On Strategy communication synthesizes three tools, the Action Equation, the People Channel, and the Conversation Platform, into a clear three-step process for promoting business communication. These steps include:
- Clarify the goals, strategy, and relevance of the company’s plans through the Action Equation.
- Prepare the People Channel by training leaders throughout the organization.
- Use the People Channel to communicate the Action Equation through the Conversation Platform.
Step 1: Clarify Goals, Strategy, and Relevance with the Action Equation (“Know + Feel = Do”)
Management must first determine where the company is headed and what employees must do, know, and feel in order for the organization to get there. Matha and Boehm have created an equation known as the Action Equation (Know + Feel = Do) to help leaders specifically define all three of these aspects.
The “Do” portion of the Action Equation encourages leaders to distill their company goals into two concise, simply worded directives for employees: what the company needs to accomplish, and what is needed from each employee to achieve a successful outcome. The “Know” component emphasizes the need for employees to understand the rationale behind their organization’s goals and strategies in order for them to fully commit to the effort. The “Feel” aspect of the Action Equation helps leaders identify what motivates their workers to perform well and connects that motivation to the achievement of the company’s larger goals. Each part of the Action Equation must be thoroughly analyzed by management before effective On Strategy communication begins.
Do: To begin using the Action Equation, leaders must first clearly define the company’s “Do” goals in five hundred words or less. These goals must be actionable and specific enough for all to understand the actions required. The goals must include the company’s nonnegotiable values – for example, safety or ethical considerations – as a major tenet. They must also be detailed enough so that workers do not wonder which of two values, such as quality or production volume, is more important. The goals must line up with the company’s actions: if a company states employee training is a priority, the money and time spent on this training should be evident.
Four questions can help an organization focus its goal-making in the “Do” stage:
- What “critical few” goals must be achieved?
- What company nonnegotiable values must be protected in the long-term?
- How, specifically, can these goals be achieved?
- Does each proposed action support the achievement of the overall goal?
Know: For employees to buy into the “Do” goals, they need to know the reasoning – the “why” – behind the goals and the company’s overall strategy. They need to know how this strategy, and their personal role in that strategy, affects their place in the business. Management can help workers gain an understanding of the reasoning behind business strategy in a number of ways. The four most important factors that affect business goals and strategy are (1) competition, (2) societal issues, (3) trends in the industry, and (4) changing customer wants and needs.
Companies which are experiencing competition within their industry must be certain that their employees understand how and why this competition affects their individual jobs. Employees will be much more receptive to changes in the workplace or shifts in company goals due to societal, industry, or consumer pressures if they have been told about the competitive problem.
Although everyone in an organization should have a basic knowledge of the reasons behind their company’s strategy, it is essential for all of the organization’s leaders – from top to bottom – to know this strategy. In addition, employees in certain parts of the business may need to have more detailed information about the reasons behind strategic business decisions if their specific area of work deals with work directly affected by the company’s goals.
Feel: Clarifying a company’s goals, strategy, and relevance is a meaningless exercise for leaders unless they take into account the workers’ feelings – i.e. why they are motivated to do what they do. Matha and Boehm identify ten main workplace motivators:
- The company’s purpose
- The company’s products
- The customers
- The company’s stature or reputation
- The team’s cohesion
- The contribution they can make as an individual
- The substance of the work
- The sense of accomplishment
- The feeling of belonging
- The company’s contribution to the community
It is imperative that management determines the main motivating factors driving their employees. The best methods of uncovering the source of motivational triggers are (1) discussion groups at various levels in the organization, and (2) specialized employee surveys. Of the two, discussion groups yield excellent results while being less expensive and requiring less time.
Discussion groups resemble focus groups, but are a less formal way of gathering information about employee thoughts and feelings. The most effective discussion groups use an unbiased third-party facilitator from outside the organization for separate groups of, ideally, five to seven people each. Discussion groups have one goal – to encourage employees to talk openly. The workers should be allowed to talk about a wide range of topics, even to talk off-topic; an effective facilitator will help guide the conversation and listen for overall themes.
Step 2: Prepare the People Channel to Communicate
After leadership defines the company’s Action Equation, the next step is to package that information in a manner that can be remembered easily and transmitted to employees by the People Channel, the chain of managers and supervisors throughout the business.
The personal, conversation-driven exchange is the essence of the People Channel. Effective communication between a supervisor and a worker does not consist of a “passive cascade” of information from on high, and instead should be an active interchange. Because workers prefer to receive information about upcoming changes, strategy, and problems at work from their frontline supervisors and managers, the participation of these leaders is essential to achieving company goals. If there is a discrepancy between what the company CEO and an employee’s immediate manager says, the word of the manager, whom workers see and speak to on a daily basis, will have the largest impact.
People remember short conversations better than extended lectures, and research conducted by Princeton Professor George Miller indicates that humans retain information better when it is presented in sets of five. Retention is further enhanced if the chunks of information are related in a narrative-type fashion. The People Channel maximizes this information about memory through a communication tool known as the Conversation Platform, a five-point “story” that pulls together the basic parts of a company’s Action Equation into a conversation-facilitator about company strategy.
The Conversation Platform consists of three parts:
- The core message. This is the main theme, strategy, or issue that the company’s management wants to communicate. It defines what employees need to do and why they need to do it.
- Four supporting building blocks. These four concepts provide either a concise set of actions that management needs in order to deliver its strategy or the rationale behind the position or philosophy of the business.
- Supporting concepts and proof points. These are the specific points that bolster, prove, and connect the four actions or explanations management advocates.
All parts of the Conversation Platform must be articulated in plain, everyday language, and must be conveyed in spur-of-the-moment interactions between leaders and employees.
Preparing the People Channel
For the Conversation Platform to change the minds of employees requires aligning all leaders within the organization behind it. Top leaders should begin by sharing the company’s Action Equation and a prototype Conversation Platform with other high-level leaders or managers. A third party facilitator should be hired to determine if all the leaders understand and agree with these two documents. The facilitator can also help uncover any employee beliefs that may prevent the company’s strategy from succeeding. They can then provide the leader with a Situation Snapshot, a short summary of the main issues brought up during these initial leader discussions.
The next step in aligning the organization’s top leaders is to use the consider-dialogue-solve (CDS) framework to discuss disagreements and concerns about the proposed strategy or philosophy. The CDS framework provides a way for the team to thoughtfully consider problems and to come to true, not merely surface, agreement. The three steps in the CDS framework are:
- Consider: In this first step, team members spend time thinking and talking about their perspective on the Action Equation and Conversation Platform before engaging in formal team meetings.
- Dialogue: Dialogue takes place in the first portion of the team meeting and focuses exclusively on discussing the information and issues involved. During this step, no problem-solving should be discussed.
- Solve: In this final portion of the team meeting, the group should discuss possible solutions to problems that surfaced in the Dialogue portion of the CDS framework and decide on the most effective solutions.
After the organization’s top leaders are aligned, the Conversation Platform needs to be tested with the next layer of managers and supervisors. The most effective test at this level is the “red face” test. The “red face” test can be conducted simply by a facilitator or leader explaining the Conversation Platform to a mid-level or frontline supervisor. If the supervisor becomes angry or embarrassed by what they hear, the Conversation Platform needs some work. The “red face” test can show if upper-level management is out of touch with the language and concerns of employees and helps align frontline managers.
Informal leaders, including influential line employees, receptionists, Union stewards, should also be engaged in the strategy. They are often some of the most respected individuals in an organization. Informal leaders can be identified by asking employees at every level of the organization who they go to for reliable inside information.
Once all leaders within the People Channel, whether formal or informal, have been aligned behind the Conversation Platform, they must next receive On Strategy communication training. Ideally, the company’s top leader would lead the On Strategy training for other high-level leaders, and then those leaders would train the next level. This pattern should be repeated down throughout the entire organization.
On Strategy communication training should take about two to three hours and should cover six separate areas, in order: expectations about communication, the basic elements of the Conversation Platform, the specifics of the company’s Conversation Platform, how to use the platform, which processes and tools will be used to support leaders as they communicate strategy to employees, and feedback.
In the initial part of the training session, the leaders should explain how effective communication and results are related and why leadership participation throughout the organization is essential. After explaining the conversation platform, the training should move to giving leaders an opportunity to role-play using the Conversation Platform in informal interactions.
Once the leaders in the People Channel are trained, they must be kept regularly updated with the information they will need in order to be a reliable and strategy-aligned leader for frontline employees. Keeping managers and supervisors in the loop can be as simple as holding regular update meetings, circulating management emails, or scheduling conference calls. The best method is to hold periodic meetings for members of the People Channel, then following up what was discussed in that meeting with a summarizing Q & A document.
The People Channel must not be filled with useless babble. It should be focused on transmitting the issues, changes, or events which leadership needs employees to discuss, such as
- Information about the organization’s progress measured against the stated goals
- New leadership decisions
- Announcements of significant changes in personnel
- Customer or product-related issues
- Business news, events, and public announcements
- Direct information about rumors circulating around the organization
Leaders can test whether a particular item of information is worth putting into the People Channel by asking one or more of the Channel’s informal leaders their opinion.
Some leaders have problems using the People Channel effectively. They may inadvertently dominate or intimidate employees during strategy conversations, or place such a strong focus on problem-solving that they discourage employees from fully discussing issues. The most effective way to deal with or prevent these problems is to provide interpersonal skills training and coaching to teach leaders, managers, and supervisors how to establish rapport with co-workers, listen actively, and encourage an environment of open discussion.
If leaders are still struggling, they should be paired with managers and supervisors that have strong interpersonal and communication skills.
Step 3: Use the People Channel to Communicate
Once the People Channel is established and trained, it is time to begin driving conversations about strategy up and down the organization. The communication in the People Channel must be consistently encouraged by high-level leaders and must be supported by a number of company-wide processes and tools known as communication vehicles.
There are two types of communication vehicles: traditional and operating. Traditional communication vehicles include company newsletters, town hall meetings, videos, posters, paycheck stuffers, tent cards, and the company’s intranet site. Operating communication vehicles include regular meetings, operating reviews, and documents focused on reporting. Both traditional and operating communication vehicles are powerful tools that can be used to emphasize and encourage employee discussion about company strategy. However, those communication vehicles must not grow to take the place of the personal conversations that drive true On Strategy communication.
There are three ways to maximize and govern an organization’s communication vehicles:
- Create a steady, effective “drumbeat” of communication with the communication vehicles
- Use the communication vehicles for short-term “campaigns”
- Utilize the company’s communications department and outside resources Creating a steady drumbeat of communication involves constantly reaffirming the precepts of the organization’s Conversation Platform in the minds of employees. Traditional communication vehicles – from emails to posters to newsletters – should be interesting enough to generate conversation and focus attention exclusively on strategy. Operating communication vehicles should be used to promote the company’s strategy by always being presented in the context of the Conversation Platform. Reports and meetings should each directly address the core message and the four supporting building blocks of the Conversation Platform by pointing out, at every opportunity, how each aspect relates to the strategy. Reports can include summary charts on the first page that show how the company is progressing towards its strategic goals; training meetings can begin with a word on how training supports the business’ strategy. It is important to eliminate babble during this drumbeat; both the company’s Conversation Platform and the Action Equation should be used to filter out information which does not pertain directly to what employees need to know, feel, and do with regards to the company strategy.
Running short-term campaigns is an effective way for leadership to communicate more intensely about specific topics. A company could choose to run an On Strategy campaign for many reasons: to introduce their employees to new brands and products; to introduce leadership conferences or executive presentations; to celebrate employees or even prepare employees for challenging news such as upcoming layoffs; to build excitement and interest in training programs.
Utilizing communication departments and outside resources may also help maximize a company’s communication vehicles. Many organizations have communication professionals available to them who may focus on either the strategic aspects of communication or on tactical aspects, with their sole focus increasing communication overall. Both are useful, but the authors believe that communication professionals who focus on strategy are more effective to achieving business goals in the long run.
Four steps can help develop the strategic bias of any communication department:
- Place managers and supervisors with certain strengths in leadership positions within the communication department: These strengths include strong business acumen, a history of initiative in the workplace, common sense, interpersonal skills, a positive attitude, an ability to speak clearly and easily with executives, comfort with risk taking, strong skills as a facilitator, and a passion for the job.
- Focus the communication department goals on company strategy, not communication as an end in itself: More creative and practical thinking will result with both leaders and communication specialists driving towards the same goals.
- Involve communication professionals in the process, preferably when the organization’s strategic goals are still being determined: They will be able to inform leadership of a number of employee concerns that may not be fully understood otherwise. Early involvement will also make them more effective at later stages of strategy communication.
- At least one communication professional should be a full member of the larger strategy-planning group: Avoid the tendency to use the communication department as a service resource – their function should be to work hand-in-hand with leadership to promote strategy communication.