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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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