With communication being such a prominent driver of strategic success, you may find it helpful to develop a communication plan to ensure information is being disseminated effectively at all levels. In this article, we’ll explain the goals and main elements of a strong strategic communication plan, and discuss how you can overcome some of the main challenges you’re likely to face as you work to get everyone on the same page.
A strategic communication plan is a written plan outlining communication to your team on your organization's objectives. This plan is deliberate with messages and tactics used to help engage employees with your strategy and fuel performance success for your organization.
In his book Balanced Scorecard: Step-By-Step for Government and Nonprofit Agencies, Paul Niven outlines common objectives and key elements for developing an internal communication strategy.
Before creating a plan, Niven recommends putting some thought into your rationale for doing so. What is the overriding objective of your communication strategy? Is it to:
As an example, Niven provides Nova Scotia Power’s communication objective:
“To present the concepts of the Balanced Scorecard to the key constituents involved in both sponsoring and providing input to the implementation, and to provide all involved with regular updates regarding the team’s progress during the implementation.”
This objective clearly states who communication should be directed to and what the content should say, both of which will serve as guideposts for all future strategy-related communications.
When formulating a communication plan, Niven recommends the “W5” approach to determine the key elements of your plan: who, why, what, when, and where.
Who refers to both the target audience and the communicator. Depending on the scope of your implementation, you should define the appropriate groups to be involved in the process. These groups make up your target audience. After the target audience has been specified, a communicator should be assigned to each group with the task of effectively disseminating the message.
The why and what in this equation can be understood as the purpose or message. The communication plan’s purpose is to convey the original objective behind implementing the plan. This could take the form of a common objective listed above, such as “generate the engagement and commitment of key stakeholders in the project.” What are we doing and why? We are implementing the communication plan to generate engagement and commitment from key stakeholders.
When should you communicate the message? The needs of your target audience will determine the necessary frequency of communication. If you are unsure about the amount of communication needed, it is always better to err on the side of too much. In his article “Leading Change,” John Kotter says, “without credible communication, and a lot of it, employees’ hearts and minds are never captured.”
Where and how are you supposed to communicate? Effective communication often takes a large amount of effort and, more often than not, the message needs to be repeated several times. In order for employees to fully understand the strategy and the ways in which they contribute to success, Dr. Robert Kaplan suggests communicating the plans “seven times in seven ways.” This might mean making use of brochures, speeches, newsletters, videos, company website or intranet, workshops, etc. Any channel that has the ability to reach the target audience could be used; it could even take the form of internal blog posts at your organization.
Communication is a two-way street, so don’t forget to ask for feedback from others and to provide it as well. Remember, communicate effectively and communicate often.
Have you ever been at work and overheard (or been directly asked), “Why are we doing this project?” or “Why did we stop focusing on this activity?” These seem like innocent questions, but as a strategy manager or executive leader, you might start to worry. The answers are in your strategic plan, and whether it was just rolled out last week or is in your plan from three years ago, your team should be using it as a resource for these kinds of questions—not operating in the dark.
If this situation sounds familiar, it’s time to take a step back and look at whether everyone understands your strategic plan. Below are five things that could be standing in the way of getting your teams to understand and adopt your strategy, as well as ideas on how to overcome them.
If you polled everyone in your company, how many people could name the key themes or priorities in your strategic plan without going to the intranet? If the answer is just a few, you may not be doing enough to make employees aware of it.
It’s common for teams to learn about a strategic plan via an orientation session or executive memo, which likely happens only once a year or quarter. Most employees don’t interact with the strategy or have any knowledge of it beyond this communication, making it easy to forget.
Try the following to increase team interaction with the strategy:
Employees may be interacting with strategic initiatives every day, but that doesn't mean they understand how their role connects to the strategy itself. If team members struggle to make an association between their daily work and the five-year direction of the organization, they won’t understand or remember much of the strategic plan.
To help connect employees to the strategy:
Strategies are typically visions five years into the future of an organization. Should you wait until the end of those five years to reevaluate your strategy? Obviously not, but some organizations end up in this boat purely by lack of foresight. If you’re not consistently linking what your organization does currently with your long-term vision of the future, it will weaken the relevance of your strategic plan.
Try the following to help link current activities with future strategies:
Sometimes just talking about a strategy isn’t enough—you need to sell the idea of it to get buy-in. Your executives might be pumped after long and lengthy strategy discussions, but anyone who wasn’t involved in the higher-level thinking might require some motivation to get on board. You’ll need to find ways to engage everyone and get them excited about making the plan work.
The following tactics can help motivate your employees to execute strategy:
Strategic plans are devised by leadership teams, but employees are the ones who carry out the daily work. To get and maintain buy-in from them—and perhaps gain some valuable perspective your leaders haven’t thought of—give everyone opportunities to react, ask questions, and contribute feedback.
In a previous post, we identified the four types of strategy skeptics you’re bound to run into and how to help them get on board with your plan. But what do you say to those individuals if they need that extra “nudge”?
Chris thrives on making processes far more complex than they actually need to be. When Chris creates a complex report or process, he enjoys the feeling of accomplishment and likes being depended upon.
“What should I say to help Chris simplify his processes?”
You may consider sending out a pre-read of your reports so no one in management is confused or frustrated with complicated information during a meeting. On top of that, you’ll need to remind Chris that the number-one goal of strategy reporting is to provide clear, relevant information necessary to the management team so they can make decisions. Express to him that the information he provides should be relevant, reliable, and clear. For example, explain to him that charts shouldn’t take more than 5-10 seconds to decipher—and that data tables shouldn’t have an overwhelming number of columns or rows. You also may want to give Chris a simple standard he needs to adhere to based on what he’s in charge of. That alone could prevent unnecessary complexity.
Deb doesn’t ever feel comfortable with the data being presented and brings her doubts up regularly—making it difficult for everyone in the department to stay on the right track.
“What should I say to help Deb trust the data?”
Presenting information as consistently as possible may help Deb benchmark results month-to-month and feel more confident overall. If Deb still isn’t confident in your data or results despite this, it’s time to turn the tables and begin asking her some questions prior to your next report. Pull Deb aside and ask her to walk through some of the metrics she’s skeptical about. Explain to her that you want to be sure your data is valid and bring up any of her solid ideas from previous meetings. You may also want to implement a few rules on when someone can voice their doubts regarding the data validity. For example, tell Deb that it’s fine to bring up concerns before the meeting, but not during.
Once you’ve explained where your data comes from, Deb will either be satisfied and agree with the validity or you’ll get insight into her real concerns about data validity. For example, Deb may tell you that she’s skeptical because your data sources aren’t open for everyone in the organization to view. In that case, you may want to consider ways to be more transparent with your data. (Note that if you use good reporting software, you can add your formulas and data sources online next to the charts.)
Fred doesn’t ever follow through on his offers to assist with an initiative, which makes it very difficult for everyone else to do their job successfully.
“What should I say to help Fred complete his tasks on time?”
Fred needs to be held accountable for the task he was assigned. The next time Fred misses a deadline or “forgets” he was assigned to a particular project or initiative, take the time to explain why accountability is such a critical part of a successful strategy implementation. If this issue persists, you may want to consider implementing software that will assign out ownership of measures and projects. This may help Fred complete his work in a more timely fashion.
Teamwork isn’t something that comes easily to Sarah, and she doesn’t see the point in working with other departments.
“What should I say to help Sarah work well with others?”
Creating cross-functional teams can help Sarah step outside of her comfort zone. Give her some real-life examples of how working on a cross-functional team improved a process or helped an organization or department come up with a new idea. For example, if you’re a municipality, tell her a story of how someone in parks and recreation worked with someone in the police department to develop a process for communicating which parks need maintenance for issues that could cause safety hazards. Or, if you’re a software-as-a-service organization, you probably have a story about how someone from the development team helped automate the solution to a problem your sales team was working through. (Note: If you use ClearPoint, you could make Sarah a “collaborator” on multiple projects so that she can see her connection to other work that relates to the strategy.)
Included in the May–June 2007 Balanced Scorecard Report is an article written by business writer Lauren Keller Johnson called “Common Sense in Strategy Communication: Four Lessons from Canon USA.” (This article was obtained from the Harvard Business Review store.)
In her article, Johnson discusses four lessons that can be learned from the way Canon USA communicated its strategic plan throughout the company—a strategy that won them a place in the Balanced Scorecard Hall of Fame. These lessons are highly applicable to any organization, so we’ve summarized them below (and added one more of our own!) so you can avoid some of the initial bumps in creating your own strategic communications plan.
Present the strategic plan in many different ways.
Your employees all absorb information differently. So, for example, if you only use posters to convey your communication strategy and have some employees who aren’t visual learners, those employees won’t be affected. Or, if you only send an email explaining the strategy in a long, drawn-out way, employees who routinely ignore long emails won’t be affected. Case in point—be sure you present your strategic plan in many different ways. You should use a mix of video, audio, visual, and written strategy communication to employees so everyone can learn about the plan in the way that is best for them.
Be creative with how you present your plan.
For example, Canon USA created “Strategy in Action: Canon Americas’ Strategy Playbook.” This playbook featured a color-coded version of the corporate strategy map and was designed by a graphic artist who had worked for USA Today. Consider doing something similar in your organization for a unique spin on your communication strategy.
Define your strategic terms.
For example, if “customer” is one of the key terms in your strategy, consider defining it outright. In other words, don’t assume your employees know exactly who your customers are and why you’re targeting them.
Use crystal-clear language.
Using industry-specific acronyms may seem “smarter” or “easier”—but it is actually just the opposite. For example, the Canon USA strategy map doesn’t talk about “maximizing ROA.” Instead, it encourages employees to “find ways of lowering the cost of doing business,” “work together,” and “make Canon number one in all businesses.” Additionally, try to cut out any useless, jargon-laden phrases like “leveraging talent” or “optimizing strategy.”
Develop venues for bottom-up communication.
Do your employees know you want them to provide you with feedback? If you don’t have any defined venues for this bottom-up strategic planning communication, they probably don’t. Or, at the very least, they don’t know how to go about providing you with that feedback. Consider the best avenue for constructive feedback based on your organizational structure and put it into place as soon as possible.
Be open to suggestions from the workforce.
It’s one thing to have a strategic plan—and another thing entirely to find out how that plan is affecting your employees. If the leadership team is able to put themselves in the shoes of lower-level employees and see the strategy at work from their perspective, the leadership will be more willing to consider new and updated solutions to problems.
After you set your strategic plan, you need to be willing to make adjustments when necessary. Be sure to stay in tune with what is and isn’t working properly, and realize that you may need to step back and alter your strategic plan based on the feedback you’re getting.
Last but not least is a lesson that stems from our own experience, which is:
Provide a continuous stream of information to keep people interested and engaged. It isn’t enough to touch on strategy only once every six months, or even once a quarter. Instead, bring it to the forefront frequently. Encourage departmental teams to meet once a week to review their KPIs and discuss departmental strategy in connection with the organization’s overall plan. As an organization, try to meet monthly.
Keep it simple.
The more frequently you communicate results the simpler your communications should be—you can’t expect people to spend hours analyzing Excel spreadsheets every week. (Nor do you want to be stuck in a loop creating them!) Make use of a streamlining strategy software tool like ClearPoint. Not only will it enable you to share visually attractive dashboards that show the most important KPI statuses at a glance, but you’ll also leave the hard work of generating reports to the software, which does that automatically and distributes reports on a predetermined schedule.
Bringing a strategic plan to fruition is a complicated endeavor; our mission is to simplify the process so you can get the job done. Not only do we provide an easy-to-use platform to communicate your plans and progress, but we also simplify the tasks associated with strategy reporting.
Using ClearPoint, you can:
All those capabilities allow you to make strategy information visible and transparent for everyone in your organization—the stuff of strong communication. If you make it easy for your employees to both access the strategic plan information and provide you with constructive feedback, you’re going to see far more strategic success.
Interested in taking a tour of our software? Contact us and let us know what time works best for you. We can’t wait to show you around!