resources. sequel presents.

10 November 2020

Transformation programme: here’s how communicators can meet the challenge of change


As we near the end of a year like no other, with businesses having to adapt to a new economic landscape and ways of working, November’s Sequel Presents A Coffee With featured Kate Goodman, whose most recent project was communicating a multi-million-pound transformation programme at Dignity, one of the largest providers of funeral services in the UK.

Sequel’s Nick Andrews asked Kate about the challenges around communicating a variety of radical changes to a very traditional business and how she made sure IC was put at the heart of this ambitious transformation programme.

Kate also spoke about the lessons she learned, the importance of solid ground work, and explained how other organisations faced with the challenge of change can take their people along on the journey.

Watch a recording of the webinar below. Check out our previous session where we discussed the wellbeing of line managers with Bupa’s Director of Internal Communication and Wellbeing Mairi Doyle.

YouTube video

 

Nick

So welcome, everyone to the latest Sequel Presents A Coffee With. I’m Nick Andrews, business development director at Sequel. I’ve been in internal comms for more years than I care to remember, and the topic today around change is something that, actually, people were talking about when I first joined Sequel a long time ago. We called it in those days business process re-engineering and it’s gone through a number of a number of nuances since then.

Each month we at Sequel look at topics of interest to the IC, IT and HR communities. As I said, today’s topic is around business transformation and how communicators can meet the challenge of change and I’m delighted to introduce you to Kate Goodman. Kate, before we start, a brief bit about yourself – hello!

Kate

Hello, delighted to be here. And yeah, I’m Kate Goodman, managing director of The Good Comms Company, and I provide interim support, internal comms, to help companies around the UK and the world. I’ve worked for the RAC, Molson Coors, and latterly Dignity.

Nick

Okay, we’ll start your interrogation in a minute. Just gonna play a quick clip first.

[clip of HR Director article]

Nick

The HR Director magazine there was basically talking about change being continuous and I guess you’d agree with that for any right thinking organisation. But I believe at Dignity change was something of a radical concept when you arrived, is that correct?

Kate

It was a very radical concept. We came in as a transformation team two years ago, following a strategic review. The business hadn’t experienced any kind of change for over 20 years. The last big change it had was a new payroll system, so a whole group of contractors coming in with big ideas about how to change the way they do things in the funeral industry, which is very traditional, was a big, big sell, and very difficult for these people to understand.

Nick

Yes, as you said, Dignity is very traditional. It was the organisation that had the claim to fame of burying Winston Churchill, I believe, among its clients. So, very traditional, very established and given that challenge, where did you actually start? Did you go full pelt into communicating change all over the place, or do I suspect you actually did a bit of insight first?

Kate

Yeah, absolutely. We didn’t go full pelt in because that would have scared the horses a little bit, quite literally in some cases. I came in and reviewed what existing for internal comms they had and to see if there were any channels I could build on and start telling stories though. There wasn’t any, so that was a challenge in itself. So I basically spent the first three months in the discovery phase. I went around talking to key stakeholders, getting to know them, getting to know their challenges, what their priorities were, what their fears were about business transformation and what they knew about it. I surveyed colleagues – what sort of thing made them tick, are they a Facebook person or a print media person? What sort of things did they like? What was the demographic? That was really interesting and it gave me loads and loads of rich insight I could build a strategy on. What had happened, just before I joined there had been an announcement to the City about business transformation and that announcement had simply been emailed to the whole business. So there were a lot of people out there knowing it was coming but didn’t know what it was, what it meant for them or whether their jobs were safe. So my first job really, apart from getting all the insights, was reassuring people, saying we’ll keep you informed and this is what we’re going to do. So yeah, huge discovery phase and a lot of insight before the comms started.

Nick

And you mentioned in passing the demographic. It was interesting, wasn’t it, because I think you found that unlike many other blue chips, Dignity was a little bit different and was a little bit more  aged than perhaps some other organisations you’ve worked for?

Kate

Our average age is 52 which means we’ve actually got people who are a lot older. We’ve got people who are casual workers who come in to be coffin bearers or drive the hearses for example, people who attend the funeral on the day on behalf of the family, and often they are retirees who are coming in to get a bit more extra cash in their pocket. Or they’re people like firefighters and policemen who, again, are earning a few quid in between jobs. So from that point of view they’re not permanent employees, but they’re casuals, they’re also older and having not been through a degree of change for a long time, that was quite difficult for those people to grasp.

Nick

I’m probably generalising here but did you find that, because they were of a certain age, they were more resistant to change? Or did you find that when you’d explained what you’re trying to do they were open to it? What did you find in terms of insight, were there grounds for optimism?

 

Kate

There was caution; people were cautious and a bit worried about it. But at the same time when we said what the plans were, people thought ‘thank goodness, we’ve been crying out for this for years’. Actually, a lot of people really embraced it. And that was great, because we could bring those people on board and they were advocates for us. And I think that’s really important whatever you do, anything you do really, is to bring your colleagues on board and don’t let them be ‘done to’. They are the subject matter experts. We were a whole group of business transformation and comms experts and change experts. We didn’t know anything about funerals. And it was really important that we protected that service and made sure people still had a respectful and dignified send-off.

Nick

Sure, and given the fact that this transformation project had been announced to the City and it was all going to change, fantastic, a brave new dawn, how impatient were people to see it, and did that mean you had to have some quick wins under your belt in terms of comms?

Kate

Yes, people were impatient actually, because that announcement was three months prior to me coming on board and [people said] ‘what’s happening, it’s been three months and we have had nothing, so what’s going on?’ So I was doing all the insight in the beginning and getting people on board and what I had to do really is say, this is what, in a nutshell, the plans are, this is what you can look forward to, but you’re not going to hear that overnight. You’re going to hear about it in stages. It’s a three-year programme. Reassurance is a big message. So this is not about job losses. It’s not about people worried about their job. It’s actually about growth, about taking the company into 21st century. So yeah, it’s about those reassurance messages. Getting those channels in place is very important but initially, it was simply emails, getting stuff put on noticeboards, making sure that line managers were briefed so they could reassure their teams.

Nick

Did you have any kind of branding or look and feel for that transformation in terms of making people aware this was important stuff?

Kate

I did, Nick. I decided to because when you’re talking about business transformation to people who haven’t experienced any degree of change in the workplace, the very word transformation is scary. So I wanted to sort of talk about it and tell the story. We were actually quite influenced by Jim Collins, so we used the tagline Good to Great, because we knew we were already good. We’re a great business, the reviews we get from customers are second to none, we couldn’t ask for better Fefo reviews, we couldn’t ask for better Trustpilot reviews. Our people are amazing at what they do but we knew we could be even better, and that’s by getting the infrastructure right and making some efficiencies for the business and making sure that we can use the subject matter expertise to make a more cohesive whole. So yeah, this is actually we’re going to go from Good to Great and people did buy into that. And it created quite a bit of dialogue with people as well. So although they were ‘hang on, we’re already great, what are you talking about?’ you could point out ‘actually, you are fantastic, don’t get me wrong, but imagine how this could make a difference to the service you do for our clients’.

 

Nick

And did that message land well? Were there any kind of barriers – did people play devil’s advocate and say, ‘well, this is another head office kind of initiative that actually doesn’t mean anything to me’, or did you actually find that people to embraced it pretty quickly?

Kate

No, people are really embracing it because there hadn’t been any head office initiatives, so we weren’t up against something that had failed before, although people did wheel out things like ‘oh, we did try this’ – when? –  ‘20 years ago’ – right let’s give it another go because things have changed since then.

So we had to do lots of hand holding for people, because it was a worrying time and they hadn’t been through it, so for our management group my colleagues and I took them through change readiness training and they got brought up to speed on what change means, what kind of physical and mental reactions there are. So, your amygdala hijack, your very chemical kind of reactions to change and why you might be experiencing this, and what the change curve is. And we took colleagues through that as well, saying, you know, it’s completely natural to feel fear, and to feel worry and feel anxiety, but you will get over this and actually you might be at so many different points in that change curve at any one time about different things. So we were telling that story through communications and saying it’s okay to feel worried about change.

Nick

So you told that story through your channels, but presumably you also had face to face meetings. And you mentioned HR, how big a partnership was there between you and HR?

Kate

Yeah, we were completely collaborative. Because of not having gone through this change and HR had to go through a massive business transformation themselves. So we doubled the size of the HR team and they had to be brought up to speed on what modern techniques there were and modern practices. And it went all the way through the organisation and Dignity is huge; it’s nationwide, 826 branches and 46 crematoria and many of those used to be independents, so we had the problem as well that actually, although they had a Dignity badge, they didn’t feel like Dignity, they still felt like Joe Bloggs and sons. That was another challenge we had.

Nick

So how did you actually get out there physically? Did you go on a tour around the country, got a T-shirt and everything?

Kate

I did! It was Kate on tour. I literally went to every single region in the business and I spoke to people as an individual. But then I also did a management roadshow, that was couple years ago, so a couple of months after I started. We did the management roadshow in three key regions and invited all the senior and middle managers to those events to say, ‘this is what business transformation is, this is why we’re advocating it’. And I had business leaders there to advocate for us, so it wasn’t just a comms thing. It was all about these are some exercises to go through, this is what you can expect and what you can take back to your teams, and this is what’s going to happen, this is how you’re gonna feel about it – that’s fine – and this is how you can find out about things. So it was an all-day roadshow in three different regions and that was really helpful. And part of that was saying, actually you need to communicate with your teams. That was a fairly new concept as well, so it was really starting from scratch.

Nick

You mentioned it’s not just a comms thing, so I’m guessing getting those senior execs, the leaders, on board was really crucial.

Kate

It was absolutely crucial. Luckily they bought into the strategy, so that’s absolutely fine. But I had to convince them that actually talking to your people not holding things back, which is what they traditionally had done, whether it’s through fear of worrying people or just not seeing the need, I had to say actually you’ve got to be honest with people and say they’re not going to get it right all the time, because no one’s infallible, we need be telling our story, you need to be getting out there and being more visible because before senior leaders weren’t visible. And so we had our senior leaders as part of the transformation programme ending up as business leads for each work stream, so they became the visible face. For example, one of our female regional managers was the workstream lead for IT working with the project manager experts that people brought in, so they were advocating it, and they were learning on the job. And that meant that they were able to tell the story and be involved right from the off and have that input.

Nick

And how did they work with the line managers, particularly in a nationwide organization? I presume those line managers and the regions are equally important, if not more. How did you work with them as well?

Kate

I created a dial-in message for line managers. People could listen to that at any time they wanted, so we recorded that and put that out there as well.

Nick

That was pre-recorded?

Kate

Yes. Well, actually, it was a live recording, so people could ask questions at the end as well if they wanted to.

Nick

And how often was that produced?

Kate

Every month to start with.

Nick

What about some of the other channels? You mentioned some quick wins. What other channels did you have, apart from the pre-recorded dial-in? You mentioned email, what else did you have?

 

Kate

Yeah, there was email. We also introduced town halls. Obviously that worked better for head office.

Nick

Tell me about the the town hall incident you had.

Kate

It was hilarious and a bit of a learning curve. Our head office in Sutton Coldfield was actually just few doors down from Sutton Coldfield Town Hall. So when we said we’re going to have a town hall on this day, people trotted up the road to the Town Hall! I had to say, actually we’re not going to call it that very more because people got very confused. We all learned not to use jargon. Business language isn’t always in someone’s vernacular.

Nick

I’ve got visions of everyone going the Town Hall for a cup of tea and a biscuit! So, town halls, or whatever we want to call them, emails, dial-in what else?

Kate

We created a newsletter. That was a transformation newsletter, so people could look out for that. We introduced posters, and we also spent a lot of time building a website. The website actually came into its own during Covid, but that was set up as well, because 50% of our colleagues don’t have email, have any connection to company systems, and we really had to reach them, so the newsletter was designed to do that and the website was there to make sure comms were out there in real time and accessible for people who aren’t on email as well. So it was an extranet really, rather than an intranet.

Nick

And as ever, how did you measure the effects of those channels? Was there much uptake on the website? Do people use it daily or just dip in when they want; how did that work?

Kate

It depends really. If you’ve got a big news item, or a big ticket thing, you get more spike in traffic. We see a big spike in traffic when we send the newsletter out because it links to those stories like a little teaser. And video works exceptionally well. Video has been a massive success story for this organisation.

Nick

How did you use video to tell the stories? What kind of things did you use video for, because that’s interesting?

Kate

Well, because we wanted to show people how this is a long journey, we actually did a ‘what does 2022 look like?’ because that was going to be the endpoint for transformation. So we looked at it’s 2018 now – as it was – and this is what the problems are now. You’ve got a leak in the branch, who do you call? What happens if you are trying to onboard somebody and are having all these issues? So we created an animation that would show these problems are all solvable in 2022 and how much easier your job is as line manager. So videos worked really well, but always telling that story. I think if a picture can tell 1,000 words, a video can tell 10,000 so I’m a big advocate of video and we’ve really seen a lot of engagement with video.

Nick

A lot of transformation projects I’ve seen in the past do rely on a lot of email, a lot of words, and tend to  get a bit lost in the in the multitude of channels out there. So video you think has real cut through?

Kate

Absolutely it did for this audience and I was very worried because technically they weren’t very advanced, so right back at the beginning we were having to coach people on how to use Outlook, how to use email, why you should have agenda for meetings, so we had to go really back to fundamental basics at the start of transformation. So I was a bit worried that they wouldn’t connect with video because it is quite advanced for them, but actually they did and they really, really loved it and had brilliant engagement with it and that’s continued. I mean, we invest quite a bit in video actually. I think the more words you have people haven’t got the attention span. They’re busy. They’re conducting funerals, they’re in head office doing the accounts. So although I’m a wordsmith I decided to tell the story a different way.

Nick

So you were part of the transformation team? Did you find the senior people in that team were worried that the lack of words meant the seriousness of the message wasn’t getting through? Or did they buy into what you suggested?

Kate

No, they bought into it. I was part of that senior team, so I always knew what was going on. I had a really good helicopter view. I was joined up with the external comms team and PR team, and the marketing team, as well, so I was in countless meetings every week; it was really great. It gave me a really good insight into what was going on in the business and that meant I could plan effectively as in, this team member over here, I know you want to launch this new initiative, but we’ve got something going over here and actually you’ve got to wait a bit, because there’s too much information.

Nick

So you were able to help shape the communication by being part of the team rather than being told ‘here’s some comms, go and release it’?

Kate

Absolutely. I made it very clear at the beginning – I’m not a broadcaster. And I always tell people comms is not about being a postbox.

Nick

And I guess that’s quite unique as a comms person, being part of that transformation team, or do you think that’s something that is increasingly prevalent?

 

Kate

I think people are going to see more and more of it, but I think especially during Covid. I think Covid probably – I hate to say a blessing – but it’s been it’s been good for internal communicators because CEOs and the C-suite have really seen the value of it. And the fact that actually, if we hadn’t had had professional internal communicators out there, during the pandemic, then they’d have been absolutely stuck. I mean we’ve been able to shape the message, advise and we’ve been able to consult with them and because we’re the subject matter experts on communications; we’ve been able to get that out there in the right way.

Nick

You mentioned Covid and you also mentioned earlier about 2022 being the endpoint for the transformation project. How have those two combined to either derail it or increase the lifecycle? Is change now part of BAU at Dignity?

Kate

It kind of is. I mean, unfortunately, Covid put a bit of a pause button on transformation. After 2022 is looking optimistic now. But it’s changed the business in ways that you couldn’t have imagined. Stuff that would have taken months or years to change to a matter of weeks or days, because it had to.  So actually we found that a business that was quite reluctant to adapt or didn’t know how to adapt, managed to – really, really quickly. And I’ve seen the benefit of that. Things like rolling out technology, making sure people can work from home when before that was considered impossible and actually that’s worked really well and now the business is thinking, well, do we actually have to have people in the office all the time? So Covid itself has been transformative.

Nick

And is it good therefore that you’d started this transformation programme before Covid with some of the things you already embedded able to be used in Covid when you could prove its worth?

Kate

Absolutely. Without the website, without the newsletter, without those comms channels we’d have been really, really stuck. So what we did at the very beginning, is send a letter out to everybody’s home saying the Good to Great website is where we’re going to have all the Covid communications. If you haven’t registered, please do so. This is where it’s going to be. At the time, in the beginning, it was relentless with message after message and trying to control that against all the messages coming from government and what it meant for funerals and what it meant we had to tell client, what it meant for us, PPE wise, trying to find PPE for people – all these questions were coming in. We didn’t furlough anybody, but people were still asking questions about finances and what it means for them and if they’ve got childcare issues. We had to have a really strong channel and thankfully, the website really performed well for us and we’ve stuck with that.

Nick

So it sounds like change is kind of BAU for Dignity now. What lessons have you learned along the way in terms of this particular project and actually, I guess, what would you have done differently? I mean, I’m sure there were some hiccups along the route.

 

Kate

Yeah, there were some, but you learn – it’s never failure, it’s just a learning point. There are some things that have stopped along the way. So the dial-ins I mentioned earlier – we stopped them after about six months, because we weren’t really getting the engagement with that and actually we found a better way of doing it. Face to face always works better. And we had a management conference that went down exceptionally well, and actually that’s worth 10 of those dial-ins, because in the end it was telling the same story over and over and that got boring. Other learnings: you can’t expect everybody to engage or get the message first time, you have to tell the story over and over and over again.

Nick

Do you have a target in terms of how many people you think will embrace change or this transformation? Do you think there’s always going to be, say, 10% of people who just won’t come along with you? If so, what do you do about those people?

Kate

Well, I think you need to concentrate on the people that will come along with you because they are the ones who can influence.

If you concentrate too much on your negative detractors, you’re giving them all the energy; it’s a bit like the dementor from Harry Potter and I don’t think you need that. Concentrate on the people who will come with you. And actually, one of the things that worked really well for us is getting those colleagues who are in the business, proper real life people, people you knew, funeral arrangers and embalmers and all the rest of it, people who are in the business who advocated for us because they could see the benefits. And in the end, when we had that dialogue created through the website, with colleagues talking to each other all over the country, and able to advocate and discuss and have that discourse – that’s something we weren’t able to do before. That’s worked brilliantly for us and if I could have put that up sooner, I would have done.

Nick

A question has flooded in. Dignity, obviously, is a very unique organisation in terms of what it does, and it’s fascinating to hear about it. Does transformation – the principles you talked about this morning – apply to any organisation, or do you have to adapt them for where you are?

Kate

I think you’ll always have to adapt them. But in essence, those principles always remain the same. Always get your insights, and your discovery phase, don’t go all guns blazing. Say ‘for the first three months, you’re probably not going to get much out of me because I’m out there discovering and talking to people’. Always make sure that your channels are fit for purpose. There’s no point in going into a traditional organisation like Dignity with the latest apps. What works? What shift patterns do people do. What are their priorities? What are their demographics? Those are the questions you should always ask in any transformation and the ones I always do ask when I go into a new client because you might get slightly different answers, but in essence those are the questions you need to ask.

Nick

Okay, so it’s very much about fact finding first before you rush into things, and understand your audience, as ever. So insight, content, technology, as one agency once put on its strap line.

Three top tips Kate?

Kate

First of all, I say absolute honesty is always the best policy. People are going to be worried about their jobs, so up front, if there are going to be job losses, if there are going to be restructures, say so because otherwise you’re going to get people worrying, and you’re going get performance impacted as well. Be honest if you get it wrong as well. You’re not going to get it right all the time. ‘So there are a couple of things that we tried but didn’t quite work out, that’s fine. We’ll take those lessons and adapt’.

My second top tip is always collaboration. So I’ve talked a little bit about how winning colleagues to be advocates, they are spokespeople, they are subject matter experts. Never let people be done to, because then they’re never going to buy into it. So collaborate, bring them in, talk to people, listen to them as well and make sure that actually you break down those silos that exist in every single business. You can use workshops or focus groups, and have people work together.

And my top tip is always measurement and insight. I know it’s something that can often go by the wayside, but I’ve made it my business to measure continuously through this, whether it’s looking at how the website is performing and what stories perform well on the newsletter, I hosted quarterly pulse surveys as well. So actually [look at] what channels are working? What isn’t? What could we do better? What’s this feedback from such and such? And I’ve used that and been able to adapt and learn as we go along. So things have changed, we’ve adapted things, made some changes to the newsletter. And that’s great. You’re never going to fail, you’re always learning and adapting, so absolutely measuring the whole time. And from that, you pull everything together and you get a really good story to tell.

Nick

We’ve had a couple more questions. First one is how long is the programme? Did you have to wait to have the punch line messages. So often the readiness phase lasts too long, the real messages come later than planned. So how long was it before you actually had those key messages? And then the other question, as ever from an internal comms perspective, what sort of budget was available for the comms programs?

Kate

We had the key messages – there was a strategic review before the transformation programme came in, so we were able to dilute that into seven or eight workforces. These are the task forces that we’re going to work on. So we know we’re going to talk about IT, we know we’re going to talk about brand, we’re going to talk about central efficiencies. So we had those key messages, and we were able to bring them in straight away, as soon as I came, and we’ve been with those ever since.

The other question about budget. I came in thinking they’ve got no internal comms at all, I’ve got to get it all set up. I’ve got no idea what the budget is, so I actually came up with a proposal. So there’s a gold, silver, bronze proposal. I didn’t know whether I had £1,000 a month or £10,000. And in the end the budget flexed when things came in and activities happened, but you need to show a return on investment, as well. Whether it’s £1,000 a month or £10,000 these principles always apply.

 

Nick

Does it make a difference whether a request for budget is coming from somebody working in internal comms, or someone working in a transformation programme?

Kate

Well, I was lucky because I was the internal comms person. And I sat on the transformation team, so I was able to get it sorted out as part of the transformation budget, a multi million pound budget. I didn’t have multi millions to spend, I wish, but I had a decent pot. And because it was supporting transformation, and the business was committed to making this £50 million transformation succeed. they gave me that budget. I had to fight for some of it and say, actually, you need to spend this much on a video, but then they could see the return on investment and how it’s engaged with people much better than a simple email would have been that you couldn’t measure. So it’s all about return on investment.

Nick

Brilliant, thanks Kate. Final question. Just one piece of advice for communicators tasked with change?

Kate

Well, change is a big scary thing, and it can really overwhelm people, so my top bit of advice would be to keep it simple. Keep your language simple. For me, it’s does it pass the pub test? So if you are down the pub (or not, as it’s lockdown), but if you’re normally down the pub talking to your mate and your mate asks what you’re doing, you wouldn’t talk to him in business language or business jargon, so don’t talk to your colleagues like that. Keep it simple and really easy to understand.

Nick

Fantastic Kate. Thanks very much for your help this morning. It’s been fascinating. I would particularly like to thank you because I know it’s your birthday today. So thank you for giving your time up from being stuck indoors to being stuck indoors! And thank you to everyone who’s tuned in. Our next Sequel Presents seminar will be the first week of December and details about that will be announced shortly.

ENDS

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