Why comms plans fail: understanding complexity and the breakdown of narrative

Internal communication is a Frankenstein’s monster of practices, disciplines and theories. Part corporate communication, part change, part behavioural science, part craft. Increasingly it seems that the smartest thinking in internal communication is coming from fields outside of the traditional communication space. Cognitive studies, data, technology, knowledge management, UX, design and anthropology are providing new ways of sense-making.

A great case in point is the intersection of design thinking, user experience (UX) and progress in neuroscience. Dave Snowden is the founder of Cognitive Edge, and in this talk at LEANUX14 provides a potted introduction to complexity theory. He does a pretty solid job of demolishing the traditional approaches to communication and change through establishing a change vision and defining the future state, arguing that humans – and organisations – are far too human and complex for that to work.

Keynote: It’s the Process, Jim, But Not As We Know It – Dave Snowden at LEANUX14.

There are many notable things here, but I love these quotes about how we sense make through story.

You manage what you can manage, and you don’t waste time and energy pretending you can manage things in an ordered and structured way when the world is more complicated than that.

Stories are unique to human beings. People remember a story, whereas they don’t remember a document or a best practice tear sheet.

The stories that profoundly influence us though are not the stories told in highly facilitiated workshops by new age fluffy bunny consultants who really get their rocks off by getting more profound stories than anybody else. They are actually the day to day micro fragmented narratives of the water cooler, the school gate, the checkout queue, the beer after work. It’s those small micro fragments which fundamentally influence who and what we are…we recall those stories as if from nowhere in contextual need.

All human storytelling traditions (until Disney got hold of them) are deeply negative dark stories because we learn from failure, we don’t learn from success.

Snowden’s explanations of how organisations as complex systems naturally resist and defy the attempt to change them in a linear way is thought provoking stuff and points to why so many communication efforts fail abjectly. He provides some cautions in terms of how designers, Lean and UX practitioners approach change.

  1. Stop mandating idealistic and ideological future state models
  2. Don’t try to replicate without taking into account context
  3. Over-simplifcation is the enemy, face the complexity
  4. Rebranding is disingenuous
  5. “Pragmatic compromise should not lapse into prostitution”
  6. Compromising excessively is as bad as not compromising at all…
  7. Don’t replicate the how, unless you know the why

There is much here that applies directly to internal and change communication and (at the risk of falling into the trap of the second point). It’s worth spending the time to explore this disruptive view which is a challenge to the traditional approaches adopted by many communication practitioners and a way of seeing organisations as they are, rather than how we want them to be.

A big HT to @semanticwill for RT:

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