Communication in today's more dynamic, volatile and uncertain global business environment is more challenging than ever before, despite the dramatic uptick in technological advancements. Structural and behavioral barriers can drastically impede strategies for communicating a vision for transformation. Regardless of how great that vision might be.
We can draw a simple correlation here to some of the very complex missions I have been on as a Navy SEAL. On one particular mission we were tasked with performing a Direct Action (DA) assault on a two-story apartment building in central Baghdad. The intelligence we had showed that approximately 15 to 20 military age males would be on target, five of them high-value targets we wanted to capture.
We would be using three teams to perform this mission, not to mention coordinating with other traditional military forces in the area, air assets and our Army Ranger quick-reaction force. The assault teams included two platoons of SEALs and a platoon of Polish special forces. My platoon was the primary assault team divided into three UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters. The other SEAL platoon was providing "mobility" support for the Polish team which would be assaulting from the ground, using Humvees as their insert platform .
The Mission Plan
The SEAL mobility team and Polish special forces team would approach the target in four Humvees and perform an explosive breach on the main door at ground level. Simultaneously, we would fast rope onto the roof and breach the rooftop door at the same time. We would clear the second floor while they cleared the first floor and then we would "de-conflict" on the stairs that ran down to center section between the two floors. Simply put, meet in the middle.
This is a powerful way to overwhelm a substantial enemy force barricaded in close quarters such as this, but has some drawbacks if communication isn't seamless. Using this type of strategy can be risky because you need to avoid a friendly fire situation at all costs. When we first started working with the Polish special forces we had to work hard to break down the cultural and literal silos that existed between our teams.
During the first few months, it was like a company that had just formally finished a merger with another organization and then taken on the most important mission either company had ever faced. Without an aligned vision for the mission and seamless communication in chaotic environments, missions like this could have never been successful.
Communication on the Business Battlefield of Change
In a previous article, 6 Principles for Communicating a Powerful Vision for Change, I wrote about how critical communication is during significant - or even smaller - organizational transformation efforts. This seems obvious but in my experience, many companies, regardless of size, get it wrong.
Those principles include keeping the message simple and authentic, using multiple channels and tools, repetition, maintaining consistent behavior among managers and leaders, and gathering feedback along the way.
So what barriers stand in the way of properly communicating a vision for change within an organization? They can be both behavioral and structural.
Structural barriers will include silos, sub-cultures, systems, processes and tools. In last week's article, I took an in-depth look at vertical and horizontal silos and their effect on impeding aligned communication throughout an organization. Eliminating silos all together in most companies is very difficult. But creating a culture where teams are empowered to work across departments and create cross-functional teams with the autonomy to make real-time decisions is when great organizations can move at a faster pace in this ever-changing business landscape.
Working across these organizational silos used to be a new way of thinking thirty years ago - one that was largely championed by Jack Welch, then CEO of GE. His theory - with the speed of globalization and technological innovation in the 21st century, companies and their leaders would need to think and work differently - with shorter decision cycles, more employee engagement, and stronger collaboration than had previously been required to compete.
Fast forward to 2017. Communications technologies have dramatically improved, and we have instantaneous access to massive amounts of information. Welch's vision seems like it should be the new reality for most of today's organization, but it's quite the contrary. Most still have hierarchical, siloed, and fragmented processes and cultures. In fact, in an attempt to cope with this new environment, many companies have inadvertently created even greater internal complexities that make it harder to communicate and get the right people together to make decisions quickly.
Weak Transformation Task Force
Another structural barrier can be a transformation task force (my term for the cross-functional team assigned to leading and evangelizing the change mission) that either has the wrong people, little to no senior leadership involvement, or no real autonomy for taking point and making things happen - or all of the above. In this situation, there aren't the right mix of subject matter experts, influential change agents nor senior leaders involved.
No SOPs (Standard Operating Procedures) For Tool Usage
One of the major problems organizations have when rolling out transformation strategies is alignment on what to communicate and how and when to do it. Many organizations fail at this because the communication is too infrequent and confined to company-wide emails, newsletters and intranets. The issue here is that we live in an age of utter disruption!
In an independent study by Altos Origin, results showed that employees spend approximately 40% of their workweek reading and sending internal emails that add no value to the company. In another study by the University of Glasgow and Modeuro Consulting, they followed the email patterns of a large London-based power company. Results showed that senior executives spent 1.5 hours a day sending, on average, 56 emails. On top of that, when diving deeper, a traditional 80-20 reality emerged. About 80% of the email traffic was deemed useless. The excessive use of email proved to be contagious leading to even more wasted time. And as they say, time is money.
But imagine how difficult it would be to use only these kinds of channels for communicating a change vision. Things quickly get lost in translation amidst all this "information" flow. In one of my companies we did an anonymous survey to find out how many employees actually even read company-wide emails and newsletters. We encouraged transparency and honesty so the results would be authentic. We also asked team members to leave comments supporting their answer.
So you can see the problem here.
Another important fact to point out is that the majority of the Generation Y (Millennials - born between 1980 and 2000) doesn't use regular email that much outside of the workplace. They use social media channels.
Other barriers to successfully communicating an aligned vision for change are more behavioral.
Low Sense of Urgency
Complacency plagues many organizations, especially ones that have significant silo issues. When senior leaders don't create the appropriate amount of urgency behind new initiatives, employees tend to be slow to adopt. They are already busy so if it doesn't really seem like a high priority to the people at the top, why show they break their backs taking on the additional work?
Misalignment in Actions & Messaging
This is another big killer or transformation messaging. When the narrative supporting the vision is misaligned and people in different areas of the company - or in different ranks - are hearing different things, chances are that people will stop paying attention. It gets too confusing and dilutes the authenticity of the message, whichever message is actually the correct one. Usually it becomes tidbits of truth and accuracy mixed with messaging about competing priorities and other agendas.
Low Levels of Trust and Accountability
Here is another serious problem. When trust and accountability don't exist as the bedrock of an organization's culture, you will have a very hard time getting people to pay attention to messaging about a major new change effort, regardless of how aligned that message is. If vertical and horizontal silos exist, senior leaders are doing and saying different things, and information doesn't flow seamlessly throughout the company - that's a good sign trust is low in the first place!
Here's an example...
Let's say for example a large global software company has been going through a series of mergers and acquisitions as part of a major expansion strategy to develop new products, enter new markets and gain significant marketing share in a rapidly changing industry. The president of one of the acquired companies is promoted to Chairman and CEO.
He assembles a task force to tackle some of the new initiatives around culture integration and creating a unified vision. The new initiative is called "Mission Possible" and has a goal of forging one team, with one culture, one fight, and that is unified behind one mission - to become the most customer-centric global SAAS company in the world.
Many great strides are made to get the ball in motion: offsite leadership meetings, company-wide events where the focal point of the transformation is communicated, emails, newsletters, an intranet. As an added effort, a small consulting team is brought in to assist with this major campaign. But during the initial weeks of their involvement, the interviews with senior and mid-level managers reveal some interesting things.
There seems to be alignment at the top, but if you go down a few levels some employees have a vague idea about the vision saying, "It's something to do with focusing on customers right? Not sure, the new mission statement is long and overly complex. Many people aren't really sure what it means exactly or how we will accomplish it. Oh, and senior management just hired someone from outside the organization who will play a major role, but they seem totally misaligned with what we are trying to accomplish." A few rungs lowers some people say, "New vision? Not sure." And horizontally across departments, many know about the new slogan but have very different ideas about what it means.
Is this uncommon? Not at all. So how can organizations avoid all this and get it right from the beginning? In short, do the opposite of the above examples.
It goes back to the six principles I mentioned at the beginning of this article, but with a slightly different spin. I call it the 5 T's of Change Communication.
If people don't accept a vision for change, getting through any of the later stages of the transformation effort will be near impossible. The team won't take advantage of new empowerment nor follow through with new tasks that support the mission. Whether it's poorly communicating a great vision or over communicating a lousy one, you won't get far and resources will be wasted.
Aligned communication must flow seamlessly up, down and across the organization for a change strategy to succeed and its initiatives to become ingrained in the culture.