Long-term, rock solid strategic plans may be relics of the past, but future scenario planning is in vogue. One of Communications most critical tasks is to communicate strategy so that employees work in alignment with the company’s key priorities.
Today, as priorities shift frequently and employees are overwhelmed with information, it’s harder than ever to not only communicate the company strategy, but fully enable it to be implemented through good communication.
If you really want your strategy to stick, we think that you need to create a forum for conversation with and among employees that focuses on what’s behind the strategy; that is, the market context and assumptions that underpin it. After all, employee understanding of this important, but little discussed information is a top-three driver of employee agility.
To consider the difference, let’s explore two alternative communication approaches to strategy kickoffs—a common vehicle used to “share strategy”. In the first, the strategy is communicated at a large town hall. In the second, the assumptions or influences on the strategy are used to generate conversation among employees and enable them to make decisions daily in line with strategy.
The Straightforward Approach
At Company A, the Communications team organizes a major strategy kickoff session at the beginning of each year. Employees at headquarters crowd into an auditorium while those at regional offices dial-in to listen to the standard hour-long teleconference. The CEO and his cadre of senior leaders run through the company’s top four or five priorities for the year. In sparse PowerPoint slides, they explain the “why” behind the strategy and paint a picture of what success will look like. Bold, energizing statements like “In five years, we will be the number one retailer of socks in Brazil!” flow freely.
As the hour draws to a close, the CEO asks employees if they have any questions. Rare, however, is the organization where an employee questions and challenges a strategy in a room with peers and her manager. And so, the strategy effectively communicated, employees race back to their desks and full Outlook inboxes, and pick up where they left off, the new strategy already a vague memory.
The Scenario Planning Approach
At Company B, the Communications team asks Robert, the CEO, when they should schedule the annual strategy kickoff. Robert shakes his head and laments, “Not this year, guys. The environment’s too uncertain. Our strategy could—and probably should—change tomorrow. Let’s just skip it this year.”
Sensing Robert’s despair, one savvy communicator, Linda, suggests a radical idea. “Wait a minute. It sounds like this is the perfect time to get our employees together and have a conversation about our company strategy.”
Robert is quick to reject the idea, “I can’t expect our employees to create our company strategy! That’s what they pay me to do.”
Linda clarifies her plan, “I agree with you, but what I am suggesting is a bit different. What if instead of presenting our 4-pronged company strategy, we shared all of the inputs that you, as the CEO, consider when you set the strategy? Maybe if employees knew what you were basing decisions on, they’d make better decisions themselves?”
Robert furrows his brow for a moment, and then raises his eyebrows in consideration. “Okay, okay. I could see how this might work. What I’m not sure about is what, exactly, I should share with employees. Any ideas?”
“Let’s use something that you’re familiar with, the basic 2×2 scenario plan,” Linda suggests.
“Easy enough! I know our Strategy team already has a future scenario plan mapped out,” Robert remarks as he pulls up the 2×2 on his computer screen.
On the screen is a sharp, easy-to read 2×2 scenario plan. It’s the product of the Strategy team wondering which factors will have the most influence on corporate strategy. Economic, demographic, technological, competitive, regulatory, and organizational factors have all been considered; however, just regulatory and competitive influences will be the most critical for the company to base its decisions on.
Linda and Robert get to work preparing for a conversation unlike he’s ever had with employees. Instead of preparing talking points, the pair brainstorm potential questions to ask employees as well as prepare for those likely to be asked by employees.
At the strategy kickoff, Robert and his team present a slimmed down version of the 2×2 scenario planning exercise. They delve into the cause and effects of relationships in the company’s value chain. They ponder aloud potential trends in each area and their implications. They never say “This is exactly where we are headed.” Instead they openly share what information is being monitored and considered as they make adjustments.
“Now you know what we know,” Robert says to signal the close of the session. “We expect you to surface anything you see that contradicts or supports the trends that we’ve shared here. To those of you who are managers, I want you to have conversations with your team about these strategy assumptions. We’re all responsible for guiding this company forward.”
How You Can Engage Employees in Strategy through Scenario Planning
Do you see the difference? Company B has equipped its entire employee population with the information necessary to not only make better decisions, but also to contribute relevant feedback back to the organization. Company A has simply convened an assembly that most employees tune out; they’re unable to see why they should care.
CEC members, you can be the savvy communicator at Company B, and we can help:
- Walk through an example of a real-life scenario planning exercise conducted by Eli Lilly.
- Help your leaders share these assumptions in dialogue sessions by using Saudi Aramco’s method for making the “big picture” relevant to employees.
CEC Related Resources
- Engage Employees in Strategy through Scenario Planning
- Strategy Assumptions Matrix (Lilly)
- Arm Employees with Information to Solve Problems
- Information Needs Assessment Process (ConAgra Foods)
- Information Personalization Session (Saudi Aramco Downstream)
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