It isn’t enough to just inform employees about business strategy; employees must both believe in the strategy and also understand what they can do to help deliver the strategy. Employees must have clear “line of sight” between their daily work and the overall vision and direction of the company.
How to achieve this in a consistent way across a large organization is difficult and it is tempting to rely on ‘broad casting’ information, believing hearing about the strategy is enough to create involvement and motivation among employees.
In the following I will cover a few points of how to improve strategy implementation by improving the way leaders communicate with their employees. I have organized the issues in three sections; why strategy communication is more important today than in the past; how we can do it and what we should include in our communication.
WHY is communicating strategy more important today
Among all others, I like to highlight three reasons why it’s becoming increasingly important for leaders to improve how they communicate strategy to their employees.
- More “People oriented” business models
Increasingly people IS an organizations most important asset to deliver growth and differentiation; the link between employee engagement, customer satisfaction and business growth is well established and the source of competitive advantage in most industries. But if people is the vital asset, their understanding and ability to deliver inline with company strategy becomes critically important.
New generations in the workforce means new demands on leadership
With the increase numbers of employees from the new generation (Gen Y), the style of leadership needs to change in order to meet the changing needs and attitudes of new employees. Employees are becoming more demanding in terms of wanting to be involved and agree to what the company is doing and why it is doing this; effective communication of organization purpose, direction and strategy becomes critically to attract and retain talent and leaders that fail to adapt will see their most valuable asset walk out the door.
Faster change and increasing competition means speed of execution is critical
With the increasing global competition, speed of change is picking up. Competitive opportunities and advantages can be held for only a short time and hence the speed of deployment and execution of strategies becomes critical. Today a ‘simple’ or even ‘quick-and-dirty’ strategy that is quickly implemented in the front-line is better than the perfect plan but never actually fully implemented.
Getting all employees behind and acting on the company strategy as fast as possible is critical. The means to this is improved communication.
HOW to communicate strategy
The following are a few things to remember when trying to improve how strategy is
- Ensure common terminology
In an organization there is often confusion regarding how terminology around vision, mission, strategy, values, etc. should be understood and applied. There are no universal definitions, but it is of course critical to define the meaning of these words and frameworks as part of communication efforts. Senior leaders must support especially middle managers to apply a coherent framework and help them do it confidently; else lot of energy will be wasted debating definitions rather than the content of e.g. the strategy. A common framework can be:
Is defining the purpose of the organization; without a specific goal or
timeframe. This is the story that creates “meaning” for employees of why
we are doing what we are doing.
Defining our long-term goals in specific and measurable outcomes. This
helps employees understand what we are trying to achieve.
Defines how we intend to achieve our vision. This helps employees to
understand the choices we have made on how to reach our long-term
- Use managers to translate the meaning of the strategy to fit the audience
Sounds like common sense, and it is; we can’t use the strategy as explained to the board to create meaning to front-line employees. Instead we can support managers on every level to translate the strategy into a ‘story’ that makes sense and connects with their teams.
- Develop an integrated story; coherent externally and internally
At the same time it is important that the core message delivered externally is consistent with the message delivered internally. Today, information is readily available both to external and internal audiences so it is important that our messages are transparent and consistent; else our credibility and trust will deteriorate.
- Support managers to stay consistent
The messages delivered by managers must be consistent across functions and over time. Especially if the strategy is new and requires change across the organization, inconsistent messages among managers is a sure way to increase the resistance to change and slow down implementation. Managers needs support to feel confident.
- Choose the right channels and methods
It’s highly unlikely that a single memo, email or briefing will inform and motivate staff when presented alone. Choosing and applying the right methods to communicate strategy to employees is important but is largely dependent on the size of organization and it’s leadership culture.
The tendency today is for a better mix of 1-way channels to provide information, and 2-way channels to facilitate understanding and involvement. Examples of 1-way channels are news letters, town-hall briefings, emails and news letters. Examples of 2-way channels are face-to-face team meetings facilitated by managers, large scale ‘open space’ conferences and innovation jam sessions that are built around co-creation of strategy.
Strategy is as such a top-down process, and hence the communication of strategy can rely on an effective cascade of information and communication. But in order to generate buy-in to the strategy a bottom-up process of dialogue must also be provided. That is why local managers (leaders) on all levels of the organization is a vital channel for communicating strategy and direction, and provide ‘line of sight’ for employees.
- Make sure there is an agreed strategy
Finally, in many cases where strategy is not communicated consistently across the organization, the root cause is not in how it is communicated, but the lack of alignment among senior leaders on what is the organization strategy. Hence, effective communication of strategy should start from the top, by ensuring all leaders truly agree on the strategy and it’s implications. Don’t assume senior leaders share the same understanding and intentions on strategy; especially during times of fast change and growth.
WHAT to communicate
When thinking of what to communicate, this of course largely depends on the actual strategy and the organization’s situation. These are a few tips when when designing the core message (what) can help to make the communication more effective.
- Simplify, simplify, simplify
If speed and execution is most important, the leaders should spend most attention on simplifying the strategy and it’s explanation. Remember, in times of change only the simple is possible.
Since senior leaders normally have a long-term vision, are dealing with complex problems and have a lot of information available; their view of
strategic choices has a lot of detail and nuances. Their tendency is to include too much detail, too many options, too much complexity and too many objectives into the company strategy that in the end creates confusion and lack of speed in implementation. The hardest job of senior leaders in creating and communicating an effective strategy is to make tough choices on what the company does and doesn’t do. What they gain is a simple and easily understandable framework with clear priorities that employees can remember and work to make what is most important to achieve.
An added benefit is that the simple strategy and objective can be changed more frequently as objectives are reached, or the environment changes and/or the company learns more of how they want to reach their objectives. Remember, strategy is probably built on assumptions and the speed of learning depends on how fast we can move from analyze/planning, to implementation and to evaluation.
A suggestion for developing a simple message on strategy is suggested by Bill Quirky - the 3 x 3 W’s:
- 3 points of why...why are we doing what we are doing
- 3 points on what...what are priorities to focus on
- 3 points on so what...what is the impact (results) of what we are doing
- Be clear on what you don’t do
In the similar notion as above; be clear on what we are not doing. It is easy to include many options in the strategy, to hide the fact there has been no real decision. So instead of communicating a long list of ‘obvious’ ideals; provide clear directions on what we are not going to do. It might be much more difficult for senior leaders to prioritize hard among many potential good options, but at the end it will give employees a much clearer sense of
the direction and strategy of the company.
- Be clear on how we are different from competition
If your strategy doesn’t set you apart from the competition, or employees doesn’t understand how they are supposed to deliver that, your strategy will not work. Make sure employees understand what they can do to deliver a differentiated experience and how different functions contribute to an aligned brand experience.
As speed of competition is increasing, rapid implementation and improvement of strategy becomes critical. To succeed leaders should think of this:
- getting all employees behind and acting on the company strategy as fast as possible is critical. The means to this is improved communication
- managers on all levels need to spend more time on planning how to communicate strategy than planning what to communicate
- leaders need to spend more time on simplifying strategy and make harder priorities