5 tasks for successful adaptation communications

Don’t face your (climate changed) future without them, because climate risk is a team sport. Play to win, with this framework for enterprise-wide transformative communications and organizational culture.

From Predict Magazine in Medium, 30 January 2020

“That can’t be,” said your store manager. “We’ll be fine. It won’t get that bad.”

When you sent him a memo and told him in a conference call and later personally at a meeting, that he and his 100 employees, plus the store’s local service vendors and suppliers, had to align with corporate’s new climate-adaptation plan, he and his principal lieutenants balked.

Oh, they carried out the plan, to some extent — it was that, you said, or else — but with hesitation, unmoved by your presentation, unwilling to go all the way, worry employees, change suppliers, relocate facilities, distract from higher priorities, add operating expenses, hurt their numbers. Go through that much trouble? To avoid a scenario they can’t be confident about?

Up the chain of command, the regional manager agreed. Up a couple of layers, so did the VP at HQ. Some regions, they noticed, were carrying it out better. But most weren’t.

Up further, the board and CEO had approved and launched a TCFD process to assess and disclose the company’s climate risks, which in turn led to the memos, calls and meetings to go beyond disclosure and actually execute a far-reaching, transformative plan.

An ambitious change-management program was underway, but like most at this scale, yours ran into organizational obstacles that flustered results.

And that’s assuming you got the climate science right to begin with! If not, if your TCFD team underestimated the immediacy and severity of tipping points and socioeconomic risks, which McKinsey made clear in this recent report, even full engagement and participation by everyone in the company would be falling significantly short of the adaptation truly needed, and your company would remain at risk.

Because here’s the fine point of it. For a complete adaptation plan to fully protect your company and secure a brand and organization for the climate-challenged future we will all face, you have to go enterprise-wide. The TCFD process is but the start.

When you move to address the risks and capitalize on the opportunities informed by a TCFD assessment, you quickly realize it takes everyone everywhere in the company, mainly because climate impacts happen locally, and your people and suppliers must be ready, as must everyone in the support units up the chain, all the way to the very top.

The trick is overcoming the trouble-confidence equation. Each of your 15 relevant stakeholders — board members, investors, senior leaders, the TCFD adaptation lead team itself, mid-level and unit managers, rank and file employees, suppliers/vendors, collaborators/partners, the upstream and downstream trade, bankers, insurers, the relevant government agencies, communities, NGOs and, of course, your customers—must see the adaptation plan not just as totally up to the task, but also outweighing the pains, costs and hassles of executing it.

That trouble must be seen as far less burdensome than the horrifying troubles (climate consequences) that will befall them and the company if they fail to adapt. And the opportunities, along with the challenge of this entire process, must be seen as an exciting journey, one to welcome, not fear or avoid.

That, in turn, is entirely a communications and organizational-culture exercise, which you can meet by executing five tasks, and that you logically must launch first, so your best-laid plan can be implemented across the organization. It enables the plan, since people must buy in first before they act with the agency, urgency and commitment needed.

This framework is the result of a one-year deep dive I led with a collaborative agency and consulting team at COMMON, a leading global network pursuing global change through social enterprise (my firm is an affiliate), informed by learnings from the Center for Public Interest Communications at the University of Florida, where I’m pursuing a graduate degree.

It is a unique combination, first of its kind anywhere in the world, of the latest climate science and leading-edge behavior science, the latter focused on overcoming human biases, all applied to corporate communications and culture for deep, sustained organizational change. This column provides a summary of the five tasks to implement.

We begin by reiterating the basic principle: this is enterprise-wide, everyone-everywhere change management, but change management you can’t afford to get wrong. The stakes cannot be higher, and you will likely have this one chance to get it right before climate change spirals out of control later this decade and adaptation becomes moot.

1. Paint a new Future Picture

The very first communications task is to help people envision the future as it will likely unfold from the 2020s to century’s end. The climate science of RCP 8.5 plus tipping points, as McKinsey explains it, yields a future dramatically different from what your 15 stakeholders expect based on what they know from present and past. This is fundamental.

Unable to envision a scenario so unknown or outside their frames of reference, there is no way for them to react appropriately to news of this future and prepare fully.

That’s called the Representative Bias. The Ambiguity Bias, Availability Bias and Status Quo Bias are at work here, as well; when people can’t comprehend something, the natural tendency is to stay in the known and familiar, in what is available to the mind, in your status-quo comfort zone.

Therefore, unless the future projected in scientific reports is decoded and simplified, something news reports generally fail to do, it remains a thick cloud of complexity, and our minds do not think it through. This has become basic Behavior Science 101. Biases and heuristics (mental shortcuts) get in the way of logic all the time, even when the logic should compel self-preservation and organizational optimization behavior.

Your memos, conference calls and meetings haven’t produced the expected response? Are you presenting the future in ways that overcome these biases? It is a task not to be underestimated, or executed timidly. Biases are very stubborn things. They must be attacked in big and bold, yet nuanced ways.

How? Start by painting a clear picture of this future for your stakeholders. Create a new mental prototype that replaces or complements their present-and-past references in a way that grabs their attention, makes sense to them, and provokes interest. That includes walking them through (decoding) the likely scenarios from here to there.

This can be done with virtual-reality animations, smart videos, art, storytelling, and other communication strategies. Do this creatively enough and deliver it persistently enough to everyone, everywhere, and before you know it your 15 stakeholders will get the new-future message. (More on messaging in a bit.)

This should, in fact, mark the official launch of your adaptation initiative. Brand it, name it, like you would the launch of any product or social brand.

2. Provide Support. Manage Engagement

As your stakeholders become exposed to the Future Picture, you’ll see various reactions. The best one is from those who have been reading the climate news, have grown concerned, and know adaptation is the way to go but have not acted on it.

The Future Picture and your whole adaptation plan will give them what they’ve been longing: clearer information, how it applies to them and the company, a pathway there, and the license and empowerment to get involved. The leaders of your adaptation initiative will likely come from this group across the organization.

In How Change Happens, Dr. Cass Sunstein presents numerous social-change movements around the world that only tipped into acceleration and effectiveness when a critical mass of believers like this was empowered and activated by a trigger event or organized effort. Your plan “movement” would fill that role in this instance.

Then there are those concerned, as well, but not as much. They’ve been passive avoiders this whole time, knowing there’s a climate there-there, but preferring not to go there. They generally suffer from a combination of Optimism Bias and Confirmation Bias. In the first, people can’t help but have a rosy expectation of the future, in dissonance with the truth, and mis-plan accordingly. In the second, they take it one step further and rationalize their choices based only on sources and news accounts that agree, while ignoring actively or subconsciously those that anticipate a more dire outcome.

When confronted with the truth, they tend to fight it by entering the Kubler-Ross Cycle of Grief, which begins with denial and goes through several stages of resistance, until the person accepts the inevitable and moves toward proactive action.

Others are overtaken by fear, which tends to impede the effective action called for in your adaptation plan. It is a neuro-hormonal reaction known as the Amygdala Hijack, referring to the part of the brain that handles stress, in this case blocking the resourcefulness and initiative your people will need.

Some of these reactions will overlap. The mission from a communications and organizational-culture perspective is to manage and redirect them, and that calls for a stakeholder-engagement project that should be placed in the hands of a capable Engagement Team at the company.

What will they do? Several things, and this is not an exhaustive list, instead meant to give you an idea of scope and scale:

  • Identify, segment and engage people as they start showing their biases and reactions. This entails a robust internal CRM system, similar to CRM programs used for external audiences, mainly customers, but in this case to finely segment all 15 stakeholders, starting with your board, senior team and TCFD team. They are the first who must get the science and Future Picture right to approve, champion and carry out the best possible plan.
  • Launch a Forum, much like the ones we’ve become accustomed to in social media and corporate intranets. It is a fantastic way for people to connect directly, express what they’re feeling, advise each other, and coordinate collaborations across the organization. Engagement Team members would be there to move these conversations along, flag the folks who need special attention, and connect them with resources that provide it.
  • Run sense-making dialogues. This, too, runs deep in behavior science. It’s a directed process to have people in an organization think through an issue, crisis or challenge. As the name implies, the goal is for a solution to make inherent sense, so that a person will act on it from his/her own agency and volition.
  • Create and manage an event calendar throughout the year and across the organization— seminars, webinars, conference calls, physical events, others — to communicate your adaptation program and create the sort of personal networking and engagement that leads to bias-breaking understanding and action hubs.
  • In all of the above and other Engagement Team initiatives, pay special attention to high-transitivity, highly networked influencers and leaders at every level, across all 15 stakeholder categories. Voluminous behavior research shows that difficult change does not happen rapidly or at all — and this certainly qualifies as difficult behavior change!—unless these influencers and leaders buy in and join the effort. Call it Horizontal Leadership, New Power Participation, Connected Networks, or any of its many iterations, the essence is the same: you can flag these folks — using the CRM, and including Sunstein’s activated believers — and get them not just to embrace your adaptation plan, but to do so with leadership zeal, enterprise-wide.

3. Deliver the right Content & Creative

What will the Engagement Team use to communicate? This is where the creative and content parts enter the picture. Other experts would probably have started this column with this. We figure it’s better to first understand the imperative, purpose and mechanics of the Future Picture and Engagement Team, so you may then instinctively place this component.

It’s what a Corporate Communications Department does, along with Public Relations, Investor Relations, Marketing and their external agencies. When a project team is assembled to manage something like TCFD execution and yields a “product” like your adaptation plan, you usually ask these communication colleagues for help in creating the messaging, artwork, creative pieces, media and channel plan, social-media community management, and other such executions, as part of a coherent multi-stakeholder communications strategy. Relatedly, TCFD includes opportunities to innovate and launch adaptation-related products and services, which Marketing is called on to promote and scale.

A tweak on that approach will probably serve you well. Given the highly specialized nature of RCP 8.5 + tipping-point climate science, the science of high-difficulty behavior change, the complex TCFD structure, and the far-reaching, profoundly transformative adaptation process that must stem from it, this is one change-management project better matched with its own, equally specialized communications group. In this column, let’s call it your Messaging & Creative Team.

Again, the difficulty bar is really high. You get one shot to get it right, given the daunting climate-change timing. Better to go with a specialized group.

Much of the daily work, mind you, may still be done by your regular comm resources, internal and external. The big need filled by Messaging & Creative is strategy, direction and coordination. Members will huddle with existing strategists at Corporate Comm, PR and IR to segment the stakeholders and decide on messaging and approaches for each one, a best practice of robust similar efforts. There’s always an umbrella message, but it must be tailored for each audience and delivered across the channels each one uses.

Likewise with artwork and creative, including, importantly, the design of the Future Picture! The Engagement Team, for one, will need a highly coordinated stream of speeches, event materials, sense-making materials, training materials, fact sheets, slideshows and videos for key meetings and presentations, mini-documentary films, on-premise posters and materials, intranet and social-media videos and posts, related news and storytelling pieces, and more.

Taking the Optimism Bias as an example, they’ll use these tools to redirect motivation to a code driven not by outcomes (which the world now knows will likely be dire), but by the four drivers of new climate optimism:

  • Adaptation as the one big hope.
  • Doing the right thing — focus on ethics and compassion, not outcome.
  • Being comfortable focusing on probable scenarios we can envision, instead of fearful blurry outcomes.
  • Framing the excitement and adventure of facing down this new reality and emerging as one of the brands and companies that drives it.

In pop culture, this is already happening. It is called Hopepunk, explained nicely in this recent article. Again, the hope is in the attitude and adaptation, not in the outcomes. Your Messaging & Creative Team can draw from the storytelling of this popular movement and create something special for your 15 stakeholders.

Because the future will be hard. You’ll want to be one of the corporate beacons of hope, but that hope must be grounded in truth, not based on false expectations that are bound to crash and undermine your business and reputation.

4. Build an Adaptation Culture

To achieve enterprise-wide buy-in, enable everyone everywhere to join with excitement and commitment — from the board and senior team down to the parking attendant and concierge, and over to the most remote supplier — without falling into the uneven, here-yes there-not-so-much gaps of most change management projects, you’ll need a fourth component: an organizational-culture initiative.

There are dozens of models. You may be familiar with or have had a good experience with one or two. If so, wonderful. Perhaps you can apply the model to this challenge. For the sake of illustration, let’s use a framework by NOBL, a leading American org-culture firm and COMMON member. They feature five culture levels:

  • Environment, the conditions in which your company operates (local economies, competitors, technologies, partners, etc.). Today, no assessment or management of this environment is complete without including our shared climate future using RCP 8.5 and tipping-point scenarios.
  • Purpose, the reason behind the work you do in response to and within that environment, including the corporate values everyone in the company is supposed to live by. Adaptation should be inserted as one of those values, along with the usual suspects: teamwork, quality, safety, sustainability, others.
  • Strategies, the bets you make to fulfill the purpose. The whole TCFD process is designed to land in a strategic planning process that manages every risk and capitalizes on every opportunity. To the extent it’s integrated seamlessly into your pre-TCFD, pre-adaptation corporate strategy, and enhances it to secure an adapted future, you win.
  • Structures, the distribution and allocation of resources you need to execute the strategies, including budgets, chain of command, board and C-suite leadership, etc. This step dictates the resources enterprise-wide allocated to your adaptation project.
  • Systems, the tools and steps that align organizational change to all of the above. For new adaptation behaviors, particularly considering the hard-to-break biases you must overcome, this includes such things as employee hiring, training, networking, recognition, Kubler-Ross grief management, and empowerment, plus risk management processes (financial, insurance, socioeconomic, others), facilities management, supply-chain management, IT systems, innovation feedback loops, and more.

Some of this you may already be pursuing in your TCFD or other adaptation process. And just as the Messaging & Creative Team would work with existing internal and external comm folks at the company, so too would this new Culture Team get in sync with your existing efforts and resources, in this case with the objective of scaling adaptation enterprise-wide, and here again, deploying specialized expertise to secure optimized and rapid results.

The Communications and Engagement teams, for their part, would work in total collaboration with Culture, the first to provide the needed messaging and materials, the second to “distribute” the systems, structures, strategies and values to the whole organization.

5. Capitalize on Trigger Events

I mentioned earlier that Cass Sunstein’s How Change Happens research documented how certain incidents and events, most of the time spontaneous and unpredictable, have sparked successful change movements across history by turning theretofore passive believers into a determined mobilization.

People, he discovered, tend to keep quiet about opinions boiling inside, until some event awakens them from passivity and they decide to burst onto the scene. As others do, as well, and they realize the number of silents was far greater than they assumed, they grow in number, confidence and action. So it is within companies.

There is absolutely no reason to believe your employees and other stakeholders have a different belief level than the rest of society, which polls indicate are in large and growing majorities concerned about the present and future effects of runaway climate change that can no longer be solved. This fifth task is one more way for you to take advantage of that and awaken your people into action.

How? Climate-related trigger events happen all the time, mostly across three categories: a) climate impacts themselves (storms, floods, fires, droughts, heat or cold waves, others); b) policy and legal, as when a law is enacted or a judge rules on a related issue; and c) industry and corporate, when you announce a major corporate policy change or a trade association launches a related initiative.

This task would have you assemble a fourth and final group, the Trigger Events Team, to serve like a war room or a rapid-reaction force to:

  • Monitor the planet, focused on the countries and cities where you have interests or operations (offices, stores, plants, suppliers, distributors, etc.), to flag significant trigger events across all three categories. Companies focused on climate, economic and political risk already have teams that do this. The Trigger Events Team would collaborate tightly with them to turn those events into culture change and make the risk management far more effective and enterprise-wide.
  • The Trigger Events Team would then generate communication via the Messaging & Creative Team and disseminate it as events occur, using the right channels to reach your stakeholders.
  • Trigger Events would also work with the Engagement and Culture teams to transmit those messages through CRM and the other channels they use and mobilize people as only these sparks can.

Meet William McGuire

So there you have it. Five tasks, four teams. I close with one final small list — a framework, actually, which I use, and I invite you to use as well, to validate the approach.

William McGuire, the late famed Yale social psychologist, developed what remains to this day the dominant model of persuasion to change or move human behavior, particularly difficult behavior. It is a matrix that crosses 5-6 inputs that deliver information to audiences — including who’s informing, channels, messages, etc. — against a dozen outputs that define how people receive and process the information.

I like to summarize the outputs as the Four As, and here’s how they help us with our Five Tasks:

  • Awareness. McGuire and voluminous behavior science confirms this is but the first step. With adaptation, you have to make stakeholders aware, which the teams here do in a variety of ways, but then you run into biases and must overcome them.
  • Acceptance. To get folks to go there, receive the info, process it, understand it, and finally agree with it and assimilate it, McGuire’s model would have you surround them with multiple communication and culture-changing strategies, which the Five Tasks do.
  • Ability. Even then, that’s not enough. People must become convinced they have the agency and skills to execute the change being asked, and that they will make a difference, something the Five Tasks also achieve.
  • Action. Finally, it has to culminate in people actually doing it and joining a collective effort to help others awaken and act, in this case adapt to climate disruption and devastation. The Five Tasks provide a pathway there, as well.

There are yet other guidelines. The communications and cultural transformation must always be clear, sustained over time, highly collaborative and participatory, focused on high probabilities people can embrace, effective at overcoming biases and heuristics, perceived as exciting, offering the hope of making it through, with tools and resources that make it easy to leave comfort zones, creating a new comfort zone of shared social support and broad consensus, and finally, it must connect stakeholders with authentic care, community and humanity — the kind that can’t (or shouldn’t) be faked.

When you go over the Five Tasks and Four Teams again, and hopefully again and again, keep these principles in mind, because they’re essential in achieving the total persuasion and action this historic moment requires, for your business’ success and that of every person you touch along this enterprise-wide, society-wide journey.

Add this to your TCFD or other climate-risk and adaptation process, and you’ll give your memos, calls and meetings a chance. Everyone will want to go through the trouble, because it’ll be clear to them that the climate trouble they will otherwise confront is an alternative they do not want to face — and the opportunities to be had make it double worth it.

Skip this step, try to go without its deep and enduring persuasion, and…well, I’ll let you complete that thought.

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