Why? A little, three-letter word that holds so much power…


We’re told that it’s important that people understand WHY in order to readily accept and adopt changes. In other words, to get people onboard the ‘change train’, we must explain why. Often, the business reason for change lies in a declining competitiveness, or the threat of the same, so as a leader, you paint an exciting picture of the future that you want to move towards and you assume everyone will be inspired and the change will start to happen – of course, life isn’t really like that.

Professor John P. Kotter speaks of the need to anchor the ‘sense of urgency’ and to ‘get the vision right’.

As a practitioner, I am in complete agreement. Over the years, a large part of our work at Symbal has been about communicating the WHY? According to our customers, in retrospect, when their businesses needed to change, the ‘why’ communication was the main reason the change journey took off in the right direction. So, clearly, to establish ‘why’ in the minds of the many people is one of the cornerstones of change.

Many company managers understand that the purpose and motive is important to be able to convince and show direction. But why is it then, that within so many companies, despite their knowledge and despite all their efforts to make change a reality, employees do not ‘buy’ the management motives and the change never really takes a grip?

I have picked out some reasons to illustrate that it’s actually more than words, that matter.

Of course, the logic is that to begin with, the message must be credible and logical. Ethos and Logos. ‘Do we really have the ability to climb that mountain, as our management says?’ ‘How did they arrive at that conclusion, that it’s necessary to change?’ It’s important to share the clarity around those questions. BUT is this really the most important step at the beginning of a new change journey?

Clearly, what is often neglected is that the message must be filled with passion and fervor. Pathos. Who says what, and in what way is crucial. Not least at the beginning of a journey of change. I don’t know how many times I’ve seen and heard business leaders, talking about their vision and strategic objectives like they were reading from a technical manual or from a recipe book explaining how to cook Tuesday’s fish.

My experience is that Pathos is sometimes more important than the Ethos and Logos of getting people to engage and move, based on a strategic message. It’s when eyes light up and skin reddens with excitement, and the body language becomes excited that people start to feel that the leader believes what she is saying.

If you gather your people in a room to talk about new change initiatives, you can be fully confident that they are looking at you, how you behave when you talk and how you sound – and if you’re conveying warmth or cold. What is written in your PowerPoint is of far less importance.

My opinion is that PowerPoint is great, but mainly as a tool for script writing, not presentation. The performer makes the presentation not the PowerPoint.

I would say that at the start of a journey of change, the leadership’s ability to convey Pathos is many times more significant than that of Ethos and Logos. At the beginning of a journey, people need to feel safe. The leader’s main role is to create that feeling. A leader’s tools to get this message across are her mouth, her body and her own feelings – her whole being. With these tools she shows direction. Emotional presence trumps rational argument.

The larger the magnitude of the change – the greater the need for Pathos in the beginning. And to all of you who like process maps and multidimensional matrixes – there will be plenty of room for both the Ethos and Logos later on in the journey… And it will all be needed.

Things you can do to bring more PATHOS into a meeting:

  • Make sure that you’re mentally onboard yourself, find yourself in the change journey ahead and be clear in your own personal choice – yes, I believe in this! If you truly believe, it will happen!
  • Prepare yourself. Ready-made PowerPoints are good, but try to find your own story and your own way of telling it. A good trick is to use your own examples in life that you can relate to.
  • Practice. Why not make a dry run with your family whilst sitting on the sofa. Better critics, you will not find.

  • Finally, the principle of top sponsorship. Let the CEO talk about the motive and vision. If you’re really creative, package the vision into a visual story on film.

In my experience these tips make a difference. They can provide a lot of energy to pull off the change process and move things from the very beginning, in a truly great direction.

Challenges and opportunities of the digital paradigm shift

Say what you will about these times, but they’re certainly not boring. Globalisation, migration, and digitalisation coincide as a catalyst for fundamental societal change. Even the solid walls of the office building won’t remain unaffected by this transformation. Cause for companywide concern or window of opportunity? I think it’s up to us!

As the mind-set and values of our old industrial society collide with a digitally connected and social world, any organisation is bound to feel the impact. Many of us entered into the Era of Digitalisation before we had time to adopt new behaviours. The unlimited access to people and information brings plenty of advantages, not least an increased sense of freedom. Working isn’t tied to a fixed workplace anymore. Knowledge is no longer a possession to be stored and guarded, be it in heads or on hard drives. It’s information, it’s free, and you fetch it whenever you need it from sources who are happy to share.

Leaders in both the public and private sector are largely the grown-up children of the closing chapters of the industrial age. In this sense, the digitalised paradigm shift manifests itself throughout the organisation. Obviously as a generational gap, but in the organisational distance between CEO and junior team member as well. The latter is more likely to be a ‘digital native’ than the former. This entails radically differing starting points. Digital natives don’t consider the world the product of a digital revolution, but rather perceive it as naturally digital. For them, using an app for internal communication may come easy, while older colleagues might require time and conscious effort to learn how to use it. Some may even struggle to see the point of doing so. It’s important to recognise that our current workplace encompasses epilogue and prologue all at once, and address these gaps in order to bridge them.

The Workplace Value Differentiator: My model of today’s workplace containing 3-4 generations with different values about work and online networking. This is the starting point of the next phase of business and organisational digitalisation.

The bottom line is that digitalisation presents a social challenge in terms of shared identity, in behaviour and in spirit. Learning new skills is only one part of the adaptation process. Changing old habits is just as crucial, and these are often deeply rooted in the very core of our values. For many of us old-timers, this just might be the bigger hurdle. Staying relevant tomorrow can’t be based on what is known to be productive today, but on the anticipation of and the adaptation to changing needs.

As our society is transforms, its values change, too. The increased freedom we’re enjoying brings heightened insecurity in its wake. Now perhaps more than ever, being part of a workplace plays a crucial part in each individual’s life. The social aspect is a central factor in this equation. But it will require curiosity and daring to keep the relationships intact, regardless if you’re a CEO or a staff member.

Come out on top with my list of handy tips on how to master the challenges of digitalisation:

  • Remember to develop your business according to the needs of your customers – don’t let software companies take the wheel.
  • Create a long-term digitalisation strategy that stretches across several years. From there, you take it step by step.
  • Choose the best travel companions for your journey, then let their abilities inform your priorities.
  • Change takes time. The better you prepare for this, the smoother your change journey will be.
  • Be realistic about your own limitations. Invite younger members of staff to guide you through the change process.
  • Encourage trial, error, and exploration. Set small challenges for yourself and the rest of management. Once you’ve decided on a direction, it’s up to you to blaze the trail!

If you learn how to go with the changing currents, the digital wave can take you further than we’d thought possible a couple of years ago.

Peter Gustafson

Title: Strategic Advisor
Experience: 25 years working with change management
Personal mission: To take the fear out of change
Weapon of choice: The Symbal Change Model
Change anthem: Aerosmith, Dream on
Peter Gustafson

Communication channel # 1


“Communication comes in both words and deeds. The latter is generally the most powerful form. Nothing undermines change more than behaviour by important individuals that is inconsistent with the verbal communication. And yet this happens all the time, even in some well regarded companies.” John P. Kotter, author of Leading Change.

I couldn’t agree more. Over the two decades I’ve worked with various forms of marketing and communication, my conclusion is that leaders at all levels need to see themselves – their words and actions – as their most influential communication channel.

Most of the time, at least on an intellectual level, leaders are unanimous about the direction of a change initiative. Yet the same managers are often the very reason change takes much longer than it needs to.

This boils down to a few pitfalls:

  • I, as a leader have not understood or accepted that I have to make a personal change journey before I can convince others
  • I, as a leader lack the support of communication tools (and as such every leader has a different take on the message)
  • I, as a leader have not realized the importance of constant repetition of the message and open dialogue with co-workers
  • I, as a leader fail in my symbolic leadership – i.e. leading the way through my own actions
  • I, as a leader lack ability or knowledge of presentation techniques
  • I, as a leader avoid hearing out feedback and fail to coach my employees

I think most managers in senior positions recognize themselves in some of these points. It’s not easy to be a manager, especially at the intermediate level. You live under the constant pressure of expectations and commitments from above, from below and from the sides.

But managers do much better when we support them.

Communication can make all the difference by providing the support management needs and strengthening change management. Start by adding the different management levels to your communication plan. In the same way you customize newsletters and the intranet to the target group, “the manager channel” must be tailored to their needs. That applies to both content and format.

On several occasions, I’ve helped management teams practice their ability to communicate change. I’ve found working with these three elements helps them succeed:

  • Process change messages together based on everyday situations. A manager’s first task is to “translate” the overall messages and adapt them to the various internal target groups. This work rests on operational managers – not the communication department. Take the time to help them digest the messages and practice presenting them in a safe environment. If you take the time early, it will lead to easy, quick wins going forward.
  • Practice symbolic leadership, insight and skills. Tasks can be quickly managed simply by following a checklist. But leaving it at that leads to limited results. Symbal uses a method based on theory mixed with exercises. The participants come to see for themselves the importance of setting a good example, being clear and keeping track or progress during a change journey. Personal insights are gained on what management need to work on and we can fine-tune the actual ability to lead change.
  • Set up a long-term communication infrastructure. On a global level, the prep work should include not just an implementation plan, but a methodology for measuring the impact of communication during the change journey. Based on this, develop a toolbox of communication materials, supported by a collaborative platform (digital and physical) for knowledge sharing, planning, measuring, follow-up, etc.

Your project is far more likely to succeed when you take “the leadership channel” seriously and give it the attention it deserves. If you put in the time and resources even before launch, your managers will shine and lead the change with confidence.

Peter Gustafson

Title: Strategic Advisor
Experience: 25 years working with change management
Personal mission: To take the fear out of change
Weapon of choice: The Symbal Change Model
Change anthem: Aerosmith, Dream on
Peter Gustafson

It’s time to adapt to new values or risk going extinct

A reflection from Peter Gustafson after participating in this week’s Copenhagen Summit (Presidents Institute)

The future belongs to those who adapt. No news there. But how do you uncover the right way forward before it’s too late?

First, you have to accept that old ways must be abandoned. That’s a bitter pill for people like me who have built careers based on a respect for tradition. We tell ourselves the old ways were engineered by geniuses who knew how to get things done. That those ways are anchored in organizations because they help employees do great work. That they help companies make money and grow.

It’s not easy for me and many others to understand the new ways everyone’s talking about. How can we adapt existing business models to a whole new logic? Is it possible?

The new ways are all about collective intelligence, a mobile lifestyle and social responsibility. They’re shaped by a massive shift in technology, e.g. that we live openly on social media, the ease of publishing and viewing videos and access to cloud services, to name a few. All these changes make life more complicated and block our view of bends in the road that are coming fast.

But you won’t see them any better by closing your eyes. The key to finding the right way forward is to not just explore new technology, but to understand how new values and new lifestyles are changing the rules in the middle of the game.

Picture from Johan Ridderstråle’s performance.

Peter Gustafson

Title: Strategic Advisor
Experience: 25 years working with change management
Personal mission: To take the fear out of change
Weapon of choice: The Symbal Change Model
Change anthem: Aerosmith, Dream on
Peter Gustafson

Measure twice, cut once!


There are cognitive biases built-in to the management culture of large companies and within management literature that is copied over and over again.

If one looks at the number of hours spent on discussions and reflections at management level on a company’s future, as well as on the amount of written pages about management theory, and one compares that with the number of hours and pages spent on planning, preparation and practical guidance in the implementation, there is an unfortunate imbalance.

An example: Suppose we have a company of 10,000 employees. We have 1,000 managers at various levels, of which 100 represents the top layer. Among those, 10 people are in the decision-making management group.

These 10 people are making decisions on a new long-term strategy, that the Board approves. The groundwork for the strategy consists of several years of discussions and analyses of the company’s operations, e.g. by a hired ‘super-consultant’. The bill from the consultant is 5 million SEK.

The strategy is presented to the rest of the top management, the 90 people who break it down in different work groups. Within the different areas analysis of processes, systems and organization is carried out. Specialized business consultants in I.T., operations, supply chain, etc. are hired to help. The overall consultant cost ends up at 2 million SEK, excluding the purchase of some new I.T. solutions.

Executing the strategy

After 6 months, it is time to start the roll-out of five new strategic initiatives based on the main strategy. The other 900 middle managers and staff of 9000 employees will begin a change journey.

And it is here the imbalance becomes apparent!

Unfortunately, in many cases a bumpy ride begins here. There will be widely-held doubts. Five strategic initiatives are led by five different project teams. Each team makes up its own implementation plan. Plans include launch events and training to get everyone on track. According to science, as well as our own experience, many strategic initiatives never become fully implemented. They run out of energy, the resistance is too great or it takes so long that the reality changes and it is not ‘worth’ continuing with.

Often, there is a lack of a few basic conditions required to be able to succeed. Here is a list of the three most crucial mistakes:

  • No target analysis has been made of attitude and motivation perspectives. If project teams are not aware of the reality, they can’t prepare the right way.
  • Middle managers are being involved too late, just a short time before the employees. Sometimes it happens at the same time, which is the worst possible strategy. Middle managers are the most important communication channel and change drivers. Consider them the most important asset.
  • The fact that all people need time to catch up to understand, be motivated and feel that they themselves are in the driver’s seat is overlooked. Top executives might have had 3 years to prepare, but employees are expected to re-think and adopt in maybe 3 weeks, at worst 3 days.


The more qualified time that is spent on analysis, preparation and planning, the shorter the implementation period gets. The communication activities, the content and shape of them, the intensity – how recurring they are – have great significance for how employees feel and understand the change. Unfortunately, it is not enough with a PowerPoint presentation and a few workshops. What you invest in the preparation of the change journey, you will get back many times over in the end, both in terms of time and money.

Peter Gustafson

Title: Strategic Advisor
Experience: 25 years working with change management
Personal mission: To take the fear out of change
Weapon of choice: The Symbal Change Model
Change anthem: Aerosmith, Dream on
Peter Gustafson

Leave the predictions to weathermen and monkeys

”Prediction is very difficult, especially if it’s about the future.” – Niels Bohr

How good would you say experts are at making predictions? Take your pick of subject: sports, weather, economics, whatever. The line between a monkey throwing darts* and an expert futurologist is often blurry, to put it kindly.

Consultants are no different. No one can tell you for sure how one person will react to change, let alone how a change will affect large groups over time. So anyone who tells you they know exactly how your change journey will unfold, despite the complexity of your organization and the people within it, is telling tall tales.

Behavioral theories are great (we use them often) but in our world they’re only worth your time if they apply in reality. Real reality. Not the one you sit around talking about in conference rooms, but the one where a last second order comes in and everyone forgets about your project. The one where things go well for a while but then people decide, nah, let’s go back to the old way of doing things. You know, the one where nothing goes quite like you predict.

What’s more helpful than predictions and theories is a framework to guide long term communication while planning for snap decisions. We personally use a four step model to guide change journeys to happily ever after. Experience has shown us that big changes need to battle through the same major steps before a new idea becomes a new everyday routine.

But within those steps is endless variety and a series of events you won’t see coming. A model helps stimulate quick action because it sets the same clear goals for everyone, step by step, and gives your people a common language.

So why are we so confident our particular model is an effective framework in this prediction-defying world? Because several clients have “stolen” it from us and started applying it in all their change projects. We consider shameless theft the highest possible praise.

Peter Gustafson

Title: Strategic Advisor
Experience: 25 years working with change management
Personal mission: To take the fear out of change
Weapon of choice: The Symbal Change Model
Change anthem: Aerosmith, Dream on
Peter Gustafson