The Challenges of Communicating Strategic Direction – Don’t Bother With the Mouse Mats

In our ndc report “Does Your Culture Support Your Strategy?” a third of senior leaders suggested that communication needs attention and just over a quarter, that alignment with strategy needed improving. So what’s to be done here?

In our years of working with Strategy and Culture, we see clients cascading strategic messages – power points are pushed down through the organisation and mouse mats are distributed. And then they find they are disappointed with the lack of understanding around the organisation. What is going on here?

Firstly, the existing culture has a selective dynamic all of its own. No matter what is communicated, if it is thrown into the existing culture, then only those messages that fit will be embedded and others will be watered down or ignored. Joyce Fletcher explores this in her book Disappearing Acts where she finds organisations make things “disappear”, yes, it is almost magical – we see it every day – things that are said and done in meetings or by email, are artfully ignored and eventually forgotten about. We say we are too busy, prioritise other things, we are busy being busy. Ralph Stacey furthers this point by suggesting that there are conversational themes we choose to “amplify” and those that are left to flounder. We tend to ignore things that are culturally unacceptable – however, as we live in our culture, we often aren’t aware of the forces at work. In short, the power of the current culture may lead to new ideas being lived out in the old style culture, “old wine, new bottles” so nothing fundamentally changes. And this can be invisible to us.

At ndc, we find clients can get caught in the trap of thinking individual understanding is enough for culture to adapt and change; this is where the mouse mats sit. But, Cultures are built on shared meaning not individual understanding. It’s about investing time with your people to have genuine dialogue about what this bunch of words means to their part of the organisation, their context and their culture.
Being clear about how your people collectively live your strategy makes business sense. If we take the high street as an example, customer focus, means a myriad of things to different companies. These varied experiences are directly aligned to the strategy of the organisation and brought to life through their culture. The customer service culture in Aldi and Waitrose differ as their offerings are aligned to their strategic competitive advantage – one is a lean business and the other is about luxury. They are clear and it is this clarity that has led to sustained success for both these award winning, quality, businesses. These are examples of shared meaning in action, where these questions are answered every day:

“How will this message be lived here in our organisation by me and us?”
“How do we enact our consistency of purpose in our meetings, in our communications, in our post room/restaurant and accounting department and in our leadership?”

It’s this deceptively tricky stuff that makes the difference. No amount of slides or mouse mats will create shared meaning, it requires conversations at all levels of the organisation to generate a collective “glue of understanding” from which we can all enact the new strategy. As you can tell, this isn’t linear; it takes time, investment and trust. This iterative stuff requires courageous leadership to hold steady and resist the calls to do do do, or else we are in danger of doing the same old stuff. If we are able to be together, to hold steady, to listen and make sense together, then the power of collective understanding can drive phenomenal market advantage. In our experience, an organisation needs a tipping point of about 33% of the people on board to begin this journey. And you can save on the mouse mats!

If you would like to see a full copy of our report, please email lisapeach@ndculture.com

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