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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19 thoughts on “If you think like a hammer, everything starts to look like a nail

  1. ineogy says:

    Mary’s comment reminds me that “lateral communication” is something I believe is really important and not always present in “Internal Communications” planning.

    I think that it’s worth compiling a list of areas that are neglected:

    – Lateral communication
    – Upward communication (it isn’t completely ignored, but tends to be sidelined)
    – All the communications that form part of “work” (which is what I was clumsily referring to in my bit) – perhaps this might be about the “totality” of communication.

    Be good to hear others add to that list!

    A brief note on the totality of communication. How many internal communication plans look at the total amount of communication received by (for example) line managers? If we don’t know about how much they need to read and digest (and communicate on) in a typical day/week for operational reasons – how can we have any idea about their capacity to engage in other communication? Perhaps more revealingly, if we don’t know about how much communication was going on last year, or the year before, there are basic things we’re unaware of about the communication landscape.

  2. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Dan Gray, Dan Gray. Dan Gray said: #commscrum #internalcomms "If you think like a hammer, everything starts to look like a nail" – http://bit.ly/9AyXRh […]

  3. Adam Hibbert says:

    Indy, like where you’re going with your guest post. I’ve decided my next role (and preferably my next team) must have the words ’employee dialogue’ in its formal title …

    I have to take issue with any suggestion that internal and external might collapse together. The similarities are entirely superficial, to me – in fact, probably owing to our over-emphasis on the technical means of communication (which are often similar) and not enough on the precise nature and intensity of the relationship the communication is mediating.

  4. […] There’s a lot more that has given me some more food for thought. I hope you’ll have a look and join in the conversation. You’ll find it here at CommScrum. […]

  5. ineogy says:

    Adam – good point about nature and intensity of relationship – I think on intensity grounds there’s a spectrum in marketing depending on the kind of business. We work with some B2B companies where conversations with customers retain the different nature, but the intensity is closer to “internal” than to consumer advertising (for example.)

  6. […] Klein and Lindsay Uittenbogaard kindly invited me to join the second wave of posters – so here is my first post in collaboration with Geoff Barbaro, Deb Hinton and Mary […]

  7. Adam Hibbert says:

    Spectrum, Indy? Good point for B2B relationships, but to extend that right across into intra-organisational dialogue? Perhaps, if you take spectra literally, and allow for the point along the spectrum where removing another degree of temperature tips water into ice – a categorically different mode and set of potentials.

    I just think there’s a completely different set of games in play among participants within a loosely coupled identity group, compared to uncoupled systems. Organisational participants tend to invest in the relationship a few orders of magnitude more heavily than even moderately dependent (eg wholesale) customers (whose investment is relatively instrumental, not ethical).

    • Indy Neogy says:

      Fair points – I’ve done some work recently in organisations with very permeable boundaries, but they are most certainly not typical!

    • Adam, traditional communicators would describe most of the roles I’ve held as external communications, but the work I have done in those roles has mostly been internal.

      I believe, and have taught, that unless you get your internal right, you can’t get your external right in the long term. Your people are immensely credible communicators about your organisation. If they don’t have trust and belief, your external comms will come undone sooner or later, because the external stakeholders believe that internals know the true story.

      I suggest the relationship is every bit as intense between customer service officer and customer, supply chain manager and supplier, CEO and investor, as in any internal relationship, but as internal relationships are in our faces every minute of every working day, communicators can lose sight of the communication needs of individuals within the organisation and only focus on the the organisational needs. As Deb said, organisations are hard places to be human.

      Communications is multifaceted, not one way or two way. It is one of the most complex of human systems, and very much a chaotic one. I have trouble with the notion that in human and chaotic systems, there can only be one correct framework, even within organisational contexts – You may be right about the need to differentiate internal and external, but that doesn’t make other answers and frameworks wrong.

      Of course, that may just be the clash between Game Theory and Chaos Theory!

      Cheers, geoff

  8. I enter this conversation as a ‘non-communicator’. I don’t identify as a communications specialist, I have not trained specifically for it and have never held a role that would be recognised by ‘comms specialists’ as being a ‘comms role’. Rather, I am a professional who has held senior and executive roles so I consider that I come to this forest able to see the trees as well as the variety of tools available to work in said forest.
    Each time we put a frame around what we do we immediately limit our contribution. We send a message to others (intended or not) about what it is we do and do NOT do. So, internal communicators who seek to improve communications ‘within’ implicitly disconnect themselves, and those they’re working with, from external issues.
    Allow me to illustrate. A Project Manager is struggling to receive timely information from the finance staff. The internal comms specialist takes the time and effort to listen to the internal story, identify issues, highlight connections, design a strategy and assist PM to achieve an improvement to the problem; excellent work. Regrettably, there’s likely been little or no consideration of the external influences – client, suppliers, etc. This PM has DAILY interaction with externals so much of the work done by the internal comms person is also applicable for the PM to their external comms. Yet, that connection is not made and so the solution becomes one sided, self limiting and fails to reach its true potential. It breaks the loop.
    Geoff said “internal community is responsible for the overwhelming majority of relationship and reputation building with your external stakeholders” and noted that these tasks of external comms are given to those with sales, marketing, BD, external type labels. And Mary spoke of taking a multi-disciplinary approach.
    As a business manager I have always worked to help every single person within the organisation better appreciate their importance in broad communications. I seek to breakdown the fear of ‘sales’ by helping people develop their interpersonal skills, by encouraging a deep understanding of the business and a heartfelt appreciation of the difference our business makes. In this way, every person improves their ability to communicate, both internally and externally, because their understanding of the organism and its interconnectivity is more intuitive. In this way, then, our dedicated ‘sales, marketing, bd’ types are improved too as they also understand their link to the internal comms.
    Ideology? Perhaps. But I have a dream and, like all of you, its foundation stone is improved holistic communication.

  9. kevinkeohane says:

    I don’t think the suggestion is that internal/external will “collapse together” as such – my perspective is that the challenges we’re all grappling with at the moment are largely due to 19th-20th century organisational structures creaking under the pressures of 21st century business velocities and a far more dynamic communication environment – partially technology driven, and partially socio-economically driven.

    We conducted some research recently in creating the Employer Brand Benchmark which generated some interesting insights. One of the key insights was that while senior leadership in 20 FT100 companies broadly understood and bought into the importance and value of both employee engagement and employer brand management – and had in fact set lofty ambitions they felt these activities could accomplish – things seemed to fall apart once you went much below C-level. The research suggested that organisational silos and a lack of shared understanding about the how, when, why and who (not to mention the cutlural and commercial value) of employee engagement and communications were major barriers. And this in organisations that explicitly claimed “cross-functional collaboration” in the employee communication and employer brand agenda. At line manager level the results were diabolical.

    So to go back to Geoff/Adam’s dialogue (and I am 100% positive Adam is past master at the whole “inside out” school of thought) – while it’s apparently essential for an organisation to “control” its communication and engagement efforts internally and externally, the way in which this control (well … influence) is exerted (usually by functional/discipline driven ownership) needs serious re-evaluation. While human social communication behaviours are arguably timeless, technology has shaped and been shaped by these behaviours, as has the social and economic context.

    So the idea that Brand owns the brand audience, HR owns the employee audience, Corporate Communications owns the media and investor audiences, and so on, is patently ludicrous. But we still work that way and divide budgets that way. A better solution hasn’t come along (or if it has, it’s still a well-kept secret).

  10. Adam Hibbert says:

    Kevin, Michelle, Geoff – so many fascinating points. I guess I don’t come at this primarily as a business communicator (only five years into that trip) but with what I bring from my more enduring interest in politics, sociology and recent political history.

    What it comes right down to, for me, is this: I don’t think business has adapted to the tectonic shifts that have taken place in Western politics in my lifetime. I’m not sure why, but one component of the explanation must be that our leaderships today are composed primarily of men whose direct experience of life at the periphery of the organisation dates from the 1980s, when our expectations of the workplace were still substantially instrumental – a contractual, quid pro quo, and in many ways adversarial relationship. I’d argue that this contractual style of relationship persists more strongly in external relationships than internal ones.

    The tectonic shifts that occurred in our societies around the time the Berlin wall came down have utterly changed how most participants understand themselves and their relationship to society, and in particular, in the ways we make sense of work, and make sense of ourselves through our work. That’s the reason so many trades involved in mediating that relationship (all the middle class professions) have had to travel such a rocky road over the last 20 years.

    So Kevin’s identification of a need for a ‘serious re-evaluation’ is spot on – I’m sure that’s fundamentally what’s driving commscrum and uncounted other conversations like ours. And I’d agree that a better solution hasn’t been arrived at anywhere, despite the wishful thinking that makes people invest so enthusiastically in this month’s ‘big idea’. The answer will require us to articulate a *practical linkage* between the moribund, instrumental mode of management, and the ‘new’ mode, which will have a far stronger ethical component.

    It may well turn out that the old mode of organisation can’t accommodate this change – the arguments about ‘constellation’ production forwarded in Wikinomics may yet prove correct, despite being argued from the wrong foundation (ie, technical, not political).

    • Adam, we move back into the realm of violent agreement, and for hope, Steve Denning’s Radical Management book is being released this month, which I think has a very practical “new” mode.
      Cheers, geoff

    • Michelle Delebet says:

      Adam, it does sound like we all agree that for things to change things must change. How wonderful to have great discussions bringing such broad perspectives taking each of us a step closer.
      Cheers
      Michelle

  11. Adam Hibbert says:

    Geoff, I’ll be the first to cheer if Denning has finally brought the right tablets down the mountain for humanity’s manumission, but everything in my experience cautions me to doubt it. This stuff seems always to get stuck at the point the preacher turns from the adoring choir and has to put the case in other words to win over the sceptical congregation. That said, I love that we’re getting fully stuck-in to issues of leadership, management, control and coordination, not debating the best powerpoint template to use.

    Denning’s ideas imply the need for a very different set of communications solutions for organisations – what I’d love to see is more examples of big organisations adopting some of these, so we can begin to *demonstrate* to our leaders quite how many tools they’re missing out on while playing with their hammer.

  12. Interesting discussion as usual. And given especially Kevin and Adam’s comments hope you’re following what’s going on with Gary Hamel’s tribe on Management Innovation Exchange. There’s an interesting and provocative profile of management innovation at Goretex [http://bit.ly/dvaPsy]. Definitely worth taking a peek at. The search for ‘a better way’ has begun over there too.

    Interesting to think about what impact the kinds of changes he/they are talking about will have on the function and the work of communicators and change agents…

  13. kevinkeohane says:

    FWIW, by way of real life example of this in play, our agency just won a couple of pitches in the employee engagement arena and one of the key reasons cited for these wins has been an explicit ability to rise above the “communication” tactics and talk credibly about the business agenda, market dynamics, cross-functional impacts, yada yada yada…

  14. Congrats Kevin. One enlightened moment/client at a time! Look forward to hearing how it goes once you get going… My experience is that clients sometimes like it, may even love it until they don’t and just want to know the plan for the newsletter, cascade message, yada yada yada…

    Have a great weekend y’all. We’re off for an extra long Canadian Thanksgiving starting with a 9 hour drive to family [yes that’s Canada/NA for you]. Cheers

  15. Paul Rosetti says:

    Thanks, Dan, for making me aware of this blog. Some very interesting ideas from some people who seem to know this strange world of communications quite well. Looking forward to catching up with some of the other posts.

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