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A shot in the arm for change management

At the very heart of what we do as change managers is to look to get our target audiences of the change to adopt and use that change as quickly and effectively as possible. Watching the uptake of the COVID vaccinations in Australia is proving to be a very interesting case study and shows that if government, at both state and federal level, had followed some basic change management principles, we think they could have been more successful.

1. Change is a personal choice

For someone to change, they have to reach the point where they make a decision to choose to support that change (or not). It’s not about liking the change - it’s about understanding the need for the change, the nature of the change, the risk of not changing and then making a personal choice. With the COVID vaccinations, people have different motivations for either getting or not getting the jab. For some people, it’s because they want to protect themselves, their family or their community; for others it might be that they can’t go to work without the jab; and then for the anti-vaxxers, it may be because they fundamentally don’t believe in vaccinations; need more proof that they work; or fear it will have a long-term impact. Every person is different about the WIIFM (what’s in it for me) and communications campaigns that use ‘vanilla’ comms aimed at everyone aren’t going to get everyone to change.


2. Not everyone gets on board at the same time

In planning the rollout of the vaccinations and their likely uptake, you need look no further than Roger’s Adoption Curve (also called the Diffusion Process). The curve highlights the acceptance of new ideas by society through five stages and at FOLD7, we refer to it all the time when working with organisations to help them understand the likely adoption rate and to consider what they might do to nudge people across the line.

Innovators (2.5%) – a very small but key group that kick adoption off. For the vaccinations, these would have been the risk-takers – probably involved with clinical trials, but keen to get the jabs as soon as possible.

Early adopters (13.5%) – these are your trendsetters, movers and shakers, who are keen to try new things out – and are excellent as your change champions and influencers. The UK government made good use of celebrities, such as Elton John and Michael Caine, as part of their campaign to encourage people to get jabbed. As they are influential, people trust them and listen to them and as a result follow them.

Early majority (34%) – this group is usually made up of pragmatists who are more conventional. They’re not afraid to change, but also tend to want proof that it’s worth doing it. This is where data, facts and clear messaging can help to get this group over the line. And once you get this group on board, you’re halfway there.

Late majority (34%) – this group tends to be traditional and, as a result, often includes an older demographic. Unlike the early majority, who lets change come to them, the late majority is more likely to avoid it. They need to see there is no other choice for them before they’ll jump on board and have trusted role models who have led the way. When we consider which age group was an early target for vaccination, it’s not hard to see why there wasn’t an early rush to get jabbed.

Laggards (16%) – this group will fight against change. They’re often connected to their community, but not in a way that encourages transmission/adoption of new ideas, and which means that change is hard. They are the reason governments across the world are only looking to an 80% vaccination rate to open things up. And why in change, we can’t expect everyone to get on board.

If we don’t currently see the need to change, then human nature is to put it off. This shows clearly in the expected length of time for each state or territory to reach 70% and 80% vaccination rate. It’s not surprising to see Queensland, the Northern Territory and Western Australia lagging behind as they aren’t experiencing an outbreak or under lockdown. I only hope that their complacency doesn’t come back to bite them if a Delta outbreak, or another strain, does occur in one of them.


3. You need to be flexible in how you communicate

Prosci’s research in change management tells us that people need to hear a message 5-7 times before it sinks in; marketing has the Rule of 7 – a ‘prospect’ needs to hear the advertiser’s message at least 7 times before they’ll take action. The problem we have with COVID and vaccinations is that we now have an infodemic – too much information, including some of which is inaccurate or misleading or which keeps changing. People are confused, not sure what they should/shouldn’t do (just look at the messaging around the Astra Zeneca vaccine) and so it results in inaction. The World Health Organisation now even has advice for infodemic management.

After 18 months, we’ve almost become immune to hearing the messages clearly. The media hasn’t helped by all too often trying to find/promote the drama/bad news rather than concentrating on helping people hear the (revised) message. You need to adapt your communications to help cut through the noise.

Interestingly, the NSW government has recently started bringing medical workers from the frontline to speak at their press conferences, to provide their experience of dealing with COVID patients as a way of helping people hear the message and build the WIIFM for getting vaccinated.


4. Make sure any incentives are considered worth it

Talking to friends, family and clients who have been in lockdown for an extended period, the sentiment that keeps coming through is that people want some hope. Hope that they will be able to go back to some kind of normality, see their loved ones, meet with friends, or plan events/trips. At the moment, Australians are being promised that things will improve once we reach 70% and 80%. What that will look like – people aren’t sure yet.

NSW residents were promised in early August that some restrictions would be eased if the state reached 6 million vaccinations by the end of the month. However, there was no clarity on what restrictions might be eased. People (and media) started to speculate what it might look like. People started to hope… until the announcement on 26 August. For many, the resulting changes weren’t seen as enough - the hope created was a false hope.

And for those people who are getting vaccinated, what are the additional rewards (beyond the obvious one of being less likely to end up in hospital/die from COVID)? When travel restrictions ease, will we still have to quarantine in a hotel/government facility for two weeks at our own expense or could we be rewarded for getting vaccinated by being able to quarantine at home or potentially not even at all? What about only being able to watch the footy or attend the theatre if you’re vaccinated? What’s the ‘currency' that will make people buy-in? A differentiator between the vaccinated and unvaccinated. A carrot for those who get vaccinated and a stick for those who refuse to. For those late majority who are still deciding whether to do it, there has to be something that gets them over the line and also doesn’t disadvantage those who were quick to adopt.


5. Successful change needs real change leadership

And finally, we can’t go past the issue of leadership during change. Change management is one thing – it’s an enabler of the change, but it needs strong change leadership to drive the change. Never underestimate how important leadership has been at the heart of the vaccination debate. People will listen to the people they trust – and without meaning to seem political in these comments, most of our top politicians have been left wanting as credible and authentic leaders. All too often, their messaging hasn’t been convincing; when questioned, they have become defensive; they have hidden behind their respective Chief Health Officers, rather than owning decisions themselves, and often their decisions/actions seem based on their political alignment and future political aspirations, rather than stepping up to do the right thing. Admitting that you don’t have all the answers does not equate to weakness. All too often in 2021, it feels more and more like we are separate countries rather than one Australia.

(Although, a lack of trust in government is not just limited to Australia, as seen by the Edelman Trust Barometer 2021, which showed government experiencing the biggest decline).

And as Patrick Lencioni said in his most recent book, The Motive: ‘The reason a CEO communicates to employees, at all levels, is to ensure that people are aligned with and have bought into what is going on and where they fit into the success of the enterprise.’ Substitute CEO with Prime Minister, employees with citizens and enterprise with country and the result is the same…

This pandemic has dragged on for 18 months now and the initial idea that ‘we’re all in this together’ has evaporated in some people. There’s still some way to go until we get out of this messy transition period. However, let’s hope we can all learn from the mistakes/lessons to date and work together to do this change better.


Yes, change is hard and behavioural change is the hardest to achieve, especially quickly. Not only do you need to manage the change, but you will also likely need to change the way you change. As the saying goes - there is no one size that fits all. But the principles and frameworks given to us by those who have studied and researched change for many years serve us well.