Skip to main content
Commsy creative stuff straight to your inbox


Surfing the winds of change 

< Blog home

Surfing the winds of change 

While the Scorpions yearned for the wind of change in their classic Cold War anthem, our own experience of communicating change can be quite different.

In reality, that wind of change can feel more like a hurricane, with employees resolutely braced against its impact.

As communicators, our role is to help people sail with the tide rather than against it. But it’s not easy. According to one study, around 70% of business change fails.

So how do we help colleagues dive into the waves and come out the other side? These tactics can help…

Help people move on

Every change means the ending of something, and a potential sense of loss.

As a communicator, it’s important to understand what people feel they’re losing. You can then acknowledge it, and allow them a sense of closure.

Russell Grossman, now Director of Communications at the Office of Rail and Road, once gave a great example from his time as Head of Internal Communications at the BBC. When popular Chairman Greg Dyke was abruptly sacked, Russell called an all staff meeting. Its purpose? To give people the chance to air their sadness and share their sense of loss – an important step before they were able to move on.

Bring your change vision to life

Communicating change can be especially difficult at the start. At a time when people are hungry for information, there’s often little to communicate.

But there are two things you can always focus on: why change is needed, and what you’re hoping to achieve.

Create a simple but persuasive change narrative to outline your story. Change guru John Kotter advises making this as visual as possible, so use images, videos, analogies or demonstrations to bring it to life. Then keep coming back to this narrative as the change progresses.

It’s important to bear two things in mind. First, be honest. Leaders can sometimes gloss over potential drawbacks in change programmes. But research by influence expert Robert Cialdini shows that being open about these up front makes your vision far more credible.

Second, when making your case for change, don’t criticise what’s gone before – it may not go down well with the people who contributed to it. Instead, focus on the changing circumstances, and the need to build on what has gone before.

Keep listening

At the start of any change it’s unlikely you’ll know exactly how it will affect your audience. So setting up effective channels for regular feedback is key to keeping your change on track.

Internal social channels such as Yammer are great tools for this. Over time, they’ll also help you identify your change champions and advocates.

But nothing beats sitting down with colleagues face-to-face, whether through listening groups or a more formal network group.

This gives you essential insight into issues and concerns that you can address in your communications. It also helps colleagues buy into the change process.

When Sainsbury’s introduced activity-based working at its Head Office, colleagues were moved from fixed desks to open, shared workspaces. By soliciting feedback from monthly listening groups and Yammer, the project team were able to constantly modify both the change plan and their communications approach to help colleagues adapt more easily.

Shrink the change

You can’t cross a chasm in two small jumps, as the old saying goes. But when most people don’t want to cross the chasm in the first place, small steps are a sensible strategy.

David Gleicher’s formula for change suggests that creating an ‘acceptable first step’ is key to success. He defines ‘acceptable’ as small and likely to be effective, or easily reversible if it proves unsuccessful.

Chip and Dan Heath, authors of the brilliant book Switch, call this ‘shrinking the change’. If you make the size of the change as small, specific and realistic as possible, it encourages people to take that first step. Those small steps – ‘inch pebbles rather than distant milestones’, say the Heaths, provide quick wins you can share to build momentum.

Build habits

We are all just ‘bundles of habits’, as the Victorian philosopher William James once said. So if our daily behaviour is largely dictated by habit, how can we take advantage of that?

If you’re trying to bring about behavioural change, encouraging new habits can be an effective way to move towards your goal. But sometimes the habits you need to encourage are not immediately obvious.

When Sainsbury’s moved to activity-based working, colleagues were encouraged to get into the habit of hanging up their coats in the central cloakroom when they arrived. Why? Because listening groups revealed that people who kept their coats on the back of their chair were less inclined to move between spaces. They were also more inclined to use them to ‘save’ space for other colleagues.

Find the bright spots

When trying to change behaviour, we tend to ask: ‘Where are we going wrong, and how can we fix it?’ A better option can sometimes be: ‘Where are we succeeding, and why?’

You can then use that insight to grow your change – an approach the Heath brothers call focusing on the ‘bright spots’.

So look for teams who are already adopting the change. What are they doing differently? How can you spread that behaviour?

Services company Sodexo built a successful, long-running change programme to transform its approach to employee engagement. It was a campaign built around bright spots: seeking out great engagement stories from line managers across the business, and sharing them widely to show what a great job looks like.

Be persistent

When President George W Bush prematurely declared ‘mission accomplished’ and the end of the Iraq War in 2003, it came back to haunt him.

Yet organisations make the same mistakes. Lasting change takes longer than we expect. Rather than declaring ‘mission accomplished’ when an initiative’s been launched, we need to keep the momentum going.

Stay focused on your change far longer than you think necessary. Keep finding ways to communicate successes. After all, those winds of change are fickle – they can change direction and knock you over when you least expect them.

Change isn’t easy, but the right approach gives us a far better chance of success. So for your next change project, try out these tactics with your people – and help them surf with the tide, rather than against it.

By Dave Wraith for Alive!

“The guys at Alive understand the complexities of our business which means we don’t need to explain the detail of every project or design piece – they’re already on it, which keeps things moving and delivers the results we need.”

Emily Stoten — Head of Marketing, Selecta

“I feel like they own and care for the project as much as we do! I would not use anyone else for my creative work and think Alive is ahead of the game.”

Jo Hobbs — Communications Manager

“Thanks for all your help. We are delighted with the campaign, both in terms of the creativity and messaging but also the thought taken over the rollout of the materials. All looks absolutely fabulous!”

Sarah Crowdy — Campaign and Media Officer Communications, South East Water

“We went to ‘Alive’ for ideas on how to run a specific employee program in Europe. Alan and his team were brilliant in coming up with fresh, creative and practical approaches. The team took charge and executed brilliantly. We are pleased with the progress made so far and hope to have the same level of partnership and commitment going forward.”

Sobha Varghese — Tata Consultancy Services

“We had the privilege to work with the Alive team. It was our first time to be involved in creating an animation for our patients within paediatrics. The team were approachable, friendly, creative and very accommodating. Your vision for what you want to create, is at all times acknowledged, appreciated and accommodated by the team. They worked effectively and with great passion towards our project and worked not only alongside health professionals but also our patients who really enjoyed the experience of working with the Alive team. It has given our team the confidence and inspiration to do further projects in the future. We highly recommend Alive and their exceptional team.”

DR ELENI ATHANASAKOS, Lead Paediatric Clinical Scientist — NHS Barts Health

“‘The short animation developed in co-production with clinicians and young people is outstanding! Informative, developmentally appropriate, vitally fun and engaging. We are really grateful for the expertise of the Alive with Ideas team for their innovative approach in building children’s health literacy.'”

Kath Evans — Director of Children’s Nursing at Barts Health

“Our mission was to update our brand visuals to better reflect our innovative and forward-thinking organisation. After receiving numerous pitches from different branding agencies, Alive stood out with their clear passion and understanding of our identity and goals. We thoroughly enjoyed working with the Alive Team to create an engaging new brand that we are immensely proud of.”

Lianne Springer — Communications and Engagement Lead

“Alive wowed us during the pitch process and they didn’t stop wowing us throughout the whole project. Every person we worked with at Alive were so friendly, knowledgeable and clearly passionate about what they do. They have worked with us to really understand what we do and have created a new brand and website that really stands out from our competitors. Thank you!”

Louise Burnard, Head of Marketing and Communications UK — Be | Shaping the Future

“I think the team have done such a brilliant job, particularly with responding to our requests. It's one of the best mental health videos I've ever seen. Very proud to be associated with your exemplary work. Thank you so much.”

Dr Anna Batho — Clinical Psychologist – Critical Care, UCLH

“We have worked with Alan, Caroline and the wider Alive With Ideas team for many years. In that time, they have provided a dedicated service that is second to none. We appreciate their attention to detail and creative approach to bringing our brand, communications and stories to life. And would recommend them to anyone looking for creative communications support.”

Georgia Beech — Internal Communications Specialist, Ocado Group

“This is brilliant. I wanted to give my heartfelt thanks to all of the team who worked on this. You all understood exactly what we wanted to communicate and why, and then managed to do it in a way that was far better than anything I could have imagined. I’m a bit choked up to be honest!”

Sarah Wright, Head of Communications and Campaigns — NEA

“Each time I work with the team, I am always stunned at the effort and creativity that goes into each detail and am always eager for the end result. The team is extremely accommodating and always provide a fresh approach to our projects that elevates our communications materials!”

Alana Khaytin, Communications Specialist — Braskem America

“What I really appreciate about Alive is that they work with us as partners, and care as much about getting it right for our patients as we do.”

Sara Langston, Patient Engagement & Marketing Manager — italk

“Alive are unique in how much they deeply listen and invest in you and your ideas. I have not come across a company that listens as much as they do to ensure your needs are understood and met (actually - they always exceed my needs and expectations). Everyone I recommend Alive to has an equally brilliant experience. When you work with Alive, you are not only getting some genius creativity brought into your life, you are also hanging out with some of the best examples of human beings I’ve ever known.”

Steph Tranter, Hybrid Exec Coach & Psychologist —

“Alive helped us create a video of our response to the floods of winter 2019. Our Chief Officer received messages from all round the country praising us for it and was really pleased with both the video and the response to it.”

Alexander Mills, Communications Manager — South Yorkshire Fire & Rescue

“Alive were professional, friendly and great to work with. Most importantly they were creative, helping us to bring an extremely important safety campaign to life.”

Jack Grasby — South Yorkshire Fire & Rescue

“The (Alive) team were able to creatively pull together and document (in just over 2minutes) everything our service has achieved over the last few months, from thousands of prescriptions deliveries to hundreds of phone calls made to the vulnerable. The final product was so powerful and reflective of what our service has and continues to achieve. It couldn’t have been better received within the service – thanks Alive for once again helping us to communicate our vision!’”

Emma Wright — South Yorkshire & Rescue

“We worked with the team at Alive to create our staff recognition video.
At a time like this, its never been more important to share the amazing work that our staff have done and continue to do on a daily basis under very difficult circumstances. We wanted to shout about this and recognise that when the time came, South Yorkshire Fire & Rescue stepped up to the plate. We didn’t want an ordinary thank you post on social media or a basic email sent out internally, we wanted something special. Enter Alive. ”

Emma Wright — South Yorkshire Fire & Rescue

“This looks amazing - brought a smile to my face scrolling through it :-)”

Jack Ford, Head of Marketing — streamGO

“Our company is fun, we have great brands, but most importantly we’re all about our people – and I wanted an agency who would understand that and help us bring it to life through our website and other comms. Straight away I felt that Alive ‘got’ us and provided the creative inspiration exactly where we needed it, as well as the technical expertise to deliver a well-functioning website.”

Keren McCarron, Head of Corporate Affairs & Communications — KP Snacks

Thank you so much. Incredible work done at incredible speed by incredible people.
Outstanding work as ever and what a turnaround. As for the concepts – wow. These are that good it would be an insult to describe them as just good. It’s a joke, quite frankly. This is exactly the Alive effect I was after. Right now I feel like I am living in an Alive With Ideas wonderland. Thank you!”

Jack Grasby, Campaigns Manager — SYFR

“If you are looking to improve creativity and build teamwork, I highly recommend a session like this for your team. No matter where you are in your creativity journey, a workshop like this can give your team a boost of energy and ideas to invigorate their creative thinking.”

Amy Lilja, IC Manager — Hennepin Healthcare

“Alive were there to help when we were working every hour to respond to the coronavirus outbreak. They gave us the creativity, ideas and support we needed to deliver campaigns which empowered our residents in the most difficult time most of us have ever seen, personally and professionally. The team understood what we needed, worked closely with us and delivered fast without any compromise on quality. Working with Alive has been a joy in the darkest of times and I have no doubt will have helped to save lives. Thanks team x”

Julie Odams, Assistant Director of Communications & Customers — Derbyshire County Council

“We got 'Alive' involved to help us shift mindsets across our organisation and they delivered! Using simple, clear and creative ideas the team have delivered us a campaign which has seen a dramatic increase in idea sharing and development. They’ve also played a significant role in creating a culture of shared success. I wouldn’t hesitate to work with again, in fact, we already are!”

Gavin Buckle — B&Q
Alive logo