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Busting some change communication myths

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Reading about change communication frustrates me. Advice is either reduced to a set of vague bullet points – those “listicles” that have become a mainstay of social media – or made to sound so complicated only someone with a PhD could possibly know the right thing to do.

I have worked on a number of change programmes over the years and while I would be the first to ‘fess up that I haven’t always got it right, there are a few things that I have learned. The main one is that there really is no mystery to change communication.

So, here is my myth-busting listicle!

Myth number one: communicate early and often. Er, no. I read this somewhere the other day, I won’t say where and filed it under my “vague set of bullet point heading”. But more than that I actually think it is dangerous advice. We should communicate to the right stakeholder at the right time. And you know what? Sometimes that may not be often.  Within organisations there are often numerous change projects underway. If we communicated about all of them “early and often” we would overwhelm. The danger is that projects end up communicating without an objective, just because they think that they should be saying something. The result is a plethora of communication, much of it unfocussed and untargeted. It is this ‘noise’ that prevents the really important stuff getting through, so what do we do? Shout louder in order to be heard!

Myth number two: nobody likes change. This is very simplistic. It depends on the change and how it affects you doesn’t it? What people don’t like is the impact of the change; it isn’t the change per se. Once we understand that we can go a long way to mitigating the discomfort by understanding the impact and doing what we can to address it.

Myth number three: talk about “what’s in it for me”.  What I don’t like about this is the focus on selling a message rather than engaging with stakeholders.  It is also a blocker to effective line manager communication about change within organisations. I remember working with a group of line managers who told me that they couldn’t possibly “sell” the change to their teams.  It was a real light-bulb moment for me. Once I explained that the expectation wasn’t that they sell the message but that they facilitate a conversation with their team about it, they were much happier and felt comfortable. So, let’s ban “what’s in it for me” and instead talk about “what it means to me”. It’s a small difference but an important one.

Ann Pilkington is author of "Communicating Projects - An End-to-End Guide to Planning, Implementing and Evaluating Effective Communication"




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  1. Ann Pilkington
    Ann Pilkington 21 September 2014, 09:33 PM

    Thanks John, glad the blog prompted some thought. I think that "shouty" stakeholders are one of our biggest challenges and the thing is that we can waste a lot of time on a few very vocal people when there are others that are more worthy of our attention.I agreed with your point about change fatigue too. I think that most people acsept that change is pretty common place now and we dont always needs to make qutie such a big deal of it !

  2. John Heathcote
    John Heathcote 18 September 2014, 12:23 PM

    Ann your comments/observations are compelling advice. I do think PM in general is vulnerable to  'step guide' methodologies and cause us to suspend critical thought! As I read your blog, the phrase 'change fatigue' came to mind, I suspect this partly results from over announced change, rather than the targeted approach you suggest. On the MSc I teach in we now promote 'interest based negotiation' as a way to engage with stakeholders. And rather than pander to powerful stakeholders' desires (which an awful lot of PM texts purport) we say 'don't compromise the project's value to a stakeholder bribe'.  Understand their interests certainly, but only to help you frame the negotiation, .. (I'm working from the assumption our projects, and change projects, are aligned with strategy and have a genuine value/business case).