Everyone from the mahogany row to the mailroom needs to understands with crystal clarity exactly how what they do contributes to overall company strategy. For this kind of communication, specific types of visuals are worth far more than words.
I learned this lesson years ago, during a project focused on the new hotel opening process for a major hotel brand. I was brought in as the relationship expert to help them improve a rather complicated set of processes. As I got to know all the moving parts and resource allocation required to achieve the opening of a new hotel, I was astonished. If you’re a franchisee who just signed the agreement, you have to break ground, manage construction, develop branding, install and learn the technology, and hire and train your staff, just to get to the point of accepting reservations by the central reservation system and accommodating guests.
In that consulting engagement, I learned that a hotel opening is a two-year process that touches a dozen different functional groups inside the hotel company. The project plans for managing all those processes listed massively convoluted dependencies, phrased in terminology that mixed industry jargon with the company’s own unique vernacular. To anybody outside the company, it might as well have been Portuguese. To simplify all that complexity, I brought in an information visualization expert. (The best way to describe what these specialists do is to think of the safety pamphlet in an airline seat pocket. Everything about what to do in an emergency is clearly conveyed through pictures.)
More recently I worked with another client facing a similar dilemma—a set of complicated processes, wrapped in company and industry jargon, describing a strategy that sounded good but conveyed no clear mental image. Once again, information visualization mastery saved the day.
From these experiences and others like them, I’ve distilled three best practices for communicating anything that may be particularly complicated:
- Be crystal-clear about your vision and the path to get there. One of my favorite definitions of strategy is, “the best possible choices for the best possible outcomes.” On any given day, any individual in your company must decide what to work on from among a mind boggling array of choices. For those individuals to repeatedly choose actions that advance the company strategy, each needs a crystal-clear understanding of your vision of where you’re going and the path that will get you there. Leaders must create and crystallize that vision and the employees cannot follow you, if they don’t understand where the ship is headed!
- Cascade it down to the rest of the organization. How you talk about vision and path must be simple, clear, concise, and devoid of corporate MBA-speak. If there is jargon like “decisioning” lurking in there, chase it out. Strategy matters most at the front line, where day-to-day thinking, actions, and behaviors most directly affect customer experiences. If the front line doesn’t understand the vision and path, if they can’t internalize it, and if they can’t apply it in their daily tasks, it doesn’t matter what mahogany row thinks, espouses, or dictates.
- For maximum stability, build it on three legs. You may have noticed that politicians typically have no more than three talking points, e.g. “Education, taxes, trade.” It doesn’t matter what question they are asked; they’ll bring it back to those three core messages. That’s exactly what a company strategy should do: focus on no more than three messages, and bring them into every conversation.
My counsel is to make one “leg” about your company’s people component; one about the quality of the products and services you deliver; and one that links people and quality offerings to impact on customers. If “This is a great place to work” is your core “people” message, then describe how you will attract the next generation workforce, empower them with the right skills and tools, and then invest in their development. Those three examples show the path to your vision.
Neuroscience tells us that people are hardwired to understand the world through stories; narratives are at the root of our ability to communicate and understand what’s going on around us. Stories that can easily be represented with concrete images, like the mother putting on her mask before aiding her child on that airline safety card, are the most effective of all. Use definitive, specific examples to cascade your crystal-clear vision and path throughout the company, in the form of an easily visualized three-part message.
I have observed a definitive distinction between those who perform these best practices consistently and those who don’t. Those who do, choose stories that unify the message around what I call a “common mission, vision, or enemy.” An example of a “common mission” is exceptional customer experiences. “Exceptional” is better than good; it sets the bar high. “Experiences” is plural; you can’t deliver an exceptional customer experience for one customer and ignore all the others. “Creating exceptional customer experiences” can catalyze strategic action. An example of “common enemy” could be over-legislation. “We are going to fight all the regulation that chokes the life out of small business in this country.” Whatever common mission, vision, or enemy you choose, it will tie the three legs of your stool together in a rock-solid foundation.
Once articulated, represent your vision graphically and disseminate it. Now the challenge and the opportunity becomes, how do you avoid it becoming an “event”—experienced, then filed away? Anything filed away is unlikely to get traction. Senior leaders must open every conversation, every communication, with this image, so that it gets imprinted in people’s psyche. In companies where this is done consistently, I can randomly ask 15 different people why they do what they do, and everybody up, down and across the organization will refer to the three legs of the stool as they tell me how their actions contribute to progress toward the company’s vision.
I have become such a believer in the power of images to articulate strategy that the Nour Group is launching an Information Visualization practice. Watch what happens next!
- To communicate strategy memorably, use clear language that evokes concrete mental images.
- Three best practices for communicating strategy are: Crystallize a vision and path; cascade it throughout the organization; and distill it down to no more than three specific concepts that can be represented with images.
- Unify your message around a common mission, vision, or enemy, with vivid stories and images, and communicate it at every possible occasion.
David Nour has spent the past two decades being a student of business relationships. In the process, he has developed Relationship Economics® – the art and science of becoming more intentional and strategic in the relationships one chooses to invest in. In a global economy that is becoming increasingly disconnected, The Nour Group, Inc. has worked with clients such as Siemens, Disney, KPMG and over 100 other marquee organizations in driving profitable growth through unique return on their strategic relationships. Nour has pioneered the phenomenon that relationships are the greatest off balance sheet asset any organizations possesses, large and small, public and private. He is the author of several books including the best selling Relationship Economics – Revised (Wiley), ConnectAbility (McGraw-Hill), The Entrepreneur’s Guide to Raising Capital (Praeger) and Return on Impact – Leadership Strategies for the age of Connected Relationships (ASAE). Learn more at www.NourGroup.com.