Communicating Change

This post is an extract from another one of my past training modules for communicators. It focuses on the subject of Communicating Change. The themes covered here are …

  • People and change
  • Telling the story
  • Inside Out Communication
  • Communications Planning
  • Communicating change and Changing communications
  • Leading change and Changing leaders

Nothing is quite as upsetting to most people as change. Most people do not welcome the idea of change.

This is true in our lives outside work of course, but it is also true in the workplace, and so something of importance to all businesses and other organisations.

In recent years it seems that organisations are addicted to ringing the changes. It might be the profusion of management consultancies, or the frequency businesses change CEOs and the need for new people to be seen to be changing something.

Every company I’ve worked for in-house and as a consultant has upsized, downsized, regionalised, localised, and centralised, and in one case been around the block and started again!

Each time one of the changes happens it involves people changing – or changing the people.

Worrying about the prospect of change can in itself cause failure at work with loss of production or falling quality. People get demotivated. They lose focus. They devote time and effort to things other than what they are employed to do.

The biggest contribution communications can make is to help people to address and resolve that fear.

All of this is perfectly natural and to be expected. It is almost more unusual not to find such reaction.

This is true in business as it is in every other aspect of our lives. Politics gives us many examples of this, because the business of politics and government is to bring about change. How many times have you heard people blame poor communication of a policy, rather than attack the policy itself?

Communication is key to successfully managing change.

And yet nothing is as important to the survival of an organisation as change. Companies that stand still die. Being a successful business is (partly) about making the right changes, at the right time and in the right way. History is full of examples of organisations that failed to change and that are now extinct.

The secret to successfully managing change, from the perspective of the employees, is in a very large part down to effective communication. To define the change, relate the change to people, and to help them to understand it.

People may still not like a change, but it is not uncommon to hear people at that stage say, “well at least they spoke to me about it”, and equally how often do we ourselves complain at times of change – “the so and so didn’t even have the courtesy to speak to me.”

The very worst thing can be when people inside an organisation hear of changes affecting them within it from an external source? The ultimate bad communication being reading you’ve lost your job in a front page news story saying your business is closing your office.

In the digital age with 24/7 seamless news and the many manifestations of social media – being first with your own news can be quite a challenge, and so managing the reality that we may not have that control any more is another element of this subject or great relevance to us as communicators. Planning for a leak is probably a good strategy.

Resistance to change comes from a fear of the unknown or an expectation of loss.

The front-end of an individual’s resistance to change is how they perceive the change. The back-end is how well they are equipped to deal with the change they expect.

An individual’s degree of resistance to change is determined by whether they perceive the change as good or bad, and how severe they expect the impact of the change to be on them.

This post is a discussion of ways in which communications can play a part in overcoming resistance and in a classic crisis management sense – turn threat into opportunity.

In life, and at work, change effects all of us in many different ways. You may be familiar with a model called – The Change Curve.

There are many variations on this model originated by Swiss psychiatrist Elisabeth Kubler-Ross in her 1969 book, On Death and Dying. Her context was that of the effect on human beings of major and catastrophic life changes, including experiencing the death of others.

Since then business and communication types have – as is our wont – appropriated it, messed around with it and applied it to much less catastrophic changes such as those in the workplace. This is a staple of all 101 business and leadership training.

Obviously as we are all individuals, these emotions and realisations will affect people in different ways, at different times and for different lengths of time. The important thing is to appreciate that not too many people jump all or most of the stages to accept and welcome change with at least a cursory pass through these, or some of these stages.

The 11 stages in this version of the curve are …

  1. Shock – We don’t understand what is happening to us, we feel numb.
  2. Denial – We try to convince ourselves that bad news cannot really be true.
  3. Anger – Now the truth is dawning and we lash out and any bad news we see or hear – almost trying to make it go away by shouting at it!
  4. Blame – Moving on from pure anger, people tend to want to find someone else to blame. Blame is often directed to “them”, anyone – but me!
  5. Bargain – Realising that it will affect someone, making sure that someone isn’t me.
  6. Apathy – This is where someone reaches the bottom of the curve. This is the place where we feel so low that we mentally & physically give up. It’s a realisation that all that anger, blame & bargaining don’t work?
  7. Acceptance – Finally, having reached that bottom of the curve, people (but not all people) are in a position to climb upwards. This is not saying that we are happy with the situation but we accept it as inevitable.
  8. Explore – Having moved to acceptance, we’re now open to look at what the new world could be.
  9. Understand 10. Integrate and 11. Sustain – Finally, we get to the point where we can “move on” – this is where the new vision, strategy, plan need to kick-in to give us the building blocks to move to the next stage – embracing the change.

The relevance for us as communicators is a simple one – to identify what needs to be said and done at what stage – to pinpoint the part that better communication can make to helping people through the stages, at worst to deaden the pain, at best to help people to embrace change.

At every stage of this process there is an intervention to be made with communications.

Apart from the obvious fact that we are all individuals and so react in different ways we also have to consider how change is received by people in different cultural groups, or different nationalities, different age and attitudes and different types of employment.

The American tech-savvy millennial working flexibly with no fixed workspace, with a collaborative mind-set, and one which thinks as employment as a short-term commitment will no doubt experience the change curve in a different way to a baby-boomer working in a factory in an emerging market with a long and proud record of service to one organisation.

Most obviously life stages tend to affect reaction to change – being single or in a committed relationship, having children or not, being at the beginning, middle or end of our careers can make a huge difference.

To illustrate the importance of treating individuals as, well as individuals, I’d like to share two quick case studies from my time at BT when we had two very different change challenges, but both involving a very diverse workforce.


When I was with BT we won a contract, in partnership with Swisscom – to run all of the IT and telecommunications globally for Credit Suisse. At the time it was the world’s biggest ITC outsourcing deal.

Apart from all the operational and technological change this created for all three organisations, it also involved a lot of change for people with a (TUPE) deal transitioning more than five thousand Credit Suisse employees into BT.

Six months into the new world it was all going horribly wrong and the deal was in danger of being lost before it had really properly started. Nobody could really explain to him why it wasn’t working.

BT and SwissCom were focused on the operations and technology challenges and these were considerable, but not as it turned out the source of the despair.

I was put in as the communications lead on what BT call a “Red Team”, a crisis team, to fix it.

Cutting a long story short, the biggest problem was not telecommunications, but employee communication – or rather the complete absence of it. The workforce was not happy, to put it mildly. In fact, they were doing their level best intentionally or by default to make the new world fall apart.

No thought had been given to the employee’s personal feelings about the change. Both sides had concentrated on the practically where people would be based, legally how their contracts changed, and financially on how much could be saved through the efficiency.

Because there were no (immediate) job losses involved, nobody thought the employees would care who they worked for as they’d still be doing the same jobs.

The results of our rapid employee opinion survey showed that they were all pretty much stuck on The Change Curve at “anger and blame” and had created their own stage on the curve called “disruption”.

As a glimpse into the “what we did next” steps – this is the template we used for a series of Town Hall meetings with employees in London, Zurich, Singapore and New York.

“The Welcome to our future” was shown obscured like this, rising above the line to acknowledge that the vision of future had been hidden from them previously, and as a signpost of future inclusivity – that this was “our” future, together.

My starting point for the recovery operation was this old stand-by from studies in business change, John Kotter’s “8 Stage Process.”

  1. Establish a Sense of Urgency
  2. Create the Guiding Coalition
  3. Develop Vision and Strategy
  4. Communicate the Change Vision
  5. Empower Broad-Based Action
  6. Generate Short-Term Wins
  7. Consolidate Gains and Produce More Change
  8. Anchoring New Approaches in the Culture

This still stands as a good model today in my opinion, although it is now twenty years old. It is a good framework for both change communications thinking and planning.

In my case study, the “sense of urgency” was very apparent to the three corporate players – hence the “Red Team”, but urgent because there was a problem to fix rather than a sense of urgency to address people concerns.

My first challenge was to get “people” onto the agenda around a table with everyone else pretty much focused on the urgency of improving IT performance.

The existing “Guiding Coalition” was the leadership team headed by the principals from the three organisations. My contribution was to get some employee representatives and the HR directors into that team as well.

The Vision and Strategy was all ITC versions of “nuts and bolts”, not concerned with people.

The first addition was to bring in a discussion of what the change meant for people, the part they played in achieving the change, and the gain they stood to achieve for themselves – the “what’s in it for me?” question and answer.

The focus was on engaging people face to face.

We considered using technology to do this given the global spread of employees, and the fact that we were a technology business, but decided that things had gone too far for this, and to address personal concerns it needed to be as personal as possible.

The BT CEO responsible for the contract and the Credit Suisse VP became the face and voice of the change. They committed to attending Town Hall meetings across the world to personally discuss the change with employees who would be physically brought in to our regional locations.

The identification and in some cases creation of short term wins was extremely important. We needed proof points to demonstrate the benefits of change.

Bearing in mind earlier comments about demographic differences in workforces, a big consideration for us was to tailor each of these meetings, and all of the communication around them, to the cultural, nationality, age and educational differences of people involved.

These differences were considerable, and part of the original problem as we later discovered was that what communication had taken place in the first 6 months had been on a “one size fits all” basis. It doesn’t!

BT Cras


A year or so later, we had a very different kind of change communications challenge in BT. This one was not because of a (massive) oversight during a contract deal, it was the need for a full-blown business transformation to help the company recover from its first and (so far) only, major share price attack.

BT Global Services is a £8bn business division providing IT services to multinational corporations, governments and financial institutions in 170 countries. In one year it suffered a £2bn loss which hit the Group performance and so share price. Alarm bells rang, CEOs were fired and hired and a major turnaround of the BTGS business was put in motion.

We didn’t need to manufacture a “sense of urgency” but in other circumstances that may have been exactly what we needed to do.

To communicate these changes, which involved major job losses, big restructuring and a new business vision and business plan – we took a storytelling approach.

We produced a “Plan On A Page” turnaround story, drafted for leadership meetings, one of the pieces of collateral – a fold out gated leaflet in physical and digital formats – which in cartoon form told the change story in 6 stages, and photographs from the 20 or so meetings we held around the world to take more than 20,000 employees through the story.

Each was led by a member of the executive team, most personally by the CEO Hanif Lalani.

The story flow in these 6 stages related to both The Kuber-Ross Change Curve and to Kotter’s 8 Stage Process:


  • We’ve had high ambitions – but we failed to achieve them
  • We’ve learned valuable lessons in what works, what doesn’t, what we need to change
  • We identified these positively as opportunities – so how to grow, not just recover
  • We acknowledged that it wouldn’t be easy. We used “courageous” to describe the plan
  • We mapped these to personal behaviours and individual opportunities from success – talking about the part we needed everybody to play
  • And lastly – the “Holy Grail” – what we were aiming for – a very clear vision and redefined corporate purpose.

BT Turnaround Comms StorytellingIn the first BT example the communication of change was retrospective, chasing events that had already occurred.

But in the second example, the communication in many ways set the timetable for change.

In this case it was much more text-book – when significant organisational changes are coming the key is to convey information proactively in advance, to prepare people for the upcoming changes; when the change is officially announced; during the implementation process; and finally – following the change process to determine its effect on people’s understanding, attitudes, and productivity.

It’s just like a good speech. Tell them what you are going to say, say it, then tell them what you’ve said.

Everything I’ve discussed here so far concerns internal communication. That is because it’s inside the organisation that all change communication has to start to be effective.

Ambassadors for change

One of the biggest challenges with this kind of change, particularly when communicated internationally, is to connect everybody to the same story in the most relevant way. At BT it had been face to face. At Microsoft it was online.


Previously when working for Microsoft, I connected some of these thoughts on change and ambassadorship for employees with a programme we called “Living the brand”.

This was a series of interactive online training modules for all employees across EMEA, led with the face and voice of the regional CEO.

This was an internal training programme geared towards enabling and empowering employees to communicate the changes going through Microsoft as it restructured across the region.

Some of this was targeted to developers and partners, some to customers, and some to what Microsoft call “political elites” principally the EU. This was an example of inside-out communication of change with a new structure/product/service skew not a crisis one.

The approach was similar but the reasons and Tipping Points quite different.

Thinking about these different examples is a good moment to think about the questions that need to be asked to classify the type of challenge and to shape the development of an appropriate and relevant communications plan to support the change process.

This is a good approach to addressing differences.

A list of 4 sets of questions as set out in a book on this subject written by Bill Quirke, founder of Synopsis Consulting:

  1. Analyse audiences
  2. Set communication objectives
  3. Select the communication approach
  4. Develop key messages and themes
  5. Match communication vehicles to your approach
  6. Measure the outcome

One of the particular features of change communications, also common to other areas of communications is that different audiences relate to the same change in different ways.

Audience analysis is therefore key to target communications in the right way.

The four types identified by Bill Quirke are – to wake-up, to engage, to inform and to reassure. The point here is to recognise and address the fact that different audiences have different information needs.

Thinking back to my BT Credit Suisse case study, this was something which had been overlooked there and could have made a crucial difference in the early days of the contract if different audience needs had been identified.

Much of what we have discussed so far about telling the change story in an organisation has been on the assumption that it is only the organisation involved that is changing.

This is quite a self-centred way of looking at the challenges, particularly in a time when so much is in a constant state of change – not least the attitudes and expectations of the people involved in the change, and for that matter the way the communications itself has changed and is still changing.

How we communicate and the speed at which we do it is changing all the time. Employees have the ability to get news out of an organisation and into the public domain at the tap of a screen. Whatever codes of conduct, rules and regulations are in place, we have to assume that anything and everything that is going on inside an organisation will be known outside faster than we could plan for and in a way that we may not have chosen.

Once more than one person knows something it is not a secret.

In the analogue age we worried about organisational grape vines and rumour mills, but however effective they were, we usually had some breathing space to plan and prepare.

We also worked in a business culture where there was a general acceptance that some things were not to be shared.

Neither of these things is true anymore. Not only has confidentiality become difficult, but openness and transparency is expected.

With this in mind, perhaps the most important consideration when we know change is coming is inclusivity.

Organisations need to include employees to make them part of the change, to avoid them feeling that change is something which just happens to them.

Technological change has affected the way we receive news. There are more ways than ever in which employees can see news about their own organisation from external sources.

Avoiding those “oh s**t!” moments is a good objective of change communications planning. By enabling employees at the earliest stage to own their own news, it may not make them immediate advocates of it, but it may avoid or mitigate them being immediate critics.

Every employee is potentially one of the other – the worst critic or the best advocate. It’s up to us to help clients find the right way for their employees to be the latter and not the former.

Openness and transparency are said to be key elements in most business cultures by most businesses these days. The challenge here is to turn those fine words into reality. Corporate culture and the employer/employee relationship is changing …

This is a good view of the cultural change that has taken place, in this decade let alone over a longer period, in the relationship between employee and employer.

Attitudes to work, to big business, to bosses and to the control of information have shifted.

It’s an opportunity to communicate faster and more effectively. As most good communication is simply about conversation, let’s make change communication a conversation.

As an example of this, think about the Town Hall meetings I’ve referenced in earlier case studies. Although this kind of face to face communication is important, events of this kind risk allowing us and our clients to tick the box and say “job done” just because we’ve had a meeting.

John Smythe, who devised this model leads an agency called “Engage for Change” which specialises in this area of work. In his book “The Velvet Revolution at Work” he describes most of these kinds of events as “egotainment” for the bosses. Actually we could probably apply that term to quite a few other things in the communications world – they are much more for the benefit of the sender than for the receiver of our communication.

Smythe’s point is that just holding the event (and this applies to any other tactic) does not mean that employee engagement has taken place. Particularly in this changing world where employer/employee loyalty is not valued as highly as in the past, it is crucial to find ways to make a change understood as something for my benefit.

I was struck by this most during a “restructuring” – usually corporate code for loads of people losing their jobs – at Microsoft that our planned communication focused on getting all of the right HR/legal messages to the people who were leaving. They had not thought about the people who were staying, so I shifted the emphasis of our change communication plan to those who were staying and left the other stuff to HR/Legal people. The real focus of the change communication needed to be on making the survivors feel motivated about their jobs.

Ironically as it happened I turned out to be one of those people restructured, but the principle of this was right!

This thinking plays to some of the observations made earlier concerning the expectations of Millennials in particular. Employees increasingly want and need to know why something is happening. They want to know that the change is being made for the right reasons.

My illustration of thinking about doing things for the right reasons involves an old reference to a conversation I had with the then prime minister Margaret Thatcher when I worked for her. Bear with me, I know Thatcherisms and Millennials may not be an obvious pairing, but this is a relevant one.

I was showing her some polling results one day, not good ones. They indicated we would lose seats locally as a direct consequence of an initially unpopular government policy. I suggested maybe something could be changed.

She fixed me with her laser-like eyes and said “I don’t think you understand. We do not change things just so we can win elections, we win the elections so we can change things … don’t you believe we need to change?”

It was a memorable lesson for me not to confuse the means with ends. It is worth bearing in mind in a business context when thinking about immediate, short-term, and longer term needs and objectives.

Sometimes we need to go through even painful change, to achieve something which is better.

Of course, I could have replied that we need to win the elections or we can’t make the change, but the moment had passed!

In a different context this is the dilemma facing the Labour Party with their leadership contest. Does fear of un-electability mean they should compromise on their objectives? In the last century Tony Blair thought so.

The question for us today to consider in the context of a corporate change, is to be clear about why a change is being made. Is it the means or the end, and will our audiences accept the means to achieve the end.

This is why in my earlier BT Global Services example, we set out the “Holy Grail” as part of the communication – a clear statement of what good looks like to address the question – Why Change?

On the subject of changing leaders, this brings us to the final section of this session – a consideration of leadership – leading change and changing leaders.

It is nearly always true in organisations, business or political, that change is led by the person at the top. Leaders, presidents, prime ministers or CEOs. They are usually the person leading the change – as in it was either their idea, or it has become their idea. It has their name on it.

Barack Obama’s campaigns were characterised by the word “change”. He was clearly the personification of change in the US, but he also wanted his platform for power to be seen as an agenda for change. Of course, there aren’t many, if any, political campaigns fought on a strapline “let’s just keep everything the same” – we’d need to go back to the “We’ve never had it so good” Macmillan campaigns in the 1950s.

Because most voters never believe they haven’t had it so good, they tend to think that change must be a change for the better. Tony Blair’s campaign song in 1995 was “Things can only get better.”

Jeremy Corbyn has captured some of this spirit talking of the “new politics.” Leaving aside the rights and wrongs, and any political commentary from me, purely from a campaigning standpoint, he has succeeded in engaging a lot of people previously untouched by or disaffected from politics. The message resonates and they see Jeremy as the personification of that message.

Such personalisation of the communication by, and personification of the change in, the leader is just as powerful in the business context. OK, as employees we don’t actually get to vote for who is our CEO, but in a way the fact that a CEO does not have to court our support makes the fact of doing it all the more powerful.

Making it personal can sometimes be very personal with significant change when the change itself is about people.

I recall the most difficult challenge in my experience of this, when I was with McDonald’s.

After the company experienced it’s first and so far only significant share price decline, the previous CEO resigned and Jim was brought back from retirement to create and lead the Global Turnaround Plan.

McDonald’s had only had three CEOs since its foundation and all of its CEOs since then to the present day are McDonald’s lifers – people who have spent all or most of their careers inside McDonald’s.

The stock crash, need for a turnaround, a dramatic turnaround plan, and another CEO were all quite traumatic changes for McDonald’s people.

Every two years McDonald’s has a big convention in the US for franchisees. More than 20,000 attend these meetings. The year Jim presented his turnaround change plan, the convention was in Orlando. The night before he was due to give his big key note speech to the convention and to receive the applause for helping to save the company, he died of a heart attack in the convention hotel.

The following hours were even more traumatic and dramatic. But at the convention it was announced that Charlie Bell pictured here on the right, my mentor in McDonald’s as it happens, would succeed him and that Charlie would implement Jim’s plan. The story we had to tell internally and externally, on site and globally, was quite literally the king is dead, long live the king.”

All sadness aside at such a tragic death we had to tell a continuity story.

Jim C Ronald tear ad

To show what sort of business McDonald’s is, it ran a full-page ad in newspapers worldwide showing Ronald McDonald, the embodiment of brand McDonald’s, with a tear falling from his eye and simple strapline “We miss you Jim.”

My point in sharing that sad story was to illustrate the importance for any organisation in treating change, however unwished for or unwelcome at that most as an opportunity.

Change in an organisation, and this can be personalised in the change of a leader, is a moment of renewal. It is an opportunity to refresh thinking, recharge a brand, revive old ideas that worked, re-invent new ones that inspire people to think differently. A change in an organisation is the dawn of a new day.

The communications function (and its advisers) is in a unique position to take that perspective and help leaders and their organisations to treat these traumatic and difficult times as opportunities to tell a new story.

I’ve used the phrase “A sense of urgency” a few times today. In his book of that name, John P. Kotter tells the story of a CEO who says “urgency is not the issue. People know we are in trouble and need to change.

We have a burning platform. Our old complacency has gone. It’s now about communicating the new strategy.” as Kotter says, good that the CEO has a new strategy ready to communicate. But bad that they think all that is needed is to “send it out.”

I’ve lost count of the number of times when I’ve seen this happen. A new plan is formulated and it is communicated, a meeting was held, a chart distributed, a web site set up, a new logo, strapline, or even brand concocted.

These could all be good things to do, but alone they rarely address the real questions. Which are “why change?” and “why change now?” … and a third more personal question – “why me?”

Kotter’s “sense of urgency” is not the false urgency of we must have some activity, it is the need to do what in my agency B-M we call “evidence based communications” – to help people affected to visualise what has gone wrong, what we (and they) need to do to change it, and the prize for getting it right.

Three of the great lessons from successful change communication, which I’ve hopefully shared through our discussions today, are that to change successfully:

  1. People inside an organisation need to understand how and why the change relates to them personally, to buy-into and accept the need for that change, and to appreciate the part they play in the change.
  2. Leaders have to own the change they want others to help them to make. This requires openness, transparency, inclusivity and personal commitment – skin in the game.
  3. There must be a sense of urgency to the need for change to fight apathy, complacency and fear.


I started this article with a reminder that most people fear change rather than welcome it.

The thinking, the case study examples and the different approaches discussed are all ways to help address that fear of change, to embrace it, and use it.

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