An Executive’s guide to Communicating Strategy: planning the communication, telling the story, and ultimately socialising your strategy. A structured guide.
This is our introduction to the topic of Communicating strategy on our site. It is a developing webpage that provides a structured route into the many posts and articles on various aspects of the communication of your strategy. You can either read through this page sequentially, or go to the table of contents below to find and jump directly to aspects of strategy communication topics that interest you.
Do more than communicating your strategy – Socialise your Strategy
Successful executives don’t simply communicate their strategy. They have a clear approach that gets the strategy inside people’s heads. They socialise the strategy. They ultimately change the culture and behaviours, to get results.
In our experience, helping and interviewing successful Executives, one thing is very clear. They do not simply communicate their strategy. The socialise their strategy. They communicate their strategy and ideas in way that changes thinking, and conversations, and then behaviours, to ultimately achieve results. They also systematically plan, prepare and persistently explain and explore their strategy, so it becomes more deeply socialised in their organisations. They have a clear approach that gets the strategy inside people’s heads and into the social fabric of their organisations, one that changes the underlying culture and behaviours in their organisation. It is this deeper change that ultimately leads to results.
This is the approach you can learn about here: the approach we help our clients use. It is the approach that is explained in these articles and posts and in our book.
Strategy communication topics on this page
This page provides a structured introduction to various aspects of communicating and socialising strategy. Simply follow the links in this page’s contents list for more detail on this page and links to further articles. It starts with a plug for my book “Communicating Strategy”. Then lists the various topics that lead to articles on this page.
- The core principles of communicating and socialising strategy
- Socialising your strategy: The underlying thinking
- Improving how you communicate your strategy
- Telling the story of your strategy
- Personal and organisational congruence affects the message
- Communicating bad news
- Mistakes to avoid in communication of strategy
- Ensure you have a strategy that is easily read, presented and understood
- Create a systematic programme of communication
- Some suggestions for next steps… and a final point…
Communicating Strategy: the book
OK, I know! With hindsight I should have called it “Socialising Strategy”, but you cannot change a title after you have an ISBN number. (Sigh). However, you can still read all about the principles of communicating and socialising strategy.
Communicating Strategy was written by Phil Jones, Managing Director of Excitant. The book is published by Routledge. You can find out about ‘Communicating Strategy’ and its contents. It complements and adds to these articles. You can read an overview of why I wrote the Communicating Strategy, various reviews, and a summary of the book’s structure and chapters. You can buy Communicating Strategy in various versions (Paper & Electronic) and formats and languages.
People tell me it is a easy read and immensely practical. Also it is all obvious… after they have read it. I take that as a good sign.
1) The core principles of communicating strategy
There are core principles set out in these articles and in the book. They help you understand where we are coming from and how we think about the communication of strategy.
Strategy is about change and measured by results. The effectiveness of your strategy communication is measured in the changes in the actions and behaviours of individuals and teams, that should lead to those more strategic changes and results. These articles are designed to help you improve that impact and change.
- All strategies and plans should be burnt: the importance of getting strategy and decisions into peoples’ heads
- The ten heresies of communicating strategy a different way to think about communication of your strategy (Chapter 2 of the book)
- Do you have employees in an organisation, or people in a business?
- What you believe affects how you describe and communicate your strategy
The emphasis here is to help you improve your thinking and judgement around communicating strategy, and to perhaps think about approaching it in different ways.
OK, we have only had one Chief Executive burn his strategy document in front of his Senior Managers (and he actually ripped them up in case he set off the hotel fire alarm system) but it makes an important point. When the strategy and plans are in people’s heads, they are in action, and so you can safely burn all plans. If they are not in people’s heads you might as well burn them.
2) Socialise your strategy: The underlying thinking
When we talk about socialising the strategy, we are thinking of the organisation, not as a an organised structure, but as a social system. It is the social connections that make stuff happen, and it is the social pressures that influence culture and behaviours.
- Thinking of the organisation as a social system Organisations do not exist – there are simply social systems.
- Understanding the difference between communicating strategy and socialising strategy
- What if the dark matter of organisational performance is the social system
3) Improving how you communicate your strategy
On the website we have a six part checklist of articles on communicating your strategy more effectively
- Part 1: What is strategy? Making sure your strategy is sufficiently detailed
- Part 2: Reasons for failure Things to be aware of before you start
- Part 3: Communicating the ‘why’ of your strategy the why, is even more important than the what and how in convincing people
- Part 4: Communicating the strategy journey The strategy is not simply a destination, but a journey
- Part 5: Communicating your strategy through your actions It is not just what you say, but how you act and what you do that communicates your strategy
- Part 6: Communicate to different types of people and different people will take things in different ways
Have a read of “I was in a warm bed, then I woke up in a plan” which is about recognising that you start in a different places to your people. Much more on how to do this is set out in more detail in Chapters 3, 4 and 5 of ‘Communicating strategy.
We have some specific advice on improving your Mission, Purpose and Values statements.
- The difference between mission purpose and values: Using plain English to ensure they are different and serve different roles
- Mission statements: a failure to communicate
- Why do mission statements omit the obvious?
- Making mission statements memorable: Writing a better Mission statement.
4) Telling the story of your strategy
How you tell the story of your strategy is vitally important:
- “Telling the story of your strategy – making it stick from the start” explains how to jump straight in and get their attention.
- “Telling the story: Don’t start with powerpoint” suggests more ways to create an opening.
- “Telling the story: Make it actionable” explains how to pass the “So what” test with strategy statements,
- “The ten thousand and six word problem”, explains how many vision, vales and strategy statements require the people in the organisation to hallucinate what you mean.
Sometimes a small wording change makes all the difference to how your strategy message is received. Here are examples:
- Be professional! How a small wording difference dramatically changed the message
- Metaphors for the economy: Examples of how a small change to a metaphor that you use, can dramatically change the message.
“That was the first time the executive team have communicated their strategy effectively.” – Graeme Law, Environmental Planning Manager, Peterborough City Council
The essence of our approach is to ensure that people understand not only what is important, but why it is important. Why it is important to them as well as to the organisation. Also that it becomes their strategy. So the key is not simply to communicate the strategy, but to socialise it. Socialising it embeds it in the learnt behaviours of the organisation, making it part of the organisation’s culture and fabric. A really effective way to socialise ideas is through stories.
Such stories of the strategy (whether words or pictures) are a vital part of your strategy and socialising it. Telling the story of the strategy, and telling stories in the strategy, are is essential to communicating the ideas and thinking effectively.
One US Pharmaceutical company has made our “Communicating Strategy” approach part of the compulsory training for all of their Vice Presidents across the world. We can train your staff, coach you in the communication, help you develop your strategy communication plan so you ultimately engage your staff and make a difference. The story of the strategy is covered in chapters six and seven of Communicating Strategy which are summarised here.
5) Personal, team and organisational congruence affects the message
A key part of how you communicate is your personal congruence and your congruence as a team.
5.1) Personal congruence
I am sure you have seen a person present material they do not believe in. That incongruence leaks out of them like water through a sieve. They do not believe what they are saying, and the audience know that they do not believe in what they are saying. There are three aspects to this:
- I don’t believe in this strategy: A vital part of the strategy development is to make sure that the individual members of the team , have had a chance to have robust arguments over the details, the evidence, what they believe and where they differ. Quick consensus is a sign of poor decisions. You make better decisions as a team when there has been dissent. Often we help a team have that argument (see below)
- This material is not my material: Forcing someone to use material that is someone else’s story, or not yet owned by that person can produce the same incongruence. They believe the story of the strategy – just not this version or way of explaining it. Often we help a member develop the material they are happy with, using the metaphors and stories that are meaningful to them. This ensures their individual credibility.
- I am not yet comfortable or prepared to present the strategy, yet: This is about time and preparation – developing their own comfort with telling the story their way. Adding in their anecdotes and explanations and their language, or the language their people will recognise. This takes time. Often we are asked to coach and help the individual executivs get their heads around the story in their way.
It is vital you spot these potential personal congruence issues early, and address them individually, before the story of the strategy is told to a wider audience.
5.2) Make sure you leave the room all telling the same story
We are sure you understand the importance of leaving the executive suite all telling the same story. “I cannot believe that you have got those two members of the Executive team to agree and to work together. That is astonishing in three months.” – Chairman of organisation (unnamed to protect the innocent)
A lot is our work is helping you be clear, as a team, about the strategy. You all understand the principles, assumptions, the compelling imperative for change, the timescales and messages. You all know what needs to change.
Reaching 85% agreement is not enough. The biggest issues are often where individual executive disagree over one or two issues. These can become sticking points or even undiscussable. We have helped new teams form. helped existing teams have robust arguments, and helped experienced teams improve the quality of their conversation and decision making.
“The work with you has helped us Directors work far more closely together, where we would not have normally. We can now lead from the top and are seen to speak in a single voice, which was not the case previously” – GD, Director
We know that strategy involves tensions. Our view is that strategy does not exist without tension. The tensions (apparent contradictions) in the strategy can be an excuse. One of the tricks of communicating a strategy is to communicate the tensions in the strategy, so they are names, understood and lived with. This is true amongst the management team and in the organisation.
You will appreciate, that as a consultant, we don’t talk about the occasional robust debate and tense moments that can happen during this stage.
5.3) Organisational congruence
You also need to beware of situations where the organisation acts as a handcuff to the strategy, as it is not congruent with the new message about your strategy that you are communicating.
Examples are where management systems such as perhaps objective setting, or the planning or budgeting system act against the intention of the strategy. In effect they hold the organisational changes back and act against the strategic intent. These have to be identified and addressed, otherwise no-one will believe the strategy is serious.
One specific danger – an organisation where people like to improve and polish the strategy, rather than get on with it and implement change.
Communicating a strategy with personal and organisational congruence are covered the book. Have a read of the chapter summaries for personal and organisational congruence
6) Communicating bad news
We often have to take tough decisions. Perhaps there is a closure or redundancies are necessary. We must communicate those decisions. People are likely see them as bad news. This sort of communication is not easy. So, here are some specific articles that should help you to design and communicate messages that may be received well:
“The big benefit has been clarity of purpose. You allowed us to approach issues in a less emotional and more systematic way. It makes the debate far more rational.” – Trevor Gibson, Director of Environment and Planning, Peterborough City Council
Some are about the timing of the message: either about when to say something,deciding to leak news of the strategy, or keeping it under wraps? Or about the dangers of announcing the strategy announcement: Sending the organisation into an hypnotic trance.
Here are two articles about announcing redundancies, closures and acquisitions.Communicating tough decisions such as redundancies and closures.Communication during acquisition and due diligence (or not).
Bear in mind the Communicating Strategy heresies: You are always communicating, even if you are not. And people are not stupid.
7) Mistakes to avoid in communication
A series of articles taking real examples of where a strategy communication has gone wrong, and why.
- Boiling down the message too far: You can’t swim in sea salt
- Claiming responsibility for things you do not control
- When a management team disagree: Not even malicious compliance
- Telling some truths, at the wrong time.
- Confusing customers during acquisition. Lessons learnt from
- Does swearing add to the communication of strategy (No is the answer)
You can see the whole ‘Communication mistakes to avoid’ list here.
By the way, the biggest communication mistake is…. Thinking you have already communicated.
8) Ensure you have a strategy that is easily read, presented and understood.
One aspect of our work, that clients particularly value, is our ability to get their strategy on a few pages in as clear, yet rich, as way as possible. This makes it easy to tell the strategy and explain the complexity (without boiling it down too far).
“I used our strategy map in our Town Hall Meeting and it helped to tell the overall story of the strategy and the changes we are making.” – Lindsay Stratton, Managing Director, Unite Modular Solutions
Sometimes we create a strategy document that tells the strategy story effectively.(Note these are strategy documents not strategic plans – they are different)
For instance, we helped The Daisy Consortium get their strategy clear. Bear in mind they consist of over 50 partners, worldwide, seeking to change how books are published to make them far more accessible for disabled people. In doing so they have already influenced the e-book publishing industry. Working with their President we were able to get their strategy onto three and a half pages (albeit in a largish font). Most importantly that strategy clearly set out the challenges they faced, worldwide, how they were to address the issues throughout the standards and publishing industry, and how this would improve the lives of both visually impaired and general readers.
“I have never met anyone with your ability to take a complex situation and turn it into a simple, clear, easy to understand diagram.” – Simone Jordan, Transformation Director, NHS East Midlands
We help the client develop structured maps of their strategy (Strategy maps and tangible futures).
At a manufacturing client, the Chief Executive used the strategy maps to support and explain their strategy to the whole organisation. As the Managing Director put it, “I used our strategy map in our Town Hall Meeting and it helped to tell the overall story of the strategy and the changes we are making.
The Chief Executive in an NHS Workforce Development Confederation (the workforce planning part of Strategic Health Authority), wanted to break through the complex environment she had to influence. We got the essence of their strategy on a single A4 page. So she could explain her strategy to her visitors, an A0 sized version went on her office wall. She later said that the work we did with them as a team, was instrumental in them becoming one of the country’s top performing Workforce Development Confederations across the whole NHS.
“This is the first time the Executive Team have told the story of the strategy, without resorting to detailed thick plans” – Senior Manager, during presentation of strategy by Executive Team
A typical engagement has us creating pictures that explain the strategy (strategy maps) for the organisation and support the telling of the story. Once agreed they are a powerful communication tool. At Peterborough City Council, we helped each executive develop their own map of the strategy, as well as having an organisational view. Using these, the Executive Team were able to present their strategy, using their six strategy maps, to their top 50 executives, in under an hour. The session was described by one attendee as “This is the first time the Executive Team have told the story of the strategy, without resorting to detailed thick plans”.
This is just a part of the work. Often we will help the client develop the strategic plans that sit behind the strategy, again in a format that is easy to read and to maintain. This really helps with the strategic plan which follows, making it much easier to structure the plan around the strategy.
9) Create a systematic programme of communication
Successful executives plan a programme of change, communication, reinforcement and action. They repeat the messages in different ways in different forums, at different times. They create a rhythm of change.
You will no doubt be starting to think about a plan for communicating your strategy. The book is designed in a way that, by the time you reach the end, you have all the material to assemble into a strategy communication plan. And it explains how to assemble it from the exercises you have done as you have gone along.
In case you have not got the book yet, here are six questions that will help you develop your plan for communicating your strategy.
10) Some suggestions for next steps… and a final point…
One final point: We do NOT communicate your strategy – you do. It is your strategy, and your people, and it has to come from you. We might help you get it clear in your head, brief you, coach you, train you, but in the end you will be standing up there, not us. Of course, that is the right way to do it, isn’t it.
Suggestions for next steps you might think about…
- Pick topics above and read through the articles and posts. Make notes as you do.
- Sit back and think through how these aspects (the nine topics above) are being covered by you are your team. Perhaps even score yourselves out of 10 on each aspect. Ask yourself, what is missing.
- Use this analysis to discuss, amongst your Executive team, how well your strategy is being communicated and socialised by you and your team. (Some clients have even bought copies of my book for the whole executive team to read).
- Decide what you should do about it.
- If you want to have a chat, feel free to contact me. There is no obligation.
Get your strategy clear and on a page (or three)
Do you have any doubts about the clarity of your message?
If you want to make sure your strategy is clear, either as a picture or in text, get in touch.
Even if you are not entirely clear as a team, we can help you resolve issues and walk out of the Executive Suite all telling the same story.
To discuss your needs, simply contact us
Strategy communication planning and training
We also coach and train our clients in effective communication of their message, so you tell a compelling story with authenticity.
If you want to be able to burn (or rip up) you plans, simple give us a call. To find out more, simply contact us