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How to change things when change is hard, and how communication can help

Date: May 28 2018
How to change things when change is hard, and how communication can help

CIPR Inside’s May #ICBookClub read was Switch: How to change things when change is hard by Chip and Dan Heath.

We know that change is hard. It’s challenging, outside of our comfort zone and often exhausting. The authors argue that instead of seeing the challenges we should understand how our minds work to find the shortcuts to make changes in behaviour and help make change last.

From the CIPR Inside committee, Debbie Aurelius and myself put our hands up to read the book. We were both keen to find out more and understand how better communication can help.

Book club questions

You can see the questions that guided the conversation by clicking on the image below.

“For things to change, somebody somewhere has to start acting differently. Maybe it’s you, maybe it’s your team. Picture that person (or people). Each has an emotional ‘Elephant’ side and a rational ‘Rider’ side. You’ve got to reach both. And you’ve also got to clear the way for them to succeed. In short, you must do three things: Direct the Rider, Motivate the Elephant and Shape the Path.”

How often have you seen change fail? Many I’m sure. Undoubtedly, we’ve seen teams unable to engage with the targets they’ve been given, communications brought in too late, people distracted by clumsy processes or perpetual change with no sign of improvement, the objectives are too woolly and vague or they just don’t get why they need to do this and how it can help them.

Rider, Elephant and clearing the Path

The analogy of rider, elephant and clearing the path make a lot of sense. They can help us as communicators to make our strategy clear and in line with the business. It can help us to frame our messaging and get the support we need or to remove the obstacles to achieve the change.

Finding the balance between rational and emotional connections can be a challenge for all of us.

We asked: Q4: How often to leaders want communication professionals to direct the rider only? What can you do to educate them about the other parts of the model?

Change is constant

In today’s world, there’s so much change happening in organisations of all shapes and sizes, it’s become a constant aspect of daily life. For some it’s successful, for others more challenging. Failing to understand the nuances of human behaviour and how that interacts with change is often where the change attempts fail. The structure from this book helps us bring the focus to the humans in the change programme.

Structure your change and communication

I recommend the book for a quick and simple guide to provide structure to your change planning. I liked the many mini case study examples in the book. They could easily be used to demonstrate to leaders and managers in the project the value of the different approaches in different scenarios and the importance of involving communicaton from the start.

Check out #ICBookClub on twitter to see the conversation and join the next one.

It was a quick and easy read and a book I’ll keep on my shelf for reference.

Here, I’ve taken the useful cheat sheet at the back of the book (page 259) and added implications for communication next to the themes. What would you add?

Adapted from Switch: How to change things when change is hard, Chip and Dan Heath

Change and how communication can help

Direct the rider What communication can do
What looks like resistance is often a lack of clarity.

Provide crystal clear directions to guide the rider.

Develop a clear strategic narrative around the change programme
·       Follow the bright spots – investigate what’s working and clone it ·       Get out in the business and talk to people – whether that’s a full audit, or a selection of informal conversations.

·       Find out and know what good looks like

·       Share it widely in the change team, use it in your content and programme of activity.

·       Engage those who are showing the bright spots. Share their knowledge and experience directly with others – help them to teach others, encourage others to learn and co-create with ‘people like them’.

·       Help others to work through and act out the new behaviours through workshops and other learning sessions.

·       Draw out solutions from people in the organisation through coaching techniques.

·       Script the critical moves – Don’t think big picture, think in terms of specific behaviours ·       Research with the business to understand the critical moves.

·       Be specific in your content.

·       Break the big change down into small steps.

·       Make those steps within easy reach of everyday actions.

·       Show and celebrate progress and mark the milestones.

·       Set out what the good behaviours are and how to replicate them.

·       Show people the steps to go through.

·       Minimise the choices and decisions they have to make.

·       Point to the destination – Change is easier when you know where you’re going ·       Communicate the desired outcomes very clearly. Present a compelling vision of what it will look like when you have arrived at the destination.

·       Be clear on when you will get there.

·       Use the critical moves to show your progress towards the destination.

Motivate the elephant What communication can do
What looks like laziness is often exhaustion.

It’s critical to engage people’s emotional side.

Get their elephants on the path and cooperative.

Remember it’s hard work changing behaviour and not slipping into old comfortable habits.

Engage people at an emotional level as well as rational.

·       Find the feeling – Knowing something isn’t enough to cause change. Make sure people feel something ·       Use the knowledge and data you have in the organisation or undertake fresh research to find out what matters to people at work.

·       Make your messages about change connect with them emotionally.

·       People need to feel the need to change, to be motivated and not just told to do it.

·       Use ‘see, feel, change’ – to emotionally connect, rather than ‘analyse, think change’ which connects rationally.

·       Remember that SMART goals are great for steady state communication, but they don’t create emotion. Instead, find the ‘destination’ that will stir emotion in support of the goals

·       Shrink the change – Break down the change until it no longer spooks the Elephant ·       Describe the steps towards the change.

·       Provide the tools and checklists to help people make clear progress and keep them on track. Celebrate achievements along the way.

·       Pick out the small things and make a start.

·       Keep communicating. Show progress, and make it simple to keep the ‘elephant’ motivated and boost morale along the journey

·       Show people they can win (make the change).

·       Grow your people – Cultivate a sense of identity and instil the growth mindset ·       Negative emotions have a narrowing effect, while positive emotions broaden and build. Positive emotions are a better platform for innovation, interest, ownership, inclusion and more.

·       Help people nurture a growth mindset rather than a fixed mindset – they need to believe they can learn, grow and change

·       People make decisions on the basis of either consequences or identity.  We want decisions to be based on identity where possible. People can grow within identity, whereas when we make decisions based just upon consequences we don’t learn or grow, we simply work within the consequences.

Shape the path What communication can do
What looks like a people problem is often a situation problem. The situation is the path, when you shape it you make the change more likely no matter what is happening. Understand the environment and the culture where the change needs to happen. Make change the easier path to follow.
·       Tweak the environment – When the situation changes, the behaviour changes. So, change the situation ·       Small changes can make a big impact, so make a start.

·       Identify how we can make change easier. By making something easier to do, we’ll do it more.

·       Sometimes the environment or situation is outside of communications’ remit.

·       We need to use our knowledge of change, people and the environment to influence those who can tweak it.

·       Take time to find out why people don’t do what we need them to do.

·       Build habits – When behaviour is habitual, it’s ‘free’, it doesn’t ‘tax’ the Rider. Look for ways to encourage habits. ·       People like to fit in with others around them. Build community norms by encouraging the good behaviours and discouraging those that don’t support the change.

·       Build habits with routines and daily practices etc. Some people find the rituals of preparing for the day ahead the night before for example allows them to get more achieved the following day. Find the pattern that works for you, your team or others in your organisation to make the changes necessary.

·       Visualisation and imagining the future state can be a powerful motivator. When we see ourselves doing something, we plan for it, and imagine doing it we can be more ready to achieve it.

·       Checklists help us avoid any blind-spots. Even the most routine and obvious aspects of our work can benefit from a checklist to insure against over-confidence and make the chance of a mistake less likely.

·       Rally the herd – Behaviour is contagious. Help it spread. ·       When we’re in unknown territory we look for signs to show us the way to behave. Consider, what’s normal around here? Show early successes. Behaviour is contagious and others will want to participate.

·       Communication is central to displaying and perpetuating the culture, how we interact and engage with one another provides lots of information to others. If we need to change the culture for example, how we communicate at all levels is really important. It’s not just about corporate communication, but also about team leaders, senior team, the board and all involved in the organisation who affect its culture and behaviour.

·       Earlier we said behaviour is contagious. The elephant looks to the herd for clues, and will follow their lead. Communicators need to really understand the behaviours in their organisations if they need to rally the herd to make change. This needs research such as field work to see the interactions with a fresh pair of eyes.

·       Publishing, sharing and celebrating successes rallies the herd to get behind solutions and repeat good behaviours.


I hope you found this useful. Is there anything you’d add to the cheat sheet?

Switch, how to change things when change is hard, by Chip and Dan Heath, is available in all good book stores.


The next #ICBookClub read is Quiet, The power of introverts in a world that can’t stop talking, Susan Cain and takes place on Tuesday 3 July at 8pm on twitter.


Thanks for stopping by and reading my thoughts. I hope you’ll be inspired.

I work with businesses of all shapes and sizes to help them communicate clearly, reveal the human connections that matter and get meaningful results. If you would like to find out what people think and feel about your business, get in touch.


Image credits: Feature image, elephant, CCO on Splashbase