82017Feb

Effective Communications in a Complex World

If you read this intro about Peter before, it isn’t different than the last time, feel free to skip ahead to the five steps.
If you didn’t see the previous article you can read it now: Effective Communications in a Complex World

PeterIntroduction
An award-winning business leader with an extensive history of fixing and growing companies, Peter Conlon is passionate about business. With 37 years in general management and leadership in Canada, United States, Europe, Latin America, Asia and Australia, he has significant experience in large corporations, small businesses, independent entities and subsidiary operations, including direct line management of marketing, sales, finance, operations, product management and strategic planning.  

As President and CEO of Nautel Limited, he brought the company to a position of global leadership, including its selection as Exporter of the Year at the Nova Scotia Export Achievement Awards and as one of Canada’s Passion Capitalists. In 2014, Peter joined LED Roadway Lighting as Chief Executive Officer with the goal of transforming that exciting Nova Scotia green technology leader into a sustainable, disciplined enterprise.

We asked Peter to share his wisdom and he wrote an article titled “Effective Communications in a Complex World”. In this post he shares his five step process to design a Communications Mechanism system

Step 1 – Allow the change to occur in a safe environment

Because the organization had a long history with a traditional hierarchical management structure, even senior team members were not accustomed to making big decisions.  They always had someone else making decisions for them. Their role was to execute. Recognizing this, the first phase of the new CM system was designed to be advisory-only. The team charged with exploring company-wide issues (the “MAT” – Management Advisory Team) included all of the senior management members; with the exception of the CEO. Not having me present allowed for open and rich debate in an environment where no one would be looking to me for immediate guidance or resolution. Once the various facets of the issue were explored, the MAT (through its Chair) would make recommendations and I could then decide which path to follow. While this may seem inefficient, it actually permitted the MAT members to freely explore issues without the fear of making a bad decision. The Chair of the MAT kept an eye on the clock to ensure time wasn’t wasted but sufficient time was allotted to ensure issues were thoroughly examined. An extremely valuable by-product of the debate on issues was the building of the communications links among the senior leaders of the various departments.

Step 2 – Educate the team members

Any new skill requires learning and practice. To simply charge the team members with addressing tough issues, without giving them the tools to do so, would have been likely to fail. The organization, which had always espoused the notion of providing management training, actually had done very little of that – not unusual for many organizations! I decided we would step up to the plate and give the team members the education they deserved and desired. We brought in a consultant who did an incredible job of designing and delivering an education/nurturing approach that fit perfectly with the culture of the organization. The results were visible almost immediately. It is clear to me that the money was very well spent.

Step 3 – Hone in on the key issues

All organizations comprise different groups, each of which brings a valuable dimension to the business. Our company designed, manufactured, commercialized and supported a family of high tech products. The key groups in the organization were Engineering, Sales/Marketing and Operations. From the beginning, it was obvious that building strong communications links among these three parts of the organization was central to any effective CM strategy. The question was “How can we get these powerful groups to listen to each other?”

It dawned on me that the best way to have groups really try to work together would be to get them to work on something that they each wanted fixed but which they could not solve on their own. In other words, I needed to find the right issue that straddled the borders between the groups but which was close enough to the hearts of the members of the groups that the problems would be seen as “shared”. Once I understood that as a goal, the pieces fell into place.

We created three sub-groups of the MAT to address specific, interdepartmental issues. The first sub-group included sales and engineering. Its key issue was developing the product and technology road map for the company. Because the product and technology road map needed to describe both what we could make and what we could sell, neither group could create it in isolation. The second sub-group included engineering and operations. Its key issue was new product introduction to manufacturing. Because new product introduction needed to describe both what we could design and what we could manufacture, neither group could create it in isolation. The final sub-group included sales and operations. Its key issue was managing the supply and demand process. Because the supply and demand process needed to include both what we could make and what we could sell, neither group could manage it in isolation.

Each member group of the various sub-forums had a vested interest in the successful resolution of their key issue, and because none of them could solve it without the support of the partner members of the sub-forum, they ended up working extremely well together. Not only did complex challenges get resolved but the shared solving of those issues built trust and open communications among the three critical pieces of the organization.

Your organization probably has different key groups with different key issues but it is very likely there exists the kind of “straddle” issues we found that would be appropriate for your company.

Step 4 – Go boldly where no one has gone before

I mention earlier in this article that the MAT was initially designed to advise, not to decide. With the success we experienced in drawing the teams closer together and the powerful insights gained from their exploration of key issues, the only realistic logical next step was to expand their mandate to decision-making. The MAT took over the process of managing the business on a day-to-day basis, allowing me to focus on longer-term issues of vision, growth, competitive positioning, etc. We became a well-oiled machine.

Step 5 – Start it all over again

The success of the CM strongly suggested that we needed to expand the approach further into the organization. People saw how effectively the MAT and its sub-groups were operating and they wanted to participate. After a year or two, we decided to expand the membership of the MAT and the sub-forums, bringing in other key members of the wider team to access their expertise. This also allowed us to institute an active process of succession planning, exposing the next generation of corporate leaders to the culture and tools we used to solve the big issues we faced.

Summary

Anyone who has heard me speak knows that I do not trust stylistic, prescriptive solutions to problems. Organizations face challenges which are deeply personal and which do not lend themselves to fixed solutions. In these articles, I have attempted to briefly describe a process that worked for our organization and which may include elements you find useful as you think about the challenges that face your team. The key point for me is that communications must flow in all directions within an organization; not simply up and down the chain of command. Selecting key issues that need resolution, that touch the heart of the key segments of your organization, and then building a Communications Mechanism to allow teams to work on the issues together in a safe, well-defined environment should give you a great start to building a robust, resilient means to build harmony in the company.

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Peter Conlon recognizes and appreciates that the challenges organizations face are deeply personal and need individual attention. Great leadership and communication are required to allow teams to work on the issues together in a safe, well-defined environment. He is often called on to speak about leadership, vision and team building.

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