Communicating change by painting a picture

When it comes to a successful change process, perhaps the most important thing after getting the change itself right, is getting the communication right.  If people do not understand what is actually going to happen or why it is occurring at all, then even the most cunning of plans can quickly fall apart.  Of course, one way to communicate change is simply to state the basics: this is what changes and this is when.  That may work for very small changes, but it will fall apart for larger upheavals.

Many people speak about communicating change using the metaphor of painting a picture.  Here is my framework:

Paint the picture without the change

Bill Hybels talks about change as the simple process of ‘going from here to there’.  The first thing to communicate is therefore why ‘here’ is no longer the right place to be.  While it is true that trashing and dishonouring the past can be really unhelpful, if there is not a common understanding of why ‘here’ is no longer an option, then change can be really hard.  People need to see what the future looks like if everything stays the same.  The picture may be quite dark and uncomfortable.  It is this insight that makes the pain of change worthwhile.  This picture is a combination of the here and now, combined with a picture of the future if nothing changes.  Here are some important things to paint:

  • Dead ends – things that aren’t going where they should be going
  • Dark spots – be honest about failure
  • Gaps – places where cherished things once were, but are now absent
  • You – don’t just blame others

Paint the picture with the change

Hopefully, if the first picture has been painted properly, people will now be desperate to change.  However, they won’t yet know where to go.  Now is the time to show what the future could look like.  Here are some important things to paint:

  • Horizon – help people to peer a long way into the future
  • Sun – this is meant to be a positive picture, in contrast to the previous image
  • Mountains – acknowledge that there will be obstacles and problems along the way
  • You – in times of change, knowing that a trusted leader is in the picture really helps
  • Reference points – things that are recognised and known, to give people a frame of reference

At this point several things are clear.  First, where you are now, the ‘here’.  Second, the possible future.  Third, why it would be good to change.  However, one thing remains to be added to the picture of the future: the path towards it.

This element of the picture helps people understand how they are going to get from ‘here’ to ‘there’, navigating through the terrain you have honestly presented, towards the future situation that you have envisioned.  The likelihood is that the path will go via known and familiar points, climb steep mountain passes and at times even disappear out of view before eventually arriving at the destination.


Of course, this is all a metaphor and consideration needs to be given in each change process as to how the pictures are painted.  What matters is that the elements are included.  No journey into change is easy, but this framework can really help us in effectively communicating to those around us in a way that helps them travel with us.

Are there other elements to the pictures?  Please share your thoughts in the comments below.


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