Communicating the Strategic Plan

The draft is in place and the team is being proactive in its approach for input. The team cannot sit back at this stage of the game and wait for people to come to them and ask questions. They must take the plan to the people. They should ask for input from all areas of the organization so they can write the strategic plan's final version. What this means is information overload for both the organization and the team.

Up until this point input has been kept to the various teams, which has limited the communication sources. Also, the organization has been kept in a partial black hole because questions have been specific and the whole process never has been fully discussed with everyone. As with all organizations, rumors abound and must be mitigated by the team. So how is the team to accomplish so many tasks while still trying to complete the final copy of the plan? A communication plan is needed to coordinate all their efforts and keep all the information they receive organized.

Speak the Same Language

One of the major lessons information technology or IT departments learned during the Y2K crisis was that not everyone within an organization cared about their job even though they used the department's computers on a daily basis. What was more troubling to IT was top brass thought of the department as a financial black hole that did not offer any true value to the company's bottom line. For that reason IT had an uphill battle to prepare their organization for the forecasted problems looming at the turn of the century.

How IT battled the issues was by changing their perception within the organization. IT leadership quit talking a foreign language in business meetings. They quit using techno speak and started using the business language inherent in the culture in which they operated. They started referring to Y2K as a business problem that would affect the company's bottom line. They referred to the computer crashes as a customer issue since the company would be cut off from the outside world.

Once they had the organization's attention, they took the opportunity to educate their customers – the organization's members – on their issues and the solutions. What happened was organization's no longer saw them as geeks but as team members and the leadership got behind their IT departments and gave them their support.

And that is what will garner organization buy-in with the strategic plan – speaking the same language. This can be a little tricky in a large organization with numerous departments that perform diverse tasks, but it is achievable. When the team begins writing the draft and begins planning its dissemination for review, team members must come to an agreement on the language the document will undertake. For large organizations this could mean getting with each department that uses its industry or professions' jargon and finding common terms everyone understands. For example: IT technicians would use the abbreviation ADSL, which simply means a connection for computers to the internet. But most people call the letters alphabet soup – it means absolutely nothing to them. Thus they do not care and if that is seen throughout the plan then they would not care about the tactics within the plan resulting in no buy-in and no ownership from that employee. For this reason it's important for an agreement to be made on the language used within the plan.

Addressing Outside Shareholders

One of the questions that must be answered by the team and leadership is who will address the review and obtain the final buy-in from outside shareholders. Will this be handled by various team members or leadership or a combination?

Once that has been decided then an analysis will be needed on each shareholder and their required involvement level with the final plan. Their key interests needs to be known and their preferred method of communication. For some this would be phone calls while others might prefer e-mails or texting. To keep this part of the communication organized, a spreadsheet should be used with the following suggested headings: Shareholder; Power/Interest; Key Interest and Issues; Preferred Communication Vehicle; Contact Info; Alternate Contact Info; Contact Frequency; Comments.

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Shareholder analysis is the key to milestones being reached with the final plan. Communication organizations know their audience and cater their information formats accordingly. For example, Forbes knows its audience wants factual information about business and that its readers tend to be highly educated. For this reason, information is not dumbed down and their "how to" articles have some informational depth to them. On the flip side, a publication such as the National Enquirer uses hype and sensationalized words to evoke emotion from its readers. Strong adjectives and short articles are the format it uses to reach its preferred audience. For shareholder buy-in the same form of communication strategies will need to be employed. One shareholder might care about the bottom line and does not want a blow-by-blow running commentary. Another may be interested only in the financial side of the house, so the information on the spreadsheet will be vital to meeting each shareholder's needs so productivity stays on schedule and informational meetings are kept to a minimum.

The Outgoing Message

The message should be simple and in a plain language. When visiting departments cater the information given to their interests the same way the message was tailored for each shareholder. This takes a little time but has a larger pay day than the time invested in creating the message. By tailoring the message for each audience the team will receive more interest in the plan that could result in buy-in. This is the ultimate goal leadership is looking for from the team – organizational buy-in and ownership.

There are four things the team must do for the message to be received by the organization:

  • Tell everyone what you are doing and why. Tell your audience you are writing the final version of the strategic plan and explain in one or two sentences why that is important and they should care.
  • Tell the organization members how this will improve the institution and how it will benefit them as an individual.
  • Make sure the message itself fits with the objectives you are seeking. If you're looking for input from one section of the organization because their tactics are vague within the draft, then sit down with them and explain what is missing and why that information is critical for the plan's execution. Make the message specific for the audience and make sure your objective is clearly spelled out within your message.
  • Finally, speak to your audience and not above them. Look them in the eye and simply state what you are simply trying to get them to do in a simple message. Use the KISS principle – Keep It Simply Simple.

Planning for Resistance

The team has their marching orders from leadership – write and implement the final version of the strategic plan. The team has written the final draft and now is asking for final input before writing the final version. Two main reasons for this are to fine-tune the plan and get answers to the final questions raised while drafting the plan along with implementing another push for buy-in from the organization before the plan's release.

Now the plan is being finalized and the team is intimately familiar with it. Along with the initial and natural request for input on the various aspects of the plan, the team should look the plan over for controversial or "sticky" changes that will take place with the plan's implementation. At the same time positive changes should be annotated and highlighted within general announcements about the plan's release. Positive aspects should be told to help alleviate stress that is normally associated with change. Also by highlighting the changes taking place this eliminates rumors and promotes the truth so people will not be angry when the final plan is revealed.

As for as the controversial or "sticky" changes are concerned, leadership should be made aware of these issues and a unified approach is needed from all of leadership and the team. The issues should not be ignored nor should they be sugarcoated or glossed over. They should be frankly addressed and any comments or solutions needed should be given in the same frank manner. For example: say the strategic plan combines two units within the organization resulting in a number of people being laid off. This issue should be addressed and at the same time if there are openings being created in another area with the plan, those employees can be invited to transfer to the new area. If that solution does not exist then other things such as job assistance or retirement could be some solutions given for this situation.

Whatever the controversial issue is, a solution needs to be given at the time of the announcement to soften the blow created by the change in business.

Also be aware that any internal changes with the strategic plan have an affect outside the organization too and its customer's perception of the institution and its products. For this reason, communication plans should be created to address any issues leadership and the team determined will have an affect outside the organization.

Simple questions that can help clarify the issues and ensure the team is ready for any resistance are:

  • What in the plan is a drastic change that could be seen as controversial?
  • What significant changes are taking place?
  • Does any part of this plan affect any special interest groups in a positive or negative way?
  • How will the organization's community and customer base receive these changes?
  • Have any social networks or popular blogs addressed any of the subjects within this plan?
  • What might be seen as hard to understand and need a further explanation? Who should address this?

Once all the questions are answered and the team has a handle on the issues and concerns within the plan, then it is time for another proactive approach. Do not hope no one notices the issues within the plan. The longer they sit unnoticed the worse the reaction will be so it is in the organizations best interest to step up to the plate and mitigate their effect as soon as possible. This way the plan can move forward in positive light and keep the organization on track to reach its goals.

As with spreading the message within the organization, mitigate the controversial issues using the same approach – KISS – Keep It Simply Simple. There are some issues that can be resolved by going back and having the experts within that area tweak the tactics used to eliminate the issue. There are other issues that can be eased with simple question and answer fact sheets that explain all the facts surrounding the issue. Sometimes a lack of knowledge creates the issue. For the issues where there really isn't much that can be done – it simply is what it is – then leadership needs to take the reins and simply explain why the organization has placed this into the plan and how the good outweighed the bad. By simply being honest and explaining how the decision was reached will mitigate some of the negativity surrounding the issue.

Receiving Input

At this stage, everyone is being asked for input to include shareholders outside of the organization. How this is being broadcasted depends on the organization, its size, and its culture. One of the easiest methods is to send out a mass email. Along with the announcement could be an article in the organization's newsletter. The follow-up should be personal visits to the various departments along with a few scheduled meetings.

With the message being broadcasted, input should start pouring in from within and without the organization. Depending on the organization's size, this could be hundreds or thousands of people vying for a team member's attention. With that type of information inundating the team, it is important that a plan be in place to handle all the input.

Questions that should be addressed include:

  • Should input be sent in emails to the various team members?
  • Would holding open forums with each department to discuss inputs with team members work best?
  • Should there be a special email set up for input from the organization's members?
  • Would printing suggestion forms with set questions be the best avenue for getting optimal input from the various organization members?

Once again, the method or methods used depends upon the size of the organization and its culture. Whatever is chosen, analyzing and using the input is what is important so the best plan is put in place by the team.