Monthly Archives: September 2010

If you think like a hammer, everything starts to look like a nail

Dan Gray – CommScrum London

We, the “scrum forwards” at CommScrum virtual HQ, figured it was time for a bit of a refresh by bringing some of our favourite chums onboard as guest bloggers. To kick things off, it falls to me to tee up Deb Hinton, Geoff Barbaro, Indy Neogy and Mary Boone, several of whom have been kind enough, in past comment threads, to say a fair bit about their backgrounds and past incarnations.

Going to KK’s killer slide in a recent DTIM post, it’s interesting to me at least that most of us have tended to follow a slightly circuitous route into organisational comms, and/or it only forms part of a much broader philosophy/skill set around human-centred approaches to strategy and value creation – and that, maybe because of that, we don’t share so many of the hang-ups and baggage concerning communicators’ “rightful place”.

We figured that was worth delving into a bit more, with reference (for a change) to folks other than Kevin, Mike, Lindsay and me. So – Deb, Geoff, Indy, Mary – it’s over to you to pack down for the first of what will hopefully be many guest scrums…

Geoff Barbaro – Melbourne, Australia

With the CommScrum forwards doing the hard work to set an outstanding foundation, it seems to be time for the backs to do the showy, flashy finishing. Thanks for the opportunity and the hard work. Our brief, if I’ve got this right, is to deal with the theme of hammer thinking in the context of our backgrounds, context being key as it were.

So we start with thinking like a hammer. If you apply a label like “internal communications” you get trapped by that label and miss the real impact and possibilities of your work. My belief is that labels, by their very nature, are limiting and often dangerous.

I had this smashed into my brain, smashed through my arrogance, lack of self-awareness and immaturity, by people who, as a group, are often labelled as the most disadvantaged people in Australia.

In the late 1980s, I was lucky enough to help the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody. The members of our Indigenous Communities were dying in police and prison custody at much faster rates than any other people and this became a major issue as the 200th anniversary of the “settlement” of Australia approached.

I felt proud to be part of this, to be able to help the people who I felt were being discrimated against, who needed to be given our help, including education, decent housing and health assistance, as well as protection from police and prison guards who didn’t understand them.

I was thinking like a hammer. I was thinking like a blunt object of force and power with the only answer that would work. The hammer has no capacity to listen, to feel, to be human and it is damned difficult to make it change direction or do anything other than hit things.

As I stood in the red dirt of Yuendumu in Central Australia, looking at what most would describe as a shanty town, the wrecked cars, the decrepit houses, the people in their dirty clothes, I listened to the members of the community who came to speak to the Royal Commissioner.

Suddenly I knew what it was like to be a nail. Here were proud and passionate people, with strong views and incredible stories. As each person spoke, I felt the sledgehammer demolishing everything I had ever believed and failed to question.

The houses were decrepit because they were inappropriate for their lifestyles and the geography of Central Australia, the clothes dirty because the red dust surrounds Yuendumu for hundreds of miles. These people were treated as unintelligent and uneducated, yet they all spoke at least six languages (where I have been a total failure at learning a second) and were putting together brilliant, passionate arguments and innovative solutions. There were disagreements and disputes about methods, but respect for each member of the community and the culture they shared.

There was one thing that I kept hearing over and over again. Get out of our way. Everything that had ever been done to “help these poor unfortunate people” had in fact tried to change them, to limit their choices, to make them something they weren’t, to help them with assimilation and integration. And despite a couple of hundred years of pressure, here was their culture, surviving and strengthening, and here we were being told to remove the barriers, to remove the patronisation and allow Aboriginal people around Australia the same opportunities for self-determination that everyone else has.

So that’s the context of my background. Now for the theme.

If you use the label “internal communications” you tend to think about messages, staff, performance, change management and communication tools. If instead you start from the people who create an organisation, internal and external, and the shared values, visions and intent (OK Mike, it’s working!) that brought them together, you start to think about people, relationships and the tremendous influence your people have on your customers, communities, shareholders, suppliers and other stakeholders.

You realise that much of your role is to identify and remove the barriers and boundaries that have been created and open up opportunities for other people in the organisation to achieve their successes. Your role or objectives may remain the same (that’s doubtful), but the way you go about it changes entirely. And you certainly begin to understand the power of listening, of learning and of leadership. Indeed, you even begin to ask if there is any real difference between internal and external communication, whether it is an artificial divide created by managers to exert power and control, or by consultants to create a niche market to get work.

I believe that your internal community is responsible for the overwhelming majority of relationship and reputation building with your external stakeholders, which is the activity often labelled “external communication” and allocated to marketers, salespeople, business developers and external communicators with the same limiting result.

I grew up as a tool, in pretty much every possible way that term is applied. A life changing experience helped me reject the notion of “rightful place” or any limiting barriers. It’s a process that I hope will never stop and I do everything in my power to stop myself thinking like a hammer again.

Deb Hinton – Montréal, Canada

Dan, thanks to you, and the rest of the fab four, for inviting me to help get this scrum going.  And Geoff thanks for kicking things well and truly off for the guests side of the scrum with such a powerful and touching story.

So, diving right into the deep end…  I’m not sure that I buy the metaphor Dan.  Or I buy the metaphor, but not as applied to this discussion.

First off, our profession is so new [I’ve argued elsewhere that it’s probably less than 40 years old] that I’m not sure there are “traditional” backgrounds that internal communicators come from.  But even if there were, I think it’s a red herring.

I really think the main point we’ve been trying to make at CommScrum for a while now is that there is a lot of really bad ‘internal communications’ going on out there.  And, when it’s bad it’s terrible no matter what the background or training of the communicator was.

I found it interesting Geoff that your epiphany came about in a place as far from the organizational world most of us ‘internal communicators’ are living in as one could imagine.  And, I think that’s our biggest challenge whatever we call ourselves or however we position ourselves.  These are hard places to be human in.

Titles, cubicles, hierarchy, formal and informal power structures, jargon, clichés, acronyms, boardrooms, written and unwritten rules, symbols – an anthropologist’s field day.  In its own way as challenging as the world in the outback of Australia.  And as full of creativity and energy as you can find anywhere.

The challenge we have as internal communicators is to keep that humanity present – no matter what our background.  If we can do that, then I think we’d find our orientation to our work [calling] and internal communications [and organizations] would change radically and for the better.

Indy Neogy – London, England

Thanks to the original gang for inviting me to write and the other three for letting me in the “new gang.” Geoff’s story is special – I’m pretty sure my corporate storyteller business partner would advise that we just leave it there. For better or worse, I treat blogging as a conversation – so I’m going to press on.

I take Deb’s point about retaining the sense of humanity in the work – but I think that internal communications as a profession has developed a culture and worldview and that some of the assumptions involved do contribute to “a lot of really bad ‘internal communications’ going on out there.”

I don’t think a background doing something else is a prerequisite for being careful about the assumptions of the profession – but as in every case about cultural assumptions, it can help.

If I trace a genetic code in my comments on Commscrum I’d first have to admit that there are no stories to compare with Geoff’s. Of course, I’d love to ramble through the totality of my experience but right here and now, one particular influence comes to mind: Working in IT, as a specialist and then a manager.

I experienced a lot of internal communications, in good times and bad for the company. “By the book” those communication efforts seemed average to good. And yet… they didn’t feel rooted in my reality or the reality of the people working with me.

You can call this just more “bad execution” – but I think there’s more to it. I think the profession defines itself too strongly with reference to the excellent tools it has developed and not enough from a sense of how the information involved fits into the information flows and meaning flows the audiences already experience. And because so much information and meaning originates in the content, processes and structure of the actual work, “keeping the humanity present” means much greater involvement with those elements of daily life than is often thought.

Mary Boone – Essex, Connecticut

I join my colleagues above in thanking Dan for the invitation to share some ideas here.  Apologies for typos or grammar issues in advance – it’s my husband’s 50th birthday so I’m in a bit of a time crunch.

I am in complete agreement with Geoff about the power of language and labels and I, too, see decreasing value in the internal/external distinction.  In fact, I think that it is even worthwhile to revisit the distinction between Marketing and Communication.  In all cases, we are concerned with human communication between and amongst a range of stakeholders.  And our traditional association of Marketing with a “broadcast” approach has limited our perspective – I think this laser-focus on a broadcast model is why so many people in communication (and marketing and advertising) have been broad-sided by social media.  I remember reading Katz and Kahn in graduate school 25 years ago and having an epiphany when I read about “lateral communication.”  That was when I first saw the glimmers of the true possibilities of communication as a discipline to change the world.

What elements do all “forms” of communication share that transcend our boundary labels of internal, external, marketing, advertising, etc.?  Here’s a start at a list:  authenticity (which is associated in my mind with “humanity” mentioned above but for me also encompasses “truthfulness” and “candor”), interaction, clarity, precision, and emotion.  “Communicators” in all of these “sub-disciplines” need the ability to interweave these elements into their approaches to connecting stakeholders.

In terms of the “hammer” metaphor, I do believe that taking a multi-disciplinary approach to human interaction is helpful – primarily because of the complexity of human beings and relationships.  While I have two degrees in Speech Communication, my experiences in the OD, OE, Design, and IT fields have contributed mightily to my understanding and perspective on communication.  A single focus on one area of study or one discipline makes one more susceptible to a “hammer” approach.  Of course, my liberal arts bias is showing here.  I’m not saying that every communicator needs to have a multi-disciplinary educational background – rather that professional communicators need to be intellectually curious about different points of view and willing to apply new perspectives to their own work.

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The Age of Intent

Mike Klein: Commscrum Scandinavia

Intent.

For many years, there has been a big chase on to find out what drives performance—and profitability in organizations. This chase has led to a lot of suspects, a lot of ideas, and more than a few insights. But the real truth—the real driver of extraordinary performance—has been buried in a pile of terminology and obscured by sectarian selfishness.

“Engagement” screamed one pack. “Behavior change” howled another. “Policies and procedures!” “Values”! “A sense of higher moral purpose!!!!” “Better communication!!!!!” “Leadership!!!” “Management!!!”

The problem with these words and their associated sectarian sentiments is that they all spoke to manifestations of something far bigger, more powerful and more universal—a factor I think is as big as financials and operations at the very heart of organizational performance.

Intent.

Intent is the organizational “why”. Every organization has an organizational why—an intent of some sort. And intent is no less powerful than resources—or skills—in the financial and operational arenas.

Why is this a “new” conversation? Partially, it’s because our thinking has only just become clear and sharp enough to look at the range of behavioral, motivational and cultural issues as manifestations of one core corporate driver, and partially, it’s because the business world has continued to focus on finance and operations as “the real work”.

The ramifications of identifying and addressing intent as a third core driver of performance are monumental—and I hope stimulating of a long, powerful and productive conversation. But here are a few hypotheses to start the discussion with:

  • Purposes, values, goals and performance measurements are all manifestations of intent and need to be treated as such
  • The lack of coherent or stated purposes, values, goals, and performance measurements is also a manifestation of intent
  • Intent is at the heart of the value chain and creates and destroys the bulk of an organisation’s value. And those who work with refining, championing, and sharpening the delivery of that intent are people who do “real work.”
  • If communication and communicators are to be quick winners in this world, we need to start taking ownership of intent—consistency, integrity, resonance and distinctiveness of actions as well as words
  • Organisational inconsistencies are inconsistencies of intent rather than simply inconsistencies of internal and external messaging that a good old-school PR pro can handle
  • While the CEO and Board are ultimately responsible for the public definition (or unspokenness) of organizational intent, communicators and HR people are extremely well situated to reinforce, amplify, illustrate and operationalise that intent into actual daily practice.
  • Intent drives sustainability strategy.
  • Intent drives strategy, period.
  • Nothing destroys value like a measurable gap between stated intent and actual performance.
  • Nothing creates value like a measureable path between stated intent and actual opportunity.

It is important—vital—for today’s communicators to recognize that intent is “our” space. The only thing that is really new is that the opportunity is there for the rest of the business world to recognize its centrality—or absorb a beating from choosing to ignore it.

And this is not a breaking down of silos between internal and external communication—indeed, internal and external comms will require different craft skills for some time. It’s a breaking down of the glass walls that have kept communication on the organizational periphery. And it looks those walls have even been melted down into the clear, clean and substantive links we form at the very heart of the value chain.

Kevin Keohane – CommScrum London

I’ll keep it uncharacteristically brief and not very Commscrum to say I agree, but I do. I think the issue is – what intent, whose intent? Or – perhaps more importantly in your post – the LACK of it. It’s probably the latter that is oddly the most pervasive in many organisations. Business As Usual allows you to not worry about intent.

Enter Value Disciplines, stage right, again. Is the intent Operational Excellence? Products and Service Excellence? Or Customer/Market Intimacy? Sure, many of these “intentions” will overlap but I just conducted an exercise that demonstrated that a company that stated the “intent” of Customer/Market intimacy spent 90% of its effort engaging and communicating about Operational Excellence. Which wasn’t contributing much to consumer insight. Maybe that’s another post… exit, pursued by a bear, on the road to hell.

Lindsay Uittenbogaard – Commscrumming from The Hague

And another agreement here, wholeheartedly! Fantastic post, MK. Seminal, possibly 🙂

This ‘intent’ that you describe, seems immediately to overshadow and connect a combination of efforts in our field that now seem immature: cross-discipline alignment, congruence across the whole organizational strategy – and truly living that, connecting the brand with behaviors etc.

Now, dare I burst this pink fluffy intellectual bubble by asking – isn’t the identification of ‘intent’ just wrapping up lots of old things together into one new! improved! challenge that still has the same barriers to overcome?

The leaders of any given organization would probably not contest the notion of really nailing ‘intent’ as a driver but might have some doubts about whether or not his / her team of individuals (that all have their own perspectives, cultures, styles, competences…) are able to actually ACHIEVE a strong and unified level of ‘intent’ to the extent that you envision. Of course in many different ways, people have been trying to pin down a common core intention (particularly leaders, communicators, HR practictioners, change agents etc) for many decades. The difficulty is bringing these people together to really think and act as one – and the crux of the problem is that ‘intent’ is something that individuals or teams need to own, to fine-tune themselves… it is almost personal. It would need to be recognized that political games would need to step down, as would innovative thinking of the ‘rogue’ kind (that has been known to end up contributing to wider strategy as a fluke).

The above concern around DOABILITY could just be something that sounds right but is just infact pure pessimism. Can a mass of individuals in an organization pull together to manufacture and deploy clear, crisp and consistent intent?

What do you think?

Dan Gray – CommScrum London (at least for now)

Bugger. I’d deliberately hung on till last in the hope that either KK or Lindsay might say something that I could pile in on, because I too love the post, Mike (all very un-CommScrum I know!).

You’ll recall that when you and Mr Trainor had your usual spat about terminology on the “Time to say goodnight to employee engagement” post, I referred to these labels as “the first signal of intent” (a phrase that’s also used by Bill McDonough in one of my favourite TED Talks on design for sustainability). So I’m intuitively drawn to your thesis.

Then KK brings up Value Disciplines again as a valuable lens to identify and institutionalise that “intent” – to get organisations thinking about, and structuring themselves around, that one thing (the crux of Lindsay’s comment) that they can really excel at. Zero disagreement there either. Damn it!