Integrating change is all about communications: Ten lessons

This is a truism of course. We all know clear communications are what makes change in organisations stick, along with incentives.

Incentives are not easy to get right of course, but in my limited experience, they are easier to get right than communication that change mindsets and therefore systems.

Recently I’ve had first hand experience of just how hard you have to communicate to make systems change happen.

I have a new found empathy with heads of sustainability/CSR in big companies as a result. And I had plenty of that to begin with.

To explain: Part of my full time job, aside the lecturing and speaking/training that I do elsewhere occasionally, is as a director of the company that owns Ethical Corporation. That company is called FC Business Intelligence. It’s a company I guarantee none of you have heard of, unless you are an Ethical Corp customer and looked closely at a recent invoice.

FC Business intelligence has lots of customer-facing sub-brands and around 130 or so employees.

The firm is big in various forms of solar power, (from CSP to thin film PV, to wind and tidal) and in other areas as diverse as oil rig decommissioning, telematics, and healthcare.

Part of my brief, alongside running Ethical Corporation, is to develop and drive what publishers call ‘content strategy’ into these various brands, some of which I helped create.

Part of that content strategy involves something that ought to be quite simple compared to a sustainability director’s job. One element of the role is to create a team that produces business intelligence reports (a bit like the ones EC does) and get these reports sold across the different business units, which are all conference-based, with specific incentives and processes finely tuned over twenty years.

Doing that is surely not as hard as embedding a low carbon or more holistic ethical plan into a big company, right?

Right. It’s not. But it’s been a real struggle and I think I’ve learned some lessons that might be useful for sustainability/corporate responsibility folks. Certainly they have been useful for me, as some of the work is starting to gain traction now in our various teams.

The challenge, as with sustainability/corporate responsibility, has been all about changing mindsets and systems.

I won’t bore you with all the details of the particular task, but here’s what I’ve learned (or re-learned!) in the last few months:

1) The fact that the board has agreed it and announced it, doesn’t mean anything without selling to pretty much everyone else individually and in great depth. First to unit heads and managers, combined with a Q&A session, then to their teams, with separate Q&A sessions.

2) Whatever you think the likelihood of misunderstandings are, quadruple your estimate.

3) No-one really buys into financial incentives to change until they’ve been paid on them more than once, and you’ve pointed out just how much extra they got for what they’ve changed, in black and white, after tax.

4) Making internal communications stick is way harder than an external audience marketings or communications campaign. Customers might only buy once, employees have to buy in every day, week in, week out. We aim to hit potential customers eight times over four months in a conference marketing campaign. That’s a lot of communication, but internal teams need just as much, over a much longer period.

5) No-one will read your memo and get, or buy into, all of it. Some might read your email. But most will only listen if you remove any other distractions, explain, and then give them a voice. Turning ‘updates on strategy’ into a conversation and managing the outcomes skilfully is among what matters most.

6) Someone will come up with something, a potential stumbling block, you and your team had not thought of. Usually every time you present the idea/plan. This will often involve thinking of a solution on your feet, but more often than not, becomes something else you have to consider, tackle, and work into future or current planning.

7) Just because you think it’s going well whilst you are communicating, doesn’t mean that it is. The balance between useful self-awareness and unhelpful paranoia that sows seeds of doubt is perhaps the hardest thing to get right, in rolling out a plan that changes systems on a day to day basis.

8) You can’t measure progress enough when you start to roll it out. The more time you spend developing advance indicators and the systems for the data to come to you right away, the better the outcome can be judged and tweaked, or re-engineered.

9) Your system might work for a while. But then some change you hadn’t forseen (and probably couldn’t have) will mean you have to revise how it’s done more quickly than you’d think.

10) Rolling out systems change in two very similar teams can often mean quite different approaches to communications and management, depending on the people in the business unit or team, and their group culture and individual idiosyncrasies.

I’ve stopped at ten, not because it’s a round number, but because that’s all the lessons that occur to me at this moment. No doubt others will come to light and can be added to the list soon.

What makes it all worth it, despite the challenges above, is when you see progress happen. In my case it’s the satisfaction of seeing a fairly major shift within the organisation mindset start to take hold and become integrated into how people work every day.

For sustainability and corporate responsibility directors, the prize is of course much greater. Not just financially of course, most of you are not in the job for that. It must be hard for others to understand your satisfaction when you see even the smallest system change take hold and start to deliver results, year after year, in the right direction.

Kudos to you if that’s your job. I have a new found grasp of just how hard it is to get right.

(For more on this specific to corporate responsibility, take a look here)

1 Comment

  1. Toby, I think this is one of your most insightful posts yet and a very important one. Great, great lessons, relevant for any leader of organizational change, and most certainly relevant to change for sustainability. I must admit feeling a sense of validation whilst reading your lessons, as I harp on endlessly about connumication of CSR internally, and engagement (can I make a plug for my forthcoming book? : CSR for HR ( http://amzn.to/9m975Y ). This is all about how to drive sustainability from the inside. The thing I would add is that, even when you think it's not working, when you know it's right, stick at it. The other thing is the tone of your communications. The more a change agent sounds like a preacher or an evangelist, and less like someone who intelligently presents the issues and opportunities, the more s/he will fail. In all organizational communications the single most important lesson I learnt was from Stephen Covey: Seek first to understand before you seek to be understood.

    Thanks for sharing your lessons


Comments are Closed

All rights reserved @ SustainableSmartBusiness