Is the manager losing control?

4 steps to better-prepared strategic communications.

In an earlier blogpost, I argued that there is more to the life of strategic communication than plans. I did not argue that plans are redundant, but I pointed to the need to pay more attention to the behavioural patterns and unquestioned logics that drive and form strategies. In particular, I pointed to how the success or failure of an organization’s communication is not always caused by its meticulously planned communicative initiatives dictated by management, but rather its everyday organizational culture and the capabilities and knowhow of its employees.

But a question arises from this: if strategic communication is as much controlled by the concrete everyday doings of the organization’s members as it is by the management’s ability to plan, does this mean that the management is out of control? The short answer: of course not. But management needs to change its understanding of strategic communication from being the product of a meticulous course of action based on predictions, to seeing it as an exercise in understanding the organization’s past behaviour and preparing it for what is not yet known. In particular, management should be taking a much more incremental approach to strategic communication. It should above all exhibit openness, flexibility and responsiveness to elements outside the current area of knowledge. Or put differently, the main role of management should be to show a willingness to learn, a willingness that will enable them to act before everything is fully understood. Which is vital, considering today’s fast moving markets, characterized by rapid technological innovation and disloyal consumers.

"Management needs to change its understanding of strategic communication."

As a consequence, communication managers today need to be able and to be equipped to respond to an embryonic reality rather than to focus on stable illusions. Managing strategic communication equals the ability to recognize its emergence and intervene when appropriate, rather than to preconceive it.

But in concrete terms, how do you as a manager do this? With inspiration from the American management researcher Professor James B. Quinn, I suggest four basic steps.

  1. First of all, build organizational awareness and commitment. In order to accommodate change and uncertainty, you should widen not only your own but the whole organization’s understanding of current issues facing the organization. Collectively identify and discuss them – ensure and commit all members to be knowledgeable enough about the issues to help you think through all possible ramifications. Then, in seeking a solution to these issues, you should generate and consider a broad array of alternatives, aiming to free yourself from preconceived answers and from blindly following past practices. This can be done by actively seeking either to ‘shop’ your suggested solution to colleagues, or by actively managing an open process of finding the best solution based on input from others. Important in this process is to be constantly ready to broaden the scope of participants.
  2. Secondly, ensure that you are structured for flexibility. Since there are too many uncertainties involved in developing and conducting strategic communication for you to programme or control, you should create flexibility by ensuring that there are resource buffers (e.g. extra capital, personnel, ideas etc.) ready to be used when needed. This can be achieved through a continuous assessment of the general state of the organization and of potential impact of opportunities and threats the organization is most likely to encounter, and by mounting and/or locating support groups (e.g. employees, interest groups, opinion leaders) that are able to act quickly in order to either exploit opportunities or deflect threats as they occur. Paramount here is that the decision lines from the identified support to the organization’s top must be short to ensure the most rapid response.
  3. Thirdly, constantly legitimize new viewpoints. If you are to ensure the two previous points, it is also necessary to legitimize the proposition of new and unexplored options as real possibilities. Meaning, you must make sure that not only you, but the whole organization, is open to novel, untried solutions. Since known viewpoints and solutions are familiar, we tend to perceive them as being more trustworthy and having lower risks and costs than newer alternatives. But in order to counter this falsity, you should aim to create room for and validity to discussions of new problems and solutions. Perhaps most importantly, you need to allow the collection of new information and use of new knowledge in the evaluation of novel options in comparison with more familiar alternatives.
  4. And finally, pursue partial solutions. Though your management instinct might tell you only to pursue complete solutions, the reality of your organization might not always allow this. Instead, you should allow solutions and actions sometimes to be half-done. This does not mean they should be ill-advised, but rather than seeking the grand resolution you should aim for small, tentative, even experimental steps. Not only will this allow you to avoid any big mistakes (since you are not making any big decisions), it will also afford you a more legitimate way to a variety of different success scenarios. Why? Because by taking smaller steps you are not only better safeguarded against opposition (both internally and externally) to the proposed solutions and actions, but you are also better positioned for a not-yet-perceived synthesis of solutions to several interrelated problems. Meaning, you can better create synergy by not assuming you know all the possible synergies worth creating.

In sum, when managers put more emphasis on how to manage  ‘the reality’ of strategizing, and less on how to manage abstract strategy plans, they not only stay in control, they might even gain some.

Image: Thinkstock

Ib Tunby Gulbrandsen

Ib Tunby Gulbrandsen is assistant professor at Roskilde University, Denmark. He has a Ph.D. in organisation and management studies from Copenhagen Business School, and has previously been a visiting scholar at Columbia University, NYC and University of Southern California, LA. He researches the intersection between strategy, communication and new media and is the author of an upcoming book on strategizing communication.