Proper internal communication can help to not only empower an organization to be more strategic, but also to be more connected.
Through my consulting work, I’ve realized the main thing keeping organizations from successfully implementing strategic plans is effective internal communication. It’s not that leadership doesn’t have the ability to think strategically. It’s not that employees don’t know how to implement strategies. It’s not that the day-to-day gets in the way. It is that the organization’s executives, middle managers, and frontline employees aren’t communicating well with one another. However, there are ways to address this problem early in the strategic planning process to ensure a more successful execution of the plan later.
THE STRATEGIC PLANNING PROCESS
First, it’s helpful to provide the definition of a strategic plan. A strategic plan is a guiding, visionary document highlighting the specific goals and actions that differentiate an organization and lead to reaching the overarching business objective.
Second, there are four main phases of internal communication to consider when it comes to successfully crafting and implementing a strategic plan:
- Before you start
- During the creation
- After the plan is created
- Every day after that
Typically, the strategic planning process takes place at the ownership, executive management, and/or board of directors level. This makes sense because the people in these roles should have the deepest knowledge, experience, and skills to craft a longer-term visioning document for the organization. These people also have better access to the key data and insights needed to make high-level, intentional decisions for the organization and are accustomed to communicating with one another.
Often, these people “at the top” are also likely the most distant from the customers and front lines of an organization’s work. This could be problematic because leaders may not have a good understanding of customers’ needs, wants, expectations, and experiences (and how these things may have evolved recently). So it’s imperative to involve, get input from, and communicate with middle managers and frontline employees prior to starting the strategic planning process. They can help the organization’s leaders gain a better sense of customers’ behaviors and desires.
One way to implement this top-down communication is to hold a “town hall” meeting with the entire staff and/or send an internal online survey to gather their insights. It’s important for leaders to explain to the staff why they want their input, how it will be used in creating a strategic plan, and when they will be asking for additional input along the way.
After company leaders have collected input from all employees (and maybe customers too), the actual creation of the strategic plan can begin. Knowing all that goes into a strategic plan will help craft the questions you ask of employees beforehand. An effective strategic plan indicates not only what actions will be performed to distinguish your organization from others, but also what the organization will not do. Early in the process of creating the plan, leaders should ensure the company’s vision, mission, and values are still meaningful and relevant. From there, setting out a clear, measurable business challenge should follow. Then, you can get into establishing areas of focus and corresponding goals/success metrics, key initiatives, action plans, timelines, and roles/responsibilities.
As you work on finalizing these key elements of the plan, consider running a draft of the plan by middle managers and employees to get their input. It’s likely they will be the ones doing much of the work anyway, so it would be great to have their buy-in during the process. That way, they feel included in creating the strategy. Middle managers and frontline employees may also have additional great ideas or suggest a different way of looking at elements of the plan. Their input is extremely valuable at this stage to ensure the plan doesn’t include unattainable elements or omit something vital.
ROLLING OUT THE PLAN
After the strategic plan has been vetted by managers and key employees and finalized by leadership, it’s important to carefully roll it out to the entire organization. The purpose of the rollout should be to communicate:
- What the plan is, and why/how it was created
- The details of the plan and how all of the pieces work together
- Everyone’s specific roles in implementing the plan
- How successful implementation will be measured
- How to adjust the plan when market/company dynamics change
- Who to go to with questions about the plan
The rollout should happen via in-person or video conversations, not just in written form. The strategic plan should be carefully explained by executive leaders to managers to employees. Everyone in the organization should have a solid understanding of the plan and the implementation playbook. It will take time to share this information, but it will be time well spent to make the execution more effective and consistent.
After the organizational rollout, the day-to-day implementation begins. This is probably the most difficult part of successfully implementing a strategic plan. It’s tough to find a balance between doing “regular” work and working toward reaching strategic goals—especially for frontline employees. This is where regularly scheduled conversations become vital in strategic execution. Some suggestions for how to ensure the entire company stays in touch with the strategic goals and initiatives are:
- Executive leaders review/discuss the plan’s status quarterly (maybe in a half-day session)
- Managers and executive leaders meet monthly to check in (a one-hour meeting should suffice)
- Managers and employees discuss strategic projects weekly (if only for a few minutes)
At these meetings, each group can discuss what the measurable outcomes are, what is going well with strategic initiatives, any barriers preventing implementation, and new strategic ideas to consider.
There is nothing more frustrating than hearing about companies that spent lots of money and time creating a strategic plan, only to never refer back to it or use it in their daily work. In addition to including an implementation playbook with the plan, effective internal communication across all organizational levels is crucial to bringing the plan to life. This communication should be consistent, tailored to each level and department, and carefully structured. Proper internal communication can help to not only empower an organization to be more strategic, but also to be more connected.
– Article by Emily K. Howard, Cheetah Strategy Founder/President & Fast Company Executive Board Member