How to focus on purpose

I am always being asked how we can ensure the Big Conversation process leads to sustainable change rather than being a one-off process. So we have just completed a review that explored – with the benefit of hindsight - what helps leaders sustain conversations about core purpose and strategy within their businesses? 8 companies employing over 133,000 employees took part, all of which had launched initiatives to communicate strategy and translate it at local levels.

We found that some organisations set up cycles of local conversations so that teams regularly discussed the Big Picture and what it means for them, while others cascaded once and did not revisit the strategy. We tried to identify what made the difference.

The feedback identified five insights into what helps drive sustainable change in the context of using the Big Conversation process. I suspect the lessons apply to change efforts more generally.

Inspire the CEO

It’s an obvious point to say that the CEO has to buy in and support the change process but this is more nuanced. What we found was that in the organisations where the conversations thrived the CEO had experiences early on that inspired them. For example one CEO found that he had more meaningful conversations with groups of employees as he piloted the process. He became an evangelist because he found he learned a lot and then encouraged his team and their managers to see the strategy communication process as a learning opportunity. Another one’s initial cynicism shifted because the senior leadership team’s debate highlighted different perspectives on direction. He wanted people at other levels to have similar quality conversations and as a result started asking more questions about progress and maintenance of the process.

Build the business case

It’s also obvious that people find clear direction and purpose useful (and actually our brains need it if we are going to perform at our best). But a constant re-focus on purpose and strategy is difficult to maintain because leadership teams lose interest; they tend to think that once it is communicated then the job is done. But we found this is only the start. What it takes to keep people focused is a compelling business case for the investment in time on the “bigger picture” and hard data to track progress. For example we found that one company tracked positive differences in awareness and understanding created by teams having regular conversations. This same company collected customer feedback suggesting that customers noticed this difference, so the process established a link between better understanding of strategy and customer satisfaction.

Focus on tangibles: what we do and how we work

Conversations were more helpful when the focus was not on the strategy but on “what it means for us”. When people just focused on strategy, conversations lacked immediacy and relevance. When people talked about how they could improve relationships and what this might involve conversations became more helpful and energised. But it can be difficult to engage people in this conversation if it comes over as criticism. We found conversation leaders that had more success over the long-term asked questions like:

  • What will things look like round here if we are delivering our strategy?
  • How would that change how we work?

Listen don’t tell

One company has now institutionalised the process of talking about strategy. What used to be the Big Conversation has become the Little Conversation because, 3 years in, all the benefit is perceived to take place at the team level. Regular cycles of conversation revisit priorities and ‘issues to address’ to support the business strategy. The HR Director says this happened because the company stopped trying to communicate strategy at people and started asking them what they thought was important. Data started coming back from the process that helped marketing, human resource, finance and operational teams develop new approaches to building the business (e.g. the design of more customer friendly bills, ideas for sharing information more effectively).

Invest in conversation leadership

In the company above the conversation leaders told the HR Director that the approach was wrong, and their feedback and involvement, she says, is what has helped sustain the process. Early on the company invested in helping the leaders explore how to run effective conversations. Investing in this support gave managers the confidence to turn the strategy communication process into two-way conversations focused on effective change. In another company this investment has taken the form of ensuring no one leads conversations about strategy until they have participated themselves. In another company HR and communications partnered with line managers in the early stages of the engagement process to help make sure the conversations remained two-way.

Simple rules to sustain conversations around purpose

It is anecdotal data but turning these observations into tangible lessons for the effective engagement of people around organisational purpose, some simple rules may be:

  • Get the CEO leading from the front, not taking a “hands off” or back seat role
  • Adjust mind-sets: rather than emphasising leaders role broadcast strategy, start thinking about how to deliver the strategy by leading conversations about it and listening to ideas and input
  • Keep leaders engaged by frequent feedback on progress and achievements, and ideas emerging
  • Focus on the short-term in the context of a longer-term vision
  • Discuss and debate tangible actions and behaviours
  • Give people autonomy to develop ideas and suggestions that will take the business forward
  • Support the development of conversation leadership skills