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 |

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.

The Communicator’s Guide to 30 June

Save the date! 30 June is a great time for communicating.

The end of financial year is a busy time for almost every type of organisation. For communicators, there are a few end of year activities that are useful for employees. For leadership communication, it is also a time to consider the messages for the second half of the year. Here are some of the top communication activities to incorporate into your June plans in order to be prepared.

Business Communication Activities

  • Is your employee data up to date? Correct, current employee data is essential for organisations, but it doesn’t take long for records to get out of date. The employee Payment Summaries generated for the financial year are a great trigger for tackling this. If your organisation uses employee self-service or e-HR, remind employees to update their details so their payment summaries can be sent to the right place. There is a strong ‘what’s in it for me’ (WIIFM) factor for employees to correct this information, so this can also be a good time to conduct a related campaign for other data such as emergency contact details or communication preferences such as mailing lists.
  • Be useful at tax time. Consider promoting external links to the ATO within the HR sections of your intranet highlighting anything that may be of particular interest to your employees.
  • Explain legislative change to your employees. In Australia, Paid Parental Leave provisions come into effect from 1 July. There are a range of support resources from the Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations
  • Not now, I’m accounting. Different professions have different peaks and troughs through the year. For your organisation’s accountants, financial services teams and payroll services areas, now is not the time to send an employee survey or long communications about benefits. Be thoughtful about what messages are important, and which ones can wait until the following month for these groups.

Leaders and Manager Communication

  • Celebrate the year to date. For those parts of the business who have a high workload in the lead up to end of financial year, remember to schedule some time or an event for celebration to recognise the effort when everything is over.
  • Set the course for the rest of the year. The leaders of the business should be considering the messages required for the second half of the year and begin incorporating them into their communication activities. The following questions can prompt leaders to think about what messages are required:
    • What has happened in your market or industry over the first half of the year
    • What is the most important thing from a customer perspective? From a competitor perspective? From an investor perspective?
    • What successes and challenges has the business faced so far?
    • What has worked well? Who should be celebrated and recognised?
    • What are the three ‘big things’ to focus on for the second half of the year?

Every organisation is different, so these tasks can vary. Choosing financial milestone dates can be an effective way to encourage even the most reticent managers to reflect on their communication needs.

Is instruction or direction better for engagement?

Do you return from holidays full of direction or full of instructions? One is better for engagement.

Direction or Instruction

Where are you going?

A leader I knew used the summer holiday as his ‘blue sky’ period. He would return from his trip refreshed and with a full to do list. His team had come to dread the return, as it frequently marked a change of strategy. In some cases this meant new efforts, change of direction, or even substantial reorganisation.

For his team, there was an important step missing. While he had given himself the time to think through his ideas, to internalise them and to create a to-do list at the end, his team would be frozen, waiting for the action plan. Four weeks of iterative thinking would be downloaded in an hour. In the months leading up to the break, they would shut down their thinking on new ideas or directions, knowing that there was little certainty of priorities on their return. And once the action plan was presented, there was a feeling that even if they agreed with the solution, they didn’t feel a sense of ownership as their input was missing from the actions now dictated.

The leader had come to believe that it was important that he take this time to make sure he provided clear instruction. But by doing all the thinking for them, he was missing an important opportunity to engage them in the problem and the solution. While there is great strength in aligning people behind a target, there is even greater motivation when people have context, information and an understanding of the problem or situation that they are seeking to solve.

What could he have done differently?

  • Balance destination, direction and detail. When it comes to implementation, people work with details. But before you get there, use the big picture to set the destination and establish direction. Your people might know a better route!
  • Provide clear context. Why is the number one thing, the number one thing?Customer, competitor, political, technological, social. What are the factors that informed your thinking?
  • Build the capability. Creating an environment that supports shared problem-solving, open communication, an outcome focus and clear decision-making takes time at first, but becomes a habit and can be done very effectively over time.

By giving up some control, and creating an environment with open communication, clear context, and strong sense of purpose, leaders can help their teams achieve results they may not have imagined on their own. There are times, such as during a crisis, when instruction will still be important. There is substantial evidence that during these times an engaged workforce goes beyond simply complying with instructions and commits to the outcomes.