What we can learn about change management

from the US elections 

When buzzwords come at the expense of understanding

It is the ultimate question for good change management: how can you influence the behaviour of a group of people? We draw a parallel with the recent presidential elections.


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, these are 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 fixed 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 among the entire population. So they are neither dominated by Democrats or Republicans. This year, a state like Georgia was one of the most exciting and striking swing states. This state 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 gives a prediction of the winner. Whoever wins Florida often becomes the next president. But this was not the case in 2020 either.


We're going 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 apparent. After all, you are not going to use your campaign budget on the states that traditionally always go to the competitor. 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. Simply reasoning: when is a change process successful? The answer: if you've won the vote of most of your employees. In other words: when you have been able to realise a certain behaviour 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 elections. Focus on the states where the difference is made.


Consider 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 feel positive or negative about your change. You could see this as 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 (as much) on the departments which already 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 regarding your change. In this way you can determine 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. So do not automatically divide the target groups traditionally into employees, management and leadership.


One of the most important swing states for America is Florida. This is due to the high number of electorates it has; 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. After all, 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 group 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 called upon their fear: with a Democrat as the leader, socialism would thrive again. The Democrats were mainly focussed on Trump's failing policy towards 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 define the solution to this frustration to very specific places. 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 with regard to 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 level of knowledge 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 the GDPR legislation.


Your question is now: which 20% of this Sales group is going to make 80% of the impact?


In other words, who is your homogeneous group, like the Hispanics of Florida, that you are going to focus 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.


It is of course not easy to know exactly what drives a department emotionally, but you can make an estimation 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 adapted: they can no longer just 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: 

first why this change is necessary, then what the consequences are and then how the employees can become part of it.


So you see that it is very important that you focus on your own "swing states": the departments that have not yet expressed a positive or negative attitude towards 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 a positive attitude towards your coming change from most of your company.


Pick your battles, also in change management.

Het is ‘de’ vraag voor goed changemanagement: hoe kun je het gedrag van een groep mensen beïnvloeden? Onno Rompa trekt een parallel met de recente presidentsverkiezingen.

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