Under communicating the vision

Three patterns with respect to communication are all very common. In the first, a group actually does develop a pretty good transformation vision and then proceeds to communicate it by holding a single meeting or sending out a single communication. Having used about .0001% of the yearly intra company communication, the group is startled that few people seem to understand the new approach. In the second pattern, the head of the organization spends a considerable amount of time making speeches to employee groups, but most people still don’t get it (not surprising, since vision captures only .0005% of the total yearly communication). In the third pattern much more effort goes into newsletters and speeches, but some very visible senior executives still behave in ways that are antithetical to the vision. The net result is that cynicism among the troops goes up, while belief in the communication goes down.

Transformation is impossible unless hundreds or thousands of people are willing to help, often to the point of making short term sacrifices. Employees will not make sacrifices, even if they are unhappy with the status quo, unless they believe that useful change is possible. Without credible communication, and a lot of it, the hearts and minds of the troops are never captured.

This fourth phase is particularly challenging if the short term sacrifices include job losses. Gaining understanding and support is tough when downsizing is a part of the vision. For this reason, successful visions usually include new growth possibilities and the commitment to teat fairly anyone who is laid off.

Executives who communicate well incorporate messages into hour by hour activities. In a routine discussion about a business problem, they talk about how proposed solution fit (or don’t fit) into the bigger picture. In a regular performance appraisal, they talk about how the employee’s behavior helps or undermines the vision. In review of a division’s quarterly performance, they talk not only about the numbers but also about how the division’s executives are contributing to the transformation. In a routine Q&A with employees at a company facility, they tie their answers back to renewal goals.

In more successful transformation efforts, executives use all existing communication channels to broadcast the vision. They turn boring and unread company newsletters into lively articles about the vision. They take ritualistic and tedious quarterly management meeting and turn them into exciting discussions of the transformation. They throw out much of the company’s generic management education and replace it with courses that focus on business problems and the new vision. The guiding principle is simple: use every possible channel, especially those that are being wasted on nonessential information.

Perhaps even more important, most of the executives in successful cases of major change learn to walk the talk. They consciously attempt to become a living symbol of the new corporate culture. This is often not easy. A 60 year old plant manager who has spent precious little time over 40 years thinking about customers will not suddenly behave in a customer oriented way. But such a person change can change and change a great deal. In that case, a high level of urgency helped. The fact that the man was a part of the guiding coalition and the vision-creation team also helped. So he did all the communication, which kept reminding him of the desired behavior and all the feedback from his peers and subordinates which helped him see when he was not engaging in that behavior.

Communication comes in both words and deeds, and the latter are often the most powerful form. Nothing undermines change more than behavior by important individuals that is inconsistent with their words.