Strategic communications: From self-delusion to listening carefully

Strategic communications: From self-delusion to listening carefully

Summary: New research highlights the importance of communication in driving project success. Many executives are misguided on this topic.

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Conventional wisdom and research studies both say that communication is necessary to gain successful project outcomes. However, some (too many) executives use their public relations and communications departments as a megaphone to broadcast one-way directives in the name of "dialog." This behavior represents self-delusion and not genuine communication.

Megaphone communications
Image credit: iStockphoto

A Project Management Institute (PMI) study finds that organizations risk "$135 million for every billion dollars" they spend on projects. Of this large sum, related research from PMI concludes that "ineffective communications" drives 56 percent ($75 million) of these at-risk dollars. Based on these numbers and empirical experience, it is clear that communication plays a significant role in the success or failure of projects. 

For IT projects, communication challenges arise because new technology forces organizations to change their processes and job functions. Especially on broad projects such as ERP, process change is a fundamental part of the implementation. However, streamlining processes is also important on technology initiatives that are narrower in scope, such as CRM. Because process improvement is so important, communications and change management are a standard part of every well run enterprise software deployment.

In a previous column on change management, I note the need for project communication:

Managing transformation and change is one of the most difficult aspects of enterprise software implementations. In my study of IT failures, poor communication ranks high on the list of key issues that cause problems on large projects.

The PMI studies give voice to the truism that communications is critical to project success, but the concept itself can be problematic. The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines communication as:

  1. an act or instance of transmitting
  2. information transmitted or conveyed
  3. a process by which information is exchanged

Many executives treat communication and change management according to definitions one and two, ignoring the third, and by far most important, point. For these executives, communications could more accurately be called "management directives pretending to be discussions."

A study on the ROI of communications and change management, by consulting firm Towers Watson, demonstrates an emphasis on transmitting information rather than fostering dialog and discussion. The following chart shows how the report defines "effective communication." The following chart shows how the report defines "effective communication," with most points implying one-way transmission of information:

Towers-Watson communications definition

Towers Watson's definition of communication in a change context illustrates the point even more strongly. In this graph, communication is clearly a one-way flow rather than a bi-directional dialog: 

Towers-Watson communications for change

The Towers Watson approach mirrors conventional wisdom so I am not intending to single them out. However, it is time for executives to add careful listening to their arsenal of strategic skills; I would argue that treating communications as a one-way transmission contributes to many IT failures. 

Listening and collaboration
Image credit: iStockphoto

Without a bi-directional flow of information, you will not engage employees, gain their buy-in, or ensure they actually understand the communications you send. Instead, shift your communications paradigm away from transmitting information to cultivating collaboration and knowledge sharing. Learning to listen is the key skill in this new paradigm.

Topics: CXO, Enterprise Software, Leadership

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6 comments
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  • Agreed.

    "However, some (too many) executives use their public relations and communications departments as a megaphone to broadcast one-way directives in the name of 'dialog.' This behavior represents self-delusion and not genuine communication."

    100% agreed. Real communication is a two way street.

    "I would argue that treating communications as a one-way transmission contributes to many IT failures."

    Not just IT failures - failures in the marketplace as well. Look at Windows 8 - it was basically a one-way street. We knew Windows had problems long before release, but Microsoft didn't listen. It took the bean counters saying "umm, this isn't really selling as well as we expected" in order for Microsoft to start listening to their customers.

    Seriously - it shouldn't have to take a market failure for a business to notice and start listening to its customers. Yet, it seems it does.

    "Learning to listen is the key skill in this new paradigm."

    Well, if you can call it a new paradigm. Learning to listen being a key skill is something that has probably been known since ancient times, and is the 5th habit in Covey's "The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People." To be honest - executives don't really have any excuse to not know this. Sadly, it appears they don't.
    CobraA1
  • I agree in full...

    ...but maybe we shouldn't be calling it "strategic communication". Strategy is properly about how we deal with our enemies, not our friends and co-workers.
    John L. Ries
  • control freaks

    Relationship vs control
    mailer_ajd-world@...
  • Listening

    All to often people will tell you want they want to hear and ignore any facts that discredit their opinions. The example of W8 or any other market fiasco is often a decision made without considering the input of others. This is especially true when a poorly designed "marketing study" leads them astray. I would not be surprised in the case of W8 MS has several bad "marketing studies" showing the Metro/Modern UI would be a smash success. Anyone who said, "But ..." was ignored including the beta testers.
    Linux_Lurker
    • Good be

      Groupthink is a problem in lots of organizations. MS might well be one of them. If it is, the buck stops with the boss.
      John L. Ries
  • Now that you point it out ...

    These graphs really do speak to the assumptions that drive internal communications at many organizations. Of course, this isn't a problem unique to business.

    There could be a wider cultural bias at work here. If you're conveying information, you're seen to be taking action - whereas listening is construed as a more passive activity that doesn't directly contribute to getting things done. It can take a lot of conscious effort to push back against such perceptions and find an alternate way of doing things.
    Ned Boyajian