How to Help Employees Get Strategy

How effective are cascades – you know, those processes by which communication flow down through an organization from the CEO through senior leaders to middle managers to frontline employees?  Not very, was the answer in a piece in last month’s Harvard Business Review.

According to the authors’ research, “top management has a profound impact on how well employees grasp and support strategy.”  Cascades, they report, don’t work well because:

  • Only top leaders can give strategic communications the appropriate weight.
  • Strategy involves trade-offs, which are more easily accepted when put in a broad perspective, without parochial filters.
  • As in the game of Telephone, messages posted from person to person seldom arrive intact.

I’ve definitely witnessed these problems first-hand, in my 25 years of experience leading change from within organizations and now facilitating it from the outside.  Especially when new leadership is trying to institute change through skeptical managers, a cascade’s effectiveness can be hindered by the very people who are charged with ensuring it.

But let’s not throw the proverbial baby out with the bathwater.  Cascades can be very beneficial because:

  • The people in the cascade have to engage deeply with the content in order to convey it.  The maxim, “the best way to learn something is to teach it” applies.
  • Communicating about strategy at the team level facilitates the translation between strategy and execution.  Edicts from the ivory tower often seem irrelevant or unrealistic, but managers can help their groups understand what a strategic imperative means for their day-to-day.
  • Top leaders usually only have the time to speak to large groups or through media channels, which limits the opportunity for good feedback and questions (unless the organization is very small, in which case this debate seems unnecessary.)

So executive communication shouldn’t be favored over cascades.  Yes, people need to hear about strategy from top leaders – in fact, I don’t think leaders can over-communicate.  But, people also need to discuss strategy with their managers in workgroup sessions.

That’s why I always recommend:

  • Every cascade session incorporates an opening message (ideally live, but videotaped or written can be surrogates) from a top leader.  The message should not only communicate the strategy but also convey the confidence being put in managers to discuss it with their groups.
  • Managers throughout the cascade should have regular feedback sessions to convey questions and reactions back up the cascade so that top leaders can respond to input and clarify points that are raised consistently.
  • All employees should participate in regular surveys that measure their comprehension of the strategy, their understanding of the roles they play in translating the strategy, and their satisfaction with their managers’ participation in the cascade.

This is definitely a case where both/and beats either/or.

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