What happens when you get comms pros and project managers in a room to talk about change

By Becky Hall | Chair of CIPR East Anglia | @beckyhall210

28 November 2019

One in three projects do not achieve the intended goals (PMI). If comms pros and project managers, with their qualifications, charterships and experience, know the principles of making change stick in organisations, why do so many change initiatives fail? It was a recurring question at an event in Cambridge this week led by CIPR East Anglia and the APM's East of England branch about delivering effective change through great engagement. After thought-provoking presentations from CIPR Chartered Practitioner Jo Twiselton and the APM’s Kevin Brown, we all sat in small groups for some lively group therapy discussion about ‘doing change right’. It was clear from the off that there was heaps of knowledge and experience in the room. We were in broad agreement that the organisation - not the project team or comms professional - needs to genuinely feel accountable for making the change stick. Otherwise the change (eg new IT system, new process, new organisational structure, new organisational values) will be delivered but the business outcomes everyone wanted (eg efficiency, happier employees, better customer experience) will not. Some great points were made about things that should always be done from an engagement perspective:
  1. Listening, empathy and co-creation - emotional intelligence and bringing people along on the journey is super important. Jo presented these points to the whole group at the start of the session and emphasised how - while they seem like obvious things to do - they are often totally overlooked. Lots of nodding heads in the room!
  2. Ask the difficult question(s) and don’t accept rubbish answers without challenging a bit first - PMs and comms people should ask ‘but why this and why now?’ more, and with more conviction, having each other’s backs as we do this. I’ve myself picked up comms for projects where the business lead is too busy or is just entirely uninterested, and sometimes a difficult conversation is necessary, or the organisation wastes time, money and morale.
  3. Stop things at the gates if necessary - Comms pros could get leaders’/clients’ understanding and support for the things that we know change initiatives and projects need to have or be in order to not be a total car crash. If the project is already set up to fail, should we more boldly say this to our leaders and explain there are other business priorities that need communications support where our expertise would make a bigger difference for the organisation?
  4. Do away with rose tints - Honest conversations and reports about progress, warts and all, and measuring success against business outcomes rather than activity is an absolute must. If Project Managers are under pressure to fill their highlight reports with lovely green RAG statuses, or communications people are only judged on how many people have received their newsletters, organisations lose sight of the purpose of the change. Over time, trust erodes between the project team and leaders. Leaders feel foolish for over-promising and project teams don’t feel listened to.
It was also acknowledged that there is a lot outside of a communications professional’s control that influences the success/failure of change initiatives. Suggestions included:
  • Leaders should have a checklist to run through before work is funded, project team is assembled and an excited email goes out from the leadership team. Is there an influential sponsor who genuinely gives a cr*p about making this happen?! Is the change a priority and are we prepared to stop other things to get this done properly?
  • Organisations need to be prepared to change course if information (closure reports, feedback surveys, assessments of sponsors) reveals it’s needed. This may involve some difficult decisions and conversations - eg if a project just needs to be put on hold or a different sponsor is required) - but organisations must be bold and not continue just because changing direction is too hard.
With all that knowledge and understanding of change in the room, why - we all were discussing at the end of the session - do so many change initiatives fail? Someone mused it’s because people are unpredictable and change needs people’s support to be successful.  I came away wondering if it’s because the facts we hear about all the time - eg one in three projects do not achieve the intended goals - are based on statistics that include projects that should never have been started in the first place. If the stats filtered out the projects that didn’t have an engaged and effective sponsor, or that the organisation simply wasn’t ready for yet, would the statistics be more cheering? What do you think?
Watch out for details about the next CIPR East Anglia and APM event in Spring 2020.