A thousand people stand bunched up at the starting line, poised to run a marathon. The runners nervously jog in place and stretch their limbs to stay loose. You can feel the excitement and anticipation in the air as the race is about to start. Slowly the starter raises his pistol, the gun goes off, and the tightly packed group of runners explodes into motion.
But instead of heading down the narrow marked course, the runners scatter in all directions like pent-up school kids just released by the final bell. Some runners sprint straight down the course. Some hop the curb and veer off to the left or right. Others reverse course and start running in the opposite direction. And a small group of really confused marathoners begin running in circles.
Sounds crazy, doesn’t it. But that’s exactly what happens when organizations fail to properly communicate and communicate and communicate their strategic plans. Instead of everyone working towards the same clearly defined destination, people end up going in all directions with no sense of purpose or shared outcome.
Too often companies invest a lot of time and energy in creating their strategic plan, but then make almost no effort to help people understand it, buy into it, and support it. To ensure that everyone in the organization runs the same race, we need to inform, engage and inspire people – not just once when the plan is introduced, but continually throughout the year.
To facilitate this “informing” process:
Today’s leaders have a wide choice of communication tools — email, meetings, intranets, letters/mailers, social media, etc. During the initial stages of informing, however, verbal communication works best. Surveys show that employees place much greater value on face-to-face communication, especially when it comes from the person they work for. So as much as possible, communicate the why, what, and how of your plan in face-to-face meetings. If you have a geographically dispersed workforce, try to meet directly with the largest groups and then conduct audio or video conferences to connect with others. Or, use webinars or other technologies that simulate face-to-face interactions.
Follow up with visuals.
Follow up all verbal communications with written communications that combine pictures or graphics with the written word. Humans are visual creatures, and having something visual in front of us provides a powerful tool for staying focused. Construct a one-page visual that notes the key elements of your strategic plan, including the destination points (specifics on what it looks like when you arrive at where you are going). In addition, write down your core values and behaviors, so that people have visual reminders of what is expected of them from a behavioral standpoint.
Some companies create a full color, tri-fold brochure to visually remind people of what they need to do and why. These brochures include:
- Company purpose and mission statement
- Destination statements
- What and how strategies, with timelines
- What the plan means to individual employees and their teams
- Guiding principles, organizational values, and attributes
- Who to contact for more information or to ask questions
These brochures send an important message to employees about management’s commitment to implementing the plan.
Update as you go along.
When changes occur that impact goals, measures, and how you will get things done, communicate again. Don’t hesitate for fear of distracting employees with too much information. I have yet to see an organization over-communicate about its goals. When employees are not informed about obvious changes, they will fill the void with their own negative thoughts and assumptions. Pausing to communicate frequently will save hours in addressing myths, half-truths, and inaccurate information.
When significant change occurs, provide details on how transitions will unfold. Let people know how client interactions will be handled, what types of discussions should happen with other employees, and what support (people, technology, coaching) will be provided. In particular, identify who is responsible for what, and provide information on who to go to with questions, ideas, or concerns.
To ease the transition, take a few moments to honor the past while creating the future. Over-emphasizing all the changes can feel like an insult to people who have worked in the organization for years and contributed to its success. Acknowledging the positive things people have done to get the organization where it is today can soothe ruffled feathers and encourage those who are reluctant to change.
Study after study confirms that productivity and employee commitment reach their highest when people are kept fully and regularly informed. The more you communicate, the better your return on investment. And what better return can you ask for than reaching the final destination as outlined in your plan?
Key operating practice:
There are many companies that post their mission, vision, & values. Posting them is great only if you are really working towards them and behaving in a manner that aligns with them. Otherwise, it is much worse to visibly state you are doing one thing when another is quite clearly going on.