When Ann-Marie Blake and I set True up earlier this year, one of our core beliefs was change and transformation can only properly succeed when organizations take a genuinely people-centric approach.

As communicators, increasingly our challenge is to help our organizations go through change. Ah yes, change. Let’s face it, we know people don’t like change.  They never have.  Fifty years ago, Lynyrd Skynyrd told us in their anthem ‘Free Bird’ “Lord knows, I can’t change”.  Yet this thing no one likes is increasingly omnipresent in both our professional and personal lives. 

McKinsey tells us that 70% of transformations don’t deliver what is promised; with a failure to bring people along on the journey being their second stated reason. If seven of every ten transformations are not successful, that represents a massive amount of money and effort being wasted. 

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But why would that be? After all, the business case will most likely make complete sense. It will be hard to fault the logic behind the change. And generally, leaders understand the need to communicate about change. A well-crafted email from the CEO, or a town hall or even a leader briefing should enable us to tick the box and say we’ve communicated. 

Once we’ve told people about the change, perhaps even giving them a chance to ask a question, then we should be ready to introduce the change confident that, not only will our employees have ‘got it’, but they’ll be looking forward to it as well.

This situation introduces what I call the battle of logic against emotion. Organizations will always (well almost always) win on logic. The business case will typically be well thought-through, making plenty of sense, addressing something important that the organization needs to improve.  But whether the same organization will do enough to win the battle of emotion is a different thing.

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The debate about the use of Artificial Intelligence in communications is a current one. Regardless of the merits of ChatGPT and the impact it and other forms of AI might have in the future, it seems to me that one of the main things that distinguishes us from the machines is that as humans, we are all emotional beings. We feel, we sense and we empathise. 

When making decisions, often big decisions, we don’t just use logic. Typically, we let our emotions affect and sometimes overrule our logic. This might be deciding what house to buy, what job to take or simply whether I believe and trust my organization.

The decision on whether I should actively support the next change plan will often be made with some logic but a much bigger dollop of emotion.   

Being people-centric in change and transformation situations means providing people with the space and time to understand what is happening. By the way, understanding is key. For me as a communicator, getting you to understand is more important than whether you agree or disagree. If you don’t understand you get stuck, you try and work things out for yourself and massively increase the risk of getting to the wrong conclusion. If you do understand, even if you don’t necessarily agree, you are likely to give it a chance. 

I believe there are three key questions that people need to be able to answer in change situations:

  1. What does this change mean to me?
  2. What does this change mean for us as a team?
  3. What can we start to do to take some local ownership or accountability for the change?

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One good way of achieving this is to provide people with the ability to have proper conversations, with their colleagues, potentially including leaders – as long as the leaders are in listening and not broadcast mode. 

These conversations can be face to face or just as easily online depending on what opportunities you have to bring people together. 

Whichever way you go you want the conversations to be integrated into your other communication channels.  Platforms, such as Haiilo’s, can help make things simpler and easier for your employees. Creating an outstanding digital experience can help people ‘join the dots’ and build understanding as you engage and involve your employees in the change. Getting this right will ultimately build pride, trust and engagement. 

Where such platforms are particularly relevant is enabling you to improve your listening so that you gain a deeper appreciation of what motivates your audiences, and then be in a better position to respond to feedback or suggestions that come back from the listening.  

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For me this is how I define a people-centric approach. Giving people the space and time to have the conversations so they can work out the answers to the three key questions and at the same time developing the capability of listening to what is being said in these conversations and responding appropriately.   

Most business leaders, in my experience, nod when you mention taking a people-centric approach. After all, most of them will be quick to tell you that their people are their greatest asset. However, when you look deeper, what they say doesn’t necessarily match up to what they do. I’ve worked in companies where the culture was clearly more skewed to being what I might describe as leader-centric or even head office-centric, not people-centric. 

This is what True stands for. If we want to make change stick, if we want to deliver transformations better then we need to take a people-centric approach and put our people at the center, recognizing the decisions they make will be based as much on emotion as on logic. If we get this right then we can expect to see McKinsey’s 70% number reduce quickly.  

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About the author

Howard Krais is a leader in the communications world with over 30 years’ experience working both in senior corporate roles and in consulting.  

In February 2023 Howard co-founded a new consulting business called ‘True’, with Ann-Marie Blake. True is based on our shared belief in the power that truly engaged employees create. Our purpose is to help organisations build winning cultures through maximising the potential of their people. 

Before True Howard’s most recent role was at Johnson Matthey, where he led communications for JM’s biggest sector Clean Air, developing the award-winning AirTime programme, an innovative conversation-based approach to building understanding and commitment in a time of major transformation.

Prior to JM, Howard had senior roles in major global businesses including GSK and EY where he led large global teams delivering significant cultural change. He also has experience of working across other sectors including financial services, retail, leisure and construction to name a few.  

Over the past four years, Howard has co-authored four ground-breaking reports on how organisations listen, with a book due for publication later in 2023.  

Howard spent two years as President of the UK chapter of the International Association of Business Communications (IABC). He is a frequent presenter at international events including IABC World Conferences and the recent PRSA Connect ‘23 event in Orlando, Florida. 

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