Our thinking

Unsung heroes

Director of Employee Engagement, Phil Morley, looks at the massive difficulties we face in persuading others to alter the habits of a lifetime.

A few months back I wrote about change and the escalators at Holborn tube station. It covered the massive difficulties that London Underground had in persuading commuters to alter the habit of a lifetime and stand on both sides of the escalator.

This has prompted me to research other significant change management operations – and nothing comes much larger than switching a whole country from left- to right-hand driving. Luckily, Sweden gave it a good go back in the 1960s.

Sweden had been a left-hand drive culture since about 1736. However, all of its immediate land border neighbours, including Norway and Finland, drove on the right. Rather bizarrely, about 90% of Swedes drove left-hand drive vehicles, which led to many head-on collisions.

Despite a 1955 referendum, in which 83% of the population voted to keep driving on the left, the Government decided it had to act. And so, in 1963 it mandated that the move to right-hand traffic flow would happen in 1967. Four years to get it right. And so began one of the World’s largest ever change management programmes, leading up to 3 September 1967 – aka H-day. The H came from Högertrafik", the Swedish word for ‘right traffic’.

It was an incredibly complicated undertaking. Traffic lights had to be reversed, road signs changed (some 360,000 had to be switched), intersections redesigned and reshaped, lines on the road repainted, bus stops moved, buses and trams reconfigured. And that’s before you start to consider the joys of one-way streets. Or the practicalities involved.

Like the fact that every intersection was equipped with an extra set of poles and traffic signals wrapped in black plastic which were then simultaneously removed by an army of workers. Similarly, a parallel set of lines were painted on the roads with white paint, then covered with black tape ready for that ultimate moment of synchronicity.

The communication strategy was impressive. Not only was the day named, but it also got its own logo, which appeared on everything from milk cartons to underwear. There was a televised song contest where the winning tune was “Håll dig till höger, Svensson” (“Keep to the right, Svensson”) by The Telstars.

To avoid blinding the oncoming drivers, all Swedish vehicles had to have their headlamps replaced with right-hand units. They even distributed pairs of gloves, one black, one red to remind drivers they should drive on the right as the traffic was changed.

On H-day at 4:50 am crowds of people gathered to watch as all vehicles on the road were instructed to come to a halt, move carefully to the other side of the road and wait. At the stroke of 5:00 am, following a radio countdown, an announcement was made over the radio “Sweden now has right-hand driving” and traffic was allowed to resume.

I suspect anyone would be rightly daunted at trying to do anything similar these days, especially without the everyday technological communication tools we all take for granted. Respect to the Swedes.

Aside from that technology gap, the approach hasn’t really changed that much.

We have just finished helping a global business undertake a major transformation programme using some of the very same tools. A creative platform consisting of a name, idea and distinctive identity; a set of simple core messages implemented coherently across a range of materials and channels, and innovative and poignant behavioural cues and reinforcements to help make that change happen.

But, we didn’t make a song.

Having listened to The Telstars in their finest public service moment, maybe some things have changed after all.

If you would like to discuss the issues raised in this thought-piece, or talk to us about how we could help you with your culture change or employee engagement challenges, please contact Phil or contact any of our offices.