[column] What you learn from the US elections regarding change management

The American elections are all about the so-called swing states. “Fixed” states like New York and California always go to the Democrats. By default, for Republicans, this is Texas and Alabama. Based on historical data and predictive models, it is possible to estimate fairly precisely whether this will unexpectedly change. However, the chance of this was small in these states. It is therefore logical that the campaign teams of the presidential candidates focus on the “swing states”. Also called “the battlefield states of the US elections”.


A swing state is a state that has a similar level of support for both parties across the population. So they are not outspoken Democrats or Republicans. This year, a state like Georgia was one of the most exciting and striking swing states. This has been going to the Republicans since 1992, but this year the Democrats won it by a minimal difference. Another interesting fact is that Florida, a swing state with many electors, often predicts the winner. Whoever wins Florida often becomes the next president. But this was not the case in 2020 either.

I want to use the campaign strategy as a metaphor for determining your communication approach in internal change management projects

The importance of good segmentation in a campaign is logical. After all, you are not going to use your collected campaign budget on the states that traditionally always go to the competition. Also, you don’t have to fully invest in the states that have been on your side for decades. All sounds logical, right?

As soon as we project this logic onto an internal change process, we get stuck en masse. Simply reasoning: when is a change process successful? The answer: if you’ve won over most of your employees. In other words: when you have been able to realize a certain behavior that makes the change possible.

With an internal change you cannot win everyone over, no matter how badly you want it. Pick your battles, this is what they do in the United States. Focus on the states where the difference is made

Take a look at your internal change from the perspective of the presidential campaign. Your first step is to identify which states, or departments, there are. These are probably too many to focus on. Therefore, your next step is to identify which departments are positive or negative about your change. You could see this as an internal marketing research. For example, you can extract information about the level of knowledge, the level of competences and the motivation to change.

You do not need to focus or focus less on the departments that you already know have a very positive or negative attitude towards your change process. Most importantly now: who are your swing states?

You then segment these swing states even more: subgroups with the same attitude and needs with regard to your change. In this way you can determine in a targeted manner which “swing states” will make the biggest difference and therefore have the greatest priority to focus on. Make sure that the attitude or need towards your change is the same within the target group. And do not automatically choose the traditional target groups: employees, management and leadership.

One of the most important swing states for America is Florida. This is due to the high number of electors that this state has, namely 29. This year, both parties focused on a homogeneous group in this large swing state: the Hispanics. With such a group you can communicate intensively, fairly directly and personally. It makes no sense to roll out a broad election program over an entire state. The ads were completely in Spanish and specifically targeted to this group. Facebook shows how targeted these ads were (LA Times):

  • 498 of the 688 ads targeted men
  • About 25% were aimed at 25-34 years old
  • The majority (33%) of the ads were about selling Trump merchandise

The next step: what will the segment at the top of your priority list encounter the most in the coming change? In other words, is there a problem or frustration that you need to address? In the campaign example, the Republicans addressed the cause of fear: with a Democrat as the leader, socialism would thrive again. The Democrats were mainly concerned with Trump’s failing policy on the corona pandemic.

Both parties therefore focus on a (large) homogeneous group within a swing state and respond to a frustration of that group. In addition, they share the solution to this frustration very specifically. For the Democrats these are the urban zones of the swing states and for the Republicans the rural zones. Project all of the above onto the following example of a change process: the implementation of the GDPR legislation. Your internal market research has shown that the Compliance, IT and Privacy departments have taken a few steps around privacy-sensitive data and they understand the urgency of the subject. These are your New York and California, from a Democratic point of view.

The survey also shows that your “swing state” is the Sales team. Data shows that employees have different opinions and that these do not correspond geographically. The knowledge level of the change is also not particularly high. There is little understanding of why this legislation is important. Something like, for example, simply sending out lists of names by email is not seen as a problem. But this is out of the question according to GDPR legislation.

The question you are asking yourself now is: which 20% of this Sales group is going to make 80% of the impact?

In other words, who is your homogeneous group, such as the Hispanics of Florida, that you will be focusing on? The key to success is knowing what information is most relevant to them. For example, by responding to their frustration (s) or the problem that prevents them from having a positive attitude.

Of course it is not easy to know exactly what drives a department emotionally, but you can make an estimate based on a job profile and general characteristics that belong to a department. A possible assumption for the Sales department could be that it is “too much administrative work” and they are frustrated by this. Their working method is being completely adjusted: they can no longer send an Excel sheet with privacy-sensitive data, but sensitive data must now be stored in a database. This takes a lot more time from their perspective.

You can respond to this by communicating your change process in a targeted manner: firstly why this change is necessary, then what the consequences are and then how the employees become part of it

So you see that it is very important that you focus on your “own swing states”: the departments that are not yet explicitly positive or negative about your change and where there is still a lot to be gained. These are the departments that will ultimately make the difference: by focusing on the homogeneous groups within these departments, you achieve that the majority of your company is positive about your coming change.

Pick your battles, also in change management.

This blog is written by Onno Rompa, sales and marketing manager at Funk-e


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