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When a Picture is Worth a Thousand Pictures

It’s been way too long since I blogged, but I kinda have to feel inspired to do it.  Over the last few months, it’s not that I haven’t felt inspired though, just that I’ve been too damn busy.

However, something happened over the last couple of weeks that I thought I would share because it was so much fun, and how often is something genuinely fun?

Detroit Mayor Dave Bing has always been a big supporter of the company for which I run corporate communications.  However, at the end of the year, he will leave office to be replaced by Mike Duggan.

My CEO, who has known Mayor Bing for many years, wanted to do something nice for him to thank him and simply giving him some form of plaque….well, y’know, it just didn’t seem personal enough.

As is normal with this kind of challenge, the task wound up being thrown over the wall to the comms department.  Unfortunately, as with all things of a personal nature, creating something unusual takes infinitely more time than most other tasks because you are in the unknown.

However, I happened to sit down with a friend one day a few weeks ago and was musing about what to do.  I had an idea for producing come form of collage of pictures and she (thanks Kris, I owe you) said instead of a collage why not try a mosaic?

How cool!  But as with all things like this, the initial inspiration and idea are the thin end of the wedge.  How the hell do you create a mosaic image?  I had visions of getting a graphic designer involved, and spending a small fortune.  Clearly this wasn’t an option.

However, I had unwisely mentioned to my boss that perhaps a mosaic would be kinda cool, and she instantly loved the idea.  I really should have kept quiet until I’d figured out what it would take – me and my big mouth – but now I was on the hook to deliver it.

It was at that point that my Comms Assistant (thanks Heather, you rock!) found an obscure piece of software called Andrea Mosaic.

Select the principal mosaic picture

Select the principal mosaic picture

Andrea Mosaic is free.  They ask only that you give them credit for use of their product (I trust that this blog post and my eternal thanks for their awesome product are sufficient credit).  Once downloaded, it allows you to create a digital mosaic using, well, any digital image.  So, I found a test pic of the Mayor reading a newsletter I’d produced a few months earlier and did a mosaic of that using about 50 pictures of my family taken from iPhoto on my Mac.

The result was astonishing.  In short, it worked.  To be more precise, it worked, it took about three minutes, and it was easy. I won’t labor the point but all it involves is selecting the main mosaic picture, selecting a folder of pictures you want to use for the tiles, selecting your parameters (how many tiles, final output dimensions, tile orientation options, color manipulation, tile repetition, etc.) before finally clicking the ‘Create Mosaic’ button.

Select your parameters

Select your parameters

The output file was a jpg image with a file size of about 90mb.  The main mosaic image was clear, but when you zoomed in all the individual tiles were clearly visible.  I generally have limited faith in free software but this did exactly what it said on the website.

State of the City

State of the City

So, with a degree of faith in the software, I set about building the finished product.  The first requirement was obviously where to get the tile images from and what to use as the main picture.  My boss selected the picture she wanted to use quite quickly – a shot of the Mayor giving a State of the City address a couple of years earlier, but the real headache was where to get the hundreds of images needed for the tiles.  Clearly we couldn’t use pictures of my family, but professional pictures of the mayor have to be sourced and there are usage rights that need to be considered.

It was at that point that I found invaluable help from the City of Detroit’s Communications Department (thank you Rose and Shabu).  From the city’s image database, they were able to provide me with over 500 pictures of the Mayor and various Detroit landmarks.  The selection process took a few days but finally we were off and running.

Section detail of the main mosaic, showing the individual tiles

Section detail of the main mosaic, showing the individual tiles

I produced several mosaics with different mosaic resolutions, and then Heather ran them down to FedEx Kinkos to get some test prints done.  This essentially involved taking a section of the image and printing that section at the same size as it would be on the final render.

We put half a dozen of these outputs down side by size and looked at them. For a final output at 5ft high, the version that used 5000 tiles was perfect.  The overall image looked like it was going to be clear, the image within each of the tiles was also clear when you got close to it.  The boss liked it.

So, we ran the final output and Heather went back to Kinkos.  She returned a couple of hours later clutching a large cardboard tube.  We crossed our fingers, unrolled it on the floor…..and breathed a huge sigh of relief.

The mosaic was simply stunning.  Up close the tiles stood out clearly, but from a distance even the seal of the City of Detroit was legible.

Mayor happy, CEO happy.

All that remained was to take it to a framers and then make the presentation.  The Mayor was delighted, his Head of Communications kept coming over and peering at the mosaic with a look of fascination, and my boss was happy.

I am sure I will use Andrea Mosaic again in the future.  Maybe for another work related project, maybe for something personal.  The only costs involved are the time invested, the printout, and the cost of framing.

We were up against a huge time crunch with this, and I had a lot of help pulling it together so quickly, but it turned out to be a great result and the most fun I’ve had in ages.

Even if you don’t have an immediate use for it, try downloading the software and playing around with it.  And I’d love to know what results you get from it.  It’s a terrific product, and you can have endless fun with it.

 
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Posted by on November 25, 2013 in Communications, Uncategorized

 

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Once in a Lifetime

In October 1988, I fell in love with baseball.

Being born and raised in England, I didn’t know much about the game.  I knew that batters had to hit the ball and not be caught, I knew there was something called a home run and I knew that Babe Ruth was a big deal, and that was pretty much it.

So when one day I found myself watching a one hour condensed show on Game 1 of that year’s world series, I didn’t really understand about starters vs relievers, had no idea what a closer was and the terms pinch-hitter and walk-off were as familiar to me as sanskrit.

And yet, when Kirk Gibson hobbled to the plate to deposit Dennis Eckersley into the seats in right and win Game 1 for the Dodgers, I instantly fell in love with baseball and he became my personal baseball hero.

The Oval Cricket Ground in London

The Oval Cricket Ground in London, with unusual dimensions

Fast forward six years.  When I moved from England to Detroit, one of the things I was looking forward to most was seeing my first live MLB game.  By that time, I’d been playing softball for several years, and traveling to softball tournaments in the U.S., but had never seen a game live, with the exception of an exhibition game at The Oval in 1993, when a group of what were predominantly minor leaguers from the Mets and Red Sox were sent to London to try and rustle up interest in Europe in the aftermath of the 1993 strike.

So imagine my delight on arriving in Detroit when I found out that Kirk Gibson was playing for the Tigers.  Admittedly he only played for them for a couple months before retiring, but I got to see him play.  Indeed, I got to see him hit his last home run.

Last Opening Day at Tiger Stadium

Last Opening Day at Tiger Stadium

I’ve been a Tigers fan since the first moment I walked into old Tiger Stadium in May of 1995.  And to be honest, being a Tigers fan was tough.  We sucked in the 90s.  The ball park was usually three quarters empty.  When there was a good crowd, more than 50% were Indians fans who made the drive from Cleveland because all the Tribe’s home games were sold out.

But there were a few things to remember.  Watching Tram and Lou play together for the last time, being at the game when Sparky suddenly decided to pinch hit for Cecil and everyone knowing that meant he’d been traded.  But for the most part, the team was so lousy that my memories are of how wonderful the stadium was, and hearing Ernie Harwell’s voice echoing through the stands.

I moved back to England for several years after 1998, but I always followed the Tigers through the wonderful new invention of the internet.  I even flew over for Game 1 of the 2006 World Series, leaving England on Friday, watching the game on Saturday and flying back Sunday, landing at 7.30 Monday morning and going straight in to work (where I was a complete waste of space all day long).

When I finally moved back to Michigan, the Tigers were a better team.  Their owner, Mike Ilitch, was taking the same approach to the Tigers that he had taken for 15 years with the Red Wings – he wanted to build a winner.  And it was with that in mind that in the same year that I moved to Michigan, someone else moved here as well.  That man was Miguel Cabrera.

I remember everoneone thinking that this was a good move for the Tigers.  Miggy was in his mid 20s at the time and had already become a star, but I don’t think anybody, ANYBODY, knew that the kid who had just arrived was going to turn into arguably the greatest hitter any Tigers fan had ever seen.

Miggy’s first few years were impressive.  His first season as a Tiger he hit 37 homers with a .292 average, enough for Tiger fans to take him to their hearts.  And while over the following 3 years he always hit 30 HR, always hit over .300, and always knocked in 100 ribeyes, he never started an All-Star game.

Cabrera's 2011 arrest. AP Photo/St. Lucie County Sheriff's Office

Cabrera’s 2011 arrest. AP Photo / St. Lucie County Sheriff’s Office

His on field heroics were occasionally marred by somewhat ugly incidents from his personal life.  An altercation with his wife in 2009 after a night of heavy drinking which led to a poor on field performance in a key game caused a few complaints.  His DUI arrest in early 2011 caused a few more.  And, to be honest, we had all seen careers fall apart before when a player was immature.  Would Miggy be another MLB cautionary tale of wasted opportunity?

But in 2011, everything started to change. and it started with Miggy’s journey towards getting sober.  And that first year was not easy.  The Tigers made the playoffs and while Miggy hit a career high .344 to win the A.L. Batting Title, his power and production numbers were down, barely scraping into the 30HR / 100RBI club.  Don’t get me wrong, these are still very good numbers, but when the 2012 season began, many Tigers fans were anxious to see which Cabrera would show up – great Miggy or still-troubled Miggy.

As it turned out, neither showed up.  Instead we got God Miggy, as Miguel Cabrera truly began his quest to become arguably the greatest Tiger of all time, and the most feared hitter of his generation.

Despite the numbers he started to put up, fans around baseball still failed to recognize him as being truly a great player when they voted Adrian Beltre the All-Star Game starter at 3rd base.  To be fair to Beltre, Cabrera had only just moved from 1B to 3B when Prince Fielder arrived in Detroit, so he was not immediately familiar at the hot corner.  As such, it seemed he would have to do something superhuman to get his name recognized in the upper levels of the stratosphere.  And as the season progressed, we slowly became aware that superhuman was what we were seeing.

It had been 45 years since anyone had achieved baseball’s offensive holy grail, the Triple Crown.  Some commentators had talked about the fact that Cabrera had a shot as early as July, thought without any real conviction.  However, as the season ground into the dog days of August, the wistful handful of comments became a steady flow, then a torrent, and then a flood.

Miguel Cabrera Triple Crown Tribute 2012

Miguel Cabrera Triple Crown Tribute 2012

It pretty much went down to the final day. Cabrera had an unassailable lead in Runs Batted In, but could still conceivably have been caught in Home Runs (by New York Yankee and former Tiger Curtis Granderson and Texas slugger Josh Hamilton), and in average (by  Angels rookie phenom Mike Trout).

When the season’s final game arrived, Tigers Manager Jim Leyland didn’t cop out by sitting Cabrera to protect his average, he played him.  And though Miggy was hitless on the night until replaced to a standing ovation in the 4th inning, he finished the season with a .330 average and 44 home runs, just enough to become only the 3rd living Triple Crown winner.

He was, rightly in my opinion, named the A.L. M.V.P., beating Mike Trout in a battle of old school vs sabermetric analysis and the question then became what would he do the following year.  The answer should have been clear when Miggy abstained from a clubhouse pennant celebration even though the dowsing champagne was non-alcoholic.  This was clearly now a complete baseball player, and one with singularly sharp focus and dedication.

As I write this in mid-August 2013, it has become clear that we are seeing a grandmaster at the very height of his powers.  While second in HR to Baltimore’s Chris Davis (39 vs 44, though the gap is closing), Miggy leads the A.L. in RBI (117 to 113) and average (.358 to .335).  People are talking about the possibility of a second straight Triple Crown (which is possible), and a second straight MVP (which at his current pace is likely, barring injury).

Last night, Cabrera smacked his 39th homer of the year, a walk-off solo shot to lift the Tigers 6-5 over the Royals at Comerica.  At the end of the on-field interview after the home run, as Cabrera walked back to the dugout, the interviewer handed back to the studio by saying  “Fellas, he is the best hitter on planet earth”.

The jury is no longer out on who is the best hitter in the game.  It’s not even worth talking about.

Miggy

Cabrera started at 3rd base in the All-Star game for the first time this year, and the vote wasn’t even close.

Opposing managers almost without exception identify him as the best hitter in baseball.  His peers are no less effusive.  And play by play announcers and color analysts from Joe Buck to Ken The Hawk Harrelson are filled with admiration.

I hope the fans in Detroit, and baseball fans around the league, truly appreciate what they are seeing here.  Because what they are seeing is a player performing at a level that people will still talk about long after we are all dead..and…gone.

 
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Posted by on August 18, 2013 in Baseball, Sports

 

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Comms Principle #6: Translating Strategy into Execution

And so, we reach the final post in this series about Change Project Communications.  When I originally listed the key subject areas, I indicated that the sixth and final post would be called “Translating Strategy into Execution”, and it is, but now that I have reached this point I realize that I have covered it as an inherent part of several previous posts.

However, once again, there is a lesson to be learned here and, once again, I draw on an experience from the past.

Communications - always under the microscope

Communications – always under the microscope

A few years ago, I started work on a new project – one that had been failing, of course – and when I set out my engagement strategy to the Board, the most senior member there (one of whom I was kinda nervous because as well as being very senior he had an innate ability to spot gaps in thinking and pounce on them with inconveniently astute questions) said “Well, communications will be critical to the success of this, so I’ll watch with great interest.”

Simon (for that is the name I will give him) didn’t know me particularly well and was, I believe, relatively unconvinced that I would deliver anything of demonstrable value.

So, I set about executing the strategy.  I subdivided the stakeholders and cross mapped them.  I developed a modular suite of communications focusing on functional areas but all capable of building to an all-encompassing whole.

I reviewed the comms channels available, selecting only those that were well known and familiar to my audience.  I leveraged existing networks, cultivating the folks who managed the networks.  I spoke with key individuals around the world and identified local comms advocates in the Asia Pacific, Africa, Middle East and Latin America Regions who, with their regional experience and contacts, could help me drive the communication deeper than I could do on my own.

I engaged the experts who knew the detail at Global H.Q. to assist with developing the content, and developed a manageable cadence so that interacting with me would not become a chore.  I also syndicated draft materials with experts working in the Operating Companies and End-Markets to see what resonated with them and what they resisted before circulating the finished pieces.

I listened for feedback.  I ensured not only that the voices in the field were heard, but that the people knew they were being not just heard but also considered.

And then, after 6 months, I ran a survey of 500 global stakeholders to find out what they knew about the project, what they thought was missing, and whether they believed the communication had been good.  The recipients ranged from Junior Managers to Heads of Functions, Directors of Operating Companies to Regional Directors.

I was, if I’m honest, somewhat worried about the results as they would form the basis for the follow-up presentation I had been asked to give to the Board on the progress of communications against the established comms strategy.

I pulled the results into a 25 slide PowerPoint presentation, with graphs showing the responses for all the key areas, broken down by geographic area, by function. To my amazement, I had received nearly a 70% response rate on the survey (I had hoped for maybe a 1 in 5 response rate).

The Board required all presentation materials to be pre-circulated before the meeting, so as I stood up to present, everyone already had all the details.  And before I got a word out, ‘Simon’ smiled and said “Robin, it must be very hard to be humble at moments like this.”

The results were staggeringly good.  97% of people remembered seeing the communications, 89% knew who to talk to if they wanted more information or to raise concerns, 85% felt the communications had been timely and informative.  Best of all, 82% described the comms execution as good or excellent.

If this sounds like I’m bragging, please don’t think of it that way.  While I got the credit on the day, I would have achieved nothing had I not had the most awesome team of advisors, collaborators and advocates, and the visible support of my Project Executive.  While I had written and sent out all the communications, it was the knowledge and commitment of others that made them worth reading.

I worked on for a few more months, and was then asked to move to another struggling project.  The existing one had a new manager brought in, and a senior Comms expert from one of the Big 4 consultancies was brought in to manage the communications work-stream.

A year later, I had occasion to catch up with a colleague and ask how things had progressed.  I found the results to be surprising.

Communications was now under attack.  People felt disengaged, uninformed and undervalued.  In a further survey, nearly three quarters of recipients had indicated that communications had been inadequate or poor.

My first reaction, perhaps predictably, was to be thoroughly pissed off.  But then I thought maybe I could learn something useful so I spent a couple of days finding out what had happened.

A great strategy is pointless unless it can be executed

A great strategy is pointless unless it can be executed

The new Senior Executive had, as I mentioned, insisted on bringing in an external Comms Consultant.  This consultant (at the not inconsiderable rate of $2000 a day) had then spent 3 months criticizing my Comms approach as being too simplistic and labor intensive, and had developed a new strategy calling for dedicated comms channels, new databases, a new area on the intranet, and the development of an impressive array of comms pieces, from animated videos to Computer Based Training modules.

And then, with the strategy complete, the Consultant had said “OK, well, my job is done”.  When asked what how the strategy would be implemented, the Consultant seemed to take the view that that was not her role.

She was, however, more than happy to bring in a team of consultants from her company that could execute the strategy (about 8 people, all billing around $1200 a day).

This was by now about 5 months after I had moved off the project.

Over the next 3 months, the Comms Consultant team came on board, started developing the materials, engaging with the experts, pulling information together at the center, and finally beginning to communicate.  Everything they sent out was immaculate, impressive looking and hugely detailed.

The results were awful.  People didn’t recognize the communication, didn’t know who to ask questions of.  They didn’t know where to find documents when they needed them.  They called and emailed and were thanked for their input, but never heard any more.  In short, they felt as though they were cogs in a wheel rather than partners.

Hopefully, that little story tells you more about the process of communication than I ever could.  Yes, I know I just told the story, but you know what I mean.

In case you missed it however, I will end by mentioning the 3 key learnings that I took from this ghastly collapse.

#1 – If you are a Senior Manager, don’t abdicate responsibility for Communications.  If you are going to take the coward’s way out and use Comms as a convenient scapegoat in the event of failure, then your support for and engagement with the communications process while it is ongoing needs to be absolute.  Throwing the ball over the wall to an expert and telling them to just get on with it is stupid, stupid, stupid.  Listen to your Comms Manager, if you don’t agree tell him or her why, and give them a chance to convince you.

#2 – Don’t reinvent the wheel.  People are creatures of habit.  From a communications perspective when you are trying to get people to support changes in working, or measuring, or even if you’re trying to convince turkeys to appreciate Thanksgiving, you have to talk to them in language and through channels that are familiar to them.  Don’t ask them to learn a new job and a new way to communicate.  They won’t appreciate it, and you will bear the brunt of their disaffection.

#3 – Do some real work.  Please, please, please remember this one.  Comms Strategy is terribly important.  It is critical.  But if you don’t execute it properly then seriously what was the point?  Comms should always be built on a sound strategic foundation but in the end it’s basically well-organized common sense and bloody hard work.  It’s about writing, revising, listening, revising again, distributing in a regular and consistent manner, listening and starting again.

Cat Herding - The furry underbelly of Communications

Cat Herding – The furry underbelly of Communications

I love communications.  It is fulfilling, creative, informative and constantly evolving.  At the same time, it can be infuriating, thankless, monotonous and indefensible.  A roller-coaster ride of emotion and iteration, commendation and censure, exasperation and gratification.

People that “get” communications understand this, and are willing to be supportive, trusting and committed to your strategy.  Project Managers and Executives who understand the difficulties of herding cats will make it their business to give you visible support and to make sure that other members of the team are enablers, not inhibitors of communication.  If you find yourself working with people like this, you need to treasure the experiences because they are as rare as hen’s teeth.  Many of my senior executives stayed in touch with me after I had moved off the project, some became dedicated and hugely appreciated mentors to me, and I remain friends with them to this day.

In my career I have worked with a handful of people who “got” communications.  I still treasure the insights I gained from the (sometimes hard) lessons I learned, and I believe that the experience has made me a better communicator.

Roberto, Simon, Gerson, Lorrie, Tom, Chris, Paul, plus a few others, I thank you from the bottom of my heart and wish you all nothing but success.

 
 

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Comms Principle #5: Engaging Senior Management

Having not blogged since early March (well over 4 months ago), I’d like to start by saying that this next post has been several months in the making.  That would imply that there’s going to be lots of good stuff in it.

Unfortunately, though I’d like to say it, I can’t.  I just got real busy starting a new job and the blog slipped off the radar for a few months.  Last week however, a colleague whose opinions I value said she’d enjoyed reading this and that I really should find time to continue.  She was right and so here I am, back at the keyboard on a Sunday morning.  (You know who you are – thank you).

So while I clearly haven’t been researching and writing this next post for months, I can however say that it has been many years in the making.  In fact, this particular post was prompted by a message I received from Project Management Hut in response to Principle #2, where I alluded to a previous experience that I will now describe in detail.

In the nearly two decades that I’ve been creating and giving communications and presentations to and for senior management, I’ve tried a few things that have failed, and a few that worked, and I like to think that the more I do it the better I know how to do it.

So let me say, first of all, that this post is not about how to engage properly with a group of senior stakeholders that your project needs to convince to follow a management-instituted program of change.  It is about engaging with the senior executive within your project, and allowing him or her to engage in a meaningful way with those whose permission he or she needs to run the project.  I feel that I’ve covered the former group in an earlier post.  The latter group are different beasts.

A number of years ago, I got the chance to work for a man who went on to become my personal business hero.  I’m not going to mention his name since that would be indiscreet, so for now let’s just call him Bob (and before anyone goes running to LinkedIn, he’s not one of my contacts).

Bob took over a project that had cost a small fortune to run, had produced next to nothing of value, and whose executive level sponsors were growing impatient.

One of his first tasks – we all knew this – was going to be to trim the project team.  I was absolutely certain that I would be in the firing line since Comms is always an easy sacrificial lamb and, if I’m honest, I had achieved nothing of value either.

However, as I went through the first couple of weeks and he pulled his plans together (barely speaking to me at all), I became impressed with his clarity of vision, his no bullshit attitude and his absolute focus on coming up with a recommendation that made sense, irrespective of who it annoyed, or indeed whose career it impacted.

Finally, he gathered his extended senior team (about 15 of us) together.  That team nominally included me, but ironically I’m damn certain he didn’t know my name.

He presented his goals, objectives and plans, with such simplicity of thought that the conclusion he led us all to was inescapable.  Then he went round the table, asking everyone in turn if they were happy.  Yes, yes, yes came the replies, one after another.

Knowing that the plan of the previous project leader had bogged down due to a lack of air-cover from senior management, I still had doubts.  But I’d heard good things about him, and I liked his vision so (figuring that I was going to be fired anyway), when he turned to me and said “Are you happy?”, I decided to simply put my cards on the table.

I told him that I wasn’t happy.  I said that I’d seen a lot of plans which made sense and that failed to deliver.  I informed him that even if this plan turned out to be better, the road ahead would still be long and hard, and the challenges were no less real with his leadership that they had been before.  The room went very quiet.

Your country needs you!

Your country needs you!

Then I added that I had asked colleagues whose opinions I respected for their views of him, and had heard that he never set an objective that he didn’t truly believe he could deliver and that his focus once an objective was established was intense.  I concluded that, while still being unable to proclaim myself happy, I was perhaps somewhat more optimistic.  I was painfully aware that I was the only person who had said they were not happy but, as my father used to say, faint heart never won fair lady.

Bob pointed his finger at me, and fired me.

Just kidding.  He banged his fist on the table and (literally) shouted “You are on my team”.

Four weeks later, the project team of nearly 100 had been cut to about 15 and over the next two years, this man became an inspiration to me.

Our first six months were essentially spent pulling together a recommendation for the Corporate Executive Board.  With so much money spent already, it was hard to do anything other than continue, rework the strategy, bring in fresh thinking/energy and charge at the brick wall again.

Bob had different ideas.  And as I spent hour after hour, week after week, working with him and pulling the essence of his proposal into a presentation (or in reality a series of them), I grew to understand the importance of engagement and syndication.

He took his ideas to each board member individually, and listened to their responses.  He edited the proposal.  He engaged with other key stakeholders, and edited it again (or rather I did).  He crunched masses of data, but only with a view of reducing everything to a simple expression.  He syndicated with the board again.

The proposal, in essence, was to kill the project.  And this proposal was going to be a shock since the amount spent was already – well – think of a really huge number and then double it.

Not only did the proposal recommend killing the project, it clearly articulated the reasons.

The reasons were varied and complex, but were expressed as simple, direct sentences.  And much as they pointed the finger at the project team, they were also very clearly about the failings of the senior executives, many of whom sat in that room.

I’m paraphrasing, but basically the recommendation ran as follows.

Protect your ground troops

Protect your ground troops

You guys keep asking us to spin gold out of straw.  While this is difficult, we all know that it is also possible.  Others know it’s possible too.  But it’s going to require a lot of change and a lot of people don’t like that.  The key issue is that you tell us to deliver it but you don’t share your direction with the rest of the organization, you don’t take ownership of the outcome, and you don’t stake your credibility on its success.  I therefore recommend we kill this right now, write the money off and let everyone go because until you are prepared to show commitment, your approval has no value.

He then went on to reveal that the pre-syndication of the presentation showed that half the board agreed with this position, and supported the recommendation, a fact that surprised the board but was entirely accurate.

The presentation was, of course, a double-bluff.  He knew they could not be seen to just chalk this up to experience and close it down, but he equally knew that without air cover the project was doomed to failure.  The repeated requests from some board members to “prove it” (as opposed to approve it or kill it) were a smokescreen for a lack of either understanding or courage.  He even produced an airline ticket, dated for the next day, to demonstrate that he fully expected to be fired as a result of having the temerity to point this out and was ready to fly home into retirement.

As he had hoped, the board than asked what he would ask of them.  What was the level of commitment needed?

Alexander and the Gordian Knot

Alexander and the Gordian Knot

He shared details of what would be required, what the benefits were, and what the huge challenges would be that needed to be addressed.  And then he told them the story of Alexander and the Gordian Knot, and said that great leaders with true sense of purpose will not shrink from enforcing the difficult decisions.

I’m sure you’ve found this little story fascinating.  Or maybe you haven’t.  But it was a story I thought was worth telling because I personally learned so much from it.  The lessons, which I find hold true to this day, break down into four simple but powerful requirements:

Air Cover – Your executive sponsors must be made to understand that if they make a decision, they have to stand by it, display visible commitment to it, and put their own credibility on the line.  Approving something and then abdicating responsibility for delivery is a copout and your change program is likely to crumble at the first sign of resistance because it has no foundation.

Enforcement – Every now and again you will meet a naysayer who is very senior, maybe even a board member.  Do what you can to find out their views, why they dispute your strategy, and try to convince them.  However, if it proves impossible, that is the time the head honchos earn their salaries.  Are the objections reasonable?  If so they must be considered carefully.  If not, the principals of the company need to be prepared to use Alexander’s solution to sever that which cannot be unravelled.

Incentives – There is no clearer way of displaying commitment to something than by tying your bonus to its delivery.  It takes a very brave person to suggest this to a senior executive team (as Bob did) and it takes an even braver executive to agree, but no signal can be sent that is more impactful.

Syndication – Until I met Bob, I had always believed that keeping your powder dry was the best way to ensure maximum effect.  And it is.  But it is not a way of ensuring maximum consensus.  By soliciting responses, you not only understand what the objections are,  you also develop a map of who supports you and why.  This knowledge is invaluable if you know you are going to need to make some direct comments.

Bob has been retired for several years now.  I still hear from him every couple of years.  But I will never forget the 24 months I worked for him.  He taught me more about listening than anyone I have ever known.

Listening is the key to any successful change program.  Many people think that listening is an entirely passive activity, but they couldn’t be more wrong.  Listening is the single most proactive step you can take towards understanding.  It is therefore a particular shame that so many senior managers mistake listening for inactivity.  In my entire career, I have never been busier than the first six months Bob and I spent listening, adjusting, and listening again.

Sometime in hopefully the near future, I will get around to the next post, which will be the last in this series about Communications Principles.

 

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Several “Hmmms”, and a “WTF?”

EDIT:  Just found this draft post from mid-March (which I never published) while editing Comms Principle #5, which I will publish over the next few days.  I’m sufficiently over my sense of injustice now to publish it.

So, I’m driving to work Thursday morning, and stop at the gas station.  It’s 20 degrees.

The pump is the slowest I’ve ever known, delivering about a gallon a minute.  I give up after 5 minutes, shut the pump off and I’m about to get into the truck when a voice beside me says “Excuse me, sir…”

It’s a lady in her 70s in a Beetle.  I say hello and she says “Can you put some air in my tire, it’s running flat and I don’t know if I’ll make it to the dealership”.

I look at my nice clean suit, tie and white shirt, then look back at her, and decide I can’t in good conscience leave her to try and do this herself.

She pulls over to the air machine.  She opens the window and hands me a quarter.  I look at the machine and tell her it’s a dollar.  So she hands me a dollar bill.  I tell her I don’t think the machine takes bills, only coins.  She says she’s sure they’ll change it for me inside.

First Hmmmmm.

So, I go get change, start the pump, and ask her what tire and pressure.  She says it’s the right front and that it’s 28 psi.  I look at the right front tire.  It looks absolutely fine.  I ask her what makes her think it’s losing air and she says it’s been getting flatter for the last half hour.  Not wanting to be difficult I say OK and it turns out the pressure is 25 psi.  I fill it to 28.

She opens the electric window and leans across and says “Actually could you make it 30?”  I make it 30.

She then says “I wonder if you’d mind doing the other 3 as well.  I think it was the right front but I’m not sure.

Second Hmmmmm.

I don’t have my coat on and I’m now pretty cold, but rather than being disagreeable I fill the other tires to 30 psi (it turns out that all are in the mid to high 20s).  I finish and tell her they’re all set at 30.  In the meantime she’s been sitting in the car, looking at the manual and says “Oh, it says here they should be 32.  Could you fill them to 32?

Third hmmmmmm.

I tell her that if she’s going to a dealership anyway, she’ll be fine with 30.  She looks horrified and says “You mean you’re not going to inflate them to what is required by law?”

Basil FawltyI tell her that it is not required by law, that 30 will be just fine to get her to the dealership and ask her whether she thinks I work at the gas station (all this time standing there freezing in a suit and tie, and with my hands by now filthy).

She says “No, but I thought at least you’d be enough of a gentleman to help an elderly lady.”

Inside my head, the “Hmmmmm….” is replaced by “WTF?”.  But I respond with a perfunctory “Have a nice day ma’am” and walk away, thinking that she got all the “gentleman” she deserved.

I get a sense of intense frustration when meeting someone like that.  Nothing you can do or say will make them a better or more reasonable human being, but there is still the annoyance that somehow you’d like to do or say something that will show them how unreasonable they have been.  I always think of this kind of frustration as a Jerry Lundegaard moment.

I’ve met only a handful of people like that in my entire life, but every time I do I remember them forever.  Why people who are of so little value create such long-lasting memories I have no idea.  On the other hand, if they weren’t memorable then I suppose that might mean that they had become the norm – which would of course be infinitely worse.

 
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Posted by on July 27, 2013 in Uncategorized

 

Comms Principle #4: Multi Faceted Communications

Yes, they are all different

Yes, they are all different

With the multiple forms of communication that are at our disposal these days, it is inexcusable not to engage with stakeholders to determine whether communications are being well received, or whether they are leaving gaps. The problem in many cases though is that if you have several hundred, or even thousands of stakeholders to manage, catering to such a broad range of feedback, requests or issues is going to be tough.

And this is where we begin to see the exhaustively detailed work done during the stakeholder mapping and segmentation process start to pay dividends.

A thorough understanding of who your stakeholders are, their level of influence, their background and who they interact with will provide you with a clear picture of the form or forms that your response needs to take.

Once you have all your stakeholders mapped, you need to set up properly in order to provide a streamlined approach to handling responses.  By “streamlined”, I mean considering the development of a number of potential channels and matrix structures.  So let’s take a look at how this can be achieved.

Firstly, you need to make sure that the obvious issues are well in hand.  Assuming you are a member of an experienced and knowledgable Project Team, the first steps should be self evident – development of a list of terminologies or acronyms commonly used, and a list of Frequently Asked Questions.

specialist_versus_generalistNot only will the development of these two vital communications pieces provide you with a sound platform for understanding the scope of the communications challenge, they will also help you personally to understand the detail.  Most Comms Managers are generalists, not specialists, but in order to make the best use of your time you need to develop at least a reasonable grasp of your subject matter.

Use the experts on you project team to help with this.  Initially, they will probably be quite willing to help, but may become a bit more resistant as you push them to provide you with better answers.  And don’t forget, the answers they provide will not be the end of the story – many stakeholders may not believe the answers, or believe that they are wrong, incomplete, or miss a number of issues.  Only once you have got the position recorded can you start to build a picture of where the gaps exist, but at least you can make a start on trying to get everyone onto the same page.

One other point on this.  People tend to view a new Comms Manager as someone who will communicate innately, someone capable of filling a gap while operating in a vacuum.  This, of course, is a pipe dream.  You will need their help and their expertise in order to develop messages that resonate.  As you increase your own understanding they will expect you to be able to do more on your own, but of course your greater understanding will also mean that you will notice gaps or inconsistencies more readily, and when this happens you will start to challenge the answers your peers have provided.

At this point, it is likely that you will start to experience some push back, and be told “Oh, don’t worry about that” or “That’s not really an issue”, or perhaps “You’re going into this in too much depth”.

A necessary evil

A necessary evil

Don’t EVER accept that.  It is your job not only to represent their views to the stakeholders but just as importantly to represent the views of the stakeholders to the project team.  Like an interviewer, your job is to consider both sides of the story.  Ignoring stakeholder concerns and questions because they are inconvenient is the quickest route to failure.

Playing devil’s advocate is often a tiresome activity, and one that may on occasion provoke a degree of frustration within the project team, but it is an entirely necessary process, so make a point of explaining why you’re doing it.  If the answers you get don’t convince you, they won’t convince your stakeholders either.

Next, you need to designate comms representatives and build alliances.  If you have several hundred stakeholders to manage, there is no way you can manage them all personally.  However, there will be individuals across the stakeholder landscape who are predisposed to support your project.  Nurture them.  Find out who they interact with and who they may be able to influence.  Providing them with the opportunity to feed back to you any issues that they may have or that they may have heard others have is going to improve the relevance of the communications you provide immeasurably.

Recognize the fact that in many cases the communications you provide will not come directly from you.  They may be cascaded through the organization, and in fact this cascade process may well be a part of your design.  However, communications often follow relationship or expertise pathways, rather than reporting lines.  I have known communications materials to be shared across continents by people who work in entirely different departments and roles.  Why?  Well, perhaps they used to work together.  Perhaps they met on a training course.  Maybe they have the same personal interests.  Relationships form in all kinds of ways that you may not understand.

It is therefore critical to remember that while communications can certainly cascade along hard reporting lines, they can also cascade functionally, among dotted line reports, and along completely informal interpersonal lines.  Where you are able to build relationships, find out who people are talking to, and what they are hearing.  See whether these relationships can be leveraged to become a living part of the comms process.

The materials you will provide need to resonate with each audience.  That does not mean that every comms piece has to be produced to an extreme level of functional granularity, but rather that nobody should ever directly receive a comms piece and, having read it, think to themselves “Why the hell did they think that I would have any interest in that?”.  Every piece of information that they receive directly from you must have something that is of value to them.  These are busy people.  If they are suspicious of the objectives of the project then any comms piece that they feel wastes their time is a nail in your personal comms coffin.

Don't assume your audience listens when you want it to

Don’t assume your audience will be listening when you want them to listen.

In addition to the comms channels that you select, and these will vary based on your organization, it is important to remember that most stakeholders will at best only glance at the materials you send them at the time they receive them, but will quite possibly want to return to them when they have the time or the inclination to find out more.

It is imperative to provide them with a means of accessing these materials in their own time, and making sure that they know where to go to find them.

The internet makes this possible almost without exception.  Everyone you want to interact with will have access to a database, or an intranet site, or a dropbox.  Communicate the location of this information and how it can be accessed consistently.  Make sure they know where to go.  Make sure the only versions of documents that appear in this ‘database’ are the current versions.  Make sure that the database is structured in a manner that makes the relevant information easy to locate.

There are a host of other observations that I could add on this subject, but this post is already quite long and therefore I will add only one further piece of advice.  Please, please, please make an effort to actively seek feedback that can inform the process.

thumb_surveymonkeyFacilities such as ‘Survey Monkey’ make it possible to solicit feedback from widely dispersed groups of stakeholders.  Structuring a survey correctly will allow you to see how well your comms strategy is working, and to get a feel for areas where there are issues to be overcome.

However, it is important to remember that initiating a survey is first and foremost for the purpose of improving the comms process.  Far too many people use it as a means to cover their ass, structuring the questions so as to be able to deflect criticism of the comms process and make themselves look better.

I understand the reason for this – as I believe I recall saying in my first post of this series comms usually gets little of the credit when things go right and the lion’s share of the blame when things go wrong.  However, if you are truly looking to improve the comms process then taking a dispassionate approach to surveys must be paramount.

In the next post, I’m going to be blogging about engagement with Senior Management.  I’ve seen many examples of where this critical element was mismanaged.  But I’ve also seen examples where it was done exceptionally well, and I’ll share some of these experiences in Principle #5.

 
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Posted by on March 2, 2013 in Change Management, Communications

 

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Comms Principle #3: The Importance of Dialog

Comms channels and stakeholders

Hooray – ‘Oliver’ is getting the message, so put your feet up and wait for the change program to succeed

In the first two Comms Principles of this series, I’ve talked about channel selection and stakeholder segmentation.

Now, let’s imagine that one of the key stakeholders your segmentation process has identified is a cat, ‘Oliver’, and that the channel you have selected to deliver the message is a train, a train that can be verified as one that will reach Oliver.

The message is consistent.  Delivery is always complete.  So the comms strategy must be succeeding.  Right?

Now that may seem like a rhetorical question but it’s not, and those of you that answered “no” are wrong.  On the other hand, anyone who answered “yes” (and there may be one or two) is also wrong.  The correct answer is “we have no idea”.

What do we know about ‘Oliver’.  It’s true that he’s getting the message, but what is his reaction to it?  Does he like it?  Is it annoying?  Why isn’t he moving?  In fact let’s make the question even simpler.  Has Oliver looked at it, or is he ignoring it? The answer is still “we have no idea”. Hmmmm.

Incomplete Comms Process Flow

A Comms Process Flow….sort of

OK, let’s have a look at our Comms Process flow chart – maybe that will tell us what’s going wrong.  As we can see, the Comms Manager sits within the Project Team.  Communications are developed via his interaction with other project team members.

The Comms Manager is not an IT expert.  He’s not a member of the Management Board, he doesn’t get involved in financial planning, and when it comes to Supply Chain processes, he can’t see the Forrester Effect for the trees.   Because of this, he needs access to the people who are specialists – the workstream leads; the senior user and supplier; the Project Manager.

In partnership with the workstream leads, he develops multiple pieces of communication.  He talks to the IT lead, discussing the challenges they face with the legacy systems.  He talks to Operations to learn about inventory visibility.  He talks to finance to understand what the key reporting metrics are and whether there are any that conflict across functions or business units.

With the help of all these experts, he develops a suite of communications materials – some high level and aimed at Senior Management, some in greater functional detail.  All are designed to give each stakeholder the information they need, built with the input of experts, validated across other key project streams and with the Project Manager, and delivered by channels that are proven to reach the target audience effectively.

Yet something is lacking, and if you look closely at the chart you can see why. Despite the fact that the communications pieces themselves are excellent, the process itself is flawed.

Just because you served it up doesn't mean they'll swallow it.

Just because you served it up doesn’t mean they’ll swallow it

The communications are developed within the project team as an iterative process, seeking feedback, involving experts, using their expertise, building layer upon layer.

Then a hatch is opened, the comms pieces are thrown out to the stakeholders, and the hatch closed again.

Now, if the comms materials are raw meat and the stakeholders are ravenous lions this process may work, up to a point.  But as we’ve already discussed in an earlier post, people usually don’t like change, so there’s a good chance that you will not see a feeding frenzy when you serve up a nice plate of Raw Comms.  In fact, this approach has been known to result in the lions eating the Comms Manager.

And so we return to Oliver and we think “If we asked Oliver what he thought about all this, would he have something to say?”.  We look at the process flow chart and we say to ourselves “Why are we seeking feedback within the project to increase our understanding, and yet not soliciting feedback from the stakeholders – the very people that we are supposed to be influencing? Why are the arrows only going one way?”

Engaging with Oliver would tell us whether he (a) knows what is going on and supports it completely without needing more information, (b) doesn’t know what is going on and knows he needs to understand it more, but is afraid to admit he doesn’t understand it and is therefore being stubborn, or (c) knows exactly what it means and disagrees so completely that he is stopping the message getting any further, hoping that eventually it will derail.  There are reasons (d) through (w) as well, but you get my point.

If I was asked to put money on the main reason that project communications strategies fail, this would be it. The feedback of stakeholders is not sought, not valued, not discussed or not addressed.

Some great lessons for communications

Some great lessons for communications

This shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone, but frequently it is.  A fairly senior adman that my wife worked for a few years ago used to live by the mantra that if you say something a minimum of three times people will get it. How he rose to his exalted position with such a facile view of communications is beyond me, but the main point that he fails to take into account is that ‘getting it’ is not the same as ‘believing it’.

In his book ‘The Righteous Mind – Why Good People are Divided about Politics and Religion’, psychologist Jonathan Haidt, a Professor at NYU’s Stern School for Business provides a rationale for this key difference. Expanding on observations originally made by Plato that human beings weigh evidence in the search for knowledge, Haidt says that we are hardwired to make snap judgements based on our emotions, and then we manipulate the manner in which we process facts in order to justify the largely emotional conclusions that we had already reached.

Ah, you may say, but the people we are seeking to influence are experts in their respective fields.  They are the ones whose experience needs to be leveraged in order for the change to be successful.  This being the case, surely these are the very people that will weigh the evidence to arrive at “knowledge”?

Well, no, or at least not as far as I have observed in my career.  While it is possible that these people are experts, let’s not forget the other ingredients that make successful communications such a difficult recipe, some of which I discussed in Principle #2 – reasons which in many cases are significantly more personal in nature than they are professional:

  • Despite the fact that they are experts, they are first and foremost human
  • Their personal career objectives may not align with your corporate ones
  • There are usually several ways to skin a cat (sorry Oliver) and they may think that the efficiency of their way outweighs the effectiveness of yours
  • They may already have too much to do, and you’re asking them to relearn it
  • The change that you are proposing may make their current role redundant, or require a change in reporting or remuneration with which they are extremely uncomfortable

Of course there are other potential reasons as well, but while not one of the reasons above could be said to disprove any of the theory, invalidate any of the process changes or discredit the new IT solution or organization structure that you are intending to build, any one of them is a very good reason for a stakeholder to not support the change.  They are selfish reasons to be sure, but that fact does not make them any less real, or valid, and as a Comms Manager it is your role to find out what the reasons for the lack of engagement are, and to see what can be done to address them.

Without engaging with your stakeholders, it is unlikely that you will be able to combat these issues.  Certainly there may be ways in which you can address some of them by talking about best practice, pointing to improvements made by other companies or organizations, or talking about changes in the marketplace, but these are somewhat sterile responses and don’t go very far towards addressing what may be intensely personal concerns.  Your stakeholders know that they are personal issues, and may therefore be reluctant to discuss them openly.  And of course if one of your stakeholders feels this way there may be others.

Find a way to discuss the facts, not the conjecture

Find a way to discuss the facts, not the conjecture

To engage with them, you have to make them truly believe that you value their feedback, that you want to hear their concerns or suggestions.  They must have the means to review the documentation as and when they have time, and have a number of clear channels via which issues can be raised.

If you don’t give them the opportunity to air their opinions with you, and thereby have the opportunity to address them, you will usually find that they share them with their colleagues, but that they do so in a manner that undermines the change program, starts rumors and leads to a much greater volume of negative feeling.

So how do you engage with literally hundreds of stakeholders?  I’ll be offering some suggestions in Comms Principle #4 – A Multi-Faceted approach.

 
 

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