Why change communications are often designed to fail

Why change communications are often designed to fail

Communication is an absolutely critical part of your change initiative.  In every part of the change initiative, communication is a must-have.  Too much and you may overwhelm your stakeholders.  Too little and you may not get traction or engagement.  Done in the wrong way and you may not get the right results.

So how would initiative change communication be designed to fail?

To understand this we need to analyse elements of what constitutes standard practice in corporate internal communications, of which change communication must adhere to in practice.

1. Maintain a positive or neutral tone.  You will notice that most of your internal communications usually have a positive or neutral tone.  It is almost never negative.  The goal is to maintain a positive mood as much as possible and hide any nuance of negativity.  A key rationale is to avoid imparting a negative mood to the target audience.

2. Impersonal corporate speak.  Typical corporate communications use a voice that is business and commercially focused.  One that is mostly formal.  This again may depend on how the communication is crafted, but often any emails or statements from leaders are often crafted in a way that is impersonal and void of personality.  

3. Focus on reason over feelings or emotions.  Communications are always carefully crafted to focus on logical reasoning over feelings or emotions.

I hear you nod.  So what is wrong with these practices if they have been the norm for decades and is adopted as common practice by most organisations?

OK let’s go through these one by one.

Maintaining purely a positive or neutral tone.  

Driving traction and motivation for change requires establishing ‘the why’.  Why are we doing this?  And what is wrong with the current status?  What do we have to gain by changing?  

One of the most important motives of communication at the commencement of a change initiative is to engage the organisation on the vision or end state of the change.  To do this effectively communications need to grab the attention of stakeholders and impart the rationale of the change.  In most situations, the change is not all rosey.  It needs to balance addressing the burning platform for change, what happens if change does not happen, and on top of this, outline the positive aspects of the change outcome.

Achieving this balance is not always easy in crafting messages.  However, ignoring any potentially ‘negative’ tone in favour of positive or neutral ones would only be perceived by the audience as ‘fake’.  Being candid is always preferable (as long as it doesn’t become overly negative and freak people out at the other extreme).

Perhaps this is why employees often read the communications and then ask their team members or managers about how to interpret the message and what it ‘really means’ to them?  Versus absorbing what they read as bible?

Impersonal or corporate speak

The corporate-style of communications is so pervasive in organisations that it is basically accepted as the norm. However, if you really ask your audience about this type of communication you will find that the tone is one of a level of pretense that it is not always easy for employees to relate to.

Especially with leader or manager communications, the content needs to match the person.  Think of the last time you listened to a manager who was talking about a change, but it came across so contrived that you know he/she was just delivering a message passed down from above.  It was not genuine or believable.  The message and tone of the communication need to match the person saying it, with all the personality and nuances that come with him/her.

On the other hand, the new economy startups and new tech organisations tend to communicate in more of a casual and relatable voice.  Even if you look at any email subscriptions that you might have, you will notice that what is emerging is more of a casual and personal tone.

Organisations are now evolving to be less hierarchical, less formal and more personal.  We also tend to wear less suits, have less hierarchy, and be less formal in addressing senior managers.  What about the way we craft communications messages in changes?  Have these evolved accordingly?  Or are they still done in the same way as 20 years ago?

Focus on reason over feelings or emotions.

This is a big one.  We know from research that people are much more likely to buy into the change if they can emotionally relate to the rationale for the change.  We also know that leaders who are more candid and share their emotions including vulnerabilities with teams are more likely to gain their trust and engagement.  Of course, we are not talking about emotional outbursts, but instead, ongoing open and candid conversations about their perspectives, i.e. speaking from the heart.

Gaining the trust and commitment for those impacted by the change requires appealing not just to the head but to the heart.  

When I was at Intel many years ago, there was a time when rival AMD was slowly gaining momentum in market share in the computer chipset market.  Leaders started very candidly and group-wide discussions about what this meant, the risks to the company, and really appealed to what this meant for Intel.  For the longest time, Intel was the unbeatable market leader.  Even the thought of being challenged by a smaller player was too much to bear.  

The overall rally across Intel was how might each team contribute in different ways to come up with ways to challenge AMD.  How might Intel continue to take the reign and be the global leader?  This emotive goal drove various teams across functions.  Technical teams challenged themselves to speed up their pipeline of delivering faster and better chipsets.  Marketing teams worked on strategies to target key accounts.  This led to huge success and in less than 2 years Intel had at the time squeezed AMD out of the limelight.

So, the challenge for change practitioners is to really question the effectiveness of your current change communication.  Look at the communication that you get from new and emerging companies as a reference.  How might you better engage and grab the heart of your audience?  

John Kotter in his new book ‘Change. How Organizations Achieve Hard-to-Imagine Results in Uncertain and Volatile Times’ mentioned that in the ‘modern organisation’ a lot of the practices are really designed for many decades ago.  These practices have not moved with the times and to be truly agile many of these practices need to be questioned.  It’s time to take the challenge and pivot.

Change practices benchmarking report

Change practices benchmarking report

Click on the below to download the report.

Change Practices Benchmarking report 

5 ways to graduate from change heatmaps

5 ways to graduate from change heatmaps

So you’ve climbed the change management career ladder.   You’ve not only managed complex projects, but are starting to help the business manage the change landscape. Like most organisations, the business you are supporting is implementing various changes to stay competitive and relevant in this fast-changing world.

Like most others, you’ve produced manual change heatmaps to help them visualize how much change there is going on. They’re seeing which parts of the business has more change than others. They can now see the ‘hot spots’ where there could be too much change. Month in and month out you continue to produce the same reports for them. They start to get bored and ask … “Is there more to the change landscape than just looking at the question of ‘too much’ or ‘too little’?”

This is a very valid question indeed!

Across our change management industry, it seems that producing change heatmaps and being focused singularly on one question is the norm. We all know that change is complex. Change is evolving. Change is multi-dimensional. Change is more than just answering one question. Is there more?


Beyond just asking a singular, one-dimensional question of “is there too much change”. How do we graduate from this and progress to the next few stages of adding further value to the organization? Here are 5 ways to do this.

1. Focus on understanding what the change story is versus asking a singular question.

What is happening or going to happen to the business? Is the business focused in a disciplined way on a small set of changes that will create very large impacts? Are these due to significant operating model transformations that are necessary to take the business to the next level? Are these multi-year transformation programs? How do these translate to behavior, process and system impacts? Would we need to phase a series of changes to drive the behaviour changes?

Or is the business undergoing less transformational but a larger set of smaller changes to be more competitive in delivering better customer experiences, more efficient and effective operations at a lower cost? And therefore, are the people impacts more about connecting across the breadth of changes. Are the challenges on connecting the dots across a wide set of changes, versus a smaller core of large ones?

2.  Collect other data to tell the story. Data has more weighting than opinions and assertions in the business decision making table. Change data regarding impact, timing, types of changes, number of people impacted, etc., will go a long way to tell the story of what the business will be experiencing. Make the data visual. Visual storytelling using data is becoming the norm in digital businesses nowadays. To graduate from manual spreadsheets of change heatmap, focus on digital change storytelling with data.

3.  How is the change impacting various stakeholders such as customers, partners and subject-matter-experts?

A significant percentage of organisations state that they are focused on the customer. Does the business understand the nature of change impact on a particular type of customer at any given time? Without understanding this how could the customer experience be effectively managed? Producing data visualization of how the customer is impacted, at what time, and in what way, will go a long way to lead the business in understanding how best to manage the customer experience during change.

Similar data visualization can also be produced for other stakeholder groups such as partners, subject matter experts, and other groups.

This is an example of ‘Total Impact’ chart from The Change Compass where you can see the impact on stakeholders across time.

4. What is the pace of change?

Is the overall pace of the planned execution of the strategy going to meet the organisation’s targets? When we look at the lifecycle of the changes being planned including the time it takes to embed the changes to realize the benefits, is the pace fast enough? Alternatively, could it be that the business is over-zealous in driving change to the detriment of its people and customers? Is the question not that there is too much change, but that the pace is going too fast and we are not realistically factoring the time required to embed and land the benefits required?

One real example. A business has been focused on adopting agile ways of working. It has also been applying this to grow its business. As a result, the business has commenced a series of experiments to try and find ways to drive business growth. However, because there weren’t specifically defined targets from a planning perspective, the planned experiments kept getting delayed. As a result, the change pipeline became slow. Therefore, overall growth targets were not met.

This is an example of ‘Timeline Chart’ from The Change Compass where you can decipher the impacts of initiatives across time.

5. Focus on what the execution of the organisation’s strategy will look like and if it makes sense.

In planning the execution of the strategy, the strategy team rarely looks at the totality of change from an impact perspective. This is not due to a lack of trying but mainly due to lack of access to change data. Armed with change data, it is possible to understand to what extent different strategies are impacting different parts of the business, and whether these make logical sense or not.

Is there a diverse set of strategies that the company is implementing? Do these have wide-ranging impacts on various parts of the business or are certain businesses more impacted than others? How do we ensure that the ‘why’ of the change and how we are communicating initiatives are clearly linked to the same strategy across initiatives? From a prioritization perspective are there certain initiatives are that more core to the strategy? How do we ensure that these are given more ‘run-way’ to roll out the changes than others? And again how do we ensure that these are highlighted and clearly communicated to impacted stakeholder groups?

This is an example of a strategy implementation chart that visually illustrates the impact that each strategy has on the business and the various initiatives that are linked to the strategy.

Outlined here are just some of the ways in which you can ‘graduate’ from just focusing on change heatmaps as the only way to help the business visualize change. There are other ways in which change management can add value to the organization and we will continue to outline other ways in which this may be achieved. Stay tuned!

The ultimate guide to measuring change

The ultimate guide to measuring change

A lot of change practitioners are extremely comfortable with saying that change management is about attitudes, behaviours, and feelings and therefore we cannot measure them. This metaphor that change management is ‘soft’ extends into areas such as leadership and employee engagement whereby it may not be easy to measure and track things. However, is it really that because something is harder to measure and less black and white that there is less merit in measuring these?

“If you can’t measure it you can’t improve it” Peter Drucker

The ‘why’ behind a lot of industry change in our day and age comes from the fact that data is now dominating our world. Data is a central part of everything that is changing in our world. Since we are now more reliant on the internet for information, the data that can be collected through our digital interactions around our lives are now driving change. Home assistant Alexa from Amazon can recognize our voices and tell us what we want to know. We can be identified through street cameras. Our Google usage leads to better-targeted advertisements and product promotions.   Our Facebook usage leads to a deep understanding of our preferences and lifestyles, and therefore we become targetted by advertisements for what we may find value in (according to Facebook data and algorithms).

So if our world is surrounded by data, why are we not measuring it in managing change? To answer this question let’s look at what we are or are not measuring.

These are some of the common ways in which change is often measured in projects:

1. Change readiness surveys

Change readiness surveys are usually online surveys sent by a project owner to understand how stakeholder groups are feeling about the change at different points in time throughout the project. It can be in the form on a Likert scale or free text. Most results are summarized into a quantitative scale of the degree in which the group is ready for change. A simple SurveyMonkey could be set up to measure stakeholder readiness for change. ChangeTracking (now part of Accenture) is a comprehensive online tool that measures the change journey and readiness of stakeholder groups throughout the initiative.

2. Training evaluation surveys

These evaluations are normally based on participant satisfaction across various categories such as content, instructor effectiveness, usefulness, etc. In a face-to-face training format, these surveys are normally paper-based so as to increase the completion rate. For online or virtual training, ratings may be completed by the user at the conclusion or after the session.

3. Communications metrics

One way in which communications may be measured is the ‘hit rate’ or the number of users/audience that views the article/material/page. This may be easily tracked using Google Analytics that not only tracks number of views per page but also viewership by the time of day/week as well as audience demographic information as such gender and geographical locations.

4. Employee sentiments/culture surveys

There are some organizations that measure employee sentiments or culture over the year and often there are questions that are linked to change. These surveys tend to be short and based on a Likert scale with less open-ended questions for qualitative feedback. Since these surveys are often sent across the entire organization they are a ‘catch-all’ yardstick and may not be specific to particular initiatives.

5. Change heatmaps

Some organizations devise change heatmaps on excel spreadsheets to try and map out the extent to which different business units are impacted by change. This artifact speaks to the amount of change and often leads to discussions concerning the capacity that the business has to ‘handle/digest’ change. The problem with most heatmaps is that they are usually categorized and rated by the creator of the artifact (or a limited number of people making judgments), and therefore subject to bias. Data that is based on 1 person’s opinions also tend not to have as much weight in a decision-making forum.

Change benefit tracking

In addition to typical change management measures, there are various initiatives-specific measures that focus on the actual outcome and benefit of the change with the goal of determining to what extent the change has taken place. Some example of this includes:

  • System usage rates

  • Cost reduction

  • Revenue increase

  • Transaction speed

  • Process efficiency

  • Speed of decision making

  • Customer satisfaction rate

  • Employee productivity rate

  • Incidents of process violation


Non-initiative based change management measures

There are two other measures that are used within an organizational vs. initiative-specific context, change leadership assessment and change maturity assessment. In the next section, we will discuss these two areas.

Change leadership assessment

David Miller from Changefirst wrote about 3 types of change leaders.:

1. The sponsor whose role is to drive the initiative to success from the beginning to the end. This involves possessing competencies in rallying and motivating people, building a strong network of sponsors and communicating clearly to various stakeholder groups.

2. The influencer whose role is to leverage their network and influence to market and garner the traction required to make the initiative successful. Four types of influencers as identified by Changefirst includes:

a) Advocates who are great at promoting and advocating the benefits of the change

b) Connectors who are able to link and leverage people across a part of the organization to support the change

c) Controllers who have control over access to information and people and these could include administrators and operations staff

d) Experts who are viewed by others in the organization as being technically credible

3. The change agent is someone who is tasked with supporting the overall change in various ways, including any promotional activities, gaging different parts of the organization on the change and be able to influence, up, down and sideways across the organization to drive a successful change outcome.

Whilst there isn’t one industry standard tool for assessing change leadership competencies and capabilities. There are various change leadership assessment tools offered by Changefirst as well as other various smaller consulting firms. One of the most comprehensive change leadership assessment tools is by ChangeTracking is the Change Capacity Assessment which is a self-assessment with the broad categories being Goal Attainment, Flexibility, Decision Making, and Relationship Building.

Some of the key competencies critical in change leadership have been called out by Pagon & Banutal (2008), and include:

  • Goal attainment

  • Assessing organizational culture and climate

  • Change implementation

  • Motivating and influencing others

  • Adaptability

  • Stakeholder management

  • Collaboration

  • Build organizational capacity and capability for change

  • Maneuvering around organizational politics


Change maturity assessment

Organisations are increasingly realising that managing change initiative by initiative is no longer going to cut it as it does not enable organizational learning and growth. Initiatives come and go and those who rely on contractor change managers often find that their ability to manage change as an organization does not mature much across initiatives.

Change maturity assessment is focused on building change capability across the organization across different dimensions, whether it be project change management or change leadership. The goal of conducting a change maturity assessment is to identify areas in which there may be a capability gap and therefore enable structured planning to close this gap.

There are 2 major change maturity assessment models available in the market. The first is by Prosci and the second is by the Change Management Institute. To read more about change maturity assessment read out article A New Guide for Improving Change Management Maturity, where we outline how to improve change maturity throughout different business units across the organization.

A comprehensive model of Change Management Measures

In this diagram various change management measures are represented along two axes, one being the different phases of the initiative lifecycle, and the other being different organizational levels of project, business and enterprise in which change management measures fall into.

Project level measures

‘Plan’ phase

In this phase of the project, the team is discovering and scoping what the project involves and what the change is. As a result, the details are not known clearly at the commencement of the phase. Later in the phase the scope becomes much clearer and the team starts to plan what activities are required to implement the change.

  • The change complexity assessment evaluates how complex the project is. It looks at how many people could be impacted, what the size of the impact could be, how many business units are impacted, whether multiple systems and processes are impacted, etc.

  • Change resourcing costing. At the planning phase of the project cost required for the change management stream of the work is required. This includes such as any contractors, communication campaigns, learning cost, travel, and administration cost, just to name a few.

  • Change readiness assessment is usually conducted prior to the change and during the change. Usually, the same set of questions is asked of various stakeholder groups to assess their readiness for change.

‘Execute’ phase

The execute phase is one of the most critical parts of the project. Activities are in full flight and the project is busy iterating and re-iterating changes to ensure successful execution to achieve project goals.

  • Communication and engagement tracking. Effective engagement of stakeholders in the change is absolutely critical. Stakeholder interviews, surveys, communication readership rates are all ways in which engagement may be tracked.

  • Learning tracking. Measuring learning is critical since it tracks to what extent the new competencies and skills have been acquired through learning interventions. Typical measurements include course tests or quizzes in addition to course evaluations. On the job performance may also be used to track learning outcomes and to what extent learning has been applied in the work setting.

  • Change readiness assessment continues to be critical to track during the execution phase of the project

‘Realise’ phase

In this phase of the project the change has ‘gone live’ and most project activities have been completed. It is anticipated in this phase that the ‘change’ occurs and that the benefits can then be tracked and measured.

  • Change benefit tracking measures and tracks the extent to which the targeted benefits and outcomes have been achieved. Some of these measures may be ‘hard’ quantitative measures whilst others may be ‘soft’ measures that are more behavioural.


Business level measures

Business level measures are those that measure to what extent the business has the right ability, capacity, and readiness for the change.

  • Change heatmaps can help to visualize which part of the business is most impacted by 1 project or multiple projects. The power of the change heatmap is in visualizing which part of the business is the most impacted, and to compare the relative impacts across businesses. As the number of change initiatives increase so would the complexity of the change. When facing this situation organisations need to graduate from relying on excel spreadsheets to using more sophisticated data visualization tools to aid data-based decision making. To read more about change heatmaps and why this is not the only way to understand business change impact, go to The Death of the Change Heatmap.

  • Sponsor readiness/capability assessment can be a critical tool to help identify any capability gaps in the sponsor so that effort may be taken to support the sponsor. A strong and effective sponsor can make or break a change initiative. Early engagement and support of the sponsor are critical. Both Prosci, as well as Changefirst, have sponsor competency assessment offerings.

  • Change champion capability assessment. Change champion or change agent are critical ‘nodes’ in which to drive and support change within the organizational network. A lot of change champions are appointed only for one particular initiative. Having a business-focus change champion network means that their capability can be developed over time, and they can support multiple initiatives and not just one. Assessing and supporting change champion capability would also directly translate to better change outcomes.

  • Change leadership and change maturity assessment – refer to the previous section

  • Change capacity assessment.

In an environment where there is significant change happening concurrently, careful planning and sequencing of change in balance with existing capacity are critical. There are several aspects of change capacity that should be called out in the measurement process:

  1. Different parts of the business can have different capacity for change. Those parts of the business with better change capability, and perhaps with better change leadership, are often able to receive and digest more changes than other businesses that do not possess the same level of capability.

  2. Some businesses are much more time-sensitive and therefore their change capacity needs to be measured with more granularity. For example, call centre staff capacity is often measured in terms of minutes. Therefore, to effectively plan for their change capacity, the impacts of change needs to be quantified and articulated in a precise, time-bound context so that effective resourcing can be planned in advance.

  3. The change tolerance or change saturation level for business needs careful measurement in combination with operational feedback to determine. For example, it could be that last month a part of the business experienced significant change impact across several initiatives happening at the same time. The operational indicators were that there was some impact on customer satisfaction, productivity, and there were negative sentiments reported by staff that there was too much change to handle. This could mean that the change tolerance level may have been exceeded. With the right measurement of change impact levels for that part of the business, next time this level of change is seen, previous lessons may be utilized to plan for this volume of change. Utilise measurement and data visualization tools such as the Change Compass to track change capacity.

Enterprise level change measures

At an enterprise level, many of the business unit level measures are still applicable. However, the focus is comparing across different business units to sense-make what each part of the business is going through and if the overall picture is aligned with the intentions and the strategic direction of the organization. For example, typical questions include:

  • Is it surprising that one part of the business is undergoing significant change whilst another is not?

  • Is there a reason that one business unit is focused on a few very large changes whilst for other business units there is a larger set of changes each with smaller impacts?

  • Is the overall pace of change optimum according to strategic intent? Does it need to speed up or slow down?

  • What is the process to govern, report and make decisions on enterprise level change, prioritization, sequencing and benefit realization?

  • Is there one business unit that is able to manage change more effectively, faster with greater outcomes? How can other business units leverage any internal best practices?

As mentioned in the Change Management Measures diagram, some enterprise level change measures include:

  • Change capacity assessment – Does one business unit’s change capacity limits mean that we are not able to execute on a critical strategy within the allocated time? How do we create more capacity?   Ways in which to create more capacity could include more resources such as staff, or initiative funding, more time is given, or more talent to lead initiatives

  • Change maturity assessment – At an enterprise level, the concern is with the overall change maturity of the organization. How do we implement enterprise level interventions to build change maturity through programs, networks, and exchanges, such as:

    • Enterprise change capability programs

    • Enterprise change analytics and measurement tools

    • Enterprise change methodology

    • Enterprise network of change champions

  • Strategy impact map – Change management need not be focused only on project execution or business unit capability. It can also demonstrate value at an enterprise level by focusing on strategy execution (which by definition is change). The way in which different strategies exert impact on various business units may be visualized to help stakeholder understand which initiatives within which strategic intent impact which business units.  To illustrate this please refer to the below diagram which is an example of a strategy impact map. In this diagram, each of the organisation’s strategy is displayed with different initiatives branching out of each strategy. The width of each initiative correlates with the level of impact that the initiative has on the business over a pre-determined period of time. Therefore, the width of each strategy also indicates the overall relative impact on the business.

This data visualization artifact can be valuable for business leaders and strategic planning functions as it depicts visually how the implementation of various strategies is impacting business units.   This helps planners to better understand strategy implementation impacts, potential risks and opportunities, and balancing change pace with strategy goals at various points in time.


  • Predictive indicators on business performance – We started this article talking about how data is all around us and we also need to better manage change using data. With quantitative data on change impact, it is possible to ascertain any correlations with operational business indicators such as customer satisfaction, service availability, etc. For those business indicators where there is a significant correlation, it is possible to hence use predictive reporting to forecast performance indicator trends, given planned change impacts.

In the below graph you can see an example of this whereby using historical data it is possible to establish correlations and therefore forecast future impact on business indicators. This example is focused on the customer contact centre (CCC) and key business indicator of average handling time (AHT) is utilized as an illustration.


This type of predictive performance forecasting is extremely valuable for organisations undergoing significant change and would like to understand how change may impact their business performance. By demonstrating the impact on business indicators, this puts the importance of managing change at the front and centre of the decision-making table. At The Change Compass, we are developing this type of measurement and reporting function. This is the frontier for change management – to be established as a key business-driving function (versus a standard back-office function).

Change can be measured and this article has outlined various operational and strategic ways in which change measurement can demonstrate significant value. Most corporate functions cannot exist without data and analytics. For example, Human Resources relies on people and pay data. Marketing cannot function without measurement of channel and campaign effectiveness. For Information Technology, pretty much everything is measured from system usage, to cost, to efficiency. It is time we start utilizing data to better visualize change to better plan and make business decisions.


Miller, David (2011) Successful Change. How to implement change through people. Changefirst Ltd.

Pagon & Banutal (2008) Leadership Competencies for Successful Change Management. Study Report. University of Maribor.

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