business

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.

Response to ‘Is it time to bin the idea of “Change Management”?’

Employees are human, and their response to change will be driven by that

Employees are human, and their response to change will be driven by that

One of the ironies of change management is that practitioners have the capacity to be resistant to change in their own field.

In this post from Stefan Norrvall from January 2015, there is an argument that it is time to say goodbye to attempting to manage change.

Many change management tools and frameworks seem to come from a view that all change is a top down imposed thing that has to be “sold” to employees or it needs “buy in” from key stakeholders. This just furthers the notion that stakeholder have little input into the change itself and need convincing or manipulation to get into agreement.

Entrenched positions present a problem for all participants in change. Should organisations try to continue to manage change formally, from the top down? The idea is repugnant to Norrval and the #responsiveorg tribe.

Yet we are still not at the stage in most organisations to take away the systems and structures of change that evolved to ensure a balance between participation and deliberative action toward the change outcomes a change program seeks to achieve.

I agree with much of Norrval’s position – change is designed poorly. In so many organisations, change is imposed rather than co-created. Poor strategy leads to poor change management. 

But in the revolution, we need to accept that whether they are the targets of change, or the architects, or the collaborative participants, employees and other organisational agents are human, and their response to the approach to change will be driven first by that.

  • If the context is not clear, people will resist.
  • If the systems and processes of change do not match the scale and nature of change, people will resist.
  • And large scale change (whether an aggregate of small change, or major impacts such as role, location, identity) does have the ability to trigger the human response to loss.

We as change practitioners need to make it simpler – not overly rely on systems and models. But in an effort to be more human in our approach to change we also need to ensure that in replacing ‘change systems’ we don’t simply fail to consider the degree of change required to make this approach a success.

Source: Is it time to bin the idea of “Change Management”?

When to say no to Kotter-style change leadership

The Kotter model of change leadership is excellent for transformational change, but creates problems for communication in organisations when applied to mid-size change. In this extract from the recent webinar ‘The Art of Communication, the Business of Change‘ I explain why.

Audio courtesy of PRIA.

Story wars

Not everything is a story. But ‘story’ is the trend in terms of marketing and digital in particular.

In organisations, there are a few camps in the story wars.

On one side we have the social scientists. In this group we have the behaviourists, the ethnographers, the anthropologists, who consider stories as a way of sense making, and of helping people create meaning (at work and beyond). The humanists. In the workplace, these are the change agents, the organisational psychologists, the culture practitioners.

On the other side we have the marketers. In this group we have the branders, the advertisers, the sales pitch creators. This group understands that stories told well create desires that can be met by products. The sellers. In the workplace, this is the sales and marketing team.

And then we have the creatives. Here are the people who have looked at the craft of story. The writers, illustrators, the performers. The tellers. These practitioners are not limited to one part of an organisation. A leader can be a natural at story performance. A researcher may be adept at finding the story within the data.

Types of storytelling

Daniel Pink tried to bridge these worlds in his book To Sell Is Human. He equates the process of storytelling with the need to create currency for ideas and in terms ‘trade’: we all try to persuade, every day. There is such mixed practice around what stories are and how they are used that frustrations sometimes boil over, as in this slightly NSFW argument by designer Stefan Sagmeister at a conference earlier this year.

Trevor Young, AKA the PR Warrior provides a pragmatic definition of organisational storytelling, the sweet spot between all the definitions in a recent post on this topic.

smart organisations look to storytelling as a way to gain a competitive advantage and use stories to help differentiate their brand in the marketplace; to be successful, these stories – and the perpetuation of them in the community in which they operate – need an organisation’s employees and partners to become involved. Essentially, it becomes a cultural thing.

Many communicators are caught between these worlds, and in the skirmishes. The challenge is to remember that in organisations we communicate for a purpose. Communicators have to find a path between these different forms of sense-making. They have to wear all of the ‘story’ hats and understand the difference between story sharing as culture, storytelling as motivation, and story as information.

Everyone IS a storyteller, because we are human. It is impossible for us not to tell stories. But there is a difference in kind between sharing stories around the contemporary campfire –  the dinner table, the water cooler, and sharing them in a public space (whether that space is real or virtual).

 

Communication isn’t just a step in a process

This is an excerpt from a post on 3 things to remember in LEAN and process communication published on LinkedIn Pulse.

Information is the content. Communication is how we make sense of the content.

Information is the content. Communication is how we make sense of the content.

1. Information is not the same thing as communication

Data about production metrics, safety instructions, operating standards: these are kinds of information. Information needs to be available at the right time to be useful to employees and managers.

However, there is a difference between making information available and communicating. Information is the content. Communication is the way we make sense of the content.

Communication is a human act. It is a two-way cycle. It involves listening. Communicating involves providing explanations about why something is important, and how it is relevant to the employee. Sending an instruction about safety on a poster or email is not the same as talking about why safety is important and listening to employee’s views and ideas.

Read the whole post on LinkedIn.

The 5P Business Case – Part 2

Video is an important part of the communication channel mix for employees, but building the business case can be a challenge. To build the case for including video as part of your overall communication infrastructure, cover these five points.

  1. Pain. Find the right opportunity that is causing pain: what challenges need attention, what change is under way, what results need to shift? Is the pain at the top, or is it your employees who need help?
  2. Partners. Find internal sponsors: who has the greatest stake in addressing this issue? What will they invest to see the situation change?
  3. Potential benefit. Put a price on success: What is the value of addressing this issue?
  4. Pilot. Before a TV series is made, producers invest in a pilot to test the concept. This is a solid approach for internal video. Start small to test capability, appetite, and audience.
  5. Prove. Measure the impact of the initiative to build momentum

In the last post, we covered Pain and Partners. Now lets look at Potential, Pilot and Prove.

POTENTIAL BENEFIT

What is the current situation costing the business? What will solving the problem contribute to the business?

At an enterprise level, doing anything that improves communication pays dividends. Companies with effective communication financially outperform those with ineffective communication. A long-term study has demonstrated this can mean that over a 5 year period, a company with effective communication would return 1.7 times higher shareholder returns.[1]

The same study showed that 70% of highly effective organisations agree that “The use of internal social business/collaboration tools for work-related purposes has a positive impact on employee productivity at my organisation.

In order to build the case, however, it will be necessary to get specific.

By clearly defining the change in knowledge or behaviour, you can calculate a return.

  • Will sales increase with better training? Will the time to learn new products reduce?
  • Will safety improve? Will incidents reduce? What is the current cost? What would an improvement mean in terms of days lost?
  • What is the current cost of all staff town hall meetings?

Not every initiative will have a definite dollar positive outcome. Other organisational outcomes may be valuable too. However, in seeking investment for an initiative, it can be useful to target opportunities where there are both financial and non-financial benefits to demonstrate the result.

In defining the potential benefits, work with your partners from Finance to ensure your calculations are relevant and acceptable in your business.

PILOT

Based on the problem and the potential benefit, where can you start?

By clearly identifying the business outcome a communication activity is designed to solve, measurement becomes a simpler task. In each of the following examples, identifying the costs of the current state, and quantifying the outcomes provides a simple method of targeting benefits.

Potential Benefits

Potential Benefits

PROVE the case

What just happened? What changed as a result? How did people use the new approach?

Effective measurement is a perennial topic in communication. While top marketers are comfortable with demonstrating traffic, leads and conversions, internal communicators sometimes struggle with clearly demonstrating the return on initiatives.

However, if you have clearly identified the business outcomes, been clear about how video will help contribute to the solution, you are in a strong position to measure the impact.

Analytics packages allow for detailed viewing behaviour to be measured: who watched for how long, where and what did they use to watch, when did their attention shift. These data help shape the approach and provide essential information for looking at the impact of video content. Combined with audience feedback, this information will contribute to the evaluation of a pilot.

 

Prove the impact

Prove the impact

It’s a wrap – for now…

Video is an iterative channel. It grows and evolves with your overall business strategy. Great stories have a way of capturing people’s attention. If you find the right opportunity and take a strategic approach, people will take notice. You can transform a tactic – a broadcast, a leader message, an employee story – into a powerful strategic tool. Taking a planned approach to building the case and demonstrating the outcomes is the first step in making video an integral part of your engagement agenda and delivering valued outcomes to your business.

 

[1] Towers Watson 2013 – 2014 Change and Communication ROI Study Report http://www.towerswatson.com/en/Insights/IC-Types/Survey-Research-Results/2013/12/2013-2014-change-and-communication-roi-study

 

The 5P business case for video

Building a case for using video in your organisation is simpler if you follow the 5 P model.

The 5P Business Case

Click the image to view the short video on Adobe Voice.

To build the case for including video as part of your overall communication infrastructure, cover these five points.

  1. Pain. Find the right opportunity that is causing pain: what challenges need attention, what change is under way, what results need to shift? Is the pain at the top, or is it your employees who need help?
  2. Partners. Find internal sponsors: who has the greatest stake in addressing this issue? What will they invest to see the situation change?
  3. Potential benefit. Put a price on success: What is the value of addressing this issue?
  4. Pilot. Before a TV series is made, producers invest in a pilot to test the concept. This is a solid approach for internal video. Start small to test capability, appetite, and audience.
  5. Prove. Measure the impact of the initiative to build momentum

 PAIN – Find the right opportunity

What are the major business challenges you are seeking to address through your communication strategy?

Don’t limit this to communication challenges. What are the issues that keep the executive team from sleeping well?

The most effective communication strategy is linked directly to business outcomes. As with all forms of communication in organisations, new channels and approaches will only be successful if you define clear outcomes. Some communication challenges benefit from the use of video more than others.

Effective communication, change, training and leadership can contribute directly to:

  • Better customer experience
  • Increased sales
  • Reputation and trust
  • Safety
  • Turnover
  • Productivity and efficiency

Identify the changes in awareness, sentiment or behaviour that are required to support this outcome.

The mix of communication activities will be different based on the goal. The role of video in your strategy will also vary according to the outcome required. Some examples include:

Dispersed workforce creates engagement gap

Face-to-face interaction is an essential component of leadership and engagement. Finding ways to ensure employees hear first hand from leaders and experts is a consistent challenge due to the investment in travel and time.

Quick responses to market changes

Hearing information from customers or the media before hearing it from within the organisation reduces trust and disengages employees. Many organisations struggle with employees feeling that they are kept informed about things that affect them, a key factor in most engagement studies.

 Shifting culture and embedding values

Finding ways to share the stories that reinforce the culture, change agenda, key values or operational excellence is an essential way of embedding change. Video provides a platform for doing this in original and engaging ways, providing an immediacy and richness that engages and connects with audiences in ways that other channels struggle to achieve.

Unlocking employee ideas and innovation

Collaboration is one of the differentiators for organisations in the fight to be responsive and innovative. Information and experience is sometimes trapped in pockets of the organisation. Providing a means to draw out and share this information creates value.

PARTNERS

Who can provide support through resources, funding, or expertise to develop the case?

 Identifying key business issues will mean enlisting partners in the process. Few communicators have deep pockets; most need to find sponsors for new initiatives. In movie-making, a producer is someone with a financial interest in the movie. They are the backer. In corporate communication, whoever stands to gain from the effective use of video as a platform to solve their challenge has the potential to be a ‘producer’ or project sponsor.

In addition to internal partners, choosing production partners who will make the most of the available budget and resources is an important decision. Even with the advent of cheap cameras, better bandwidth and simple editing tools, there are some risks with a total DIY approach for an initial project. Video is an emotive medium. People will remember what they see and hear, and if it misses the mark, it can leave a lasting impression for the wrong reason.

In the next post, I’ll cover the final 3 Ps in detail.

What can communication professionals learn from the NYT Innovation report?

Media as an industry has an ability to cannibalise itself. Journalists are by nature inquirers and investigators. They look for the story and have a need to present it. It is not surprising then that a mountain has been written about the NYT internal Innovation Report. The leak of report, along with the executive departure drove a lot of speculation, commentary, opinion, and tweetage.

That a major media organisation would prepare a strategic thought-paper on the future impacts of their market should not be surprising. The Innovation report is a significant thought piece with real lessons for industries well beyond its implications for the paper itself, media and publishing.

Nieman Lab does an excellent job of examining the implications from the media industry perspective.

Beyond the media

There is also some excellent analysis of the content of the report from other commentators, looking at it as a call to action for an organisation needing to reinvent in a changing market.

David Armano’s perspective is a standout, categorising the insights into the four topics of agility, culture, talent and customer-centricity.

David Armano’s dissection of the strategic elements of the NYT Innovation Report

 

Ezra Klein at Vox highlights the report’s excellent explanation of distruption. This diagram explains the three modes of disruption in the clear style you would expect from NYT writers.

NYT Innovation report’s explanation of disruption, via Vox.

Australian workplace and digital analyst Paul Wallbank extracts three lessons for businesses: being digital first, breaking down the silos, and ensuring your business is discoverable.

Six lessons for communicators

The full report is worth the investment of time to read by any communicator, change agent or strategist.

There are a number of change studies that demonstrate that effective context-setting is an important part of enabling employees to sense-make during change. By providing clear background to the market your organisation operates in, you are preparing the field for proactive or reactive initiatives in the future. The NYT Innovation report is an interesting and important model of what that contexualised call to action can be.

There are six themes outlined in the NYT Innovation Report that provide a very simple compass for internal communicators considering how to reach employees who are time poor, information-laden and who have different needs.

1. Discovery

“We need to think more about…packaging our work in more useful ways” With the volume of information growing, reduction and control become limited-success strategies. How do you ensure your content is discoverable, at the right time?

2. Promotion

Ensuring information is promoted means not just ‘publishing’ but by sharing, by amplifying, and by use of peers. There is a fine balance between push and spam. Segmentation becomes critical, as does understanding the needs of the employee to target promotion of relevant, useful content.

3. Connection

Seeking ways to ensure audiences – employees – can participate, comment, create and contribute is an essential component of communication, engagement and change. Whether though user generated content, internal ‘crowdsourcing’, communities, and networks, connection is the the key to relevance and ultimately the path to engagement.

4. Experimentation

Promoting active experimentation, the capacity to fail fast, iterate and learn is a core skill and critical to building the agility of any communication function. Experimentation and connection can work in partnership, through the use of pilot groups, advisory communities and user experience (UX) work.

5. Influencers

In complex environments, the role of the subject matter expert, the thought leader or the process lead extends to filtering and amplifying key information, themes and messages relevant to their specialisation. Collaborative platforms and enterprise social networks enable this.

6. Market context

The competitor cheat sheets in the report are succinct and frank. Do you provide employees with concise information about the others in your market? Is this information purely product and service comparison, or does it go deeper into comparative strengths and weaknesses.

Your view

I’m interested in communicators views on all aspects of the report – the content, the format, the debate and analysis surrounding its leak. Join the conversation by leaving a comment.

 

Discovering the soft edge of strategy

In his book The Soft Edge: Where Great Companies Find Lasting Success Forbes publisher Rich Karlgaard explores the humanistic aspects of strategic advantage. He outlines five elements of the ‘soft edge’  of the organisation that are needed for success: trust, smarts, teamwork, taste, and story.

In an excerpt in this recent Inc Magazine article, the idea of focusing on culture and the human side appears to be a surprising discovery.

The Soft Edge - Post It Summary by Meaning Business

The Soft Edge – Post It Summary by Meaning Business

(As an aside, I find fascinating the degree to which start-up literature gets excited about good practices that have been long established in more traditional organisations. It’s like watching teenagers ‘discover’ the music their parents listened to. I’m working up to a post on the things startups can learn from established business practice and vice versa.)

What is exciting is the way that Karlgaard sets some parameters around the kinds of stories that matter in organisation.

The stories that matter are the human stories, in which real people did something, learning and growing in the process. It might be customers, it might be your CEO, it might be a field sales rep who has learned to believe in the value of what she’s selling.

Story is also the story that you tell yourself about yourself, and that every employee tells himself or herself. Story is what gives meaning to everything, both inside and outside the business world.

If those stories are lacking or, worse, depressing, there is simply no amount of strategy and tactics that can make your company great.

Business Planning and Strategy: 5 Things You’ve Overlooked | Inc.com.

Pause for progress

“Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it” Ferris Beuller

I recently ran a planning session with a group of senior communicators. Working in a challenging environment, they have a great record for delivering innovative solutions that meet their client’s needs. The list of team achievements over the past few years was impressive. They do this in a complex, time-poor environment that has undergone major change over recent months.

The middle of the calendar year is filled with symbolism. The half way point between the aspirations of January and the crunch of Christmas. It is the heart of the story – the ‘middle’ where the most ‘stuff’ is happening. It is a credit to this group that they were prepared to stop for a day to look at where they have come from and what is ahead.

Mid-year ‘planning’ is a way of gathering the collective intention, resources and capacity of a team to ensure that progress is recognised and priorities are clear. As almost every workplace has discovered over the past few years – things change. Whether through global, economic, political or natural forces, change happens. By ‘regrouping’ mid plan, leadership teams are able to confirm the priorities, agree the messages and stay agile for the months ahead.

Have you planned your mid-year strategy conversations?

Whatever size your business, this is an essential process to ensure your direction is consistent with changes in your business environment and to make sure the story ‘makes sense’ of what needs to be done for the remainder of the year.