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How To Effectively Communicate Your Strategic Plan To Employees
PUBLISHED Nov 4, 2016
You’ve developed your objectives and identified the key elements of your strategic plan. But can you communicate it properly throughout your organization?
The key to developing this understanding at all levels of an organization is effective strategic planning communication. When implementing the Balanced Scorecard or any type of strategic plan, the scope of an organization’s internal communication strategy can make or break the efforts.
With communication being such a prominent driver of strategic success, some organizations may find it helpful to develop a communication plan. A solid communication plan ensures information is being disseminated effectively at all levels.
What Is A Strategic Communication Plan?
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 a internal communication strategy. We’ll walk through both—and then provide you with a four-step plan that will help you better communicate your strategy.
Common Objectives For Your Strategic Plan
- Build awareness of the Balanced Scorecard, or strategic plan, at all levels of the organization
- Provide education on key Balanced Scorecard concepts to all audiences
- Generate the engagement and commitment of key stakeholders in the project
- Encourage participation in the process
- Generate enthusiasm for the Balanced Scorecard and strategic plan
- Ensure that team results are disseminated rapidly and effectively
Key Components For Your Strategic Plan
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.
3 Challenges Your Team May Face Understanding Your Strategic Plan
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 be 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 three common challenges associated with getting teams to understand and adopt your strategy, as well as ideas on how to overcome them.
Challenge 1: No Interaction With The Business Strategy
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.
Here are some simple ways to increase team interaction with the strategy:
- Print your five strategic plan themes on business cards. Ask people to carry it with them—this is called a “pocket strategy.”
- Dedicate internal communications to themes and initiatives. For example, post your five themes in the break room, share success stories in meetings, and shower attention on individuals and projects that represent key areas of the strategic plan.
- Draw a strategy map and post it on the intranet and office walls (perhaps in the shape of a house or other recognizable, catchy graphic). A visual can help people remember different elements of your plan.
Challenge 2: No Connection To The Business 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.
Download Now: The All-Inclusive Management Reporting Guide
These tips can help you connect employees to the strategy:
- Using the business cards from your pocket strategy above, ask teams and departments to circle the themes they contribute to most and write how they contribute. Share these cards in internal meetings.
- Have your executive leaders highlight the contributions of one team or department per month, giving shoutouts to work that is directly supporting the strategy.
- Link your work plans and budget to the strategy. This will connect all of your department activities to the strategic plan. (This isn’t easy, but here’s an article that can help.)
Internal reports can also help connect teams to strategy. The All-Inclusive Management Reporting Guide will show you how.
Challenge 3: No Link Between Current Activities And Future 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.
Here are some quick fixes to link current activities with future strategies:
- Include KPIs and targets in your strategy. Start with a five-year target, then work backward to create KPIs for each year (including the current one), sharing metrics and results along the way.
- Link projects to your strategy. For example, when you are investing in modernizing your infrastructure, explain how recent innovations connect to the strategy.
- Meet regularly and share progress across the organization.
- Organize your strategy with software and share progress results in real time.
Communicating Strategy: 4 Important Lessons
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 is available for purchase through 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 so you can put them in place right away.
Lesson #1: “Don’t rely on written communication alone.”
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 out 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.
Lesson #2: “Make your message clear and relevant.”
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.”
Lesson #3: “Keep communication flowing in both directions.”
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.
Lesson #4: “Tap into the workforce’s vision.”
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.
Communicating Your Strategy To Your Biggest Skeptics
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”?
1. Complex Chris
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.
2. Doubting Deb
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.)
3. Forgetful Fred
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.
4. Siloed Sarah
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.)
All of these suggestions can be described in a word: transparency. 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. If you're looking for more tips, check out our list of the best business strategy articles.
Using ClearPoint software, you can allow your employees to see the strategy, understand the measures and projects that drive this strategy, and interact with the strategy via action items, and reporting. It is accessible in all devices and available in the cloud. Learn more about how you can improve your communication with ClearPoint.