Change communication

By Paul Harrison

June 4, 2019 

A couple of weeks ago we hosted an insightful change comms event with Cécile Jenkins, Sara Hirsch, Jo Twiselton and Paul Breakwell. The evening was full of top tips and advice which inspired one of our attendees, Paul Harrison (Internal Comms and Change specialist), to write this brilliant short blog about some of the principles around change, over to Paul: 

After an evening full of insights and stories about change communication, one comment stuck in my mind. Cecile Jenkins from Oxford University Press said she used a set of eight change communication principles to inform conversations with managers, and one of them was ‘We don’t launch without a plan.’

Cecile was part of a panel of experienced change communicators at a CIPR Inside event answering questions from an audience of fellow communication professionals. Her comment struck a chord because conversations with managers about change communication can often start in the wrong place. Having something to guide discussions along the right track could be very useful. I put out a challenge on Twitter to internal communicators to suggest some other principles. Here are my eight, based on the discussion at the event and on Twitter, and on my own experience.

We don’t launch without a plan

Timing is always a tricky one with communication about change. You can’t wait until you have all the answers. On the other hand, sometimes the enthusiasm around the launch communication can mean everyone forgets about what will come next. Following this principle will make sure that doesn’t happen.

We start with the objective

Defining the problem you are trying to solve is always step one, isn’t it? I work for the NHS and in healthcare you don’t prescribe treatment before you diagnose the problem. So why would you start communicating without knowing what you are trying to achieve? Unfortunately, you can never assume this will be obvious to someone who is impatient to ‘get comms out’. Starting at the beginning can seem to them like wasting time. But there is hope. A couple of months ago, one of the hospital consultants I work with made my day when she said: ‘When I come to the comms team to ask for help, I don’t want them to say yes or no. I want them to ask questions to find out more. Because what I think I want is often not what I need.’

We find local champions to be the voice of the change

We know that some people want to be first – the innovators and the early adopters. Others will wait to see how it works. So finding those local champions who can show how it is done is crucial. A lot of my work is in digital transformation in healthcare. The best advocate for a digital innovation is a clinician who is already doing it, loves it, and can communicate that passion to their peers.

We are honest about the negative impact of change

There is often pressure to be relentlessly positive. When I started in change communication, a change manager took me aside to offer his advice: ‘What we need to do, Paul, is communicate the “what’s in it for me” for everyone.’ So I spent quite some time searching high and low for the WIFM of the new system we were introducing. Ann Pilkington from PR Academy wrote a blog a few years ago arguing that the far better question to ask is ‘What’s important for staff?’ This helps to see the change from the perspective of different staff and understand the transition they need to go through.

We target and tailor our communications

Recent research by Jenni Field and Benjamin Ellis into communication needs of remote workers emphasised the importance of the relevance of the information that is communicated. Information overload was seen as a problem, but only 3% of people said they had too much information about their work. In his book The Joy of Work, Bruce Daisley shows how people’s mental resources are finite. Having unimportant decisions to make reduces our ability to solve the really important problems. So we have a duty to cut down on the noise and find ways to get the right information and engagement opportunities to people at the right time.

We think about hearts, minds and situations

There was recognition from both the panel and the audience of the importance of understanding psychology. In Switch, their book on change, Chip and Dan Heath talk about motivating the elephant, directing the rider and shaping the path. Behaviour is often determined more by instinct and gut reactions (the elephant) than by careful consideration of the facts (the rider). The extra dimension is the path, which reminds us to look out for obstacles in the situation which may prevent people from changing.

We identify what the change is asking people to do differently

This is related to principle 2, ‘We start with the objective.’ All change is about behaviour. ‘What do you want people to do differently?’ is always a powerful question to ask.

We do change with people not to them

Julie Hodges, in Managing and Leading People Through Organizational Change, talks about achieving change through compliance or commitment. Sustainable organisational change has to be done through commitment and this requires a lot of work upfront in involving people in the change.

So those are my eight principles, with a lot of help of my friends. Are these the definitive change communication principles? That’s open to discussion. The better question may be:  would some change communication principles help you and your team have better conversations with people running change programmes in your organisation? If so, these eight could be a good place to start and refine to suit your purposes.

Paul Harrison works in internal and change communication at Imperial College Healthcare NHS Trust and has a special interest in digital transformation.

He is a guest tutor for PR Academy on the CIPR Specialist Diploma (Internal Communications). 

Paul tweets as