Two recent global events really highlighted to me the importance of authentic narrative within change.
Global debate surrounds Facebook’s recent rebranding exercise as to whether the “Meta-Verse” is genuinely a progressive and forward-thinking initiative to pre-position the company at the forefront of a more integrated future, or the timely, deliberate introduction of a positive narrative in an attempt to divert attention away from recent moral criticism of the safeguarding of its products.
On a slightly different global stage, World leaders are under exceptional scrutiny as to whether the commitments they have made to climate restoration at COP26 are authentic, or merely an exercise in greenwashing.
In both scenarios, the World is watching – nothing new perhaps there. But the World is now also socially debating both sides of these arguments to a degree never seen before as people decide the degree to which the leaders who request our belief in these strategies can be trusted. Actually, the same is true in all organisations when it comes to their strategy. We are predisposed to resist change without good reason and in the fast moving, contested, chaotic and complex information environment of the 21st century, where opinion too often trumps fact, belief is more critical to the success of change than ever before. Leaders must therefore understand how to interpret and reinforce belief if true strategic adaptability is to be achieved. So, how can we do that?
Codifying Belief in the 21st Century – The Hype Cycle
I first became aware of Gartner’s Hype Cycle – a graphic constructed to represent the market impact of a piece of new technology over time – when I was working as a Strategic Communications Officer in the UK Ministry of Defence. I was seeking a model to represent the transient impact of fake news and Gartner’s concept seemed to represent exactly the way in which information, fact or opinion-based, is processed by audiences. The messages leaders broadcast typically reach a “peak of inflated expectation” before being rapidly discredited to a “trough of disillusionment”. This is the influence of popular opinion in the social media age. Eventually fact-based objectivity cuts through the hype, but the key thing to note here is that greatest impact (you could say belief or disbelief) is achieved at the initial peak, not at what Gartner calls the “plateau of productivity”.
The Hype Cycle is possibly the best approximation we can achieve to codify belief. Armed with the knowledge that believability in change (or any other strategy for that matter) will behave in this manner, leaders should take a more considered approach to their messaging. I have found that the best way to ensure that messaging achieves the highest level of authentic impact is to consider belief at the beginning of the strategy-making process, rather than construct supporting messages after the fact. Two critical steps are key:
SMART Goal Setting with the Audience in Mind.
The traditional view of SMART goal setting (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant and Time-bound) was developed solely with the leader at its heart. It remains a credible approach to the construction of objectives and goals from the leader’s perspective. But reinforcing belief requires attention to what critical audiences want to hear, rather than just what leaders necessarily want to say. We suggest asking yourself key questions within a new interpretation of the SMART model to place belief at the heart of adaptability and change:
- Simple. Are your objectives stated in short, catchy phrases that critical audiences easily understand? Brevity is key to resonance (think: “Nike - Just Do It”).
- Meaningful. Are the metrics you are using to measure success really understood by the people who will make the strategy work? Management speak, abbreviations or other “codes” are all worthless unless your audience understands them fully. Have you agreed the baseline from which improvement will be measured? Does everyone agree what winning looks like? They must if they are to believe.
- Appropriate. Does the wording and intent of your objectives resonate the way you need it to across the full spectrum of inclusion within your organisation?
- Reasonable. To what degree do your objectives accord with the motivations, engagement drivers and aspirations of your employees? If you want to bring them with you, you must take them to where they want to go.
- Trackable. Find out who will be the culture carriers of your strategy and how you can empower them to authoritatively track success as co-owners of the outcome. How will you gain insight into how the strategy is resonating and how will you nudge corrective action where necessary?
Audience Analysis has traditionally been regarded as the purview of public relations, marketing and communications specialists; it can no longer remain so. Leaders need to know who their most impactful audiences will be at any given moment and tailor their messaging accordingly. Numerous techniques exist in marketing literature to define and segment audiences. Most pertinent to the creation and maintenance of belief is to determine the degree to which specific audiences act as influencers or advocates of your message.
- High Reach Influencers may have no technical connection to the brand or message but lend their own brand reach to its spread. The most obvious example of this is label sponsorship of celebrities in the sports or fashion advertising sectors. While not necessarily being knowledgeable campaigners for your message, High Reach Influencers may well have a following that far outstrips traditional leaders. You can leverage these people to enhance belief in a strategy by increasing consensus and likeability.
- Advocates are the technical experts to whom audiences will turn to expand their knowledge on the strategy and thus make more informed decisions on its relevance to them. Advocates enhance the content of your message by focussing on its authority and consistency.
Both types of audience have the potential to enhance belief in your strategy in different ways. You may be surprised to discover who the influencers and advocates in your organisation are and how powerfully they can promote its impact for you. Knowing how and when to leverage each is you goal.
Leaders must be prepared to place communications at the heart of strategy-making first, rather than use it as a mere broadcast function later. The information environment is unlikely to become less complex and new opportunities will be realised by leaders who maintain authenticity by thinking less about what they want to say, and more about what their audiences need to believe.