Change communication is also about changing habits

Change communication is about involving the organisation, creating engagement and offering insights.

February 2017

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The challenge is often the same

A new strategy has been completed based on an extensive analysis, and a thorough plan for implementing the strategy has been developed. There is a clear communication strategy, a bold core story and a long list of supporting communication elements for the various stakeholder segments. A wide range of workshops, train-the-trainer sessions, “town hall” meetings, intranet posts and video interviews with the management and change agents are in place. Everything is seemingly done by the book.

Over the next four to six months, the strategy is implemented, and at first it looks like a successful implementation. Everybody is aware of the new strategy, and most of the organisation can list the strategic priorities in their sleep. But as the months go by, actual change is almost invisible, and it becomes clear that the implementation is not as successful as first anticipated. So what has gone wrong despite the relentless planning and preparation? Why does the implementation of the new strategy not lead to the expected changes? Why does it not manifest in the behaviour of the organisation?

Often, the absence of change will be explained by change resistance in the organisation, and that might very well be the explanation in many cases. But there is also another plausible explanation that seems to be overlooked when trying to make out a capsized strategy implementation.

It is unarguable that strategic change most often requires engagement from everyone in the organisation, but somehow this conviction has led to a focus on change resistance that overshadows the possibility of other aspects that are perhaps even more important to focus on to achieve a successful strategy implementation.

A study shows that the chance of creating engagement increases by up to 73% if management focuses on employee strengths, and that they can potentially strengthen an entire organisation’s overall engagement and productivity.

Rath and Conchie, 2008

The study concludes that optimising the organisation’s strengths is more effective than pointing to resistance when building engagement and driving organisational change. More concretely, it argues that the management, in order to optimise the implementation of a new strategy, should prioritise to focus on the habits that need to change in order for the new strategy to be implemented and changes to happen.

According to a study on the neuroscience-based learning process (Ellington and McFadden, 2013), a process for working with changing habits consists of the following phases:

A process for working with changing habits consists of these five phases
Create engagement

The foundation for helping others to change unwanted habits is a state of engagement, also known as a “toward” state. The “toward” state sets the stage for reflection on what is getting in the way, making new connections and accessing novel solutions to problems. This is about making the people in the organisation actually want the change and making them reflect on what they need to change to support this.

Offer insights

Helping people hear those quiet signals referred to as “aha” moments is at the heart of personal learning and innovation. This is very different from telling someone what to do or giving them advice, which can induce a threat state and create unnecessary noise in the brain.

In order to make people desire the change, they need to feel it. Something has to shift in their heart and/or mind to fuel the effort it takes to change for good. Providing insights that ignite new perspectives can do just this.

Break unwanted patterns

Insights are not very useful unless action is taken. A leader helps others to hold their attention on new ways of thinking and being by taking new and timely action. However, breaking unwanted patterns of behaviour does not require big action. Small steps can just as easily form new habits. Therefore, the unwanted patterns should be broken down into manageable steps that are easier to effectuate. This should be accompanied by a focus on small successful experiences to drive motivation.

Evaluate and adapt strengths

Ongoing follow-up to identify and acknowledge the learning that comes from taking action is essential for tracking progress and ensuring self-accountability. New action that follows insight provides opportunity for learning, which leads to more reflection and additional insights.

Establish new behaviour

New habits of behaviour need reinforcement for sustainable change to occur. The persistence of continuous and repeated attention to the desired change strengthens the hard-wiring of newly created habits. The process is worth following when implementing a new strategy because the alternative is sadly unpromising.

In general, only 33% of change-related strategy projects are considered to have been implemented successfully. And according to the Project Management Institute, poor communication is the primary reason why 56% of projects fail. Other research shows that the gap between the management’s strategy and visions and the reality of the organisation that is about to change are the weak spots. For example, a survey showed that 55% of executives say that their organisation does not focus on strategy implementation, and 42% say that their organisation does not understand or even resist the strategy.

So to return to our opening message: think about how strategy implementation in general is stuck on repeat. For many years, we have not changed much. Sometimes the implementation of a change has been planned and effected more ambitiously than at other times – but not much has really changed at all. Do not rely on big PowerPoint presentations to communicate the strategy without any involvement in and reflection on the expected change in behaviour. Consider whether the “new” change is truly clear to everyone. Do people understand it? Do they trust you? Do they feel it? And do they want to change habits to secure REAL change?