Communicating Your Strategy

The forgotten fundamental of strategic implementation

2003 Volume 6 Issue 1

The best strategic plans in the world are not likely to be successful if they are not effectively communicated to those who must implement them: the employees.

“Plan your work and work your plan.” ~ Vince Lombardi

This is one of many quotes attributed to one of the sporting world’s most revered strategic thinkers, the former Green Bay Packer coach, Vince Lombardi. In recent decades, strategic gurus and business professionals have made a practice of quoting sports figures’ clichés. However, the quote above effectively boils down two of the three key fundamentals of top-end strategy: planning and execution. The third fundamental, communication, is often omitted or only subliminally implied. Many sports emphasize players’ needs to communicate and work together as a team. Such an emphasis may be the single most transferable notion from the sporting to the business world, yet communication is often left “underdone” or undone.

Global Strategic Perspectives

This work will address viewpoints and communication tools of three global strategic points of view: revolutionaries; framework aficionados; and fundamentalists. Regardless of which global strategic approach a management team decides to take, the one common mechanism required for proper execution of the strategic plan is an effective communication strategy.

Revolutionaries

Getting the word out is certainly critical in the minds of those who believe an organizational revolution is necessary. Without having all of a business’ units in alignment, any hope of successfully re-structuring a company’s business model would be lost. One approach to revolutionizing the way an organization views itself involves the concept of an “organigraph.”[1] The idea behind this technique involves viewing the organization as a set of processes rather than as a hierarchical stratum of power. This view takes the emphasis (and the titles) away from the heretofore-called ‘top management.’

Reorganizing an organizational chart takes a unique kind of CEO; a team player brave enough to metaphorically burn the corporate ladder that he or she has worked so hard to climb for an entire career. Done right, this reorganization could be the communication tactic that proves to be the energizing catalyst necessary to get a company on the track of success.

Alternatively, a leader could choose to follow in the footsteps of Nike. Nike put forth a “Big Hairy Audacious Goal” (BHAG) to “crush Adidas.”[2] John F. Kennedy’s famous BHAG committed the United States to putting a man on the moon by the end of the 60’s. BHAG’s can achieve the ubiquitous power of a virus in getting the desired message out through an organization. A BHAG can be carefully crafted to inspire an organization, yet meticulous about not intimidating those in the organization. When done right, the BHAG can achieve this important balance by energizing the true team players within the organization and weeding out members who are not fully on board with the company’s direction.

It can be said with relative certainty that the average western corporate co-worker is somewhat uncomfortable with the idea of change, let alone a revolution. Most of the time, the very word “change” is associated with such negative events as layoffs and corporate re-organization.[3] However; one fact that remains clear is that change is a necessary part of competing in business. Change is a process of continual renewal and in some cases, revolution. Without this continual renewal, companies die.

Framework Aficionados

In the face of these perpetual cycles of change, some sort of framework must exist upon which a successful business can be built and operated. Framework aficionados insist that this strategic framework is the heart and soul of the organization and that effective communication is crucial to facilitating the developmental processes inherent in maintaining that framework.

There is certainly no shortage of strategic frameworks in the management literature (this current piece included). Authors are constantly coming up with catchy new algorithms and checklists to elicit relevant employee input.[4] Some algorithms have the manager look outward and use processes such as benchmarking; others employ a more introspective method of planning by asking employees a set of open-ended questions to help determine a company’s core competencies.

The downside to using frameworks built around benchmarks or core competencies as a lone competitive tool is that they can easily be copied. However; when combined with special business processes, a company can create a singularly distinctive core capability.[5] Without question, the core capability method is the richest approach to take from a communication perspective because it not only revolutionizes and potentially redesigns resource alignment, but it also has the same effect on the way things are done. The communications design to support such a plan must be equally ambitious.

Fundamentalists

The level of ambition involved in following what are traditionally known as “fundamentals of strategy” varies widely. One popular strategic maxim holds that strategy is simply maintaining operational effectiveness within a competitive position. Some academics contend that today’s hyper-competitive and fluidly dynamic market will not allow this strategic approach to work over the long term. Michael Porter has boiled strategy down to “…choosing to perform activities different [from those that] rivals do.”[6] Another “fundamental” builds uniqueness and strategic fit around the strongest link in a company’s value chain, whereas the value chain itself becomes as strong as this chosen link.[7]

The critical piece in undertaking any such process is making sure that management has some semblance of consensus before moving this strategy out into the general work force. Without this consensus, strong dissonance will likely develop, ultimately leading to the undermining of the strategy as a whole. As a remedy, it is critical that communications about the new strategy and any strategic fit are clearly and concisely broadcast to the work force. One particularly effective method would involve getting the force to self-realize how this new strategic direction will impact their positions. Asking the classic question, “What’s in it for me?” could help lead to development of a communications strategy framework that makes the answer to the question clear to the lay worker.

How Does Communication Fit In?

The foregoing observations beg the question, “Could communication become a strategic advantage, a core competence, or a distinctive capability?” That answer most likely is, “None of the above” since it is the way that companies make use of their communications networks that can help create and maintain strategic advantages.

There is an important sports-related and environmental impact that can mold the way managers see the world. Specifically, it is the special emphasis that many sports put upon the concept of the team. In childhood, scholastic achievement is measured by the perceived efforts and successes of the individual child. Partnering with other students can be discouraged, and is often demonized as cheating.[8] Measuring academic success as such does not lend itself to the development of strong team-building or communication skills. Conversely, children who grow up hearing statements such as, “There is no ‘I’ in TEAM” are expected to live up to that mantra. The positive reinforcement associated with collective victory on the athletic field fosters the development of critical team-building and communication skills.

The societal prominence of those engaged in professional and amateur sports has increased dramatically over the past 50 years, as have the countless sports-to-business analogies. However, the cross-relevance of many sports philosophies into business is undeniable. For example, leaders sometimes refer to themselves as “quarterbacks” or “captains;” a big transaction is referred to as a “home run,” and more often than they might like, business leaders frequently discover that “the ball is in my court.” Much as are quarterbacks or team captains, CEO’s are faced with the tremendous responsibility to ensure that all of the “players” in the “game” are in line.

A Suggested Framework

A communication strategy should be placed on equal footing with all of the business frameworks, fundamentals, and revolutionary strategies that have been espoused throughout the academic and professional worlds. One suggestion for such an approach to communications strategy is as follows:

1. Build the Communications Strategy as a STRATEGY

  • Develop a big-picture communications strategic goal.
    • A vision or mission statement would be useful here.
  • Clearly define objectives.
    • Communications objectives will change over time periods or functional areas, so the manager must make appropriate adjustments.
  • Identify critical tactics.
    • More specific, “WHAT do you want to get WHERE?” This step can provide a good metric for feedback and evaluation of the program.
  • Incorporate the appropriate feedback loop.
    • Measure results versus objectives and tactics; make appropriate adjustments; and improve.

2. Understand the Communication Channels Chosen

  • Recognize limitations of various channels:
    • If your employees are checking email via a dial-up connection, it may not be a good idea to send important communications via large, slide show presentations that take a long time to open.
  • Match the channel to the desired level of interaction and feedback needs:
    • Video conferencing may be appropriate for higher levels of strategic development, while a simple memo may suffice for issuing new company policy.
  • Multiple channels may be necessary:
    • Different functional areas may have differing circumstances, or levels of involvement that may call for use of an alternate communications channel (i.e. in-person task force vs. electronic polling).

3. Apply the Appropriate Packaging Technique

  • Using the language of the end-user will aid pull-through and execution.
    • This tactic will lend credibility to the piece since the employee will recognize that management sees that such users have a distinct point of view.
  • Well-constructed communications provide an opportunity to disseminate and reinforce corporate culture:
    • The importance of this cannot be underestimated. Each and every communication adds to the employee’s view of the organization; make every communication count.
  • Finally, avoid pandering to the “Lowest Common Denominator”:
    • Some mangers fall into this trap because they feel the chain is only as strong as its weakest link. However, all such a tactic as this does is fail to challenge and enrich employees at each and every skill level. This tip is especially useful in training functions. Don’t be afraid to challenge the laggards to catch up to the high performers

This communications plan must recognize that organizations are made up of social, communicative human beings who can achieve great things together only after they recognize that it is to their benefit to come together cooperatively and communicatively. If there is a modern day Vince Lombardi, it would likely be the Lakers’ coach, Phil Jackson. Mr. Jackson now earns $100,000 per speaking engagement, often speaking to business managers about the value of teamwork and the challenges of team building. While Mr. Lombardi focused on planning and execution, Mr. Jackson speaks of the need to “give one’s self for the benefit of the team.” Just be sure to know how to get the word out about where your team is headed!


[1] Henry Mintzberg and Ludo Van der Hayden, “Organigraphs: Drawing How Companies Really Work,” Harvard Business Review, (Sept.-Oct. 1999), pp 87 – 94.

[2] James Collins and Jerry Porras, “Building Your Company Vision,” Harvard Business Review, (Sept.- Oct. 1996), pp. 65-77.

[3] Gary Hamel, “Strategy as Revolution,” Harvard Business Review, (Jul.-Aug. 1996), pp 69-82.

[4] Constantinos Markides, “A Dynamic Look at Strategy,” Sloan Management Review, (Spring 1999), pp. 55-63. Donald hambrick and James Fredrickson, “Are You Sure You Have a Strategy?” Academy of Management Executive, 35 (4), (2001), pp. 48-60.

[5] Carl Long and Mary Vickers-Koch, “Using Core Capabilities to Create Competitive Advantage,” Organizational Dynamics, (Summer 1995).

[6] Michael Porter, “What Is Strategy?” Harvard Business Review, (Nov. – Dec. 1996), pp. 61-78.

[7] ibid.

[8] Jeffery Pfeffer, “Understanding Power in Organizations,” California Management Review, (Winter 1992), pp. 29-50.

About the Author(s)

Jake Laban, MBA

Jack C. Green, PhD, is a professor of strategy and department chair of Strategy, Entrepreneurship, Information Systems & Technology Management at Pepperdine University's Graziadio School of Business and Management. Prior to his transition to academia, he had 28 years of management experience at Weyerhaeuser Company, Pacific Enterprises, and Southern California Gas Company (a subsidiary of Pacific Enterprises). In 1995, he received his PhD from Claremont Graduate University in executive management with an emphasis in strategic management. He was a member of the Los Angeles County Quality and Productivity Commission for ten years and was its chairman for five. Dr. Green's research focus is on governance of nonprofit organizations and on the use of simulations in MBA curricula. His consulting activity focuses on nonprofit organizations and for-profit businesses including the use of simulations for Management Training.