Change communication – getting the narrative right.

When a leadership team announces a change or a transformation, it is very easy for communication to get lost in explaining practicalities. But humans are not unthinking robots, we need an emotional connection to help us embrace change.

And that starts with the IC team defining the narrative for the change; a running explanation that encompasses the why, the journey and the destination.

Learning from marketeers

A few years ago advertising agency VCCP worked with mobile telephone operator O2; just as the company was set up. Faced with the fundamental business need to retain customers despite a flawed network, they came up with the idea of Fandom – they decided that they didn’t want customers; they needed fans.

In communications to staff they talked about purpose; a purpose that went beyond selling airtime. They talked to colleagues about the need to change lives among customers.

We can all change the world

In all but a very small number of cases, organisations can talk to a human desire to change the world.

Naturally if you are working on a cure for cancer or eliminating greenhouse gas it’s easy to make the connection between change and achieving some fundamental goal.

But you don’t have to look far to see a way of talking about the impact people can have at work. A coffee firm talks to its staff about saving the world from mediocre coffee. I worked with a fertiliser business to develop the idea that its people were helping to solve global hunger.

It’s a point that was made to me a few years ago by my friend Tony Quinlan who said that organisations either see themselves as victims or saviours when it comes to change.

Academics, like change expert John Kotter, suggest that we need a burning platform to provoke new behaviours. People think that unless we point to an approaching tsunami or an encroaching forest fire, their teams will complacently let disaster strike.

But the reality of many of us is that we’re not so much motivated by fear as by the desire to grasp an amazing opportunity. When times are good and lay offs a distant memory, how else can you stir people to change?

Four parts to the narrative

When we work with clients on constructing their narrative around change we use a very simple model.

We ask them to describe:

  • The world or environment in which they find themselves today
  • The coming challenge or opportunity
  • The journey that is coming
  • The beautiful destination

Importantly, these descriptions should be a mix of facts and feelings.

Over time we have developed a workshop approach to get leaders to develop this story line. It’s about getting them to use their own words to create a narrative that they can, as a collective, stand behind.

Check it’s OK before you get all emotional

Just a final word of warning,.

A couple of years ago I was involved with a client that wanted to drive change and was using a very emotional message which they hoped would connect with staff. However, the workforce, facing a further round of job cuts and site closures reacted quite badly to being asked to imagine the joy they should be bringing to customers.

What excites executives may be a million miles away from the minds of front line staff and its our job to spot it before the Porche-driving CEO starts handing out lectures on economics!

So, whatever else you do, make sure you test it with the staff first!