Flexibility is not strategy (part 4)

27 05 2009

Flexibility – it can manifest in many forms and can quietly work against the soundest strategy.  In this, the nearly final installment, I’m going to talk briefly about dissemination and communication based on my experiences.

Many jokes are made at the expense of having consistent representation of a topic.  Being “on message” is corporate obfuscation and doublespeak, but its power can be used for the purposes of good.  Believe it or not, it is possible to be “on message” and also be transparent at the same time.

Bottom line: if you don’t have a communication plan around your new strategy, you’ve got a problem.

Water cooler messaging

Everyone’s reticent to learn the details of a new strategy.  So sometimes a 1 minute water cooler conversation is worth a 60 minute company address or a 10 page document.  Documents in particular have two major problems:

  • They probably don’t speak specifically to the reader
  • They require reading

So, a hallway conversation about a high-stakes topic like direction and strategy serves two purposes – it addresses that specific employee or role’s concerns, and it leverages personal relationships and interaction to test for cracks in the corporate façade.

People can intuitively understand nonverbal communication.  Even if the words come out right, the body language can contradict the message.

Robots, no.  Humans, yes.

Nobody will agree with anything 100% (unless it is their own idea).  Consensus, by nature, is nobody’s idea.  People are also not machines, so resolutely supporting another’s viewpoints can be tricky and could lead to some hedging.

Don’t put people in that position.

People love to explore edge cases.  Resist in-the-moment flexibility and treat each interaction as an opportunity for feedback and response.  No one should have to guess at the right answer or accidentally misrepresent (even if well intentioned) a position or element of a strategy.

Instead, adopt the practice of specifically capturing questions for review and response. 

The last part is very important.  You must respond.

A strategy, no matter how long it’s been baking, is not bulletproof.  It is a best guess given all available information – reality will always intervene.  But, it is also something that has to be acted upon before everyone falls into analysis paralysis.

Knowing what you don’t know

Saying “I don’t know” is powerful.  First it legitimizes a concern from an employee.  If you rely on employees to execute the tactics that result from the strategy, getting their buy-in is important.

But you’re not done until you add “I will ask about your concern and get back to you.”

By actively listening to a concern, escalating it, and then returning with an answer, people will feel they were heard.  Not all the answers will be easy for people to hear.  But it is OK to diplomatically dismiss those edge cases that aren’t relevant.

Secondly, not having all the answers humanizes the strategy process.  Everyone who isn’t involved will have a notion of how the strategy was developed.  Some renditions will be quite colorful.

Change you can’t believe in

Logic is cold comfort for anyone who is in the sights of some sort of tactical change at a company.  No matter how much business sense it makes to reorganize, change emphasis on projects, or eliminate something, people who feel they are at risk are not going to be happy.  There is no good way to enact these decisions.

However, an avoidable circumstance is ensuring no one is accidentally (and falsely) led to believe they will be part of a tactical action through lack of information or improvisation by the messenger.  No amount of explaining will ever undo the feeling that they will be first in line to be removed at the next opportunity.

What I know

Listening and response close the feedback loop of strategy dissemination.  But, it does take some dedication.

It took 6 hours for me to write the answers to 173 semi-anonymously submitted questions (from a small company) about a new strategy.  Ensuring they were all correct took a subsequent 3 hour meeting and another hour re-reviewing the answers so they reflected the meeting discussion.

The net effect was that skeptical employees (most of them) felt they were heard and got answers to many of their concerns.  This doesn’t mean we converted everyone’s opinion, but we did dispel many rumors and dramatically improved the discourse.  People talked more openly about their ideas and even offered some non-anonymous constructive observations.

I should note that this process was less risky because, while things changed, nothing was being eliminated.

Creating a safe, open communication channel can help tamp down the rumor mill but, change isn’t easy*.  Unleash the power of “I don’t know, but I will get back to you” and ditch the in-the-moment flexibility around the message.


* Yeah, I read that book.  I guess it’s appropriate today, but I found it transparent and pedantic.  Maybe this one’s better.  Maybe I’m a cynic.



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