Education and Communications Pathways and Pitfalls
"Communications help to keep people feeling included in and connected to the organization...give people information, and do it again and again." — William Bridges, Managing Transitions: Making the Most of Change
- You need to establish the few core messages you want to communicate throughout your organization. Use any and every communication channel you can to review, remind, and reinforce them. These include:
- Voice and e-mail updates and dialogues
- Recognition and celebration events
- Annual shareholder reports
- Annual improvement reports
- Visits to, from, and among customers and partners
- Special improvement days and fairs that allow teams to display their activities and results
- Orientation and training sessions
- Intranet sites
- Toll-free hot lines and telephone information centers
- Get out and talk to people. Multiple communication channels can and should be widely used to reinforce and support your core messages. But the best way to communicate is in person. The most effective communication approaches are like political campaigns. Leaders are out actively "pressing the flesh" and standing up to present their change and improvement themes and core messages. During times of major change or refocus, we've seen senior managers at some large organizations spend well over one hundred days per year delivering these vital communication messages. That's leadership.
- Develop your "stump speech" or "talking points" among your management team before any of you heads out to give your version to the rest of the organization. This generally includes messages around your Change Drivers, Focus and Context (vision, values, and purpose), key goals and priorities, change/improvement plans, and such.
- Get people together. Get teams together weekly, monthly, and certainly no less than quarterly. That's especially important for management, operational, or improvement teams that aren't in the same building. At my previous consulting company, The Achieve Group, we found frequent face-to-face communications were the most important when we could least afford the time or the money to hold them. We continually find that getting the key players together can turn around most misunderstandings, mistrust, and misdirection. BUT, and here's the "big if" – only if the meetings are well run.
- Develop highly visible scoreboards, bulletin boards, or voice mail, electronic or printed announcements of progress toward team and organization goals and priorities.
- Share all core strategic measurements (including "confidential" financial, and operating data) with everyone in your organization. Treat people like full-fledged business partners and they'll act that way. But don't snow them under with a blizzard of meaningless reports and numbers. Train everyone how to read this data. Show them how to relate the measurements to their daily operations and improvement activities.
- Team education, learning, and communication can be kept simple. In my early management years, I got a lot of mileage from having my team sit around a conference table reading, discussing, and debating selected book passages or articles. This dialogue established a common values and knowledge base that enhanced mutual understanding, teamwork, communications, and context for further training and work together.
- Establish an internal "best practices and good tries" communication system, clearinghouse, or network. A free flow of information and active communications is the lifeblood of a learning organization. Use videos, visits, fairs, Internet sites, voice mail, e-mail, meetings, reports, hot lines, teleconferences, information technologies, and the like.
- Get feedback from your customers and partners on the characteristics of your education and communication strategies, systems, and practices. How many communication channels are you using? Are they clogged or working well? What others could you be using?
- When you're sick of repeating the same core messages over and over again, is about the time that people in your organization are just starting to hear you. First they didn't understand. Then they didn't believe. If you stop repeating yourself now, they'll conclude that you weren't serious after all.
- Just as a marketing professional would never rely on just one marketing channel, don't rely too heavily on the management hierarchy to deliver your core messages. It's full of filters and personal agendas that twist and distort your messages. Yet you can't go around your managers. They need to be central in communicating, reinforcing, and repeating your core themes. So start with them and give them that responsibility. But don't assume it will be delivered as you wanted. That's why personal meetings and multiple communication channels are so important.
- Keep moving your best people to the teams, positions, and parts of the organization that will spread their experience and leadership as broadly as possible. It's also a great way to continue their development.
- Reward and thank people who bring you bad news before it's festered into a catastrophe.
Trust and communication levels go together. Find out how high your organization or team trust levels are. If they're low, find out what's causing the problem. This may be painful. The source of misunderstandings and mistrust is often in the leaders' behavior.
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