Using the 5-step COMMS model for better outcomes – IABC Webinar

I am excited to be presenting to the IABC member community a webinar on the fundamentals of the COMMS plan model. This 60-minute session provides an introduction to how the model can be used to focus on outcomes rather than tactics when it comes to communication planning and incorporates the seven essential elements of an effective communication plan.

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IABC members are able to view a playback of the session on the IABC Professional Development portal.

3 tools and an essential skill to help managers communicate better

Three tools and an essential skill for manager communication

Organisations ask a lot of their operational and line managers. The day-to-day administration of a team while also focusing on delivering business results can be overwhelming for even experienced operational managers. Functional areas such as finance, human resources, property and procurement regularly decentralise activities to people leaders or provide self-service options that also shifts the action to the manager.  

It becomes apparent why managers can struggle in their communication efforts. An employee’s immediate manager has a significant impact on their experience of the organisation they work for. Across a range of communication audits and studies, ‘immediate manager’ is cited as a preferred source of information, and yet the performance of managers is also cited as a challenge.

It’s no surprise then that so many engagement or communication surveys show that manager communication is not meeting employee needs or expectations. Meanwhile, in research across a wide variety of industries and organisations, line managers in organisations have a consistent request:

Make it simpler for me.

Three tools and an essential skill

There are three simple tools that people managers can adopt that will add to their communication competence and increase their effectiveness in communicating with not only their teams but other parts of their organisation and their stakeholders.

“For us this means…”

Being able to complete a very specific sentence is an important capability for line managers in any organisation. That sentence starts with “For us, this means…”

Organisations are complex. It’s almost a cliche to state that, but it remains an unavoidable truism as the nature of work continues to shift and organisations continue to try and deliver their outcomes in perpetually changing circumstances.

The days of control and command where a manager could know everything that was important to their team are gone.

Given this fact, the role of the manager shifts from being the keeper of knowledge to the provider of context. Providing managers with enough information, giving them time to digest and internalise change, and equipping them to translate priorities for their business area equips them to fulfil their role as a credible source for the team and empowers them to do it in an authentic way.

“For us this means…” is the bridge between the universal messages being driven by the CEO or Executive team, or a corporate communication function, and delivering consistent yet relevant information to the parts of the organisation where change actually occurs.

“Elbows out”

Think about how we usually experience the people we work with. We see them at their most normal as they talk to us day to day about their work or their weekend. We see their natural body language. Regardless of whether they are extroverts, introverts or somewhere in between, we can observe their authentic style.

Now think about what usually happens for managers when there is a substantial change they are required to support. They are provided dot points, speaking notes, briefing packs or a script from the project or human resources or a change team. And then they are asked to deliver those messages. For some, this takes the form of holding the script, and ‘seizing up’ as they are constrained in their communication style. What we see is they suddenly become “elbows-in” communicators as they clutch the script in front of them and lose their natural style.

Investing in managers’ communication competence to enable them to be “elbows out” communicators, comfortable to deliver the essence of a message while not being restricted to a script that forces them to sound inauthentic delivers results in terms of credibility and equips them to be the trusted source that their employees and team members want them to be.

Think before you speak

Managers face time pressures and unfortunately too often this translates into a lack of preparation for communication. Planning communication does not need to be difficult or time-consuming. Five simple questions can help a manager prepare for any kind of communication activity. It might be the one to one meeting they are having with a team member, or it might be the monthly all-hands meeting; asking themselves the following five questions to prepare can help them hit the mark on their message and most importantly, focus on the outcome of the communication.

What is the context of this communication: what is going on here, what has already happened,  and how does that affect what I want to happen?

What outcome am I hoping for and what will that look like?

What message does that individual, team, partner, customer, or stakeholder need in order to move them towards that outcome?

Given the context, the message and the desired outcome, what is the most effective method for this communication? Is this something that needs to be communicated face-to-face?

What is required to support this communication activity to ensure the outcomes are achieved? This might be selecting the right place and time, determining what additional information is required, involving others in creating the communication or ensuring there is a feedback process.

It is no coincidence that those considerations form the abbreviation COMMS:

  • Context
  • Outcome
  • Message
  • Method
  • Support

(More information on applying the COMMS planning approach is available freely under a Creative Commons license.)

While simple on the surface, applying these three skills consistently can transform the quality of manager communication.

Listening is the special sauce that brings it all together

Binding these three skills together is a manager’s ability to listen deeply. This includes listening to what the organisation requires them to achieve, as well as listening to what their team needs in order to deliver.

At a time when organisations continue to struggle to engage employees, equipping managers to be effective communicators has a direct benefit and is far from a ‘soft skill’. Investing in developing manager capability in these four areas provides an advantage in terms of reputation, risk, productivity and engagement.

Building the planning habit

It’s a decade since journalist and trend-spotter Malcolm Gladwell introduced us to the idea of the 10000-hour rule in his book Outliers: The Story of Success. Gladwell contended that amongst a range of factors practice is the most common denominator in outstanding success. While even Gladwell himself acknowledges this is an oversimplification, the principle applies to many fields including communication management.

One challenge communicators describe is getting into the practice of effective communication planning. This topic comes up frequently in communication training that I facilitate, both at the level of emerging practitioners and for more senior communicators. “Our organisation just wants the outcome, they don’t value the planning.” Or, “We have to have a plan for everything but then it goes into the drawer”. The approach for many practitioners is to find an example of a plan that has worked and to try to adopt that into their organisation.

The risk with this ‘template-led’ approach to communication planning is that frequently a communication plan documents an approach but does not display the thinking that has been applied to ensure that approach is right for that environment.

 

FindReplaceCommsPlan

Too often, communication plans are based on ‘here’s one we prepared earlier’ rather than developed through a consistent process.

Building the communication planning habit

It’s not just Malcolm Gladwell who encourages the idea of practice to achieve mastery. Across fields as diverse as science, the performing arts, personal fitness and writing – whether to achieve greatness or for pure enjoyment – habit-building is an important foundation.

For communicators, treating every communication, regardless of scale or of how ‘business as usual’ it might seem, as an opportunity to build the planning habit provides a number of benefits.

  • Challenging our ‘first thinking’. While many communication decisions are based on sound instinct and applied experience, testing our thinking each time can help challenge assumptions.
  • Building awareness of the function. While it can be rewarding to have the skills to improve communication, showing how the process works demonstrates to stakeholders that communication planning is a professional process, not just an intuitive talent.
  • Amplifying capability. By showing others how something is done, we do not diminish our own capability as communicators. Rather, we grow the skills across our organisations or client groups. In contemporary organisations, everybody is a communicator. Giving people a process to challenge their own thinking is a valuable contribution to improving communication across the board.
  • We get better. Using a consistent approach allows for communicator’s creativity to come to the fore in the way that solutions are developed in response to the needs and outcomes required.

The COMMS Planning approach provides a simple five steps that can be applied to every communication activity to challenge ‘first thoughts’ and helping get better outcomes from your efforts.

A version of this article first appeared on LinkedIn.

7 Essential Communication Plan Success Factors

Communication planning does not have to be difficult. In the first in a series of simple checklists and tools from the Meaning Business COMMS Plan toolkit, here are seven essential factors for an effective plan.

THE 7 ESSENTIAL COMMUNICATION PLAN SUCCESS FACTORS

Thank you and see you in 2018

Thanks to all the wonderful clients, collaborators, partners, and communicators for a wonderful year in 2018. Meaning Business will be taking a little break from 20 December until 2 January. See you next year.

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No such thing as BAU: how can internal communication professionals manage in changing times?

Earlier this year I was working with a Head of Communications in a government agency that has undergone significant structural transformation and operational change over the past two years.

She was working on deepening the engagement between leaders and employees in different areas and had asked for some advice on how to ensure communication was flowing two ways. I asked, “What business as usual channels do you rely on today?”

“We don’t use the term BAU any longer. Transformation is going to continue. Change is business as usual and we now adopt a continuous improvement approach” she said.

It was a moment of absolute clarity for me. How many of us think of ‘BAU’ communication as distinct from the projects and initiatives that come through the door, or into the inbox.

BAU is dead. What now?

As part of the IC Kollectif IC In 2017 Project, I had some thoughts at the start of the year about how communicators can work with other areas to learn, innovate and adapt. But this realisation, half way through the year, made me consider what communicators can do in times of perpetual change, not just to service their organisations, but to ready themselves for ‘no more BAU’.

Read my full response on the IC Kollectif IC In 2017 Project.

  • Strength in shared practices. Continue to talk about what works, not just with other communicators, but across disciplines. Ask the questions like “why did this work in this environment?” But don’t just ask communicators. Ask marketers, change managers, leaders and innovators.
  • Invest in development. Don’t wait for your company to value you. Skill up, both communication skills and non-traditional skills: design thinking, user experience and business acumen.
  • Change what you can. Look for the opportunities to add the value that our profession can deliver. Be brave.  
  • “It’s not me, it’s you.” Know when to stop pushing the rock uphill. There are amazing organisations that foster and grow innovation. If yours is not one of them, find one that is.
  • Keep the faith. As a communicator, a great day at the office or in the field is a humbling thing. Bank those experiences as a reminder of why great internal communication matters.

 

 

What does a great day in the office or the field look like?

When did your communication activity lead to an outcome that furthered the organisation, the employees and the leaders? Creating connection, improving performance, perhaps just a moment of insight quoted back to you. Share what your ‘great day in the office’ looks like below.

A Time Of Transition

A global perspective on the state of internal communication

IC Kollectif has launched a unique addition to the internal communication canon. The ebook, Disrupting the Function of IC, A Global Perspective featuring contributions from 30 global internal communication leaders.

What is impressive is the degree to which editor Lise Michaud has facilitated diversity in the conversation about practice. This is truly a global communication guide. With voluntary contributors from every region, the guide has captured the differences in the current state of how practitioners need to respond to their organisations.

Diversity brings difference, and a particularly exciting aspect of the project is the range of different opinions. There are few places (outside Twitter) where there is such representation of views and practices that span all the IC practitioner tribes; IABC, Global Alliance, CIPR amongst others.

There are divergent views on how to approach the ongoing symbiosis between IC and technology, on engagement, on the most important skills and the biggest challenges. Communication and communications.

Some of the common themes include:

  • Change is constant, so skills and experiences in responding to changing environments continues to be essential for the communicators.
  • Technology has been and will continue to be a factor for communication practice.
  • The need for the profession to hold the line in terms of ethical practice, dialogue and creating accountability.
  • Liam Fitzpatrick’s key takeaway stands out for me as the common sense that is far from common – stop looking for ‘the next big thing’ and focus on the outcomes.

I feel privileged to be in the same company as the other contributors and applaud all the authors for bringing current and new thinking to one place.

Let the conversations begin!

The 222 page ebook can be downloaded from IC Kollectif (free subscription required for download).

http://www.ickollectif.com/single-post/2017/06/11/Disrupting-the-Function-of-IC—A-Global-Perspective

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Story spotting: listening for stories in your organisation

Everyone is a storyteller. Because we are human. We tell our friends and families what happened at work. We tell our colleagues what happened on the way to work. We tell stories.

And we make sense through stories. We are hardwired for it.

But not everyone is a natural Storyteller.

Here are three resources that start to help identify and shape the stories you encounter in organisations.

Once. Then. Then. The story spine.

A couple of years ago, Pixar’s 22 rules for storytelling

The story spine, Kenn Adams’ definition has been used by Pixar and Disney.

 

The Moth’s 8 Tips

The Moth is a not-for-profit foundation committed to the development of art and craft of storytelling. Amongst their many resources for improving oral storytelling, including videos and podcasts, they have a simple list of 8 tips.  These include:

  • No essays
  • Start in the action
  • Have some stakes

Stakes are essential in live storytelling.  What do you stand to gain or lose? Why is what happens in the story important to you? If you can’t answer this, then think of a different story. A story without stakes is an essay and is best experienced on the page, not the stage.

Anecdote’s Spotting Oral Stories Infographic

The clever folk at Anecdote have created a useful guide to recognising stories within an organisation.

The following graphic has been created by http://www.anecdote.com

Spotting Oral Stories

 

Cutting through with simple communication plans

 

Competition for attention

In the scramble to produce interesting content and to ‘cut through’ the noise, organisations are constantly searching for more ways to create colourful tactics, to have brands that shine, and to amplify their message.

The ‘creativity’ side of communication is booming. But with such a fierce battle for audience attention, even the most carefully crafted message or clever visual can fail to connect.

The result is that scarce, hard-won resources are spent on communication that looks or sounds great, but that doesn’t achieve the outcomes required.

One of the many strengths of the Gold Quill process (and a point of difference between GQ and some other award programs) is that it evaluates the end to end communication process: not only the tactics produced, but also the degree they are suited to the situation; and it requires that results can be demonstrated.

Essential components for a communication plan that delivers results

Communication plans can take many forms, but having reviewed hundreds, those that stand out always:

  • Identify the right problem before thinking about tactics.
  • Demonstrate deep understanding of stakeholders and audiences based on research.
  • Set goals and objectives that are SMART.
  • Ensure outcome measures are clear and don’t overly rely on measuring outputs.
  • Create solutions – combinations of tactics and execution – that take into account the context, the need and the audience.
  • Deliver in partnership with the owner of the business need.
  • Measure as they go.

The danger with “Here’s one that we prepared earlier”

As a communication advisor, I’m often asked for a template or example of a communication plan or tactic that can be re-used in a new environment. While models, canvases and templates are helpful, the value they provide is in the adaptation to the current situation and context.

When I developed the shorter COMMS Plan, the focus was on a process for communication planning that helped communicators consider the specifics of the current situation – regardless of the type of organisation. The first step in the process is CONTEXT for a reason.

One of the exciting developments in communication planning is an increased use of design thinking. Using a clear process to ensure communication meets the need can lead to better tactics, often created in consultation or partnership with the intended audiences.

The basics of good communication remain universal: right message, right audience, right method.

That doesn’t mean shouting louder, it means working smarter.

By considering context, outcomes, messages, methods and support before jumping in to solutions and cool tactics, communication can have the substance to support the shine.

A version of this article first appeared on LinkedIn Pulse.

Rethinking strategy for changing times

Strap yourself in, it’s going to get fast

If a week is a long time in politics, three years is an eternity in business. The speed of technological, social, political and economic change is rapid, and as is illustrated by global events such as Brexit, sometimes unpredictable. Decisions made by global leaders can impact whole industries with little notice and less consultation.

Traditional strategic plans for corporations are blueprints for development over a three- to five-year time frame. Let’s do a tiny experiment in time travel. If you got into a room with your colleagues at the start of 2013 to work on a three- to five-year strategy for your business, you did so making assumptions about the trends that would shape your markets, your access to labor, your competition.

Now, look around at the business environment. How many of those priorities, drivers and forces remain in place today? Disruption and seismic shifts are the new normal. The forces that require a strategic response today are, for many industries or sectors, already significantly different to what had been anticipated even three years ago.

How can communicators establish a strategic response to changing times?

  • Become part of the planning team
  • Treat strategy as a process, not a product
  • No more set and forget
  • Understand the relationship between strategy and bottom line

Organizations exist for a purpose, and for the majority, that purpose is financial return. The process of strategic planning provides direction for all parts of an organization to align to deliver on the purpose, through building capability, responding to external factors, mitigating issues and risks and focusing effort. The opportunity for communication is to contribute to the business outcome through the tools and capabilities of our profession.

This is an extract from my article for Communication World, Rethinking Strategic Communication for Changing Times – Communication World in the February edition of Communication World.