Now step in the brown stuff – Communicating Strategy II

Muddy boots

How sounding boards can help cut through the ‘corporate crap’…

At the turn of the millennium, I was helping a major utility provider test the extent to which their field-based workforce understood the business strategy. What better way to find out than to join some of their engineers in the field and interview them face-to-face? So I did.

A few weeks later, I was able to triumphantly report to the board that their field-based workforce did indeed understand the strategy and were actively engaged in delivering it. The problem was the strategy they were implementing was three strategies ago and years out of date!

It struck me then, and it still does today, that however well thought through your messages are, you are rarely communicating them in a vacuum. There are all too few ‘green field’ sites in terms of communication; more often your people have already formed opinions and have well-entrenched preconceived notions. It is much more likely that you are communicating in a muddy field – and sometimes that brown stuff isn’t mud!

So what to do? Well, my strong recommendation is that you deliberately step in the brown stuff.

In an earlier blog, I spoke of the importance of getting your story straight to help create clear, consistent and compelling messages throughout your organisation. But if what you are talking about as a leader bears no relation to what people are actually talking about on the ground, it will carry little weight and be seen as irrelevant.

To effectively communicate your messages, you need to know the ‘hot topics’ among the workforce and act to address both agendas.

Establishing a sounding board

One way to do this is to create a sounding board – a representative group of people who are comfortable expressing their views, positive or otherwise, and are capable of helping you evolve your messages to meet the needs of the audiences they represent.

These people might meet physically or virtually. Either way, their knowledge of ‘life in the field’ is invaluable and may well help you avoid slipping on something nasty – such as reusing a conference theme associated with an earlier unsuccessful leader, pursuing a metaphor that doesn’t work for the audience or using too much jargon.

Such a group saved my bacon many years ago when they helped me research the top five things staff were talking about in the run-up to a major conference. We compared their feedback to the leaders’ top five messages. The overlap was zero. But with the help of the sounding board, we found common ground and terrific ways to get messages across, meeting the needs of all parties.

You could even argue that some of the sounding board members had such influence, real ‘Bill Gold’ characters, that they did a fair bit of the communication for us before the conference even started.

Sounding board tips and techniques

Since then, we’ve taken the opportunity to provide an ‘induction’ experience for sounding board members – providing them with an overview of their role and equipping them with some communication skills to help them be more successful in their day jobs as well as in their sounding board role.

We also recommend rotating membership of the sounding board to increase the number of colleagues who can help people, at all levels, to ‘get it.’ The idea is that everyone either knows someone who is a sounding board member, or knows someone who knows someone who is.

We publicise the contribution sounding board members make in all the internal channels, making real heroes of them.

Of course, the contribution the sounding board can make is as powerful as your imagination or your desire to be collaborative. They can add enormous value to ensuring that all of your beautiful ‘award winning’ communication channels actually contain meaningful and relevant content.

I get so cross when I see so called ‘communications strategies’ which are nothing more than a year planner showing when each internal channel will be published. Grrr! I much prefer to build a plan that says, by date X, audience Y will need to understand and be able to act upon message Z. Then use the sounding board to help identify what channels will work best to achieve this and when to deploy them and to advise you on some meaningful content.

Don’t be surprised by the remarkable creativity sounding board members can bring to developing communications. More on that subject in future blogs on communicating your strategy.

And of course you can use the sounding board to test the extent to which your strategy is genuinely understood by staff.

So go on, I dare you; really collaborate with the workforce, create a sounding board, deliberately step in the brown stuff, and see if you’ve cut through the ‘corporate crap’ and got your strategy across.

Other posts on communicating strategy: