The big Why is dead

– Long live the little Why

1 February 2023

People oftentimes cannot recall the strategy of the organisation they work for. In many cases, even the executives and managers responsible for strategy struggle.

It is not surprising. Many organisations do not have a strategy. And the few that do find it hard to communicate effectively, as it requires engaging with a wide range of stakeholders in different situations.

Studies show that more than 50% of all failing change efforts are due to poorly managed communication

So how do you explain the strategy of your business?

According to the Project Management Institute, poor communication is the primary reason why 56% of projects fail. Research also shows that there is a gap between the management’s strategy and visions and the reality of the organisation that is about to change – and this is a key weak spot. For example, 55% of the executives say that their organisation does not focus on strategy execution, and 42% say that their organisation does not understand or even resist the strategy.

The decade of the big Why

Many executives and managers find it easier and less risky to issue lofty purpose statements, describe big goals, launch initiatives or publish fixed plans instead of clearly communicating the strategy.

There is just one problem: the people in the organisation are dying for direction and clarity (What), transparency of their future role and how the new strategy will affect them (How).

According to a survey, 1 out of 3 respondents reported that the communication in the most recent change they experienced was too high-level. And about half the employees found that management is always or often “overselling” the change. From the same survey, 4 out of 10 respondents directly pointed to the problem that communication only went one way and offered no opportunity for dialogue.

Organisations communicating the strategy clearly increase their chances of “winning” by helping people decide where to focus their attention, energy, resources and capabilities. Unclear communication results in wasted effort from lack of alignment and confusion which leads to inertia.

Information vs communication

In order to address the issue of clearly communicating the strategy to the organisation, it is crucial to understand the difference between information and communication.

is a one-way street, which is typically formal in its tone and appeals to people’s rationality by comprising facts, KPIs, plans and road maps.

Communication, on the other hand, takes the form of storytelling that puts things into perspective, creates sense-making and starts meaningful conversations.

Moving towards the little Why and a bigger What and How

Strategy and organisational change can be complex, but communication cannot – or at least should not be. As a leader, you must use simple and concise messaging while toning down the big Why and the heavy purpose storytelling. In this way, you eliminate all the speculations in your organisation which amplifies your credibility as a leader.

To successfully implement a new strategy, you should start with the realisation that regardless of the objective and the content of the strategy, it is essentially about people who have to act differently tomorrow than they did yesterday. People who are in dire need of clearly understanding the What and the How in the new strategy.

Telling employees half the story and expecting them to buy into it not only jeopardises management credibility – it is almost guaranteed to spark conversations about the things that have not been addressed. In other words, if management provides neither the perspective nor the purpose of the change, employees will make their best attempts to do so themselves. This automatically leads to guesswork, speculation and numerous uncontrolled stories, far from the original intent. When making change happen, it is not in anybody’s interest to cloak the organisation in mystery and confusion. On the contrary, you should make the purpose and process evident and transparent to limit the fears and manage the expectations of the organisation.

As simple as this approach might seem, it stands in stark contrast to how most strategy implementations are planned. Firstly, because it sets out the phases leading up to communication being rolled out, and secondly, because it considers communication to be a continuous process rather than a tool. This implies that you should continuously measure the organisational impact of the messages as the project matures and constantly reinforce impact by adjusting your communication.

We recommend that you stop the big Why and start understanding change communication as a well-planned stream of actions balancing the story on all three dimensions – the Why, What and How. In this way, you will move your organisation from awareness to engagement and ownership, and it will get you a long way when implementing your organisation’s new strategy.

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