Type of Project
Scenario: You are a middle manager at a large technology organization. You arrived at work today to find out that your organization is going through a reorganization. There will be mass downsizing – immediately. You met with your boss, who informed you that the company has been losing revenue for too long and immediate action is necessary. More decisions are to come.
Your job is not in jeopardy; however, you will lose team members in the downsizing. Your team members are panicked and you need to step up to address the issue with them. You also need to maintain productivity and the results.
You call a meeting to discuss this with your team. Then you take some time to prepare yourself to deal with this situation. This is not an easy message to communicate, but a common one. Think through your approach by following the prompts below.
Part One: Write a script to tell us what you will say to your team at the meeting today.
Part Two: Discuss your strategy with us, by addressing the questions below:
What is your communication strategy with your team?
How often will you provide communication to your team about updates? You need to keep them informed, but not panicked.
How will you get your key message across, while keeping your team productive?
What can you do to reduce the challenges of distraction and the rumor mill for your team?
JWI 505: Business Communications and Executive Presence Lecture Notes
WEEK 6: STRATEGIC COMMUNICATION How to Communicate Strategically Your manager tells you that he is giving you a new responsibility. You are to head a team for a new project initiative with high visibility to upper management. As your first responsibility as team leader, you meet with your team.
You tell them you want all of their brains in the game. You explain to them that you value their input, and you tell them that your door is always open. You share your thoughts, in no particular order, on some of the challenges the team will face. You conclude your meeting feeling pretty good about what you’ve accomplished … until you realize you haven’t actually accomplished anything.
One by one, your team members come to you with concerns and complaints. They don’t understand specifically what it is you need them to do. They all have different ideas about the scope of the project. The goals they are working toward don’t seem clear.
They are confused and, because they are confused, they do not know how to contribute their best efforts as team members. In failing to define for them specifically what you need and what the team is working toward, you have spoken a great deal, yet said almost nothing. Communicating effectively – establishing a connection with your audience, being present, and so on – is useless if you do not communicate strategically.
If you hold a project meeting but do not state clearly what your desired outcomes are, while setting your purposes and your objectives, your key messages may be lost in the shuffle. Communication, for its own sake, is not a business goal. Business leaders must communicate in support of their objectives.
The goal of communicating strategically is to inspire your colleagues to a cause. This is what all business is, after all. It is groups of individuals working toward a common goal or goals. The more inspired they are to achieve that goal, the harder and more diligently they will work. To make this happen, you want to build energy when you communicate with your colleagues.
You want your communication to rev them up, so to speak, inspiring them to give you their best. Doing this requires you to know your audience and to hold effective meetings – meetings that, unlike the example we just shared, actually get work done. All productive effort starts with a goal.
That goal is your purpose for working, and it is there that strategic communication begins. Setting Purposes and Objectives A famous thought experiment about perception uses the example of a group of blind men feeling around for an elephant in the room. Each man is told to describe the nature of an elephant based on his perception.
JWI 505: Business Communications and Executive Presence Lecture Notes
One man, holding the elephant’s trunk, says the elephant is like a snake. Another man, holding the elephant’s leg, describes the animal as a massive tree-like shape. The descriptions go on, illustrating that each man has a different perspective. The important lesson is that none of them can see the whole picture, and thus none of them can truly perceive the elephant in the room.
If you do not set clear purposes and objectives, any team you work with is doomed to focus on small portions, involving ill-defined, short-term tasks, rather than the whole picture. Only with a good sense of the whole picture can each of those employees contribute the best and most relevant input towards achieving the company’s goals.
More immediately, you cannot communicate effectively what you need your colleagues to do if you cannot describe the goals toward which you are all working. Before you can communicate in a way that truly matters, in which you are committed to a productive outcome – which is what all business communication is supposed to achieve – you must define your purpose and objectives:
Making Your Communication a Success One way to define the purpose and objectives of your communication is to complete this fill-in-the-blank statement: “This communication will be a success if _________” For example, let’s say you are working toward a management goal of decreasing out-of-box quality failures by two percent this quarter.
To do that, you need your finished products inspection team to check the fit of a circuit board that has been the source of multiple quality issues. This check represents a change to procedure, which requires both documentation and follow-through. You need to communicate with your quality manager the need for this procedural change. You can say to yourself:
“This communication will be successful if the quality manager understands the need for the inspection change, implements the change in the quality control department, and makes sure the change to procedure is properly documented.”
This statement defines your purpose: change the inspection procedure to support management’s quality goal. It also dictates your key messages and desired outcomes. Those outcomes dictate necessary tasks, including:
What your fill-in-the-blank statement does not do is assign blame or focus on anything else that is irrelevant to accomplishing your goals. You aren’t asking who is responsible for the quality failures – a separate issue may be to determine why the circuit boards are so problematic, but that’s irrelevant to the communication of the inspection change.
You aren’t looking for someone to blame as to why the inspection was not previously part of the procedure. You are just trying to accomplish your goal, efficiently and productively. If you compose an email to the quality manager asking him to implement and document the inspection change, but you also include lengthy paragraphs asking why this inspection is not already part of the procedure, your message may be lost in the back-and-forth argument over how the problem occurred.
This is not effective communication. Worse, it risks putting the quality manager on the defensive, making it less likely he will contribute his best efforts to the change. He may be more concerned with making sure he is not blamed for the problem than he is with solving the inspection issue.
When we set our purpose and objectives for a given communication, we are not only focused on what really matters for the success of that communication. We are also defining what is not important. A sculptor whose purpose is to chisel a horse out of a block of marble removes what is unnecessary until the horse emerges, unencumbered by extra or unnecessary pieces.
Effective communication, likewise, is focused only on the goal and objectives, adding nothing unnecessary that would confuse it. Setting our objectives also helps us determine our best channel for the communication. Is the issue one that can be handled in email? Does it require lengthy questions and answers that are better suited to a meeting?
Should written and verbal communications be blended, or conducted in series, as they might be for a very complicated issue? The nature and complexity of your purposes and goals will dictate how you conduct the communication for the most effective outcome.
Key Messages and Desired Outcomes Let’s talk more about key messages and desired outcomes. Your objectives, once set, determine your key messages. “Key,” in this case, refers to a few meaningful, high-priority, get-the-job-done messages. To communicate strategically and effectively, you must avoid complicating your messages any more than necessary.
More is not more here; less is more. Focus on the most compelling stats, stories, action items, and discourse needed to support your objectives. A few measurable moments are always better than a wall of text or an hour of conversation that obscures what really needs to get done.
Define the actions you want others to take that deliver on your objectives. If you haven’t laid out these desired outcomes for yourself, it is likely you are not communicating them clearly enough to others. You are relying on these others to get the work done, after all. The easier you make it for them to understand and respond, the more likely they are to get the job done.
Let’s look at our example of the quality manager again. Recall that our key messages, our get-the-job-done requests, were to have the manager: A) enact the inspection change, and B) have the change documented in official procedure. Here are the bodies of two emails that communicate those messages:
Email Body 1 We need to make a change to the inspection procedure for the widgets. Can you make sure your team checks the XY circuit board on all new production? This is a procedure change that will have to be documented, so if you could follow up on that by Friday morning and verify that the official procedure has been changed, I would appreciate it.
Email Body 2 There’s a major problem with the widgets. We’re getting repeated out-of-box quality issues with the XY circuit board, and our customers are screaming about failures. Why aren’t the XY circuit boards being inspected for this error? Failing to perform this inspection is putting us behind on our quarterly numbers, and upper management is breathing down my neck.
We need to get a handle on this right now, and if we don’t, heads are going to roll. At the very least we’re going to need to start checking each and every XY circuit board for failure off the line. Meanwhile, I’ve got to draw resources I don’t have to get to the bottom of who or what is causing these failures. If it’s a line manufacturing procedure, I’m not taking the blame for this. Get on this by the end of the week and make sure we can show proof that we did it. We’ve got to cover ourselves if we want to keep our jobs.
Which email is more effective? Clearly, the answer is Email 1. This first email defines the actions needed to accomplish the goal, without complicating the message with blaming or with extraneous issues that don’t support the immediate goal of changing the inspection. It also doesn’t put the quality manager on the defensive, out of fear of being terminated.
The tone of the first email is also much more neutral and even positive, whereas the tone of the second one is very negative. Negativity does not inspire. Negativity typically robs people of motivation while lowering morale overall. This is the opposite of what you want to do if you are to communicate strategically. Strategic communicators inspire others while building energy in support of their goals.
How do you inspire others to support your shared goals? You want to build momentum and energy, creating a mood in which people are happy to give you their best and even go above and beyond what is expected of them to do quality work. This will better position the business to meet its objectives.
One way to inspire is to bring passion to your communication. This means using emotions professionally and judiciously. Someone who is passionate about what they are saying will grab the attention of their audience, compelling that audience to take note. The professional use of emotion makes your messages stand out, engaging not just minds, but also hearts.
This humanizes you and makes your audience feel more motivated and connected. They will then work harder and more diligently to support the cause you share. How could we use emotion professionally to make the quality of an email more compelling? We might choose to write the body of the message this way:
Management has asked us to reduce out-of-box failures for this quarter. I know we’ve all struggled with this goal in the past, and achieving it could really be a feather in all our caps. The team has identified one simple way we can do this with very little extra effort. We need to make a change to the inspection procedure for the widgets.
Can you make sure your team checks the XY circuit board on all new production? This is a procedure change that will have to be documented, so if you could follow up on that by Friday morning and verify that the official procedure has been changed, I would appreciate it.
I’m very excited to see what this simple change can do to improve our numbers, and I think this is going to position us to do great things in the next quarter.
Using positive emotion in this type of communication is much more likely to gain the enthusiastic buy-in of the quality manager. It paints the shared goal as one that will improve the long-term careers of all involved, and invokes the shared adversity of struggling with that goal in the past. All of this is passionate, which humanizes the sender and better establishes a connection with the recipient.
Primacy and Recency It is a fact of human cognition that what we hear, see, or read first and last are the pieces of a message we are most likely to remember and retain. This means that the way you open a message or speech or written communication, and the way you close it, are the most critical parts of every communication.
If we can’t open well, we may lose our only opportunity for our audience to listen to the rest of our message. Like a good journalist, we should focus on grabbing their attention from the beginning. If they don’t read/listen further because you didn’t have them at Hello, all else is lost.
As both a meeting leader and a meeting attendee, you must bring your executive presence to bear. For example, are you as committed to the outcomes as the meeting Chair is? Do you ask for an agenda, or at least consider how you can be best prepared to contribute?
Are you fully present, contributing richly, listening well, and moving the conversation forward to hit the desired results, or are you distracted? When the conversation lags or takes a detour, are you helpful in bringing the team back on course? Do you show your respect to everyone by being on time and giving them your full attention?
Meeting leadership and participation skills are particularly tough when the meeting is a conference call or in a virtual webinar format. The demands of the modern workplace, however, dictate that these types of meetings are more and more common. As the meeting leader, keeping people engaged and participating is the main mantra for success – especially when we are not present in the room with them during the meeting.
Mission and Mutual Respect Strategic communication is all about your dedication to the mission and the mutual respect of those working in service to that mission. Your mission is your business goal. It is the North Star at which you are aiming as an organization, the guiding light that determines your purpose and strategy.
Determining these factors ensures you are not just reacting, not merely being buffeted by the trials and tribulations of the business world. As Jack said, “Strategy is the evolution of a central idea through ever-changing circumstances.” Setting communications objectives, focusing on key messages, and holding all involved accountable for the desired outcomes is the roadmap to get where your organization must go.
This keeps you focused on what matters and helps you maintain congruence to your leadership values. When we set a communication strategy, and when we are constantly aligning others to it, we get all the brains in the game. We also demonstrate respect and a commitment to a win-win strategy that ensures buy- in from our colleagues.
Setting our communication strategy, as well as remaining mindful of others’ time during meetings – and in all communications exchanges – demonstrates corporate responsibility and mutual respect. This fosters a collaborative environment of strong relationships that better position the organization to win.