17 June 2009 • 11:33 am

Talking about Strategy

An excellent predictor of the effectiveness of the change program in any organization is how that organization’s members talk about strategy. Leaders engaging in a change program tend to spend far more energy in developing their strategy than they do in ensuring that the message of strategy is effectively communicated throughout the organization. This isn’t surprising: talking about strategy doesn’t come naturally, but it is essential to the success of the change program.

Of course, before any leadership team can begin talking about its strategy, the team must be in agreement about the strategy’s content. When facilitating strategy development session, I try to end the session by having one or more of the leaders stand up and present the strategy to the rest of the team in a brief narrative. There is no script, and the first few presentations may be clumsy or unclear as leaders search for their own words to convey strategic objectives, and the cause-and-effect relationships that link them. When things don’t quite make sense, small tweaks to the strategy message may result. Leaders quickly build upon each other’s presentations to deliver a smooth and compelling story about the strategy.

What happens next is crucial. Leaders must overcome any instinct they have to keep the newly-hatched strategy under wraps. Driving change requires that each member of the organization not only understand the destination, but the rationale, and the path they are expected to take. In short they must know where they are going, why they are expected to go there, and how they are going to get there. And the communication cannot be passive. Posters, e-mail, newsletters, etc., may be used to reinforce the strategy message, but cannot be seen as the primary way to get the word out.

Of great importance to the communication plan is how each member of a the audience first experiences the strategy message. This strategy map or other vehicle does not speak for itself; it requires patience and thoughtful and thorough presentation by a credible messenger. An easy way to think about this is the first time one sees a strategy message, it should be vertical; projected on a screen so that someone in the know can point to it while telling the story of strategy.

Listen, Learn, and then Teach

The first presentation of strategy need not go into great detail, but should be focused on grabbing audience members and increasing their appetite for a richer understanding of the strategy message. If a strategy map is being used, it is wise to start with its structure (perspectives and themes), before diving into the detailed strategic objectives. This may be done in a large group setting, but should be followed soon by a deeper discussion of the strategy in a setting designed to engage audience members in a dialog with their leaders. This second experience of the strategy enables audience members to internalize the meaning of the strategy, and begin to understand it’s relevance and meaning to them.

A great way to expand the communication process is to increase the number of messengers. I have facilitated communication kick-off meetings in which the organization’s leadership team first presents the strategy to senior and middle managers, and then, in small-group breakout session, each manager is then asked to stand up and present the strategy as well. In a single workshop session, every one of those attending goes from hearing the strategy for the first time to being able to comfortably present it to others. They become agents of change! As one of my favorite clients summed it up: First you listen, then you learn, and then you teach.

Strategy Communication is an Ongoing Process

Enabling an army of messengers to present the strategy is only the first step in creating an ongoing program of strategy communication. Once the strategy message itself has been socialized across the organization, the leadership can then credibly introduce and promote the performance measures that will motivate the necessary behaviors, and provide feedback about progress. Measurement provides the basis for periodically revisiting the strategy message itself, and keeping the change agenda ‘front of mind’ among the organization’s members.

One of my client’s leadership teams agreed to start every internal meeting with a brief look at their strategy map, to ask the question out loud, “Which of our strategic objectives is being served by this meeting?” Not only did the leaders integrate the language of strategy into everyday interactions with their teams, but the approach resulted in more focused meetings. It was a great way to make the change program part of everyone’s job in the organization.

Think about your organization. Can you, and everyone around you, summarize the strategy? Are they saying the same things? How often do leaders reinforce the message of strategy and change? Is the change agenda central to everyone’s thinking, or is it viewed as simply a passing fancy of management? How long has it been since you’ve attended a meeting devoted only to strategy? Your answers may cause you to revisit your strategy communications process.

Please share your own experiences below.

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