106 Communications

6th Sense

106 seconds with… Dan Barley, Change Communications Consultant

July 2016 | 106 seconds

Dan is a communications consultant who specialises in behaviour change. As a senior consultant at Willis Towers Watson, and before that at the UK Government’s Central Office of Information, Dan has worked with a huge range of clients across sectors. Recently he set up as an independent, driven by a belief that the traditional approach to consulting is not suited to the technological and psychological revolution that most organisations face. His approach is founded on the expectation that we’ve only just begun to see the impact of new technology on the way we work. And successful organisations will be the ones that are fastest to prepare their people for the future.

What is the secret to successful change communications?

Changing behaviour – whether that’s within an organisation or across an entire population – is tough. It’s been heavily researched, but no one has discovered a magic bullet. Some people argue that ‘nudges’, popularised in a book by Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein, don’t work. But there are some clear successes. The key thing to recognise is that on its own a communications campaign is unlikely to have serious impact. Rather, communications should to be part of a ‘whole system’ approach to change. For example, if the Government wants to reduce the numbers of people smoking tobacco, education and information about the health risks are really important. But the real impact on behaviour is only seen when that is put together with other measures such as banning smoking in public places. It’s the same for companies looking for change from their employees – communications need to work alongside clear leadership, learning and changes to any systems and processes that support the change you’re trying to make.

What is the biggest barrier to making change happen?

Inertia. Habits are a kind of psychological shortcut. It means that to survive we don’t have to make conscious decisions about things that we do regularly – that would get exhausting. Habits form when our brains are prompted by an external cue of some kind, and we respond with a behaviour or action. If there is a satisfying, useful or pleasurable outcome, we feel a sense of reward. And if it works again we file that ‘cue’, ‘action’, ‘reward’ loop into a subconscious part of our brain, and next time we follow that pattern without having to make a conscious choice. The downside is that these habits can be hard to shift if they later turn out to unhelpful. Learning is a really important part of change, because it is about using practice to replace old habits with more useful newer ones.

How do you measure change?

Broadly speaking, there are two types of measurement that you can make when you’re trying to evaluate change. Process measurements – ‘how well are we doing the things that we need to do to make change happen?’ and Outcome measurements – ‘are we seeing a shift in the actual behaviours and the benefits that we want to achieve?’ It’s useful to measure both, but sometimes people get very excited about measuring bits of process and ignore whether there has been any effect on the outcome.

What’s it like going from a big team to working for yourself?

Exciting and liberating. It’s great to be the master of my own destiny – but also a big challenge. I’ve developed some strong opinions about how consultants can really help organisations transform their thinking. For clients, having access to the scale of a big organisation can have powerful benefits when you need big wide-reaching solutions. But it can definitely get in the way too. What I’d urge clients to remember is that consultants are networkers by nature, so they can also have the benefit of scale from smaller outfits.

Who in the world do you most admire?

I’m terrible at these questions – I hate to commit! I’m going to say that today’s answer is Steven Dubner, one of the authors of Freakonmics and the host of the podcast Freakonomics radio. I love the way that he looks at data and evidence behind many different stories of the day and really tests things that we often accept without much question. Tim Harford does a similar thing with mathematics on Radio 4’s More or Less. I admire him too!

What are you having for dinner?

I’m supposed to be cooking but I’m not as good as my wife at planning ahead. One of my son’s favourites is a very simple dish of garlic and fresh chilli fried in olive oil with spaghetti and topped with fresh parsley. I think I’ll make that.

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