3 things that won't fix your communication problem

If you follow any road of pain and frustration in an organization, it will inevitably lead to communications. Even if the problem didn't start there, the communications activity is where people feel it and the communications person is where it ends.  

I've worked with hundreds of churches and businesses over the years. All of them experience common symptoms at some point. Systems start to fail. Silos creep in. Staff morale tumbles. Quality control falters. Whatever “it” is, the temptation is to fix communications; and fix it fast. Which, is the right move. But, the "how" you move is the deal maker (or breaker). 

There are three common ways I see leaders try to solve big communication problems. They almost never work. Trust me. 

1. Hire it away

It’s easy to think that hiring someone from another organization with an impressive resume and shiny portfolio will fix the problem that’s been plaguing you. But don’t be so quick to assume a rock star is the solution.

It’s true that fresh perspective and credentials can make a difference in reversing negative tides, but there are several other factors at play. A single person is not going to fix everything. You can’t drop a rock star into a dysfunctional team and erase the dysfunction– it won’t happen. 

“An executive’s performance depends on both her personal competencies and the capabilities of the organization. Top performers who join new companies find that the transitions they must make are tougher than they had anticipated. When a star tries to learn about the procedures, personalities, relationships, and subcultures of the organization, he is handicapped by the attitudes of his new colleagues.” HBR - The Risky Business of Hiring Stars

2. Fire it away

You’ve given someone the job, but they aren’t getting the job done. At least to your satisfaction; they’re taking too long and people are complaining. Trust across departments is low, growth is stagnant. The next move for quick relief is easy to predict: “It’s time for him to go; he’s not a fit.” Many times firing someone doesn’t eliminate the inherent problem – corporate muscle memory is strong and your next hire will face the same roadblocks. 

“Moderate misfits who are charismatic and visionary are a company’s best bet for driving top-down change – but the process will be slow and tedious, and these leaders will need to have a great deal of support in order to persist and prevail. The odds of success will be slim, and some leaders may be so disruptive in their intentions that they may harm morale and productivity, or end up disrupting themselves.” HBR - When Leaders Are Hired But Fired For Not Fitting In

Not to mention, firing people can be expensive when it’s the wrong move. Unless you address the underlying organizational problems - the single casualty of a scapegoat termination comes at a cost - time, resources, and negative emotional/psychological impact on staff. Instead of moving forward, you might end up irritating the existing problem to new levels and sinking deeper into new problems that are created as a result.

3. Work it away

You fix the problem by controlling culture with over complicated or over restrictive systems and policies. “Instead of four weeks lead time, we need 12 weeks lead time.” “From now on, it’s mandatory all requests go through my department.” The focus becomes less and less about working together as a team to accomplish a shared goal and more and more about managing the workload. Meanwhile the root issues still exist and maybe even get worse. Counter to your first instinct, it’s more agility that leads people through necessary change, not more rigidity. 

“Meeting complexity with complexity can create more confusion than it resolves.” - Donald Sull, Simple Rules


  • Think PROGRESS not PERFECTION. Untangle the mess one strand at a time. The problem you're trying to solve will require change; but make sure you're not trying to fix everything at once with a blind transactional sweep. Impatient decisions like this can actually reverse the progress you're aiming for with damaging strains and breaks. 
  • Look at your culture. Regroup and acknowledge it’s going to take a minute to bring the change you want to see. You won’t see the organization get better until you make things better for the people inside the organization. The FIRST step is an inside out job that requires “two-way branding” to strengthen both sides of the equation. How much of your budget is allocated to internal communication versus external communication? If you’re not investing in both and linking the two together, problems will arise and problems will persist. 
“Employees need to hear the same messages that you send out to the marketplace. At most companies, however, internal and external communications are often mismatched. This can be very confusing, and it threatens employees’ perceptions of the company’s integrity: They are told one thing by management but observe that a different message is being sent to the public.” HBR - Selling the Brand Inside
  • Look at your systems. What have you outgrown? What doesn’t work because times have changed and problems have evolved? Identify what can be simplified or retired. Where can you streamline cumbersome, complicated and disjointed processes for your staff - and you?

    For example: How many different steps and systems does someone have to use to get an event on a shared calendar, request promotions and line up tech support? Where is the "easy button," the one point of entry everyone can use to enter everything in one place? If it doesn't exist, find a way to make it happen. 
  • Look at your structure. Is your staff operating at their full potential and in their greatest strengths? Has the role changed since they first filled it? Does it require the same skillset? Is there another place in the organization where that skillset is needed? Does the role and/or title carry old baggage with dated expectations? Reframe the role (and the expectations around it) with an updated title that invites a new approach and fresh responsibility.

    For example: Instead of "copywriter" consider "content curator." Or, consider moving the Communications Team under Guest Services or First Impressions instead of Operations. 
  • Look at the workload. Have you added more and more responsibility to the same size support team? How many of those projects or events are still solving active problems and meeting unmet needs and how many are nice to have because "they've always been there?" Pulling the plug on a project, saying goodbye to a long-standing event or moving to a new technology may feel like personal abandonment. It's not. If you're not able to make decisions about work based on an overarching strategy (versus personal preference or comfort zones), you risk staying tied to dated events or projects long past the expiration date. Right size the work to your staff size and make sure the work you're doing is directly tied to a practical, measurable goal (not aspirational vision). 

    Learn more:  The Four Disciplines of Execution by Sean Covey
  • Establish accountability. Determine clear, measurable, attainable goals for each staff member with routine check-ins. Create rules for a safe zone where you celebrate wins and drill down into challenges together. If goals are repeatedly blocked, look into the core issue. Remember, the problem didn't start overnight. They won't be able to fix it overnight. But, you can check in periodically to provide feedback and keep momentum headed in the right direction.

    For example: Professional Development Plan
  • Develop cross-functional plans. Encourage collaboration among staff to diffuse turf-guarding. The more synergy you bring around common goals, the more silos will crumble and morale will climb. People from different departments can work in their "individual zone" while contributing to one shared objective. 

    Start here: Series Outline & Creative Brief

And, if you are ready to get serious about fixing this right now - I'm throwing you a lifeline. Accepting applications for Fall 2018 Communications Intensive in Orlando, FL.