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Remembering Peter Marsh

Remembering Peter Marsh

Screen Shot 2016-04-04 at 9.32.58 PMI was saddened to read today about the death of Peter Marsh, co-founder of Allen Brady & Marsh, one of London’s most respected/despised/admired/talked-about ad agencies of the 1970s and 1980s.

Peter was a man that was easy to like and not hard to dislike. The only thing bigger than his ego was his reputation. Or maybe I’ve got that the wrong way round. Whatever, everyone either knew Peter, or had heard something about Peter, or had something to say about Peter. Quite frequently Peter was the one talking about Peter.

His heyday was before I started in the ad business, but even when I was cutting my teeth in the industry the stories about him (some true, some doubtless not true) circulated frequently. And so, as my way of remembering him, I’ll share one of the stories I was told about him that I think sums up the kind of man he was, or at least the kind of man he wanted you to think he was. It is probably the best known of the numerous stories about him.

His agency, ABM, were pitching for the advertising account of British Rail which, at the time, had a truly terrible reputation.

The client arrived in reception at the agency at the appointed time, but Peter was nowhere to be found. Sincere apologies were offered and every effort was made to find the absent supremo. While they waited, the clients sat with increasing impatience in a noisy, crowded and rather messy lobby, full of dirty coffee cups and even dirtier ashtrays.

Eventually, when it appeared that their very existence had been forgotten, Sir Peter Parker (the senior member of the client entourage) stormed over to the receptionist and announced that no company that valued its customers so little deserved to have his business. The entire group strode towards the door.

Screen Shot 2016-04-04 at 9.39.30 PMAs if by magic, Marsh appeared. He introduced himself and the client remarked acidly that he was an hour late, the reception area was a pigsty, his staff had been unhelpful, and why on earth would they consider spending any more time to hear what he had to say?

Marsh smiled and said “Now that you know what your customers think about British Rail, why don’t we go and see what we can do to fix it?”

There are few individuals for whom the terms chutzpah is truly apt, but Peter Marsh was most certainly one of them.

Oh, of course, they won the British Rail pitch.

 

 
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Posted by on April 4, 2016 in Advertising, Marketing, Uncategorized

 

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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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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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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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Comms Principle #2: It’s Stakeholder, not Steakholder

Melanie Griffith in 'Working Girl'. Photo: 20th Century Fox

Melanie Griffith in ‘Working Girl’. Photo: 20th Century Fox

In the 1988 movie ‘Working Girl’, Alec Baldwin delivers an ultimatum to Melanie Griffith, to which he receives the response “I am not steak – you can’t just order me.”

I’m sure the line was never meant to be relevant to corporate communications, but I’ve never found one that better sums up the manner in which some communications strategies rely on beating their audience into submission.

In the past (and I mean the long distant past), leadership styles were significantly more authoritarian than they are today.  Raising issues with management direction could have been a career decision.  And in some companies this can still be the case, although thankfully it is now the exception rather than the rule.

Today’s Management Boards have recognized that simply mandating a change does not ensure its successful delivery.  While everyone may pay lip-service to the objective the fact remains that people are, in general, very resistant to change.

Daniel Burrus

Daniel Burrus – Collaboration vs. Cooperation

When proposing a program of strategic change, one of the first things that needs to be appreciated is the fact that dragging people towards an objective is not nearly as effective as having them gravitate towards it.

One of my favorite bloggers, Daniel Burrus, wrote an interesting piece on LinkedIn a few weeks ago that clearly articulated the difference between collaboration and cooperation, and pointed out that people confuse the two. The key distinction he makes is worth repeating here:

“Cooperation is based on a scarcity mindset; it’s about protecting and defending your piece of the pie.  Collaboration is based on an abundance mindset, working together to create a bigger pie for all”.

Change means uncertainty - people don't like uncertainty

Change means uncertainty –
and people don’t like uncertainty

Seems obvious, doesn’t it?  But where Change Management activities are concerned, it’s one of those key distinctions that tend to fall by the wayside in the headlong rush to build consensus and move forward. The problem of course is that if you settle merely for stakeholder cooperation, everything you build thereafter will be less stable and the consensus is liable to develop cracks.  If you want to build on a solid foundation, you need your stakeholders to want what you want.  In order to do this they have to share your vision, not just execute it.

And that, when all is said and done, is the tough bit.  How do you get a group of stakeholders not just to move in the same direction, but to want to move in the same direction and to encourage others to come with them?

Your new strategic direction may promise inescapable benefits for the organization, but it may also have a dramatic impact of a vast number of careers.  It may require employees to learn new skills, or new ways of working.  It may require changes in their reporting lines or the manner in which they are remunerated.  Suppliers or customers may be required to work with you in new ways (which can be tricky to enforce with suppliers, and next to impossible with customers).  It may also mean that some existing roles become redundant, in which case having your stakeholders believe that as one door closes several others will open is of critical importance.

There will undoubtedly be personal issues that shape the opinions of stakeholders both inside and outside your organization, and you will need to understand them (something I’ll come back to in a future post), but your first priority should be to understand where everyone fits, both in terms of how they can impact the project and how they are impacted by it.  This is the essence of Stakeholder Segmentation.

A typical stakeholder map for an internal change program

A typical stakeholder map for an internal change program

A large group of stakeholders can be segmented in a number of ways, but the key requirements are to understand where they fit in terms of reporting and role, to understand their level of seniority or influence, and to understand the likely impact of the project on their day job or, for external stakeholders, their business.

Getting the names of all these stakeholders, their responsibilities and other key information is not a difficult task, but it is time consuming and unfortunately there is no way around it.

Existing org charts will take you some of the way there, as will mailing lists, but the remainder will largely be grunt work – talking to colleagues, making phone calls, sharing iterations of the list and seeking feedback until such time as you can be sure it is broadly complete. There will always be one or two that you miss, but they will become apparent as soon as the comms flow starts.

With the list in place, you can start to determine what kind of communications detail will be required for each audience.  Your IT stakeholders will likely require very different information that that required by your marketers, or by HR, or your suppliers, and while you may be able to use some of the communications materials across all stakeholder groups, each group should feel that the materials you develop have something in it for them.  Remember, the more information that does not apply specifically to a particular stakeholder, the less likely that stakeholder is to read it.  Management may have mandated the change, but getting the stakeholders to pay attention, understand and actively engage will be on you.

Prince2 Project Management structure

Prince2 Project Management structure

If you need to go to the length of producing modular communications material, which is entirely possible, you will need to start building relationships with the experts in your project team and project board.

The Project Manager is always a good place to start, and he/she will be able to describe the skill sets available to help you develop the detail that the communication may require.  In addition, your project’s Senior User or Senior Supplier will be able to help you be aware of some of the key challenges that exist, both in terms of the benefits that are expected and the challenges of implementation. I should probably point out here that I am using Prince2 project management structure, since that is what I was trained in, but other Project Management methodologies encompass similar roles.

This will be the point at which some sensitivities exist, as you will also have to segment your stakeholders based on perceived level of support and influence.  Those who support the activity may be able to become active in influencing others, but you will need their support to be on message because not only do you want them to communicate correctly and not start any unnecessary rumors in motion, but also you want them to bring you feedback so that any level of resistance apparent in initial discussions can be addressed while it is still just a risk, rather than waiting until it becomes an issue.

There will invariably be certain key stakeholders who are skeptical or hostile.  It is particularly important to highlight who they are at an early stage, particularly if they have a level of seniority that could delay or undermine the project, or if they have expertise that is held in high regard by other stakeholders.  A bit of extra time or effort spent on syndicating objectives with this group of individuals, and sounding them out for objections or concerns will pay dividends in the long term.

Assign responsibilities for covering key stakeholders

Assign responsibilities for covering key stakeholders

In order to be certain of their views and to encourage their positive engagement, you may need to use “man defense” rather than relying on “zone defense”, meaning they will need to be approached on an individual basis, ideally by someone within or close to the project, and with whom they have a good relationship.

This ‘relationship owner’ takes responsibility for representing the details correctly, engaging frequently to secure feedback, and reporting the substance of any resistance back to the center.

This is unfortunately quite a labor intensive way of engaging (to ensure just one individual is in possession of all the facts, and that his or her opinions are accurately recorded), but in a small number of cases you may find there is no substitute for it, and even that it can be more efficient.

Finally, while it is important to know what your stakeholders think, it is just as important that they know you know and that they have confidence that their concerns are being taken seriously.

There is only one thing worse than being confronted with a change you don’t agree with, or not knowing who to talk to and how to raise concerns, and that is to talk to someone and raise concerns and never hear anything about it again.  If this happens, you’ve taken a key step towards getting your stakeholders engaged and then dropped the ball by not letting them know that you’ve heard their concerns, that you’ve shared them with the relevant people and that an answer is being developed.  In short, you’ve given the impression that their views are irrelevant.

If you don’t have an answer, don’t bullshit them.  They will almost certainly find out and when they do you will have gone 90% of the way towards losing their trust forever.  Tell them you don’t know, then go and find out what the answer is.  Unless you’re dealing with a stakeholder who has a particularly poisonous agenda (and they do exist), you will gain points for honesty and collaboration far more often than you will lose them for being “unprepared”.

Is this all there is to stakeholder management?  Of course not but this is a blog not a book, and following these basic steps will at very least move you in the right direction.

I’ll cover more on the subject of establishing a dialogue with your stakeholders in Comms Principle #3.

 
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Posted by on January 15, 2013 in Change Management, Communications

 

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