Roughly 90% of executives say that strategy execution is critical to company success, according to an Economist Intelligence Unit report.
Unfortunately, nearly two-thirds of those same executives think their firm struggles to bridge the gap between the strategy lovingly portrayed on all those PowerPoint slides and the day-to-day work that the thousands (sometimes hundreds of thousands) of employees then go off and do.
There is certainly a role for the company’s corporate communications function here, and their primary tool to help employees understand corporate strategy has been to use the strategy cascade. It’s a simple process whereby leaders set strategy and then communicate it to managers, who contextualize it for their frontline employees (see chart 1).
Managers are often viewed as credible messengers due to their close proximity to the front line and their understanding of front-line responsibilities.
Chart 1: Strategy communication cascade Illustrative
Unfortunately nearly any comms professional you speak to thinks the strategy cascade is failing. Despite communicators’ best efforts to arm managers with anything from strategy presentations to FAQ documents, to manager dialogue training, managers just aren’t “cascading” messages (which is kind of the point). CEB data show that only one-in-three frontline workers have high levels of strategy understanding, or “connection” to the strategy.
Rethinking the Strategy Cascade
But this doesn’t mean that communicators should throw out their pictures of waterfalls and allegiance to strategy cascades any time soon. As “Aligning Employees with Company Strategy” shows, it’s not the cascade that needs to change but instead change how employees perceive the strategy cascade, and therefore how they respond to it.
Although managers are an important factor in helping employees understand strategy and its connection to their work, they are not the most important factor. The primary cause of employees’ understanding of, and connection to, strategy is employees’ “self direction.”
Highly “self-directed” employees actively interact with strategy to build their own connection to their work. They seek out strategic information, stay up-to-date with market and industry news, and think critically about how their work affects others. Simply put, these employees are eager to learn strategy regardless of whether their manager is supportive.
Prompting the Sixty Percent
CEB data show that roughly 40% of employees are naturally “self-directed.” It is the job of corp comms teams to alter their strategy communication to prompt the “non-self-directed” 60% of employees to behave similarly to highly self-directed employees (i.e., actively interact with strategy).
Most cascades work in the following way:
Strategy information is often prescriptive, outlining predetermined conclusions rather than how those conclusions were arrived at.
Strategy information is often made available at times determined by the company, not when it would be useful for the employee’s workflow.
Employees typically receive strategy information from a hierarchical source (e.g., a manager or senior leader).
This means that the timing, content, and source of communication about strategy reinforces employees’ passivity. Communications teams understandably want to make it easy for employees to understand the strategy, but inadvertently the message that employees receive from the cascade is “Someone else will tell me when to think about strategy and what to think and do about it.”
One team who has done impressive work to change the formula is the corp comms group at MetLife. Communicators worked with leaders to create “strategy activation sessions,” which are interactive sessions where employees are prompted to actively interpret and connect with the strategy.
The firm still uses the same strategy cascade but, rather than enforcing employees’ passivity, they signal to employees that active strategy engagement is required.
For more on how to influence “information saturated” audiences, see these pages.