Get your story straight – Communicating Strategy

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The wonder of Woolies – a lesson from the past.

More years ago than I care to mention, and many years before their eventual demise, I was working with the leading value retailer in the UK, good old Woolies – or Woolworth’s to use the name above the door. Our role? To support the new leader in communicating a new strategy to the workforce.

One of the first steps we took was to call a meeting of the ‘top 12’ execs. We asked them to scribble down on Post-Its the five things they believed their business was about, one per Post-It. We then put each Post-It on a wall. Even when we took away the duplicates and near-duplicates, we had 45 top-five things the business was about!

If the top team wasn’t clear, what chance did tens of thousands of employees have, never mind millions of customers? That was the wonder of Woolies!

Woolworth’s no longer exists on the High Street.

So why bother explaining your strategy to your employees? Well, as one straight-talking guru once explained: “You try delivering it without them!”

There are statistics galore showing how a more engaged and aligned workforce deliver better business performance and shareholder return. For example, research by Gallup shows that improving employees’ understanding of their role in delivering success leads to a 22% uplift in productivity and the Institute for Employment Studies report that engaged employees deliver four times more value to an organisation than those who are disengaged.

Employee engagement depends on creating total clarity about what the organization is trying to achieve. Every employee needs to know how they can contribute to success – a line of sight, or golden thread, that runs from frontline day-to-day activity to high-level strategy.

Writing your manifesto

So what are the first steps in the internal communication of your strategy?

We invariably start by helping clients develop a ‘key message control document’ or ‘manifesto’. This should capture, as a minimum, why you want to communicate, what you want to communicate, who needs to know, when by, and how you intend to tell them.

Whatever you call the document, it becomes the source from which all internal communication messages are derived and helps ensure consistency, whoever is talking. Of course, it needs to be fully aligned with external messaging.

The document can be expanded to include where the business has come from, where it is today and where it needs to be in the future. It can highlight the mission, vision and values and, critically, how strategic projects and critical success factors align. But the key is keeping it short and punchy to ensure clear, consistent and compelling messages.

The importance of ‘why’

The importance of the ‘why’ in engagement must never be overlooked – context is key. We find that employees often have a fair idea of content – in other words, ‘what’ they are supposed to do. It’s just that they have no idea why!

This is neatly illustrated by John Rosling in More Money, More Time, Less Stress. He describes ‘context’ as the wood and ‘content’ as the trees. We come across a lot of trees in corporate communication and a hell of a lot less woods. Little wonder the familiar saying “Can’t see the wood for the trees” is heard so often in corporate life.

As Sun Tzu put it in The Art of War: “Tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat.”

The effect of a good ‘manifesto’ can be profound, and occasionally uncomfortable. They force leadership teams to be clear about their ambitions for the organisation. Sometimes, people realise their pet project no longer has a place. They can also flush out ridiculous volumes of strategic projects. We once saw 127 in a business of 8,000 souls. How can any business deliver 127 strategic projects while successfully delivering business as usual?

We create these ‘manifesto’ documents via structured interviews with the leadership team and insist they are signed off at board level.

But leadership key messages are just one side of the equation; the other is what staff are actually talking about! More on that in my next blog and more on why traditional communication planning often totally misses the point even while giving an illusion of control.

For now it might be worth testing how much clarity there is in your organisation about your top five messages. You don’t want to end up like the wonder of Woolies.

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