Francis Wade | How to close communication gaps for a new corporate strategy
As an executive in a large Jamaican company, how do you ensure that good strategic ideas spark the right conversations between important stakeholders? Too often, these dialogues get trapped at the top or bottom of organisations so that fruitful meetings between leaders and those being led never take place. Sadly, poor corporate results ensue leaving everyone mutually mystified, annoyed and disenchanted.
By contrast, small companies have it easy. In a start-up in which I'm involved, a person with a bright idea is never more than one or two steps away from someone who can implement it. There's lots of opportunities to explore ideas in deep conversations, tearing suggestions apart in order to improve them. Obviously, this can't be done via email, memo or in a speech. These channels just don't get the job done.
If your company employs hundreds or thousands, quick water-cooler or coffee conversations simply don't take place. They take too much work. It's easier to let the status quo remain, along with stubborn, distant feelings. The top-down, one-way communication that remains is stilted, dry and dull. Over time, you'll also see the following three problems crop up.
Problem 1: A key exercise used to spur transformational ideas involves carving out a preferred 20-30 year future for the company. When this exercise is restricted to the top leaders, it becomes a predictable affair. They gravitate to short, comfortable horizons in which plans are limited to merely "The same thing we did last year, plus a bit of difference." Also, they fail to take into account the impact their decisions (and indecisions) have on the next generation of employees. After all, current leaders are close to retirement and won't be around to experience the 20-30 year consequences of steps they failed to take.
Problem 2: Many leaders fall into the trap of treating their younger staff like some die-hard followers of political parties - loyal to the point of stupidity. The result is predictable: the least able (who don't think for themselves) remain in the same jobs while the most capable leave. The departed understand that long term trends are being ignored and question the ability of leaders to incorporate concepts they barely understand. Cloud computing? The mobile Internet? Robotic automation? Artificial Intelligence? Leaders pretend to have a grasp of these concepts, avoiding uncomfortable questions from young employees who should, in their minds, be just following orders.
Problem 3: When there are communication gaps, chosen strategies become confused when leaders try to "cascade" them down the organisation. It's only human nature. By definition, a fresh strategy involves a new course of action. It's a cognitive and behavioural intervention, but many CEO's under-estimate the challenge employees have upon hearing a new strategy for the first time. Whereas the top executive may have considered the new strategy for years, it's folly to expect employees to grasp it after a mere one-hour presentation. It's also crazy to ask them to believe it will work, then act on it with full motivation. Dialogue is required. Sometimes, making the strategy "stick" means encouraging staff to challenge it.
The net result of these problems is that key information and strategies never make their way from the top of your organisation to the bottom, and vice versa. Left to fester, this condition makes the company vulnerable to disruption by smaller, nimble competitors. A typical example? Jamaica's Cable and Wireless in 2001 had leaders who ignored the threat of Digicel, even as many of their own employees knew better. How can your company and other large firms reduce the risk inherent in their size?
1. Offer internal strategy conferences
Conduct an internal symposium in which employees present critical trends and ideas. Demand a high standard of content and use it to shape the firm's strategy. Where necessary, teach employees the complexity lying below the surface via structured learning opportunities.
2. Create long-term brainstorming sessions
In structured workshops, give employees a chance to look 25-30 years ahead to select a preferred future.
3. Conduct research
While companies often rely on outside experts to tell them which direction an industry is heading, motivated employees can often do a great job if given the same time and resources. Their findings may have higher quality as they will be informed by their exposure to daily reality.
When these three activities are performed well, including the right blend of leaders and employees, your company can provide the missing conversations essential to planning and implementing strategy. People at both the top and bottom of the organization benefit from in-depth, dynamic conversations which do a far better job than static, one-way presentations.
- Francis Wade is the author of ‘Perfect Time-Based Productivity’, a keynote speaker and a management consultant. To receive a free document with links to his articles from 2010-2015, send email to firstname.lastname@example.org.