I’m about to start work on a big change programme looking after both those things, so I felt it appropriate to have a think about communication and change.
The most fun I’ve had in a job has been when I’ve been tasked with engaging people with change. I’m not a keep things the way they are kind of guy. My motto is: “If it ain’t broke, break it. The worst that could happen is that it makes a nice tinkly noise as it shatters into a thousand tiny pieces.”
Change is all around us, friends, life is, in fact, a process of ceaseless change peculiar to organic matter (as I once said in a philosophy essay, much to the bemusement of my tutor). Change is what makes us people and without change we would still be a set of single-cell organisms lolling in a pool of brackish water.
(Apologies, at this point, to any creationists or intelligent design fans reading who are upset at this evocation of evolution, but you aren’t really my core demographic).
Anyway, change is necessary, and, although it is not always good, it isn’t going anywhere unless I’m completely misreading the second law of thermodynamics. In business, as in life and closed systems, change is always necessary; markets change, products change, customer needs and wants and expectations all change, and anyone looking to meet those needs, wants and expectations better change to be able to meet them, or the business side of things isn’t going to last too long.
So businesses must change, and that means people working in those organisations are going to have to change as well. At the very least, they will have to do things differently, or do different things.
That said, change is undertaken in order to deliver benefits to the business, and those benefits are likely to be achieved in a more sustainable way if people not only change what they do, but how they do it, that is change their behaviours. This takes a bit of doing.
There’s a bit more to it than issuing a new flow chart on how to do a new process or just installing some new software in everyone’s PC. To change behaviours you need really effective communication, and that means sharing information with people and then having a conversation with them to ensure that they have understood the information you have shared, and that they are willing and able to play their part in the change you are asking them to undertake.
Communication is always a change activity. After communication happens things are different. At the very minimum, levels of knowledge have increased, but it can and should be a lot more profound than that. So what should you share? The usual – what, when, where, how and, most importantly, why. What is changing? When is it happening? Where about in the organisation? How will things change? Why are they changing?
This last one is the key to get buy-in from people in change, as you need to make the why a reason for them, as an individual, to change. I remember one big change programme I worked on and they key kick-off comms was a video of the CEO telling everyone in the business what the programme was all about – a big modernisation programme, affecting everyone in the business, over the next couple of years.
Why? Because the business wouldn’t last the next couple of years unless something was done to turn it around. The classic burning platform “why”. Amusingly, the first time we showed the video to the wider senior leadership team (top 100 or so people in the business) the sound went off half way through.
The CEO went on speaking, silently for what seemed like hours while I ran around frantically back stage trying to get the sound back on. I did, eventually, just as the CEO was intoning the words “job losses”. You couldn’t have timed it better.
I digress, but the heart of the message was “it’s this or oblivion”; however, “we’re doomed” isn’t the most engaging message and very quickly we reframed the message around building a new business, constructive, forward-looking and forward-thinking and far more engaging for people.
They why became “because I want to be part of this new business”, a message that ran through every single piece of communication ever issued by anyone in the programme. Building a new business was through it all like letters in Blackpool rock.
You see, once you have your why you need to ensure that all communication of it is consistent and authentic; if you say you are building a new business then you better damn well build one. And build one we did, a leaner, fitter, more engaged organisation, better set to meet the needs, wants and expectations of modern customers, with a more effective culture and new behavioural norms across the piece. Then we merged it with another bit of the business and had to start all over again.
Change, see. It doesn’t stop, not ever. So the key thing from this is having that core message – why we are doing this, framing it in a positive and forward-looking way and then delivering that message consistently and authentically in every piece of communication you undertake. Simple.
So have a think. Change is almost inevitably happening somewhere in your business. Are you communicating about it? What are you communicating about it? And do your people. Really and truly understand why these changes are happening? Have a think.

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In this blog I have written, not for the first time, about the vital importance of authenticity. This was also a key facet of the 20th Century school of philosophy known as existentialism, about which I have blogged before.
Albert Camus, born 100 years ago last week, was very close to Jean-Paul Sartre, the godfather of existentialism, but wasn’t himself an existentialist. He was an absurdist, a world view he expounded magnificently in his novels, notably The Outsider, The Plague and The Fall. He also wrote a couple of philosophical essays, The Rebel and The Myth of Sisyphus.
This latter work I would commend eagerly and heartily to anyone engaged in trying to make change happen in a large organisation. I have returned to it frequently when things were getting tough in the many change programmes I’ve worked on over the years, and find the closing thoughts a great comfort.
In Greek legend, Sisyphus was condemned to push a boulder up a hill all day, only for it to fall back down again every night. I can’t imagine many project and programme managers who cannot empathise. But think, then, on the final words of Camus: “The struggle itself… is enough to fill a man’s heart. We must imagine Sisyphus happy.”
Happy birthday, Albert.

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