Extract | Innovative Internal Communication | Joanna Parsons

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This extract from Innovative Internal Communication by Joanna Parsons is © 2024 and reproduced with permission from Kogan Page Ltd. All rights reserved.

Innovation in internal communication

I like trying new things, asking questions and challenging norms. Probably no surprise there, given that I’ve written a book on innovation.

And I was always like this, even as a kid. Patient parents, remember? I was often experimenting with things, mixing stuff together to see what would happen, having big meaty discussions about the world and the universe and about why we believe the things we do (I was great fun at parties). This curiosity and experimental mindset never left me. In all the in-house internal communications roles I’ve held, I’ve always invested time in testing out new ideas, playing around with different tactics and evaluating the results to keep improving. I’ve delivered great value for organizations as a result. Turns out, I’ve been innovating in internal communications for years without even knowing it, and I suspect many of you could be in the same boat.

Innovation isn’t new to our profession. But the concept of innovation seems alienating for many of us due to the high-volume nature of our work and the exhausting, frenzied days we often endure. Some days we don’t even have time to enjoy a hot coffee, let alone deliver an innovative new approach to our work, right? It seems like innovation in our profession is hard and many of us feel it is simply impossible.

Let’s take a closer look at innovation in internal communication and critically explore the obstacles we face. What’s stopping the modern internal communicator from innovating? Innovation is critically important – so why aren’t we all doing it?

Innovation isn’t new in internal communication

Here’s a reassuring message to get us started: innovation is not new to our field. Innovation has been central to internal communication for years. Think about how communication with employees has changed in the course of your lifetime – my Dad would not recognize the digital workplace we now all take for granted as it simply didn’t exist when he was employed. When he worked in an office there was no email, no intranet – it was before the internet had even been invented. It was a different world.

Back in his day, internal communication was characterized by verbal and print communication. There was lots of top-down, hierarchical communications cascading from senior management to rank-and-file employees. Communication was often through one-way, broadcast channels such as memos, circulars, printed newsletters or a company magazine. Townhall meetings were often different, too; there were no such thing as ‘ask me anything’ sessions, there was little expectation of leadership transparency and, as one older colleague once told me, the expectation 30 years ago was that employees should ‘put up, shut up and get on with it’.

But, my, how times have changed.

The workplace is a different beast now, isn’t it? The invention of email and intranet systems was a huge change for organizations and completely disrupted traditional modes of communication. These technologies allowed the faster dissemination of information, and enabled employees to self-serve the information they need and want. You no longer had to ring Barry in HR every time you needed a query answered – you could probably answer it yourself by checking the FAQ document on the intranet.

Further changes came with the emergence of social media platforms, peer-to-peer social networks and instant messaging tools that enabled greater lateral communication in organizations, outside of the traditional hierarchy. These platforms signified a shift towards more democratized communication where employees could have conversations with anyone, ask questions of leaders, share their own thoughts more easily and contribute to organizational discussions.

This marked a real shift from monologue to dialogue, from one-way to two-way communication. A new internal communication approach was developing in which employees were more active participants than before. Employees demanded more transparency, more voice and more agency, and leaders found themselves open to scrutiny and challenge.

Digital communication has fundamentally changed how people consume information and we now have mere seconds to capture and hold employees’ attention. We are competing for their attention in a world of non-stop, entertaining content that sits in the palm of their hand. We need to ensure that messages can reach employees effectively and drive the desired behaviour change amidst the digital noise. The shift from top-down communication to a more collaborative and inclusive approach has introduced complexities that demand innovative solutions.

All of these significant changes have meant that internal communicators have had to innovate by necessity, simply to keep pace with changes in the world. We’ve had to adapt and adjust enormously as the workplace moved online.

And here’s the thing: the pace of change isn’t slowing down. The need for us to innovate hasn’t lessened. As the world continues to change, innovation in internal communication must continue. It’s not an option, it’s a necessity.

New challenges demand our attention now. Communicators must innovate to tackle the modern challenges of communicating with a diverse workforce, the rise of hybrid and remote working, the accelerated pace of digital transformation, the rise of video and audio culture and the changing expectations of employees.

Communicating with a diverse workforce

The workforce is becoming increasingly diverse, with employees from a range of different backgrounds, cultures and generations working together. This diversity requires innovative approaches to communication to bridge gaps in understanding, encourage inclusion and cater to the unique needs of particular cohorts. Employees have greater choice of communication channels, tools and tactics than ever before, so we must innovate to keep our system of communication relevant to our employees.

Organizations that once upon a time only employed people in one city to work together in one office may now have employees from multiple countries around the world with different cultural backgrounds, different languages and varying communication styles. For example, an employee in country X may communicate very directly and bluntly in line with their cultural customs, but this may appear extremely rude to an employee in country Y where it is more culturally appropriate to use softer language or to be more diplomatic. These kind of misinterpretations, misunderstandings or language barriers can hinder effective workplace communication.

A diverse workforce may also have different communication preferences. Some employees may prefer asynchronous written communication that they can read in their own time and refer back to later. Others may prefer synchronous verbal updates where they can hear information directly from leaders and have the opportunity to assess the body language, tone of voice and nuances in the communication. Some employees will appreciate receiving bite-sized video updates that they can consume easily on their smartphone, whereas others prefer longer-form content with more detailed information. Internal communication professionals need a deep, rich understanding of their internal audiences to accommodate these diverse preferences and communicate effectively. Innovation can help us keep pace with the changing needs of a diverse workforce.

The rise of hybrid and remote working

The Covid-19 pandemic was awful and left many of us desperately anxious, ill or burned out. It was a dark, bleak, difficult time and it left its mark on the world in many ways. One lasting legacy from the pandemic is the shift to hybrid and remote working.

The pandemic accelerated the trend for employees to work online, a trend that was already in place thanks to the internet and digital collaboration tools (Fitzpatrick and Dewhurst, 2019). This digitization is what helped so many of us to make the abrupt shift from working in an office to collaborating with others from our kitchen tables. Technology enabled a huge-scale shift to remote working for many office-based roles.

And as the pandemic slowly wound down and we emerged from our houses, shell-shocked and tired and grateful to hug people again, one thing endured: the appeal of flexible working. According to Microsoft’s Work Trend Index (2023), 70 per cent of workers now prefer flexible work options. This doesn’t mean we don’t enjoy seeing each other. Sixty-five per cent of us still opt for some face-to-face time with our colleagues (Microsoft, 2023). The productivity levels maintained throughout the pandemic showed that it is possible to work from home in many roles and it is possible to communicate and connect with colleagues in dispersed workforces. We used to be told that we absolutely had to be in the office together to do our work, and the pandemic proved for many of us that was simply a lie. Razzetti (2022) sums it up nicely in his book Remote Not Distant when he says: ‘The pandemic has put the way we do things around here to the test.’

There’s no going back now. For many organizations and many employees, remote and hybrid working is here to stay.

This shift has implications for us as internal communicators. We are again required to innovate, to assess our approach to ensure it’s effective in meeting the needs of a changing workforce. Perhaps our channels need readjusting. Perhaps our leadership communication needs rethinking. As with any organizational change, a move to remote or hybrid working means we must take stock of how we work and how this may need to be changed or refined.

One of the obvious benefits that emerged from the pandemic was the accelerated growth of digitisation in organizations. What’s that joke that went around at the end of the pandemic? It went something like this:

What’s been the most powerful driving force behind your organization’s digital transformation?

Chief technology officer

Chief operating officer

The Covid-19 pandemic

Even the most successful CTO would probably have to admit that the pandemic put a bit of fire in the belly when it came to finally pushing out old technologies in favour of newer ones that met the needs of employees. New tools were brought into organizations to help them communicate and collaborate more easily, and what an opportunity this was for us as internal communicators. Think of all the organizations that never had video calls pre-Covid. Or that never had instant messaging systems or asynchronous collaboration tools or virtual whiteboarding capabilities. All of these new tools and tech open up opportunities for internal communicators to innovate by exploiting this technology in valuable ways.

The pace of digital transformation

Building on this, it’s not just the pandemic that brought along new tools. Digital channels and communication technologies have been completely transforming the way people communicate and consume information for years.

Think about how digital technology has impacted our lives in the last decade or two. We went from a time when smartphones didn’t exist to a time when smartphones are an integral part of our daily lives. We carry our phones around the house, we bring them into meetings, they send us reminders of important tasks we need to do. We are so outrageously enamoured with our phones that we even bring them into the bathroom and to the bedroom, what could be construed as an invasion of our most sacred spaces. This kind of technology in your hand would have been unthinkable when I was a child. I remember being fascinated by Miles O’Brien in Star Trek: The next generation whose character spent a lot of time playing around with futuristic, touchscreen technology. He was able to zoom in and out of images on a screen with the touch of a finger and this blew my mind. Surely this could never be possible! And yet here we are – I can do exactly the same thing now, easily and cheaply, from the comfort of my couch.

The pace of change has been fast and the scale has been dramatic.

All of this technology has made it easier than ever for people to create, share and consume digital content. This of course includes employees in the workplace. Gone are the days where it may have been sufficient to communicate to all employees using just one channel. Now employees operate in a sophisticated digital workplace where they can communicate through email, instant messaging, self-service intranets, social networks, virtual or in-person meetings, video calls, asynchronous collaboration tools and employee apps… to name a few.

More tech and tools are coming on the market all the time. So for us, as internal communicators, the need to keep pace and innovate continues.

The rise of audio and video culture

Video content has become increasingly prominent as a way to communicate effectively and to get your audiences’ attention. We see this on platforms like TikTok, where creators make engaging 60 second videos that capture the attention of millions. The creativity and skill of these young creators is astounding. (If you’ve never visited the Reddit page called r/fixedbytheduet then make yourself a coffee and prepare to laugh it out of your nose. This Reddit page showcases some of the most creative combinations of TikTok videos from different creators and it’s absolutely hilarious. This gives you a flavour of the content we’re competing against for our employees’ attention.)

Smartphones democratized access to creating video content. Now we can all be film makers and video editors and creators. This user-generated content is all over popular social platforms like YouTube, TikTok, Instagram and Snapchat. According to Ceci (2023), TikTok reached more than three billion downloads worldwide by July 2021.

The rise of video platforms like TikTok and Instagram also signalled a technological shift from desktop to mobile. People like consuming content on their phones. It’s easy, isn’t it, because our phones are always in our hands anyway. TikTok indicates a shift towards short-form video, though longer-form content on YouTube continues to be popular, which serves as a reminder of the diversity of communication preferences our employees are likely to have. This rise of video culture pushes us to innovate in internal communication too, to meet the needs and preferences of different internal audiences.

Similarly, audio as a communication medium has risen enormously in popularity. Podcasts have becoming an increasingly important channel to communicate with an audience. According to Gotting (2024), only 22 per cent of the adult population in the USA was aware of podcasting in 2006. But by 2022, this figure had risen to 79 per cent. More than 82 million people listened to podcasts in 2021 in the USA and this is expected to continue to rise to over 100 million listeners in 2024.

A decade ago, Noyes (2014) wrote in the Harvard Business Review that podcasting was entering ‘a golden age’. There are at least three million podcasts in existence, the majority of which are in the English language (Thorpe, 2023). Creators can easily and cheaply launch their own podcast using equipment they already have to hand and an editing app on their phone, making audio another democratized medium for anyone to access.

The popularity of podcasts can partly be explained by their ease of access for the audience. I think about how I consume podcasts myself, and it’s usually while I’m doing something else. I’m loading the dishwasher or folding the laundry or driving my daughter to dance class. So podcasts fit into my life without any extra effort or friction – they don’t demand my full attention and I don’t need to watch them or read them. This is an easy consumer experience which we can think about in the context of internal communication and whether we can or should explore audio communications for our employees.

The changing expectations of employees

The dynamics between employees and employers are changing too. Fifty years ago, it would have been the norm for an employee to join an organization for life, sometimes even doing the exact same job for life. Employees were often willing to put up with less-than-ideal working conditions in order to keep their jobs and have financial security. But not anymore. Now it’s common for people to change jobs, change employers, even change careers. Employers don’t command the loyalty they once did from employees, and they must work harder to both attract and retain talented employees as a result.

I remember once when I got a new job offer, I excitedly rang my mum to tell her the news. I had been in the same job for three years by that stage and was hungry for more responsibility and more seniority. Three years in the same job felt like enough. But when I told my mum I was moving to a new company she was just baffled! She couldn’t understand why I would leave a decent salary in a pensionable job for a new gig. Why would I want to start over again and make new friends when I was already comfortable? It was completely bizarre to her as this simply wasn’t the done thing when she was in the workforce. For her, it was normal to join a company at age 20 and then stay there until retirement at age 65, and be grateful for it.

Our expectations as employees are changing. We demand more now, don’t we? We want more than a transaction in which we trade our labour for money; we want purpose, meaning, autonomy. We want to feel valued, we demand a work–life balance, we want boundaries around our personal time. We also want more say in how things are done, we want more ways to speak up and be heard, we want more transparency from leaders. People are now actively seeking out employers with a positive work culture, opportunities for personal and professional development and increased levels of autonomy. These changing expectations from employees keep us on our toes and demand that we innovate and stay curious to stay effective.

The view from internal communication practitioners

I wanted to make sure I wasn’t alone in my assessment that innovation is an ongoing need in internal communication. How do other practitioners view it?

I speak with Janet Hitchen, a communication consultant who led internal communication at Apple. Janet is smart as a whip, bright, creative and quick on her feet. She tells me she enjoys solving problems through creative thinking and admits she has a rebellious spirit – she isn’t afraid to break the rules to achieve results. I ask Janet about the role of innovation in internal communication today and whether it’s important. She tells me that innovation is crucial because of the pace of change we’re experiencing in the workplace. ‘Change is the new normal. Everything is changing all the time. This idea of change as a constant is crucial for internal communicators. If you do the same thing over and over, and you stick rigidly to that, then you’re not going to evolve or develop new ideas. Internal communication professionals need to get used to adapting, changing and innovating on a regular basis.’

Internal communicators who aren’t innovating, she tells me, are going to get left behind. ‘If you aren’t innovating new ways to approach, consider, design, be inspired and deliver then you’re standing still. That’s okay for a short time, but long-term that leads to becoming obsolete.’

Janet has a theory: communicators are being afraid of brandishing the labels ‘innovative’ or ‘creative’, perhaps by virtue of a lack of confidence. She’s experienced this herself, most starkly when working in Apple when she was surrounded by some of the most creative, inventive and innovative people on the planet. ‘I think I put the words creative and innovative on a pedestal for a while,’ she muses. ‘I told myself I wasn’t a creative. But you know what? I am creative. I’m not an inventor but I innovate. Working in that kind of environment meant I had to innovate – there was no play book, no “best practice”, I just had to figure it out myself.’ Janet says that internal communicators need to get over our fear of the words ‘innovation’ and ‘creative’ and learn to embrace them.

I also speak with Jonas Bladt Hansen, a communications consultant based in Denmark. Jonas is a fascinating communications practitioner who I have been following online for some time. He was the first person I saw talking about using AI to create an internal communications matrix. He is a forward-thinker and wants to push the boundaries of the profession, and he tells me that this all stems from his deep-seated curiosity. Much like Janet, Jonas argues passionately that innovation in internal communication is critical due to way the world is constantly changing. He tells me that innovation in internal communication is important ‘because the way internal communication worked 10 years ago is not how internal communication works today’.

Echoing my thoughts earlier in this chapter about how internal communication has changed over the years, Jonas says, ‘We started out as journalists, producing information in a newspaper; we’d publish it and send it out. Now today it’s completely different.’ He references the digital revolution that has disrupted our lives so enormously. The most important medium for internal communicators used to be a printed newspaper, he tells me, but now it’s all online. There have been massive changes.

For Jonas, innovation is more than an opt-in for a communicator with extra time on their hands. He says that internal communicators ‘have a responsibility to constantly innovate and try things out and be curious’. Time doesn’t stand still, he tells me. Things are changing all the time – just look at the digital world and the changes we’ve experienced in the last few years.

I ask Jonas what would happen if internal communicators decided they didn’t want to innovate, or perhaps if they felt they didn’t have time to innovate. He laughs at the absurdity of the question. ‘We can’t just sit there and think our department will never change. We will become extinct and redundant if we don’t innovate and keep up.’

I talk to Merima Baralić de Ramírez, Senior Communications Director with PepsiCo. Merima is based in Barcelona and is a self-described ‘cultural chameleon’, someone who is well used to change as she moved schools 10 times across two continents and four languages before the age of 18. This lifestyle, she says, fuelled a tireless sense of wonder and it drives her innovative mindset. Merima tells me, ‘innovation is continuously asking and reassessing who are we talking to, how are we talking to them, what are we telling them. Are we keeping up with the times (leveraging tech in the right ways) or reaching our audiences where they are (shop floor, manufacturing line, office, remote, in person, etc.)?’

In Merima’s view, innovation is critical for internal communicators. We can’t be effective or successful without it. Other departments innovate all the time and by necessity, she tells me, so why would we be any different? She states, ‘We innovate a lot in our marketing strategy talking to our consumers – why are some companies not doing the same for their internal audiences?’

Lynn Zimmerman, CEO and Chief Strategist of Swing Strategic Communication based in Colorado, agrees. She says innovation is fundamentally important to internal communication and gives this example: ‘If there is even one person who hasn’t been reached by communication, we need to keep working at finding ways to reach them. Plus, always doing things the same way is a guarantee that your audiences will lose interest.’

I hear a similar sentiment from Veema Shah, former Head of Internal Communications at the National Crime Agency. She tells me that innovation is crucial in internal communication. ‘There’s so much noise in organizations,’ she says. ‘We need to reduce this or get through this to get the important messages out there, or use internal communication to set up listening forums, or get the important debates going in the right way for those colleagues.’ Veema has the same thoughts as Jonas in Copenhagen – the old ways of pushing out one-way content don’t work anymore. The world is changing, employees are changing and we must innovate to keep up.

Time and again, internal communication practitioners from around the world told me that innovation is critical for our profession to drive results. Workforces are becoming increasingly diverse, employees are working in distributed ways, digital transformation is continuing unabated, video and audio culture is rising and employee expectations are changing. Traditional approaches to internal communication don’t always suffice to effectively engage and connect with internal audiences.

Innovation is not something to bolt-on to internal communications when you’ve got a bit of spare time; it’s an absolute imperative for long-term success. We must embrace innovation to be adaptable, to be able to solve problems, to reach our audiences effectively, to deliver excellent results, to produce work of value.

But innovation is hard for us

The views of these practitioners make it plain: innovation is crucial for internal communication. So let’s go ahead and innovate.


Sadly, it doesn’t appear to be that straightforward. Although I uncovered consensus when I asked practitioners about the need for innovation, translating this belief into practice and action is a different matter entirely. It seems that internal communicators find innovation very hard.

When I began having conversations with internal communication practitioners about innovation, I had expected to unearth a range of interesting case studies. But instead I was met by anecdote after anecdote about the seemingly insurmountable obstacles they face to innovating. Communicators at all different levels of seniority around the world were at pains to share their stories of time pressure, resource constraints, unrealistic stakeholder expectations… as one anonymous practitioner told me, ‘I’d love to spend some time on innovation. But as a team of one, I’m drowning. Honestly, I’m just trying to survive the day.’

Intrigued, I began to tug on the thread of obstacles to innovation in internal communication to see how it would unravel. I interviewed internal communicators around the world, I heard their frustrations and I listened to their stories. I adopted the role of an anthropologist; observing, listening, documenting and getting curious about what all of this means. I began to see themes and patterns emerging. I documented three obstacles which quickly became five obstacles which progressed to eight. The hits kept coming as I spoke to more practitioners. Eventually I settled on 10 obstacles to innovation in internal communication.

I’ll set out these obstacles here. These are all based on the real, lived experiences of in-house internal communication practitioners today. The quotes used in this section are all anonymized on request; communicators repeatedly told me they didn’t feel comfortable putting their name against these exhortations of brutal honesty. Some feared what their manager would think. Others were worried about their reputation. A few told me that they were frankly embarrassed about how they were spending their time but couldn’t seem to change it and wanted the comfort of anonymity.

Here are the key themes that emerged when I investigated the obstacles to innovation in internal communication:

Tiny teams and budgets.

Time pressure.

Lack of autonomy.

Hierarchical structures with authoritarian leadership.

Resistance to change.

Fear of failure.


The pressure to be lean.

Technological constraints.

Adherence to best practices.

Let’s explore each of these before we identify how to overcome these barriers and create opportunities to innovate.

Tiny teams and budgets

Internal communication teams are typically under-resourced and scant on people and budget. Many practitioners I spoke to operate as a team of one or as a tiny team of two. This can make it difficult to invest any time or energy in innovative thinking or in testing out new ideas. I talked to Ciaran (not his real name) who runs internal communication for a global organization with more than 5,000 employees and an annual turnover of millions of dollars. Ciaran is an internal communications team of one. ‘I’m constantly told there’s no money to hire anyone or even to outsource some creative work to an agency or a freelancer,’ Ciaran told me. ‘I am doing my best to keep up with the work, but on many days I don’t have any space to be creative or figure stuff out properly – I’m just focused on ticking things off an endless list of tasks. If you could tell me when and how I’m expected to innovate, I’m all ears.’

Ciaran wasn’t the only one who felt this way. Many internal communicators told me they have very limited capacity for experimentation. Innovation requires trial and error; trying things out, gathering feedback, evaluating results, iterating and trying again. This takes time, effort and energy. Many internal communicators today simply don’t have this capacity. One internal communicator in the UK told me, ‘I’m just about keeping the lights on. I’m exhausted at the end of every day and it feels like my capacity for creative thinking is getting less and less each week.’

An internal communicator in the US told me that the expectations of what she could deliver as a team of one were ‘outrageous’. Exasperated, she laid out the long list of tasks she was meant to accomplish in her role which encompassed everything from creating an organizational internal communication strategy to advising leaders on communication to creating content for the channels, running internal events and even doing graphic design and videography. She has made attempts to reduce the workload to no avail, telling me, ‘In our organization internal comms reports up to HR, who frankly just don’t get it. I feel very stuck and very tired.’

A tiny team also suggests limited diversity and limited access to a range of skills and expertise. Dr Lollie Mancey told me in our interview that it’s virtually impossible to innovate alone; you need a team of people, ideally a team with diverse experiences and diverse areas of expertise. Innovation thrives when these different perspectives and experiences collide around a shared goal of solving a complex problem. But in a team of one or two, innovation may be stifled by the team size.

Budgets (or lack of) play a role here too. Internal communicators told me, over and over again, how their limited or non-existent budgets hinder their desire to innovate. If we think back to Ridley’s (2020) understanding of innovation, which is the process of discovering different ways of arranging the world into forms that are unlikely to arise by chance, it’s reasonable to deduce that this discovery process requires investment in research, experiments and developing new ways of doing things. Budget restrictions can make it difficult for internal communication teams to explore new ideas, new ways of working or new technologies.

Internal communicators with little to no budget to outsource work to agencies or freelancers are often overburdened, overworked and overwhelmed – they are forced to prioritize routine and urgent tasks over important, long-term work like innovation or big picture thinking. This overwork also results in reduced time for creative thinking and quiet reflection, things we know are important for innovation.

Time pressure

This lack of resources can also lead to the creation of our second obstacle: time pressure. Over and over, internal communicators told me the same thing: ‘I haven’t got time to innovate.’ Communicators acting as a team of one feel particularly squeezed, trying to juggle multiple responsibilities and deliver the work of an entire team alone. There is no time for deep thinking or creative problem-solving. One internal communication manager told me, ‘I am constantly putting out fires and dealing with urgent tasks. When am I supposed to have the time for innovation when some days I don’t even have time to eat my lunch?’

Innovation requires time and focus, precious things that under-resourced teams simply do not have. It also involves taking the time to ask questions and explore ideas. I asked internal communicators in my network to tell me how they spend their time. Many reported spending a significant amount of their time on urgent work and busywork unrelated to the stated business priorities. Communicators, particularly those in more junior roles, told me they feel powerless to change this due to leadership demands, line management structures and their junior position in the company.

Even people who have titles like head of internal communications or director of communications told me they spend a significant amount of their time on urgent but not important tasks, including a lot of tactical delivery work. This poses a challenge – innovation requires time and space to be creative. And here’s my hot take: if you’re working in this firefighting, tactical, exhausting way then innovation becomes even more important for you. You need to find new, innovative ways to automate work, create systems and improve workflows so that you’ve got some breathing space to think, plan and deliver value.

Lack of autonomy

Many communicators candidly told me how they lack autonomy in their roles and feel micro-managed. For example, a piece of content may have to go through several rounds of approval before they can publish it on internal channels – and by the time it’s approved, it has morphed into a jargon-filled, nonsensical piece of corporate speak that no one will understand or engage with. A director of internal communications in the US told me how his new internal communication strategy got ‘absolutely mangled in the approval process’ because it had to get approved by multiple senior leaders, none of whom were communication professionals. ‘If I just had the autonomy I need to run this the way I want, I could solve all their problems,’ he says. ‘But the micro-managing culture throttles me, all my plans get changed by others and this stops me delivering great work.’

A poll conducted by communication consultant Mike Klein in 2023 showed the depth of this issue for internal communication professionals. He asked this question: ‘Would you prefer unlimited budget or unlimited permission?’ Within 48 hours, more than 300 people had voted and the overwhelming consensus is that ‘unlimited permission’ is what communicators desire most. This signals that micro-management, decision-making and freedom are crucially important to internal communicators today.

Interestingly, the idea of permission-seeking and micro-management seems more of a pain point for senior internal communicators. One senior leader I spoke to, let’s call her Kate, was hired as head of internal communications on the explicit understanding that she would spend her time on strategy, not tactics. In reality, she was closely micro-managed and her role consisted of non-stop tactical execution and firefighting. Her biggest wish, she told me, was ‘to have time to stop and think and come up with better ways of doing things rather than the endless pattern of urgent jobs that need doing. I’ve tried pushing back and I’ve discussed this with my boss but I get a “that’s just the way things are done here” answer and because I’m on probation I don’t feel confident enough to push it further.’

Kate and I talked about how her level of permission impacts her ability to innovate. She’s nervous about rocking the boat while on probation and doesn’t want to be ‘too counter-culture’ in her approach for fear of upsetting her boss. She’s hoping that once she builds up some credibility in the role and gets off probation that things may change, though she admits this might be ‘slightly magical thinking’.

Hierarchical structures with authoritarian leadership

Similarly, in organizations where leaders exercise strict control and authority, communicators may feel hesitant to propose new ideas or innovate on existing processes. Rigid hierarchical structures and top-down decision-making can stifle innovation because creative ideas have to navigate through multiple layers of bureaucracy and approval procedures that create bottlenecks. This process can be painfully slow and discouraging, leading innovators to abandon their ideas in frustration. This hierarchy creates an obstacle for innovative ideas to gain traction quickly and successfully.

A friend of mine worked in an organization where the hierarchy was so strict that employees were not permitted to communicate directly with senior leaders who outranked their boss. This organization actually had a documented communication protocol that said you weren’t allowed to contact certain people in the organization because of your lowly status as a mere employee – imagine! (And of course, they prided themselves on being innovative and the word ‘innovation’ was littered all over their website. Go figure.) In that same organization, senior leaders were shocked when they asked employees for ideas to improve how the organization worked and got hardly any volunteers. Quelle surprise.

I spoke to an internal communication manager who is responsible for managing all the communication channels and content in her organization. She told me about the bottlenecks that the hierarchy has created for her and how it reduces her willingness to try new things. ‘I came up with a fun, creative campaign for St Patricks Day last year,’ she told me. ‘I showed it to my boss two weeks before St Patricks Day and she said a few people needed to approve it. I followed up several times but it didn’t get approved for three weeks… by that time, St. Patricks Day was well over. I wouldn’t bother trying another creative campaign here after that because what’s the point?’

Resistance to change

Resistance to change came up again and again in my conversations with communication professionals. Which isn’t entirely surprising, as organizations are ‘inhospitable environments for innovation’ (Levitt, 2002) and are often designed to promote order, stability and routine.

Here’s an example. An internal communication specialist in a large UK organization attended one of my training workshops. Afterwards, she was brimming with new ideas and solid proposals for tangible change. She had ideas for how she could innovate in her role. But when she spoke with her manager, her ideas were dismissed. She was told that everything was fine the way it is and there was no requirement to change anything. In her own words, ‘The strangest part was that my manager paid for me to go on this course, despite the fact that she didn’t want anything to change as a result. It seemed like a tick-box exercise to keep me happy rather than any commitment to identifying improvements or making things better for our employees. The experience would make me think twice about suggesting changes again.’

This attitude is symptomatic of an organizational culture that stifles innovation. A culture that is resistant to change can make it hard for us to introduce innovative ideas and translate them into action. And remember – innovation requires action. It’s not sufficient to simply have a good idea.

Managers, leaders and employees may be comfortable with existing methods of communication and this may manifest as a reluctance to try new things. Organizational cultures that value stability and consistency may discourage employees from testing new ideas that challenge prevailing norms. Change inevitably brings uncertainty, and people may resist what they don’t understand or can’t predict. This resistance to change can act as an obstacle to an ambitious internal communicator who wants to experiment and innovate.

Fear of failure

Organizations that innovate well tend to have a healthy approach to failure. Employees are encouraged to try new things and experiment – and if it doesn’t succeed, that’s okay. An experiment isn’t a failure if your hypothesis is proved incorrect, that’s actually a very successful experiment that results in valuable learning.

In researching this book, I heard from many internal communicators who said that their organizational culture discourages failure and this makes it hard to try new things. An internal communication manager told me there is a strong unspoken culture of ‘failure is not an option’ in her workplace. In this kind of culture, innovation is unlikely. If you fear shame, retaliation and discipline then why would you ever try something new or remotely risky? The fear of failure stifles attempts at innovation. There’s no guarantee that new ideas will succeed. But we must be allowed to at least try.

Fear of failure can be seen most commonly in organizations that are highly risk averse. They may favour the status quo because it feels safer. This can result in a reluctance to change how things are done, even when there are more efficient or effective alternatives available. Innovation requires a willingness to challenge existing norms and embrace change, even when it might not be successful.

I discussed this topic with an internal communication professional in the USA. She accepted a new role last year and was excited to join the team and make a difference. In her first couple of months on the job, she offered up a range of new ideas and suggestions for positive change. Although her manager accepted that her ideas were good, he didn’t agree to implement any of them ‘in case they don’t work out’. She soon came to realize that the organizational culture valued the status quo and there was a fear of trying new things in case they failed. Her enthusiasm for new ideas and innovative suggestions quickly waned.


Common misconceptions about internal communication can hinder innovation, too. For example, the belief that internal communication is merely about conveying information from top to bottom can limit the exploration of new approaches. I spoke to many internal communicators who were frustrated with the range of misconceptions or misunderstandings of their role and their team. One practitioner told me, ‘Despite my best efforts, many of my stakeholders remain clueless about what I’m actually here to do or the value I bring. They just ask me to send stuff out and get annoyed when I start to ask them questions about objectives or audiences.’

Many people I spoke to had similar stories. A Germany-based communicator told me, ‘I try to carve out space to think up new solutions or try out new ideas but I’m always getting pulled into last-minute nonsense or things that really shouldn’t be part of my job. I try to say no but I’m usually faced with a senior leader who pulls rank on me and I end up spending hours making PowerPoint slides or editing reports that no one will read. They think I’m a performing monkey or something and they give me all their grunt work to do under the guise of it being a comms job.’

This misunderstanding of our role can act as an obstacle to innovation in internal communication, because if your stakeholders don’t know what you’re there to do or what value you bring the business then innovating in your role won’t seem particularly business critical. If this is you, don’t panic. It’s not hopeless.

The pressure to be lean

In 2023 there were massive layoffs by companies around the world, particularly technology companies. The tech industry laid off nearly a quarter of a million people, which was 50 per cent higher than the previous year (Stringer and Corrall, 2024). In January 2023 alone, more than 89,000 people were laid off from their jobs in tech. Huge companies like Google, Amazon and Meta reduced headcount, tightening their belts amongst whispers of a looming recession. In early 2023 many economists predicted that a downturn in the economy was coming and that it would hurt; inflation was high and they expected it would only fall with an increase in unemployment (Smialek and Casselman, 2024).

Against this backdrop of layoffs and predictions of economic misery, the words ‘Do more with less’ began to emerge as a way for teams to somehow deliver their current workload with fewer resources. Top execs across Silicon Valley were touting ‘Do more with less’ as the key theme for investors (Field, 2023). And I began hearing this mantra in the world of internal communication too. A blog from Unily (2023) states ‘the reality is that communicators are being asked to do lots more with the same level of budget and resource’.

Internal communicators feel under pressure to deliver more and better work with less support and fewer resources. This ‘do more with less’ mentality prioritizes efficiency at the expense of innovation. The constant pressure to cut costs, streamline operations and deliver work with little to no investment prevents internal communicators from dedicating time and energy to innovation.

Technological constraints

Outdated hardware or software, limited access to technology and restrictive IT policies can act as obstacles to innovation for internal communicators. It can hinder our ability to make changes or experiment with new approaches. It also reduces our efficiency, which in turn reduces the time we have available for experimenting with new approaches. I’ve spoken with communicators who work in wildly inefficient organizations due to the workflows and processes they have to follow on outdated in-house software systems. They have to spend significant time on manual tasks or workarounds, leaving less time for creative or innovative activities.

Many practitioners are operating without the basic technologies or tools they need to succeed in their roles. I spoke with an internal communication professional in Dublin whose request for a digital employee communication tool was denied. ‘We are still sending our employee newsletter as a PDF attached to an email,’ he tells me. ‘It’s like we are stuck in a time warp. We would never dream of communicating with our customers like this but somehow for employees it’s not seen as important. A lack of tech keeps us trapped and there’s very little innovation to be done on our channels and content when I can’t even get basic metrics like open rates or click rates’.

This internal communicator was keen to experiment with features like A/B testing to improve open rates, to send targeted messages for different segments of employees, to test out new types of content and measure what works, to trial video or audio content in the newsletter… he had endless ideas for experiments. But with the limited technology available, he felt stuck. He was still sending out the newsletter blind, with little data to show its efficacy for the audience or the organization.

Adherence to best practices

In my humble view, there is an unhealthy obsession with ‘best practice’ in the world of internal communication. These two words appear again and again, in training courses, webinars, blogs, websites, social media. But a belief in standardized best practices can act as an obstacle to innovation; why would you feel the need to deviate from established norms if you accept that they are the ‘best’? Our acceptance of best practice stifles creativity.

Best practice in internal communication refers to widely accepted methods or approaches that are deemed to the best optimal outcomes based on past experiences and industry standards. These practices are often seen as benchmarks for achieving effective communication within organizations. But I’d argue that the idea of ‘best practice’ can be misleading; it assumes there is a one-size-fits-all solution for diverse situations. In reality, organizational contexts, goals and challenges vary widely from one company to another. This variety makes it difficult to universally define a single ‘best’ approach to anything.

Call me a contrarian, but if someone tells me there’s a ‘best’ way to do anything then you’d better believe I will invest time and effort into interrogating that assumption and finding other (and potentially better) ways to do that thing. Because what you consider best for you might not be best for me. It might be completely irrelevant to me. That is the beauty of our work – it’s a nuanced and contextual craft and the word ‘best’ has no place in it.