Change Won't Stick Without Open and Focused Communication

There’s an old adage, “people are down on what they’re not up on.” It’s true. Whether it's personal or professional, in the absence of information, people tend to be negative. There's an old joke a comedian would tell about a lady seeking a divorce after 50 years of marriage. When asked “why?” by the husband, the lady answered, "Because you don't love me anymore." The husband exclaimed that that was ridiculous. He had said he loved her on the day they got married, and if he had changed his mind, he would have told her!

If we want messages to be “sticky,” they need to be repeated, persistent, and compelling. Chip and Dan Heath, in their book, Made to Stick, suggest, convincingly, that with the right insights and messages, nearly any idea can be made to stick. To do so, you must find the core of the message and surround it with simplicity, unexpectedness, concreteness, credibility, emotion, and story. Brilliance is not taking the simple and making it complex; it is just the opposite. These ideas can be used to clarify and focus the message and not overwhelm people with knowledge. What is important in any change is communication.

Now, think of any major new effort you've been a part of in an organization. What role did communications play? It's hard to understand why something so simple and basic is often ignored. Reformers get so excited about the promise and eloquence of the reform that they ignore “the reformed.”

  • How do people fit into the innovation equation?
  • What do you need them to know?
  • How do you hope they will feel?
  • What do you want them to do?

Communication frequently becomes an afterthought when, in fact, it should be at the core of any improvement strategy.

Let's take the notion of value-added analysis, which is a sophisticated statistical methodology used to gauge a teacher's impact on the academic gain rates of groups of students. If you explain the concept and give concrete examples of teachers using it to improve their practice, educators are much more likely to support its use. On the other hand, if you only provide a set of baffling numbers that teachers believe will be used to judge them, it's a much more difficult sell. In fact, the more knowledge you provide people on the derivation of the statistics, and not their use, you lose them. It takes people away from the core message and infuses the curse of too much knowledge. The point here is to be thoughtful, measured, and communicative. If you want teachers to be committed to change, then find a way for them to be involved. Tell them what you are doing! Tell them why you are doing it. Ask them how to make it better.

Two psychologists I know were often engaged in a lively debate on how to successfully promote individual change. One was a behaviorist who argued, “You simply must make people do the behavior without regard to how they feel about it. The supportive attitudes will come later when the new behavior is in place.” The other declared, “How people see things does matter. You get the right mindset for change by thinking with them first.” Which approach is right? Probably both. You need to think through the changes an individual is likely to experience and develop a set of communications strategies to facilitate those behaviors. Large scale reform ultimately is the collection of individual changes, and simply put, they are much more likely to be successful when communication is open, rich, and focused.

Ania Striker