After a year like no other, when so many communication plans had to be hastily rewritten, it’s no surprise that many of us are puzzling over how to prioritize our activities for the year ahead.
How do we best formulate plans as we navigate such uncertain times? One of my favorite quotes on planning comes from U.S. President Eisenhower: “In preparing for battle I have always found that plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.”
Approaching the planning process in a systematic way and basing your plan on insight equips you for the future — whatever it may hold. By making research your first step, you will arm yourself with intelligence and knowledge about your organization’s meaning; if plans have to change, you are fully prepared to respond in the moment.
Taking an evidence-based approach to planning means you are able to be both strategic and adaptable. Your communication activities are more likely to be successful no matter the direction you are forced to take.
First, use qualitative and quantitative research to get under the skin of your organization. This initial step helps you understand what’s on the minds of your stakeholders, audiences and communication colleagues. Where do they think communication is working well today? What needs to improve? What are their needs and expectations for the year ahead? All your questions should be designed to identify common needs, pinpoint gaps in understanding and highlight areas of misalignment. After all, research shows the percentage of your workforce that truly understands its strategic direction may be much smaller than you think.
This approach borrows from the AB Acid Test — a communication audit used by organizations large and small for more than 20 years to deepen understanding, drive alignment and improve performance.
Start gathering insight by entering into a dialogue with your audience. In “Humble Inquiry: The Gentle Art of Asking Instead of Telling,” Edgar H. Schein explains humble inquiry as “the fine art of drawing someone out, of asking questions to which you do not know the answer, of building a relationship based on curiosity and interest in the other person.”
Probing, genuine questions will elicit real knowledge about your stakeholders, audience and organizational objectives that will prove vital as you formulate your plan.
Begin with an online survey to assess employee understanding and identify their communication needs and preferences. This should not be a long, exhaustive survey. It only needs responses from a representative sample of your workforce. In my experience, even with a small sample, patterns emerge quickly. Ask specific questions of people managers and leaders, as they are both an audience and channel for communication.
Ideally, you will discover fresh intelligence about your organization. One client, a large food manufacturer, discovered its current advertising campaign was raising the heckles of factory employees who felt the campaign was trivializing the product they were proudly making. Our client had no idea this was an issue until she started asking questions.
Likewise, a global professional association found its international workforce actually had more common characteristics than differences. It stopped building and maintaining a complex channel suite and instead created a new plan based on quality over quantity.
This method of planning also is a message. It tells stakeholders and employees, “We are listening; you are understood.” Employees often thank me for taking the time to listen. Some are even moved to tears at finally feeling heard. It’s powerful stuff.
The Voice of Stakeholders
Next, conduct confidential one-on-one interviews with senior leaders who have both an influence on — and interest in — internal communications (IC).
Understanding the needs and challenges of senior stakeholders can be transformative for an IC team, as I saw recently with an online gaming client. This company needed help clarifying its IC activities for 2021. I encouraged the head of IC to hold confidential interviews with each member of his senior leadership team. These uncovered three clear areas of focus and deepened the working relationship between my client and his colleagues. He came away with a greater understanding of the challenges faced by his C-suite, and he knew exactly how to approach future conversations with them.
Don’t forget to hold confidential one-on-one interviews with your own team. Ask open questions about their personal experience of communicating to employees, what they feel is working well and what needs to improve. This makes the most of your team’s knowledge, insight and ideas.
Crunching the Data
Collate and analyze all feedback to create an SWOT analysis.
- Strengths give you an opportunity to learn from — and spread — good practice.
- Often the root cause of weaknesses needs to be discussed and agreed upon before moving forward.
- Not all opportunities are born equal. Think about the Pareto Principle — 80% of your results will come from just 20% of your actions. Plan wisely.
- Threats can be many and varied. Is your plan dependent on the success of another initiative, such as the approval of a new business strategy or the roll out of new technology?
Your final SWOT analysis then should be taken into a workshop with the appropriate colleagues and decision-makers. Together, define your actions along a timeline. Make sure individuals are held accountable for each action. Finally, take a step back and look at the bigger picture. Are there pinch points in the year where resources will be stretched? Brainstorm ways in which your strategy could fail and how you might pre-empt failure. It helps to research why good strategies fail.
Once you have your plan for the year ahead, thank people for their input and share the plan with them. This will demonstrate their input was worthwhile, and they are more likely to get involved if you ask for their insight again. It will reassure stakeholders that your plan is not just based on your professional judgement or personal perspective, but has solid research at its core.
Get your comms colleagues together every quarter to evaluate your progress against the plan, as internal and external events will be moving fast.
Endeavor to undertake the process yearly or quarterly if possible. This way, you’ll start to see patterns and trends — the issues that are bubbling up and the ones that are fading away.
Now or Never
At the beginning of the pandemic, organizations were busily creating and executing crisis plans. Inevitability, these involved announcements and instructions — a huge one-way communication exercise.
Communication professionals are telling me the focus of 2021 needs to change. Research shows the best performing organizations are built on genuine, productive and open conversations.
Whatever 2021 throws at us — we haven’t even started to roll out the vaccine to the working age population yet — listening is an essential starting point for planning. Now more than ever, our plans must be built on that magical mix of empathy, understanding and data.
With more than 30 years of internal communications experience, Katie Macaulay has supported many high-profile organizations through change and transformation — consulting on major change programs for the London Stock Exchange, Barclays, KPMG and Roche. She has a deep understanding of the challenges of communicating with employees in operational environments. Her longstanding clients include Royal Mail, Network Rail, the Post Office and Heathrow. All have large, highly dispersed, deskless employees with little or no access to digital channels. Macaulay is managing director for AB Comm, a full-service IC agency, and is the host of the award-winning Internal Comms Podcast. She also is the author of “From Cascade to Conversation – Unlocking the Collective Wisdom of Your Workforce.” Macaulay sits on the International Executive Board of the International Association of Business Communicators (IABC) and is a member of the Society of Leadership Fellows. She was named “Change Maker” by the Institute of Internal Communication and is a regular keynote speaker.