Want to take your people on a journey? Don’t forget the strat nav!

Compass

For your organisation to execute its strategy, employees need a clear destination and a route map to follow.

When facilitating conferences, I sometimes start with an icebreaker called ‘Point North’. I get everyone in the hall to stand up, close their eyes and, without talking, turn round three times on the spot. With their eyes still closed, I get them all to point North. Then I ask them to open their eyes. The inevitable result is a forest of arms pointing in multiple directions.

This little exercise serves to make the very simple point that, without adequate information, in this case, visual or auditory sensory input, it’s easy to get confused about where we’re meant to be going.

It’s something that applies to many large organisations – thousands of people are no doubt working very hard, yet their efforts are often not focused on what’s really important for the organisation’s success. ‘Point North’ sets the stage nicely for the work we often get participants to do during a conference to address this problem by setting and agreeing the organisation’s aspirations and goals, creating a common sense of direction and then creating the plan for getting there.

Indeed, that’s a fair summary of the nature of much of Axiom’s work these days. More often than not, we are working with clients who want to bring about major change in their business, often to implement a new corporate strategy. We help people at all levels in the organisation reach a shared understanding of both the destination and the route. It’s something I have recently come to think of as helping organisations navigate the strategic journey they want to take – in short, strat nav.

Paint the Big Picture

One of our favourite ways to achieve this is through our highly successful Big Picture approach. We depict an organisation’s strategy through a large-scale image that provides a visual analogy and supporting narrative for the journey being undertaken. The image shows where the organisation has come from, its current position, where it’s heading and how it’s going to get there. Crucially, it helps employees see where they fit in and how they can contribute to the journey.

In the past, we’ve illustrated company change programmes as missions into space, mountain-climbing expeditions, ambitious construction projects and major sporting events. But there’s always a common theme: a journey from the old ways of working to the new.

The Big Picture is so powerful because images can engage in a way that the written or spoken word may not. Professor Paul Martin Lester of California State University says people remember only 10% of what they hear and 20% of what they read, but 80% of what they see and do. And in this digital age, our reliance on visual stimuli is growing. “We are becoming a visually mediated society,” says Prof Lester. “For many, understanding of the world is being accomplished not through words, but by reading images.” What’s more, images are far more immediate and memorable than documents and presentations. They also work internationally across language barriers.

Once we have a powerful visual metaphor, we then write a supporting narrative about the company’s journey. Here, we are making use of the ancient power of storytelling. Stories have been fundamental to communication throughout human history. Today, neuroscience tells us that, while facts and figures stimulate two regions of the brain, well-crafted stories trigger seven.

Stories grab attention, are more memorable and convincing than simple information, and are much more likely to lead to action. They provide a narrative everyone can buy into and get passionate about and are easily retold.

Charting a course for success

We’ve combined storytelling with visual images in our Big Picture approach for dozens of clients. For Swedish surgical equipment maker Mölnlycke, we developed a campaign that envisaged its strategy as a sailing voyage. The visual analogy we co-created made a compelling case for change and provided a clear view of what success would look like and the challenges that lay ahead year by year.

Mattias Hakeröd, global HR director at Mölnlycke, told us afterwards: “Our people really liked this approach to explaining our strategy. It helped us overcome language and cultural barriers, and now everyone is talking about the strategy at all levels – including those who wouldn’t usually engage.”

Set the direction, provide the route, take people with you on the journey

Of course, the Big Picture is just one possible approach. We’ve just recently finished helping the UK arm of a major global merchant with a simple, pragmatic communication campaign executed against a very demanding timeline to help their people embark on a major two-year change journey. The organisation was announcing a radical new strategy that involved significant investment, merging and closure of branches and a rebrand. For some colleagues, change would be exciting and promising; for others, it would mean disruption and the threat of redundancy.

We worked with the top team to put together a management event, a series of briefings across the company and a range of engaging communication materials to persuade people of the importance of the changes and allay their concerns. At the outset, it was essential that we openly and truthfully gave colleagues the context – the market dynamics that made the changes essential, the long-term aims, the major milestones along the way – as well as helping them work out what it all meant for them at a local, individual, day-to-day level. The feedback we’ve had so far has been very encouraging – employees seem to be buying into the change plan and the approach to communicating it.

Whatever the method, getting everyone to be clear on the destination, engage in the journey and understand the detailed route map – that’s the task for communicators today. So maybe it’s time for you to work out how you’re going to provide a strat nav for your organisation?