In a smoke and beer-filled room in Freshers Week I had a revelation. Angels sang and the clouds parted. I’d discovered the meaning of life…
And it was communication.
I was about to start a communications degree, so you’d think I’d have held this belief for some time. But I’d been under no illusions, telling myself that I’d chosen a bit of a Mickey Mouse qualification. I envied the unspoken purposefulness of the medics, the architects, the IT dudes.
But hang on, I realised… How does a patient tell their GP what’s wrong with them without words of some form? How can a building be constructed without plans? How can an application be created without programming language?
In your face, geeks – it’s all about communication!
Good communication is crucial
Fast forward 25 years and you’ll still find me on my soap box. I strongly believe that good communication is crucial to any job. It enables us to understand the purpose of our role, what we ultimately need to achieve, how we’ll get there and whether we’ve got it right. Can you think of a job this doesn’t apply to in some way?
This is especially true at organisational level. When strategising, senior leaders often say “We’ll worry about communicating it later,” but the narrative is intrinsic to the thinking. It’s how leaders can ensure there’s shared understanding, focus and buy-in at every stage.
Here are the ‘Five Ps’ I believe need to be clearly articulated from the onset.
1. The problem
How do we know it’s a problem? Why’s it up to us to solve the it? Why does it matter whether we’re successful or not? What would the world look like if the problem went away? This needs to be set out unambiguously, so everyone’s agreed on the challenge.
2. The principles
These should reflect the organisation’s core values, and need to be agreed upfront. What level of change are we prepared to make? How much risk can we tolerate? What is the scale of the ambition? What money is available? All this needs to be set out before any potential strategies can be considered.
3. The players
While establishing the principles, we’ll have determined to what extent customer or beneficiary voice will shape the strategy. Is this a bottom-up process? Or top-down, informed by experts in the sector? Or a co-production, harnessing input from all stakeholders?
If others are to be involved, we’re already at the point where we need a compelling strategy vision, however rudimentary. The likelihood is that they’ve got other priorities, so why’s it important for them to engage with this mission?
4. The plan
What has already been done to address the problem? What are the limitations of and learnings from the current approaches? What could we – and the other stakeholders we’ve identified – do differently and how will we do it?
Can the problems and solutions be packaged into ‘chunks’ to make them more digestible and manageable? How do the ‘chunks’ relate and feed into each other?
Alzheimer’s Society, for example, divide their strategy into three parts: ‘New deal on support’, ‘New deal on society’ and ‘New deal on research’. The language is clear, consistent and inspiring, with ‘New deal’ evoking the ideas of change and commitment in three defined areas.
What will need to change, in terms of activities, roles and resourcing? What’s the cost, and how should spend be spread across the strategic period? This is where the details start to emerge – the strategic plan and budgets.
But a well-written synopsis is also crucial at this stage. It captures the essence of the strategy, enabling staff, board members, supporters and volunteers to process and describe the ambition and plans themselves – to understand the part they play and bring others with them.
5. The progress
How will we know whether we’ve been successful – whether we’ve delivered the impact we’re striving for? How will we track and share our progress? How will we celebrate?
Which brings me back to one drink too many in the campus bar. Little did I know that all these years later I’d be bending the ear of anyone who’ll listen – and a few who won’t – about communication being at the centre of everything.
OK, there can’t be a communications specialist in every discussion, but it’s so important for someone to champion that perspective – defining the problem, players, principles, plan and progress in a way that inspires action.
Does your organisation believe this and, if not, can you picture the difference it could make if it did?
This was originally written as a guest blog for Sarah Browning, of internal comms specialists Browning York.