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Successful Communication of Strategic Change Needs More Than Just One Neurone (Or Letting the Cat Out of the Bag)

Posted by Nicholas Mayhew on 09/06/18 08:52
Nicholas Mayhew

I get really bored of dumb binaries in strategic change conversations — leadership v management, top down v bottom up, theory x v theory y, introverted v extraverted.

And so it goes on..

If only life were simple!

If we are going be successful in communicating about our change projects, we have to be mature enough to recognise complexity and flexible enough to adapt our approach.

If we are going to get communication about change to work, one of the things we need to do is work out how it is meaningful to the lives of those with whom we need to engage. This is where the “Top Down” strategic leadership often finds it is disconnected from the Bottom (those who must deliver the change) and the message somehow becomes distorted. Far from engaging the people it is for, it can be seen as meaningless to them at best, disruptive and damaging at worst.

Here is one factor that could be worth thinking about to avoid that disconnect.

Emergence connects the dots

Before we get to that, here is a quick note on emergence. This word describes a common feature of complex systems. Complexity can occur in systems that seem simple, for example, a team of three rather than a team of two. Complex systems have properties that emerge from the complexity.

One of my favourite examples of this relates to a basket and a cage. Without a door and a lock it is just a basket. Go up just one layer of complexity and put a lockable door on it and it gains the property of holding (for example a pet hamster); a cage emerges. Take the door off, and both the hamster and the key property of caging are gone.

The same concept is happening all over organisations quite naturally. In fact the whole point of organising human and process is to garner emergent power (Could there be any other point? Check your own organisation, is it designed to focus collective power on a clear purpose or to dissipate a billion hours in meetings about meetings?)

“Together we are invincible, alone we are invisible..”

…is a good way to put it.

I really liked the quote from German Scientist Jochen Fromm on this, (quoted in their article on emergence by Andy Martin and Kristian Helmerson called Emergence: the remarkable simplicity of complexity):

one water molecule is not fluid
one gold atom is not metallic
one neurone is not conscious
one amino acid is not alive

Which is a nice way to route you back into the physical world. One neurone is not conscious, but you are, it may simply be a question of scale.

Scale — each level in the scale of your organisation has a unique focus

Think of scale as a series of points as you move up or down from detail to big picture, where things come together clearly, but differently from either the level up or down. For example in rugby we start with the individual player, it might be the number ten, then next level of scale might be the forwards or the backs, then we have the team as a whole, then club and then the league as a whole.

Scale is one key dimension where emergent properties exist and can trip up your top down change programme.

Organisations have different scales that focus priorities in different ways.

A nice way to think about this is team size and time. There is me, my current focus, and now. Then my team, our focus, this month. Then the company, its focus, this quarter. The group, its overall objective, this year. Finally we get to the scale of the market including our suppliers, our fans, and competitors, and the strategies being implemented to win over the mid-term.

The last one includes “me and now”. It is made up of all of those me’s and now’s that make up the whole market over time. But from a market perspective I am invisible, and from my perspective and my current task, the broad trends of the market are probably irrelevant. This is where communication can disconnect.

When we all go to the polls in the UK, we try to sort out policies and tribes, and the politicians try to reach out to us. Where they connect it is because what they are offering is significant to our lives; something that effects our now. Where they fail to connect is because, while the issue may be important to the nation as a whole, it is not that important in our personal lives right now.

As a company leader or strategy director, your full time and attention is given to the issues that are most important, from a whole organisation level. You spend your days dealing with them and thinking about them. It is easy to be fully absorbed by just a few of them.

This will not be the experience of your leadership team and people as you drop through the scales. For some of them, perhaps one of the issues is vital, for others none of them may be that relevant to success.

We often meet leaders who say they communicate all the time about their strategy, with teams who say that they don’t. When you unpick it, both are right and the disconnect is related to scale.

As a leader you have to find out where the big issues resonate. This is where Top Down and Bottom Up can both work at the same time.

The simple way to do it is to ask; to hear how they resonate and to allow the team to find their own way of working out how to respond once the connection is made. Or allow them not to respond because in this context that is the right response.

Here are some ways to ensure your communication is relevant:

  1. At least identify sensible scales of the organisation to address.
  2. Ask each group what your strategy means for them, as well as telling them about it.
  3. Engage with them on how best to work out what sort of programme would deliver your strategy.
  4. Connect the dots back to the strategy overall by setting up a routine accountability feedback loop to the board.
  5. Delegate the strategic implementation with clear parameters (particularly any red-lines they must not cross, timings and objectives, and principles that must be observed), and hold them accountable.
  6. Find out how different teams or departments connect through your strategic initiative and ask them to come together in an emergent new team, by working out how and where it is relevant themselves.
  7. Assist them, with clear expectations and encouragement for leadership, help with any politics, and most importantly, the right mix of in-project training to enhance their programme.
  8. Allow them to get it wrong and to work out how to get it right.

Top Down and/or Bottom Up is an unhelpful binary description of how to approach strategic change. A better option is to consider each level of organisational scale and identify both where and how to communicate and engage meaningfully. Consider creating the goals and principles for change, and the enabling conditions, and then allowing at least some of the response to emerge through engagement and leadership in the field. The balance is really hard to get right.

You can always ask us as we spend all our time on the process of successful change.


Organisations have both formal and informal structures. In either case it is those with the clearest purpose and intention that hold real power. Scale shifts in meaning can appear quite naturally outside formal structure, and may well be hidden from sight, but nevertheless be fundamental to how an organisation works, or to why it doesn’t.

Contact me to talk more about these issues in change and strategy, at nick.mayhew@alembicstrategy.com.

Topics: Strategy, Change Management, Change, Leadership, Engagement, Founder-led, Relationships

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