No New Year is complete without a thought to introducing some change into our lives… it might be personal (I will try to lose the weight I lost once before the weight I have just put on) or professional (I will prepare properly for all team meetings and not treat them as an inconvenience to my hectic schedule of assorted crisis management events) or even one that combines the two (I will try to make some time to consider how my own career should develop and not expect the next promotion to be in the responsibility of someone else).

In all these endeavours however we seem to continually risk failure; not because we have a lack of ambition, not because we lack the skills to implement our ideas and not because we are lazy. No, we risk failure for two very significant reasons:

  • Reason #1: We are, as we always have been, habitually poor at communicating with each other about what we want and expect of others, and
  • Reason #2: Because we do not develop competitive consequences for the changes we want to make and instead rely, overly so, on announcing what we want (as if change could happen by proclamation!)

How it can be in this age of hundreds of television channels, interactive mass media and with the first SMS text and email generation in the workforce, that we still mismanage communication is at once both startling and, probably, predictable.

However from Shakespeare’s Malvolio misunderstanding messages from his supposed suitor to the razzmatazz of yet another “must have” product launch, the fact that we can all communicate so easily with each other and in so many more ways, does not mean we engage, persuade or encourage.

Often all we do is succeed in creating a wall of noise, but to be heard is not the same thing as to be listened to.

This is familiar territory for us all, but it is territory we must constantly revisit if we are to achieve what we hope to achieve; but before expanding on this theme, let me introduce my second less familiar theme – that of “competitive consequences”. A writer I admire hugely is the American behaviour expert Aubrey Daniels whose work includes “Bringing Out The Best In People”; it is he who best describes this idea. An analogy will help to explain…

You are sat at your computer working on a long and complicated document. You have been there for some time when you hear that familiar ping of a new email message arriving in your in-basket; do you:

a) Ignore the new message and refocus all your concentration on the complicated document you have been working on?

b) Flick immediately to your in-basket to see who the new email message is from? Or

c) Continue to work on the complicated document but hear voices in your head telling you to go to your in-basket instead?!

I will not presume to speak for you, but I can tell you that I would hardly ever be an a) person. I am mostly b) and occasionally c). As a result I am distracted and probably less productive.

One of the keys to understanding this behaviour is to realise that there are no competitive consequences for my choice of b) or c); and so I am easily pulled into a way of behaving inefficiently despite the fact that I can rationally consider the outcome to be inefficient and distracting.

Imagine then, rather fancifully perhaps, putting in place competitive consequences so that if I switch from my long complicated document to my new email I will receive a mild but noticeably uncomfortable electric shock! In these circumstances I’might think twice about flitting back and forth. Equally if I were to receive a small but desired bonus for finishing my complicated document in a certain time (and accurately) then that too might discourage my distraction.

And the reason the inefficient behaviour is now more likely to be influenced is because there are competitive consequences…

Let us therefore take a more typical change initiative.

I often see the result of well intentioned change programmes where the level of satisfaction for those involved remains stubbornly low. Typically we see that there is a reorganisation of roles, a bit of downsizing and some change to professional duties. All those who are affected by the changes are intelligent and thoughtful people who will not dismiss change out of hand; everyone generally wants to co-operate. Those in charge of the initiative often go to some lengths to set up the change programme with a report that is published, plans developed and consulted on and sometimes even an oversight committee is formed…

And yet in 7 out of 10 of similar situations “poor communication” is held up as a reason why change did not implement successfully.

Closer analysis will often show that the messages were reasonably clear and well crafted, but that they were too complicated, too long and too far apart; and, crucially, that they failed to resonate at those levels where people had to be persuaded to act differently.

Even closer examination will show that so much time and energy had been spent on the message that hardly any thought had been given to setting up competitive consequences. This is not just a question of putting in place a blunt two-dimensional incentive (although such incentives clearly can work), but requires that we have a proper insight into what is actually happening around us so that we can put in place something much more thoughtful and clever to influence change.

After all the behaviour we each exhibit every single day is behaviour we practice every single day; not surprisingly therefore we get very good at it. Clearly therefore to change such behaviour needs much more than a few communications (however well crafted) and much more effort than any project group on its own will ever be able to deliver.

What is needed is a level of practical engagement that not only makes communication relevant and resonant, but which also creates meaningful competitive consequences for those involved that are thoughtful, measured and effective to reward and encourage change.

It is this combination of resonant communication and competitive consequences that helps to secure change. Anything else risks the same ending as a great many other failed change programmes.

So, if this New Year you are tempted to embark on personal or professional change…take a little more time, this time, not just to focus on the message and how it will be received, but also on the sort of consequences that need to be built into the change process to give the best possible encouragement for change to actually happen.