Most people are so busy in their day-to-day jobs that they don't stop to think about what their company as a whole is trying to achieve and how that affects them. They obviously know how the company makes money (usually), but in terms of what capabilities the company needs to build or the markets and customer segments that they need to target, most people are usually a little hazy. This lack of strategic clarity is often overlooked. Without a clear understanding of an organization's strategic priorities, one cannot make decisions on priorities. Establishing alignment on the few things that the company needs to do to win gives employees the target to work toward. It naturally brings focus for many disparate teams and gets everyone moving in the same direction. It also makes it easier to identify those things that are getting in the way. But effectively communicating a strategy can be quite challenging. It is hard to communicate a strategy that people can quickly understand, get excited about, and remember. Often the communication of strategies, if it happens at all, is far too detailed and boring, and simply not engaging. As a result, the strategy falls on deaf ears and people go back to going through the motions in their roles.
Communicate your strategy
There are many aspects to the art of effectively communicating a strategy. All the complex elements of a strategy need to be distilled into a pithy, succinct statement or a visual. Language is crucial, so each word needs to be carefully selected. The simpler the language, the better. Consultant-speak or corporate jargon is great for making insecure types sound important and smart, but essentially serves to fog meaning. An example would be:
Consultant-speak strategy statement: We will optimize shareholder value via the delivery of products and services that exceed customer expectations.
Common language strategy statement: We will produce the best [product/service] in the world. When complex, strategic aspirations are distilled into a few key messages, it can also create a shared language in the organization. The key messages are repeated and reinforced during meetings and conversations. Changing the nomenclature or shared language in an organization can be a powerful catalyst for aligning focus and changing behaviors to shift culture in line with the strategy. When communicating anything of importance, the focus must be on clarity. Throughout the process of crafting communications, especially when communicating a strategy or vision, you have to keep asking yourself, "How can I make this clearer? How can I speed understanding? How can this be more memorable? What is most important?"
Communicate with clarity
An example of this is a piece of work I did with the global finance function of a large, consumer-packaged-goods client. The function was in the midst of a transformation where they were seeking to reduce costs by installing regional shared service centers and streamlining processes. The CFO had been in the role for only a year and wanted to convey his vision for the function. A global town hall was scheduled, and we then had to create an effective way of communicating his vision. He provided some high-level guidance on what he wanted his vision to entail, but it was up to us to create the visuals and key messages that would form the core of the global event. The function was a highly complex global structure with many different subgroups operating in different geographies and behaving in different ways. So, with our adult learning hats on, we begin sketching different visual options that brought together the vision, the new operating model, and the desired culture. As we refined the visual presentation, we continued to remove all unnecessary content and eventually landed on a clean, clear and engaging visual that distilled the complexity of the function. The image integrated critical capabilities, operating model priorities, and three core behaviors to lead to desired ways of working. It was anchored with the synthesized vision: Global finance: contemporary and world-class. The CFO delivered a highly engaging global town hall, and his global team was able to quickly understand the vision, their core capabilities, and how the vision will be realized through the new structure and operating model. Leaders shared stories of how they have seen the critical behaviors come to life, which helped everyone understand the importance of the ways of working and how they can be embodied in day-to-day work. Later that year, a global engagement survey revealed that the global finance function engagement score rose by 7 percent, which was an incredible result and a testament to the positive impact that a clear and engaging vision can have.
Deliver a visually appealing strategy
How the communication is delivered is also critical. The messages need to be displayed or delivered in a way that can be quickly understood, and is energizing and easy to remember. This is often done by carefully visualizing complex content, using metaphors and storytelling. As much as possible, words should be converted to visuals. Using visuals can significantly accelerate understanding of complex points. There are more subtle parts of visual communication that can influence a response as well. The colors, the amount of white space, and the use of human emotion all affect how someone perceives something. Think of Apple's ads: They master the power of white space. Their message is simple and potent. They make it easy to quickly understand and remember the point they're making. Remember "Think different"? You could think of this as mass cognitive manipulation, which it somewhat is. Your goal as a communication expert is to get people to rapidly understand the strategy, get excited by it, and remember it. You're essentially an ad man targeting a bunch of employees. Metaphors also help to accelerate understanding of a potentially complex topic. Our brain paints a picture of the analogy, which speeds understanding of the material. For example, "Like a thoroughbred bolting ahead of the pack at the Kentucky Derby, we need to be faster and better than our competitors." These metaphors, when used in a story format, optimize message retention. We remember content a lot more easily when it's delivered in story format because humans have been sharing knowledge for eons through storytelling. Think about people sitting around a fire a thousand years ago sharing tales of their ancestors. We get pulled into stories, especially those involving emotion or human challenges. It's easier to concentrate and follow along when content is being communicated via a story. If you think back to a recent presentation you have attended, you probably remember a story, not the other content. While many leaders think that a quick email or a one-way video conference will do the trick to align the organization on strategy, there is actually a lot of craft that goes into communicating a strategy so that it sticks. And the effort to communicate a strategy properly is worth the time and energy, because without collective alignment, complexity is much more likely to creep in and people will lose sight of what is truly important.