Transforming Your Institution: Why You Can’t Do it Without Great Communications

An essay published by the Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania captured our attention: “Overlooking Communication: Why Strategists are Missing a Trick.” It is true in almost every organization we’ve experienced that leaders underestimate how much, and what kind of, communication is needed to move an organization toward a strategic vision.

Authors Mark Leiter and Jeff Pundyk write: “Executives crafting strategy often miss a powerful trick — instead of making communication a top priority throughout the entire strategy development journey, they typically focus on communication only as they approach the final stages of their work.

“This may have worked when things moved slower. With every passing year, however, the available ‘time to decision’ is shrinking while executives are buried in a daily communication avalanche. Cutting through the clutter requires strategic content that is crisp, compelling and inspiring at every point in the strategy process and beyond.”

Leiter and Pundyk outline five opportunities when strategic communication can make a huge difference in shaping the vision:

  • Framing central questions
  • Synthesizing foundational knowledge
  • Expressing core concepts
  • Creating touchstone narratives
  • Developing thought leadership

John Kotter, a guru of change management whom we greatly admire, also emphasizes communication at several critical points in his 8-step model. Creating a sense of urgency—making the case for change—requires clear, well-supported, up-front communication to demonstrate that the organization should not just hold onto its current practices. This is a particular need in higher education, where faculty and staff are often attached to the status quo as a manifestation of their academic values.

In his 1995 Harvard Business Review article “Leading Change: Why Transformation Efforts Fail,” Kotter estimates that over half of change efforts fail in this first phase alone. Communication continues to play a key role at every stage of transformation. In fact, Kotter’s Reason #4 why change efforts fail is “Undercommunicating the vision by a factor of ten.”

“Transformation is impossible,” he writes, “unless hundreds or thousands of people are willing to help, often to the point of making short-term sacrifices. Employees will not make sacrifices, even if they are unhappy with the status quo, unless they believe that useful change is possible. Without credible communication, and a lot of it, the hearts and minds of the troops are never captured.”

One phrase I have often used with the college and university leaders we support is, “You can do almost anything if you do it the right way.” Communication plays a critical role in both establishing a strategic direction and allowing the organization to carry it out successfully.

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