Lasting change - one conversation at a time

Euan Semple Profile picture for user euan_semple March 23, 2014
In this last of his four part mini-series, Euan Semple makes the case for broad yet deep conversations as the enabler of lasting change.

Summary: In this last of his four part mini-series, Euan Semple makes the case for broad yet deep conversations as the enabler of lasting change. [divider] [/divider]

Decision Choose Change or  Same Old Street
When a new Director General was announced during my time at the BBC there followed a big change initiative. This involved all sorts of staff presentations and Q&A sessions including some large events held in our TV studios.

There were impressive stage sets, interviews with the new DG by our news presenters, and "fly on the wall" techniques with cameras swooping in on earnest conversations between staff. Watching the media machine turing in on itself like this was decidedly uncomfortable. It was like watching a dog chewing off its own leg in a trap. Not only did it fail to convince many of us of the changes being discussed - it made us more cynical.

At the same time this was going on there were multiple conversations springing up on our internal forum talk.gateway. Unplanned, spontaneous conversations in which we were working out what the arrival of the new DG meant, what might change, how we felt about it all etc.. These were forthright and insightful exchanges which allowed us to understand each other's perspectives. Sure they were sometimes healthily disrespectful, but more importantly they were fun and interesting. The opportunity was there, if they were brave, for those behind the changes being introduced by the new DG to take part, to join our conversation, and to influence us directly. They chose not to.

This story shows two very different approaches to bringing about change. One a top down strategic initiative pushing "key messages" using all the resources of conventional media. The other a messy, networked, conversational approach to collective sense making. I would argue that the latter is, and has always been, where real change happens.

Real change happens willingly, at a personal level. Even if you have your strategic, top down, initiatives their ultimate effect is achieved through individual understanding which in turn leads to a collective change in behaviour. It probably won't always happen in the ways you expect, not conforming to your grand strategy. It will happen as it has always happened, one conversation at a time.

Too often those forcing change on others don't change themselves. Take for example social media strategies implemented by those hoping to enable robust conversations like those we saw in our forum at the BBC. "How is your social media initiative going?". "Oh they are not using the tools." "Are you using the tools?" "Oh no I am far too busy to waste my time with that sort of thing..."

Social media adoption happens one person at a time and for their reasons, not yours. I would argue that this applies to any change. People make up their own minds to change. You have to work hard at giving them reasons to change. Not remote strategic campaigns coordinated from some central office, but direct connections with staff, one conversation at a time, in their places not yours, even online places.

Go to where they are, get interested in them, gain their trust and respect. Maybe even be willing to change your plans on the basis of what they tell you. Having these conversations online can accelerate the change process. People can watch the conversations taking place and learn from them. They can react to the proposed changes and question them, thereby making their understanding deeper and any changes more robust.

We act as if change has a discrete start point but if you have been "working out loud" online long enough then often people have bought in to your proposed changes even before you announce them. They understand where  the changes are coming from, they feel part of them. Change is not being done to them - it is being done by them.

Lasting change happens at this cultural level, people live it every day. It becomes a way of being. It is a change of mindset and a way of seeing the world. If you want people to follow your strategy then the fastest way to bring it about is to have better conversations, more often, with more people.

Image credit: © lassedesignen -

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