This study of executives and strategy by consulting firm Booz and Company provides some interesting insights–valuable for PR and public affairs leaders as they help their organizations develop strategy. But it also has some interesting implications for crisis communication strategy.
Here’s a summary from the press release: Most execs (52%) don’t feel their company’s strategy will lead to success; two out of three respondents admit that their company’s capabilities don’t fully support their strategy; only one in five (21%) are fully confident they have a right to win; and the majority (64%) agree that their company has too many conflicting priorities.
Too many conflicting priorities. Guilty!! The study shows that a lot of executives are frustrated and that frustration comes from have too many conflicting priorities and not focusing on what the organization (or they) are truly good at. Having done strategy development for a wide variety of organizations for over 30 years, I can say it is much easier to identify this problem in someone else or some other organization than your own. As a consultant I heard over and over again, “Yeah, but you don’t understand, yeah but, yeah but…” Then one time I hired a consultant and he told me exactly what he saw and I said, it’s really clear to you isn’t. Yes, he said. I said, “yeah but, you don’t understand…”
I believe Booz is right on target to focus on the issue of “coherence.” One thing they didn’t include which I have found from years of working with business owners is that coherence in strategy also means aligning personal goals and motivation with business goals and motivation. To have to the two in conflict leads to friction, which as we know causes heat while slowing down motion. The best way to eliminate that friction is through coherence–aligning everything that is important to you to the greatest degree possible. Again, easier said than done. but I’ve seen people and organizations apply this to great effect.
In a crisis situation, strategy becomes extremely important. Effective strategy always starts with a clear definition of goals. Stephen Covey did us all a big favor by helping us focus on the “end in mind.” I’ve come to use “definition of winning” as the best way of describing a goal. As a leader, you have in your mind a picture, a feeling, a sensation of what winning in any situation is like. But if you are like most you don’t do a good job of describing that picture or that feeling to others. This is different than objectives which are measurable, clearly definable–a scoreboard. But when a team or coach thinks about winning, they don’t just think about what the winning score on the scoreboard looks like, they think about the feeling of winning, the applause, the attention, the euphoria, the experience of winning. We do the same with our personal and business or organization goals, we just don’t articulate them that way.
The other thing we don’t do is ask the other people who are intimately involved with achieving those goals what their definition of winning is. What is truly important to them? It is all too common to have very different definitions or pictures of winning, and if that is the case, someone is going to be disappointed, or worse, not everyone will be pulling in the right direction. So the boss, CEO, or executive needs to not only understand his or her definition of winning, but needs to understand the reality of the other key players and then work to get as much alignment as possible. Sometimes that alignment is not possible, which means inevitably something must change. I think the intuitive sense of the pain of this very real potential is what keeps most from pushing through to this level when developing strategy. Hence, incoherence is almost certain.
In the midst of a crisis, sometime during the whole rush of things, the senior leaders need to get together, look each other in the eye and say, “how does this thing end?” Whether you are a BP, Goldman, Toyota, or a mom and pop business that just found out a trusted bookkeeper has robbed you blind, you need to take a little time to think about the end in mind. In any major crisis, the event itself will change you and the organization. But everyone who crucial to working through the situation needs to have a pretty clear understanding of what is winning in a very difficult situation.
Developing it with the coherence that the Booz study talks about by focusing on what is truly at the heart of your organization is the start. Articulating it clearly and powerfully to those playing key roles in achieving that end is also important. Then, continually holding that vision of winning in front of everyone, even during the darkest days of attack and disappointment, is essential.
I believe communicators have a very important role to play in this during a crisis. They are not the CEO but they can help the CEO and other senior leaders understand how important it is to develop and clearly articulate that vision. They need to and are well positioned to help gather the various pictures of winning from the key players–after all as communication professionals their skill in eliciting input from others should be put to good use. Finally, it will largely fall to them to guide the process of communicating that vision to all the players on whom the success of it rests.
The importance of this is why I start all the crisis communication plans I work on with clear policy statements. While the actual vision of a company or organization coming out of an event will vary based on the event itself, it is quite possible to articulate clear policies to guide decision-making by everyone during an event. Some executives try to organize a response to a crisis by focusing all decision-making at the top. This really doesn’t work well for most organizations in daily life and certainly not in crises when things move at lightning speed. But by having clear policy statements based on a clearly articulated vision for what the end looks like, gives everyone a solid basis on which to make critical decisions.