Comms Principle #3: The Importance of Dialog

17 Jan
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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