Change communications: four myths and one hard reality

Mural of Greta Thunberg at Upfest, BristolA few years ago, one of the lecturers on my Masters’ degree opened the first session on change by stating firmly: ‘We live in a time of unprecedented change’. He was a big man with a statesmanlike presence, and this was clearly an indisputable statement, so like good students we all nodded and carefully wrote it down.

You’ve probably come across similar sweeping statements, or the acronym VUCA (Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous) to describe the current business climate. We are experiencing an unprecedented pace of technological, cultural and societal change, apparently, and this means all bets are off, strategically.

But back in that lecture room, our professor then followed it up with ‘Do we? Really?’, and suddenly we had to sit up, engage our brains, and consider whether all these statements are true. Are the world and our workplaces really changing faster than they ever have before, or is our impression of what came before woefully inaccurate?

Myth 1: We live in times of unprecedented change

It’s easy to think that there was a time when jobs were for life, organisations stayed the same for decades, and everyone went to church on Sundays, but I’m not sure that was ever true. I’ve been re-watching the iconic series Mad Men, which depicts beautifully the changing times that form the backdrop to Don Draper’s brilliance.

It starts in the 1950s and features huge, world-shattering events such as the assassination of JFK and the moon landing, but also more gradual shifts: the growing economic power of black Americans, civil rights, professional women choosing career over marriage, divorce, free love, abortion and contraception and not insignificantly, the first office photocopier disrupting the typewriter/carbon paper paradigm and putting secretaries out of work – sound familiar? (And yes, I did just use the word paradigm. Please understand that my tongue was firmly in my cheek.)

When you look back over the series you realise how much the world changed in just a few decades. And while technology is advancing incredibly fast, when you compare its effects so far to the huge changes brought about by the humble washing machine, I think there’s still a way to go.

Besides, even if we are living in times of unprecedented change, how does wittering on about it endlessly help anyone? Well, if you create a feeling of fear and urgency, it can alter people’s behaviour. Dean of Harvard Business School, Nitin Nohria, points out that:

“there has never been a time in which managers did not invoke the idea that the world is changing faster than it’s ever changed before. It’s a way to challenge your organisation, to create motivational energy.”

In other words, it’s creating a burning platform on a global scale, but this can be a very dangerous game (more on this later).

Myth 2: People don’t like change

Of course people like change. As a species, our inability to be happy with the status quo, our restless urge to seek out new ways of doing things, to investigate things for no other reason than our ‘satiable curtiosity, are what has made us so successful. We deliberately seek out change when we travel, when we look for a new job, when we decide to eat in a different restaurant. What we don’t like is change over which we feel we have no control.

Sadly, when we are part of an organisation, change is often foisted upon us quickly and by circumstances beyond our control: in my career the most significant changes to date were brought about by a General Election, a corporate takeover, and the collapse of the late 90s (not all at once, obviously. I’m not sure I’d have recovered from that perfect storm!)

Change beyond our control feels like a journey into the unknown with a pilot we don’t trust at the helm, and we don’t like that very much. So the current discourse about unprecedented change makes everyone feel uncertain, unsafe, and at risk, which makes it even more important to help people feel safe within their organisation when it is going through change. It really helps if you’ve treated your people well in the past to create a culture of psychological safety (if you haven’t, the start of a change programme is a bit late, but you can still build trust by being open and transparent.)

Myth 3: You shouldn’t start changing – or communicating about it – until the plan is complete

I came up against this one just the other day: the idea that we should have everything in place, every t crossed and every i dotted, before we even mention the forthcoming change. There are so many reasons why this is a bad idea, not least of which is the fact that it’s incredibly rare to have the luxury of that much time before the change needs to start happening.

Many models of change (such as Lewin’s Unfreeze, Change, Refreeze framework) reflect this assumption that there is some sort of stable, fixed starting point from which to carefully plan and execute a change programme, and that after the change the organisation will return to a stable state.

In my experience this is rarely the case.

Not only that, but you might think your people are living in blissful ignorance until the moment you start communicating about the change. I can almost guarantee that they’re not.

Most organisations leak like sieves, and even if no one gossips, your people aren’t stupid (or at least I hope they’re not, otherwise why did you hire them?)

They can see the writing on the wall as well as you can, and in the absence of real information, they’ll start speculating. Speculation leads to rumours and fear, so start talking as soon as you can, be transparent, and keep talking throughout.

It’s ok to tell people you don’t have all the detail yet, or that you’re not sure what the final outcome will be: they’ll be much happier with that than with cloak and dagger secrets followed by a big announcement, or half-truths and meaningless assurances. Keeping too many secrets also perpetuates an ‘us and them’ feeling between management and people, too, which creates factions and adversarial behaviour.

Myth 4: A crisis – or burning platform – is a good way to provoke change

Back to our burning platform: if you’ve been through organisational change at any time, you’ve probably come across the burning platform story. People often think it’s part of the Kotter eight step change process, but in fact Kotter’s first step is a much milder ‘Create a sense of urgency’. This illustrates my problem with the burning platform analogy: the original anecdote is about a life or death situation, where someone had to choose between staying on a burning platform (which would certainly kill him), or jumping into freezing waters (which might kill him). It was a survival situation, life or death, high fear, high risk, huge consequences (although given that there were only two options, and only one involved any chance of survival, it could be argued that it was also quite an easy change to make.)

Still think this is a good analogy for change? Were you listening just now when I mentioned psychological safety? Do you really think creating high fear in your people is the best way to motivate them? It may be life or death for the business, but a business is not a person. No one dies if the business goes bust (we hope). If you turn the change into a survival situation, all that happens is that people start focusing on making sure they’re going to be able to pay the mortgage and feed the children. And before you know it, your best people aren’t concentrating on the change, they’re off for interviews with the competition, and then they’re gone.

The other problem with the burning platform analogy is that it creates the conditions where people feel it’s ok to abandon their values. It’s an emergency, right? We’ll worry about principles later. In Shoshana Zuboff’s amazing book on surveillance capitalism, she discusses the shift that happened at Google when they came under pressure to monetise their product:

“the VCs were screaming bloody murder. Tech’s salad days were over, and it wasn’t certain that Google would avoid becoming another crushed radish.” (Steven Levy, quoted in Zuboff p73)

Faced with an emergency that threatened the survival of the company, Google shifted its focus from indexing the world’s information and providing the best results possible, to creating an income stream through advertising, something to which the founders had previously been violently opposed. So be careful about creating a feeling of emergency: you might not like the way people behave as a result.

And the one hard reality

Of course the big change we all have to make right now actually DOES relate to a life or death situation: the global climate emergency.

We’re an odd species – we talk about burning platforms when we really mean threats to a business, while blithely ignoring the raging inferno under our feet.

Organisations and businesses come and go: people get new jobs, new industries are created as old ones collapse, and with a bit of help from progressive social policies, hopefully people do ok. As outlined above, helping people to manage and work through change means you’re more likely to hang onto them, as they remain invested in the success of your organisation rather than looking to their own survival. All this means creating high fear in organisations and industries is a terrible idea.

But when it comes to our planet, we’re all irrevocably invested. We can’t not be, there’s nowhere else to go (I don’t count Mars as a viable alternative, or even a place I want to live, to be honest. I like it here.) So stop talking about unprecedented technological change, and start creating (or continuing to create) some high fear about climate change. It might just save the world.


Also published on Medium.