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Strategy – communication = suicide

What's the point of creating a strategy if nobody gets it? Wayne Aspland looks at why communications is vital to strategic success.

Let’s start with a question. Imagine for a minute that over a third of all the people in your organisation don’t understand your business goals… and almost half don’t understand what you’re doing to achieve them.

What do you think your chances of achieving those goals would be?

Now, you might be thinking “whew… I’m glad I don’t work there”. Sadly, there’s a reasonable chance you do. You see, these statistics are the averages reported by the Towers Watson 2012 Global Workforce Study: a survey of 32,000 employees across 29 markets worldwide.

In a more recent study (highlighted in the November edition of IABC's CW magazine), Leadership IQ painted an even uglier picture. Their survey of 30,000 employees found that:

  • Only 34% said they could articulate their company's strategic goals.
  • When the 34% were asked to articulate those goals, 51% of them got them wrong.

Frightening, isn’t it. But, thankfully, there’s a clear solution to this problem. Communication.

Communication is the first step in all business endeavour. Why? Because everything you do involves others. Communication is the first step in the realisation of an idea; the first step in the leadership of a team; the first step in the acquisition of a customer; the first step in the creation of a culture. And, of course, it’s the first step in the implementation of a strategy.

After all, how do your people engage with, advocate and, most importantly, roll out your strategy if they don’t understand it? And how do investors, analysts, journalists, customers and other external stakeholders judge you fairly without a really clear understanding of where you’re taking them and how you plan to get there?

As Lou Gerstner, the near legendary former head of IBM once said:

“It's about communication. It's about honesty. It's about treating people in the organisation as deserving to know the facts. You don't try to give them half the story. You don't try to hide the story. You treat them as – as true equals, and you communicate and you communicate and communicate.”

 

We believe in communication, but are we doing it?

On the surface, it seems this message is well understood at the top. According to the 2011 Forbes Insights Strategic Initiatives Study, 92% of CEOs, 92% of communicators and 88% of strategists “say communications is critical to the success of their strategic initiatives” (what were the other 8% of communicators thinking?).

But when you scratch beneath the surface, there’s some evidence that this belief is only partially translated into action:

  • Only 48% of respondents to the same survey “use communications as a means of team/employee feedback through strategic development and execution,”
  • Only 46% “say communications plays a vital and active role in the strategic planning process throughout the lifecycle of an initiative,”
  • Only 41% of respondents say they “most frequently increase emphasis on communications” to improve outcomes,
  • And a dismal 23% “involve the communications function to drive more internal understanding and support”.

And (just to rub salt into the wound) when told by Leadership IQ that only 34% of employees claimed to know their employer's strategic goals, many CEOs said:

“Really, 34%? That’s better than I would’ve thought.”

Which all seems to underline the point that communications might be seen as critical to strategic success, but it's not treated as critical to strategic success.

 

What to do?

So, what to do here? Clearly, EVERYONE needs to understand your strategy and goals. How can you deliver them if they don't?

And that means communications needs to take a much more significant role in the execution of strategy. To achieve that, though, you’re going to have to sell the argument.

That’s where the aforementioned Forbes survey becomes quite useful. On top of some great data to back up your case, it provides seven really sensible recommendations for strategic communication. I won’t repeat them here, but you can download the report easily enough… it’s well worth the read.

What I would do though is add three more recommendations to the list:

Firstly, involve the communications team. After all, they’re the experts in building understanding and engagement both internally and externally. And it’s this understanding that’s clearly vital to strategic success.

Secondly, take communications seriously. A good communications team will know exactly what they have to do, but they will need total CEO and Executive support to do it.

Finally, embrace simplicity. Strategy maps, mind-bending diagrams and never-ending data arrays have their role to play. But to really drive understanding and engagement, you need to be able to take all that complexity, boil it down and tell your strategic story in clear, simple, inspiring terms. If you do that well, you'll have everyone around you attentive, fired up and ready for the detail.

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