The half-life of your job is shorter than you think

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I had the chance to attend a seminar a while back with Scott Galloway at NYU Stern, and I’ve never forgotten him: smart, detailed, irreverent.  Most of all I remember his energy as he pulled back the curtains of the new digital world: you can comprehend this, you can participate in it.

So when I saw his book from last year on the shelf, I grabbed it, and I’d encourage you to do the same. His voice is still insistent, so it’s a page-turning read, and the subject matter is both irresistible and daunting.

The approach of the book is to study the roots and ascendancy of what he calls the “four horsemen” companies in the book’s sub-title.  He’s paying attention to them because there have never been bigger corporate enterprises in history; some legal specialists are dusting off antitrust laws.  They are not only maximizing their own reach and profits, but they are designing – or they simply are– the landscape of global business.  All sizeable businesses are dependent on what they’ve done and on what they and their successors decide to do next.

Before I read this, I thought these companies were creating assets that businesses were appropriating, knocking off, purchasing and using as necessary to succeed.  Now, it seems to me that businesses at this point in time can only exist because of what these four companies do every day. A gross generalization?  Read the book.

We’ve all seen the commentators who note that we are poised at an inflection point in the workplace, as data and AI are more and more fully deployed. Millions of jobs are and will be vanishing into thin air, and people like me in corporate communications can reasonably ask who will be left to communicate with. The inventions and influence of these four companies are accelerating this shift. Scott notes the trend:

Unilever has a $156 billion market cap spread over 171,000 middle-class households. Intel has a $165 billion market cap and employs 107,000 people.  Compare that to Facebook, which has a $448 billion market cap and 17,000 employees.

During a recent plant closing, an HR colleague ominously joked that she was laying off so many HR generalists that, with the next reorganization, she’d be the only one left to lay herself off.

There may be a higher-order communications and change-management task than we’ve known before, one that involves helping people manage through the complete redefinition of their business, work, and life expectations.  In that case, larger companies would do well to fund this effort lest they been seen as hiding the plain truth from their own people.

Honestly not trying to create dystopian panic here.  But even if Scott’s analysis is only partially correct, we should all take some time to breathe, get woke, and actively devise the standards and principles of the brave new world. You can comprehend this, you can participate in it. More than ever, hope is not a plan.

How is your company helping people to understand their opportunities in the new world of work?

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The enemy of my inbox is my friend

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Photo by Tim Gouw from Pexels

You’ve probably seen the 2016 video from motivational speaker Simon Sinek that addresses the situation of millennials’ needs in the workplace – his ideas rocketed the video around the internet.  But Sinek has also delivered a particular and related insight, starting at around 7:25 in this video, that goes beyond millennial considerations and provides very important workplace intel.

He’s using the example of the power of stashing your cell phone.  He notes that this direct focus on others while you’re with them builds relationships and connection.  Seems both perfectly obvious and notoriously difficult to practice (the image of disgruntled executives surrendering their phones during Sinek’s presentations is especially evocative).

But the larger point is the hidden business risks of devices / technology.  In the above example, we risk not building the trust and personal connectivity that are a foundation for individual and corporate success.

Another risk area – ironically, because technology is supposed to help with this – is productivity.  When you work for a company, almost by definition you are required to read all of your emails (or decide on risk/reward criteria for deleting them unopened).  But mountains of emails impede productivity. They also foster fatigue and despair; ask yourself how many times you’ve heard the “guess how many emails in my inbox” comment when someone comes back from vacation.  Probably worse than that unfunny joke is someone who doesn’t say it—because they’ve kept up with emails throughout their “vacation.”  Hey, wait—we do have platforms like SharePoint that are supposed to pull out emails by guiding team work and interactions to a common site and . . . well, let’s just say that rarely works out.

A particularly scary risk for businesses is the way that high volumes of email—driving people to continue to manage them during off-times—feed a surfing-and-scanning distractibility that directly impedes innovation or productive planning.  With no downtime for alpha-wave thinking, the opportunity to unleash new patterns of thinking is lost.  And no amount of team Agile-ness will replace this loss, by the way.

From the standpoint of engagement, email is also one of the big enemies of corporate communications. With attention fragmented by hundreds of communicators, focus on priorities and strategic direction gets blurrier. Plus, email is crack to management or project leaders who have a “we’ll just tell them seven times and then they’ll know” mentality.  Critical to your engagement is understanding your role and impact in the business; that’s hard to achieve when your inbox won’t shut up.

Unclear why we’ve allowed this suck to business productivity, innovation, and engagement to go unchecked, or even unnamed.  If your project or corporate communications strategy could cut down employees’ email burden, you’d win a prize.

What if your major project was surprising—and credible—because it took a “no use of email” approach?

Time to stop working on the EVP

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Continuing the theme of communications that aren’t Corporate Communications assets, here’s an issue at sizable organizations that starts with a question: Why do people work at your business, and why do they keep working at your business?

The high-concept Employee Value Proposition is what you get when you’ve fully answered this.  The EVP is usually seen as a “mutual contract,” the secret give-and-get sauce that, if we can just cook a big enough batch, makes people stay and results in them doing their best work.  This being the data-driven work world of the 21stcentury, a lot of resources are expended on the surveying and focus-grouping and data analysis required to tell us exactly how many vacation days, how much health insurance subsidy, and/or what kind of workplace amenities will do the trick.

Businesses also expend great effort trying to wordsmith the exact blend of meaningful “who we are” statements that will capture the spirits of workers and show that companies care about the exact same things they do.

The thing is, it’s almost impossible to improve upon the values already described by the famous Gallup Q12 survey, the 12 questions that detail the baseline employee attitudes that lead to higher performance.  Work to move the needle on just one of these each week, even just a little, and you’ll have stoked an EVP without actually designing a formalized EVP contract.

So why is this a comms issue?  Because corporate communicators are often leaned upon to gin up a campaign, or a contest, or a video series—or the language of an EVP—to do what can only be done up and down the hallways.  Put another way, those weekly engagement actions are themselves communications that are tangible, authentic, viral, and memorable.

When you read the questions, you notice how big an impact strong managers can make. But there’s plenty of room for creative tone-from-the-top, too.

Offer interesting snacks and libations in the building lobby at 5:15. Invite everyone. Bring in a member of the leadership team to mix and mingle and ask—honestly—how people feel their careers are going. Give that leader 10 minutes and a microphone to talk to everyone about personal and professional development, and another 10 to take questions.  No need to be Pollyannish or to overpromise; just show that leaders—as people—care about what employees care about.  It’s simple, replicable, and focused on career growth (the main theme underlying the Q12).

If worries like “hornets’ nest” or “opening a can of worms” come up, let the communications team refresh the leader on how to be a responsive listener—because avoiding interaction just breeds more hornets and worms.  Above everything else, when it comes to engagement, park the documents and set the table.

What’s the best way for your employee-engagement communications to build true engagement?

Nudging, or May the force not be with you

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Follow this guy.  There’s so much Stuff out there on org change and development, and Carsten Tams is helping spotlight the best and newest insights, with links to relevant research or current literature.

His post earlier this year about nudges from his Forbes blog is solid, because it goes right to the issue of the blur between typical business communications and change-management activities.  Telling, showing, listening, teaming, training, coaching: they’re all flavors of communications that have to go in the same direction in order to have an impact.

If you feel like you’ve read everything you need to know about nudging, read again. Think about the (factually incorrect) koan that “you can’t over-communicate” (usually spoken in desperation when “they” aren’t getting what “we” are telling them), then consider this description from Carsten:

Nudges are voluntary.  They preserve freedom of choice.  Knowing what is in other people’s best interest can be a tricky business.  Therefore, nudges must not remove alternative options from the table and be easy and cheap to avoid or opt out of. Anything that is coercive – mandates, commands, requirements, prohibitions, bans, incentives, subsidies, fees, taxes, or penalties – is not a nudge. For the same reason, nudges must be transparent rather than deceptive.

A routine example of an optional nudge with value is giving a calendar link as part of an action-request message.  The link (an .ics file in Outlook) puts a helpful reminder on the user’s calendar at a specified pre-deadline date. In effect, the user becomes their own nudger.

So can you program nudges?  Or just hope they happen?  You can and should plan them – you just need to know where in a total communications timeline they’re likely to be most effective.  They don’t replace the kickoff meeting or the experiential videos, for example. But the beauty of planning nudges is how it forces planners to think in detail about what is valuable to the audience.  And communications that display audience focus create a feeling of mutual respect, credibility, and confidence.

Do you know how to coach your team members to become more effective nudgers?

Can you talk data to people?

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From the world of baseball, here’s a story about an emerging profile of a successful people-manager in our age of the ascendancy of data. It’s a great 15-minute read – even if you’re not a sports fan.

This New York Times Magazine article on first-time-ever manager Mickey Callaway describes how he got his new job: He’s able to bridge the gap between metrics and individual performance. Players whose position in the batting lineup is now determined by front-office analytics – rather than by the field experience of coaches – need to be brought along with the new data-based drivers and encouraged to succeed

As I read this, I thought that this may be the emerging dominant skill required of the next generation of business managers. This skill goes right to the heart of successful change management. We’re going in a new direction. Here’s what the data tell us. Your role will change significantly, but here’s how you can excel in this new situation.

And, as a throwback to good old-fashioned people skills, note the one poignant observation from the player who was really impressed that his manager had shown interest in him.

Any communications or change management strategy has to begin by mapping out how this type of ongoing coaching can occur. It actually requires a new skill set on the part of corporate communicators as well: strong with language and asset management, yes, but also insightful about how to set up effective communications between team leaders and team members.

How can your communication planning incorporate the use of effective champions and influencers?

NSFW: Your cluster****? Is a communication.

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I’ve always said that a work process is itself a communication. One corollary is that a bad process is also a communication. Now, with this helpfully obscene article by Corinne Purtill, we know what those bad processes are called and why.

Some of the points in here are distinctions without a difference, but you’ll likely smile in recognition – and one idea sounds great:

[Stanford professor Bob Sutton] cites a favored decision-making tactic of the Nobel Prize-winning economist Daniel Kahneman (who in turn credits it to psychologist Gary Klein). Before a big decision, teams should undertake what Kahneman calls a “premortem.” Split the group in two. One is assigned to imagine a future in which the project is an unmitigated success. The other is to envision its worst-case scenario. Each group then writes a detailed story of the project’s success or failure, outlining the steps and decisions that led to each outcome. Imagining failure and thinking backwards to its causes helps groups identify the strengths and weaknesses of their current plans, and adjust accordingly.

Twenty minutes well spent. Not only does this tactic let the team plan for risk mitigation, but it also lets them put words on some of their fears in a way that’s safe and acknowledged rather than shoved underground. This is a great example of how process can equal communication. The activity “tells” something to team members about trust and transparency in a way that no bullet list of promises could do. Note also that this is an in situ exercise and not a metaphoric team-building activity for its own sake.

When I’m working on a comms project, I always scan to make sure these kinds of meaningful processes are taking place. They make formal communications easier and more credible. Without them, many people won’t believe a word of what they read or hear.

Can you map out the communications paths and the clusters in your organization?

Continuous change: Disrupt yourself

It’s a great phrase. It appears in almost all job postings for full-time roles: “Able to perform in a dynamic environment.”

I think we all know what dynamic means (if you don’t smile a little when you read that word, you’re not breathing). Businesses now embrace the reality that they need to be in a state of almost constant change. They want people who are flexible / nimble / agile / resilient . . . like that.

But more businesses know how to ask for that from their people than know how to make sure it happens. And they ask for a lot:

Process changes . . . We’ve pushed the whole business over to a new financial system, or IT system, or sales-tracking system. It was disruptive and expensive to make the change, but the ROI is solid. Except that, two years later, we need to migrate to a whole new system.

Brand changes . . . It’s still the same product, just a different name. And color. And permissible imagery. That, and the tagline. Plus the new launch date. All pending board review, of course. It really only impacts Marketing, I’m pretty sure.

Business model changes . . . We used to sell rubber ducks to StuffMart. Now StuffMart owns part of us, so we don’t sell them rubber ducks, anymore. Now we’re into rubber supply-chain financing: anybody here got any background in that?

Org changes . . . As a result of [all of the above], you’ve had three bosses at two locations in four years. “Are you on my team now? I think you’re on my team now.”

On a project basis, businesses will create or outsource a change management function. And the smart companies are the ones where the change management plan and key communications strategies are completely integrated.

But beyond projects, how to manage that new breed of change-resilient teams and employees? Corporate communications will need to model disruption. The new thinking and new modes of communication in a changing organization are focused on building new habits instead of new channels. Things like:

  • Micro communications: More frequent updates, in smaller packets. So long to waiting till Monday for the intranet news article.
  • Leaders lead and managers manage: Make sure their communications reinforce each other’s but remain distinct. Don’t make managers carry the water for unavailable leadership.
  • Messaging rigor: Monday is Benefits day. Tuesday is Business Results day. Wednesday is CSR day. Stop spraying out info about anything at any time.
  • Aggregate and consolidate: Instead of sending out a new thing separately, date it and add it to the top of the old thing so it’s all in one place, such as on SharePoint. Make people work less to access communication.
  • The demise of the 60-minute meeting: Aim for 45. Your Outlook invitations default to an hour? Override that.

See how that list is a mix of messaging and productivity imperatives? If you want people to be nimble, be effective with their attention units. Above all, don’t build comms structures / pages / repositories / channels that take more time to maintain now or re-process later.

How can your communications methods model change-ready behaviors?