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Communicating a Strategic Plan: 5 Key Factors to Consider

by Dan Knights, on Oct 23, 2019, 10:48:05 PM

Everyone knows that to implement and execute your strategy, you need people throughout the organization to engage with it. And, everyone knows that this starts with effective communication of your strategy.

Reading through this article about why people are so bad at communication in the workplace, we got to thinking about communication of strategy. We talk a lot about how important it is, and what a crucial element of collaboration, engagement, and buy-in it forms, so why do we struggle so much with getting results from our strategy communication? Simple: we're bad at it.

It's not something we like to admit, because we see being "great communicators" as a core and fundamental part of who we are, but it's hard to avoid when you consider the difficulties that pretty much every organization has with achieving truly clear communication around their strategy.

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So, here are the main factors we've identified to communicate strategy more effectively, and what you can do about them:

1. Strategy Communication Requires Listening Skills

Pretty much every senior team at every large organization is guilty of this one at some point. Now, to be clear, we're not suggesting that everyone should be involved in every stage and every decision - it doesn't make sense and won't (can't) work. Inevitably some of your strategy communication will be an update out to a wider group, or a more formal "release" of a new approach, but at Cascade we're huge fans of getting engagement via clarity and involvement.

Too often we see strategy communication essentially coming out of a series of workshops or retreats, with a very small percentage of the organization in attendance - and basically "landing" on the organization. There may be a cursory "invitation for feedback" in the email that gets sent out, but we all know that not a whole lot will be done with that feedback - you actually have to want the two-way communication. Some elements of your strategy are often more effectively and efficiently formulated (at least initially) with a core group of key people, e.g. your Vision and Values, but there is a lot of knowledge and insight wrapped up in your wider team, so you'll miss out on that by not inviting a discussion about strategy.

Plus, the more discussion there is once you reach the levels of the plan that directly represent people's work (e.g. Objectives, Projects, KPIs), the more engagement you will get. And, all going well, people will start discussing this stuff with each other - there will be a buzz around the strategic plan that cannot be imitated or replaced by any kind of one-way communication.

You need to make the call for your own organization as to where the greatest value in wider feedback or discussion is - each one is different and you don't want to discuss everything with everyone, but the best implemented plans always make room for that discussion

FEEDBACK-strategy-communication

What are we doing wrong?

  • Making all communication a one-way "push" update or directive from the "strategy team" to the rest of the organization.
  • Not valuing targeted feedback from a wider group of people, or the benefits of having people talking to each other about what's going on.

What can we change?

  • Identify which elements of your plan can most benefit from two-way communication with a wider group (and which groups would benefit most from being involved).
  • Explicitly build that dialogue in to the process - treat it with respect and don't let it be the first thing to fall off the when deadlines loom.
  • If necessary, create a feedback mechanism (e.g. spokespeople, representative groups etc.) that will help you manage and interpret the feedback so it isn't overwhelming - e.g. in larger organizations looking for feedback from a lot people.
  • Put the information you want to communicate in a single, clear platform that everyone can see and interpret easily.

2. Strategy Communication Never Ends

We've all been there. A huge effort goes in, endless hours sweating over the whiteboard to come up with that beautiful document or slide deck. We post it on the intranet, and attach a pdf to the "All Staff" email that goes out. The project manager checks off the "Final strategy communicated to staff" task in the project plan. Done. 

Nope. Not done. Not even close. Your strategy has to live and breathe to be useful. It will be tracked, reported on, refined. The core of your Business-as-Usual should become the execution of your strategy. All of which means that the communication about and around the strategy must continue, otherwise you run the very real risk of the day-to-day business losing direction and focus, and sliding towards the dreaded "strategic drift".

You need to make the communication of the strategy, whether that be top down-changes, bottom-up changes, monitoring/iteration/refinement within teams, part of the ongoing process. Your governance processes, team meetings, individual performance reviews etc. all need to be focused around the execution and improvement of the strategy - a constant hum of communication rather than a roar and then silence.

never-ending-strategy-communication

What are we doing wrong?

  • Making strategy communication a single "big bang" when releasing the "plan", but without the ongoing discussion at all levels of the organization that ensures that the plan lives and becomes the BAU.

What can we change?

  • Embed regular (at least quarterly), strategy-focused review sessions in your organizational governance process for your senior team. If they aren't talking about and making decisions based on how well the strategy is going, what are they doing?
  • Ensure that teams within the organization embed reporting against their Objectives, Projects and KPIs in their normal management process - whether that's for upwards reporting, intra-team updates, or individual performance management.
  • Don't let the company-wide communications go silent - do still communicate to the whole organization about how you're tracking against plan. It will reinforce that the plan is living.
  • Put your plan in a platform that will allow you share and collaborate with clarity, while planning, working on, and tracking the content of your plan. This will support that consistent and joined up ongoing communication and reporting.

Download You Strategy Communications Infographic here!

Download Strategy Communications Infographic  The infographic will give you our best tips for ensuring you communicate your  strategic plan successfully throughout your organization. DOWNLOAD INFOGRAPHIC!

3. Strategy Communication Requires Perspective

We've seen plenty of over-complicated strategies that were too hard to communicate in a way that all the stakeholders could understand. And you know what? None of them started out that way. They all morphed as the people involved in formulating them got deeper and deeper in, thought about more and more elements, and tried to cover more and more angles. The picture at the end was beautiful - but only 5 people really appreciated the intricacies and really understood the differences between the various levels and dimensions.

OK so that's an extreme example to illustrate the point, but the point still stands: when you've been on the inside creating something, it's easy to lose sight of the fact other people don't have the benefit of all that background. Even a well-constructed, appropriately simple strategy still needs the benefit of context, and you have to factor that in to your communications.

What supplementary information beyond your core strategy components can you provide to help people understand? For example, have you made particular changes from your "old" strategy that are worth explaining? Have you implemented a new Strategy Model that's worth elaborating on (e.g. you're now using Objectives, Projects, and KPIs)? Also consider your medium - that one big email may just be too many words at once. Why not make a video explaining the core components? Have a few "launch sessions" and present the plan? Run drop-in sessions if people have questions? Certainly try and give people access to the plan in a way that they read and look around - it may take people time to get their heads around things.

Also, if you've been involved in formulating the strategy, you're probably a manager (maybe even the one in charge), you've been in most or all the conversations, and you have a bit of an overview as to how the organization functions and all the different pieces of the puzzle that have to come together. Most of your team won't have this, and the bigger your team, the more people who don't have this context. If you want people to buy in, you have to be willing to give them the right information in the right format so they can take it on board.

perspective-communicating-strategy

What are we doing wrong?

  • Assuming all your stakeholders have all the necessary background and context to understand the strategy.
  • Assuming a slide deck, pdf, or intranet page along with an introductory email is enough information for everyone to understand.

What can we change?

  • Communicate more regularly during the process (see section 1 above) - if people are with you on the journey, that's a lot less context that has to be explained when you are launching or changing your plan. This is the number one best way to alleviate this issue.
  • Use a test audience - seriously, if you're not sure whether what you've come up with can be effectively communicated in the way you're proposing, gather a trusted, representative sample group and test it. 
  • Make sure you take the time to communicate the context if it's essential to understanding the key elements of the picture. Look at the plan critically - which parts of it are going to be hardest to understand without the context?
  • Consider your medium of communication - could you better communicate through videos, presentations, workshops etc.?
  • Put your strategy in a platform that allows people to see the flow of the strategy from top to bottom, and see the relationships between all the different elements, to best support them understanding the bigger picture and where they fit in.

4. Strategy Communication Requires Clear 'Next-Steps'

It's not just about communicating the content - you can do a great job of that, involve people throughout the process, give them all the context they need to understand it, and then... people don't really know what they are expected to go and "do" with this new information and beautiful new plan. And "go away and do the strategy!" won't cut it.

What are the timelines? What are the individual activities that each team or manager are expected to do? If it's a "new" plan, when does it "go live"? If these are communications around changes, when are they happening? Don't let a well thought-out strategy, that has been otherwise well communicated, get off to a false start because people aren't clear what is happening, when, and what they are expected to do.

next-step-strategy-communication

What are we doing wrong?

  • Not clearly communicating timelines and expected actions relating to the strategic plan to the wider team.

What can we change?

  • If a new plan is being rolled out, in your communications be absolutely clear about when it is "going live".
  • If your current plan is being refined, ensure that affected stakeholders are aware of the timelines.
  • Either way, you absolutely must ensure that any area of your organization that needs to do something to implement the new or updated plans knows this. Even if the stakeholders were involved in devising plan, it doesn't hurt to be clear.
  • Use a platform that allows the timelines around your core strategy actions to be clearly mapped out, and that you can use as a reference point for your whole team to be on the same page.

5. Not Everyone Will Love Your New Strategy

OK so I left this one until last as it's the trickiest and most sensitive. If you're heavily involved in formulating core elements of the strategy, the chances are strong that you're bought in to the value of strategy, the specific ideas in yours, and the overall success of the organization in general.  

The reality is that most people in your organization won't be there, at least not yet. Most people can be brought along on the journey, and many will contribute to changing the direction and shaping the plan (the two-way street we discussed in section 1), but you can't expect everyone to be as excited as you are on day 1.

You can't expect people to love it like you do, but those who could totally buy in absolutely won't if you don't give them a good enough reason.  And for those who won't anyway, they still need to have visibility of the plan, and be absolutely clear as to how it fits together and how they fit into it.

For that first group, you need to be clear about why the strategy is going to be great for the organization and the people in it. If you can't clearly elucidate why it's an exciting vision for the future, and why it can actually work, you won't get them on board. For the second group, it's all about that clear, joined up picture from Vision downwards. If it makes sense and looks like it will work, they'll be on board with the executing it, even if they won't ever be "excited" by the future.

strategic-communication-love

What are we doing wrong?

  • Building communications around the strategy assuming everyone is as excited about it (or at least as bought in to it) as the people running the organization.

What can we change?

  • Be clear on why it's going to be great - there are reasons you're excited about the new or refined direction, so make sure those reasons are part of your communications. Not just "it's going to be great because if it works we'll be successful!" - actually think about why the changes are positive or necessary.
  • Clarity and visibility. We've all been in organizations where we've received the nice pictures with the arrows and the colorful boxes, which are all well and good, but what does it actually mean and how is it going to relate to what people are actually doing. If you're not clearly communicating how this is all going to translate into becoming the new BAU, it won't.
  • Use a toolset that allows you to clearly demonstrate how everything in your strategy hangs together - Vision and Values all the way down to your actual activities.

Conclusion: Strategy Communication is Hard, but Following these 5 Steps can Give you the Edge

Anyone who's worked in organizations for long enough will have been at one end or the other of poor communications about strategy - many of us will have been at both. We hear so often that people are struggling to get traction with (or even a reaction to) their strategy communications, and pretty much every time it has been necessary to go back to the fundamentals and say "are we just doing it badly?". It sounds brutal, but with something so absolutely core to executing your strategy, it has to be done.

We built Cascade, our strategy execution platform, specifically to give you clarity, visibility, and a joined-up structure all the way from the top of your strategy to your key activities - exactly what you need at the core of your strategy communications to tackle all the issues we've just outlined. Why not start a free trial today - no credit card required!

Download You Strategy Communications Infographic here!

Download Strategy Communications Infographic  The infographic will give you our best tips for ensuring you communicate your  strategic plan successfully throughout your organization. DOWNLOAD INFOGRAPHIC!

Topics:Cascading & Engaging People With Strategy

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Download Strategy Communications Infographic  The infographic will give you our best tips for ensuring you communicate your  strategic plan successfully throughout your organization. DOWNLOAD INFOGRAPHIC!