Any experienced consultant knows that effectively communicating the goals, purposes and outcomes of an innovation effort to the workforce is vital to the project’s success. Can Marlow manage to convince Accipiter’s management of the importance of their communication plan?

There are a number of impossibilities in life.  You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink.  You can lead a teenager to class but you can’t make him think.  You can’t push a string uphill.  To add to that litany, you can’t tell people often enough, and in enough detail, about dramatic change like innovation.

In every innovation project I’ve worked on, I’ve preached the theology of communicating about innovation – its goals, purposes and outcomes.  Almost uniformly, my requests go ignored or unanswered.  I’m not sure if the management teams don’t want to talk to their folks, or are afraid a big communication effort commits them to actually doing innovation work.  Inevitably, we’ll run into a significant portion of the workforce who is unaware of the innovation focus and effort, and needs insights into what we are doing and why we are doing it.  Typically, at the end of an innovation effort, a senior executive will turn to me and say “that went well.  Too bad we didn’t do a better job getting people on board earlier.”  As sure as the sun rises in the east, and Sisyphus is pushing that rock, I’ll live through another project where we fail to communicate effectively and regret it at the end.  Accipiter was proving to be no exception.

Greg was actually on board to communicate to his team, but felt he needed to pull in the corporate PR team to help write the communications.  After several missed meetings and delays, Susan and I convinced him that we could write the communications, but we would need help to select the most appropriate channels.  In my work, we’ve managed to use a wide range of communication vehicles to educate and inform, including emails, newsletters, voicemails, taped video of senior executives doing the talking head thing, posters, table tents in the break rooms and a host of other activities.  Susan and I had pulled together a relatively comprehensive program to communicate to the aerospace group, but we felt we needed the PR team’s blessing and their final polish of our messaging.  We’d even written up some talking points for Greg’s reports, so they could talk about innovation to their reports and stay on message.  Now, we just needed to get the internal communications team on board.  No easy task.

We met with Leslie Parks, the VP in charge of internal communications for Accipiter.  We’d been warned that Leslie was very proprietorial with her communication team and channels, and that we’d need to build a case for communicating.  In fact, I found her very open to the fact we wanted to communicate the changes we were planning, but very concerned about the volume of communication in general.

“We’d be happy to work with you” she said, and I felt it was sincere.  “But what we need to do is balance your messaging with all the other messaging that’s going on.  Right now many Accipiter employees are overwhelmed with internal emails and communications.  We’ve just finished a big push for HR and benefits, and have another messaging and communication campaign about to start for the United Way.  I understand the requirements and urgency of your work, but you also will want our employees to read and understand your messages, and with the volume of emails going out to them right now, I can’t assure you that will happen.”

“OK.  What if we break our communications down into three targeted groups – executives, senior and mid-level managers and the rest of the staff?  Most of our direct communication needs to go to the first two groups, primarily within the aerospace group.  We also need to communicate a broader innovation effort more generally across the company, but our first targets will be within aerospace.”

“Your talking points for the executives and senior leaders look great.  I’d like to pass them through our review team to ensure they don’t conflict with any other messaging. I think the managers will like this and use some of the draft emails and talking points to communicate to their teams.  Do you have an intranet site or some other website set up where people can visit and get more information?  Emails are great, but a permanent site that people can review as they are interested is very valuable.”

In fact we did have plans for an innovation website, but the development of that site was currently IT project number 347, somewhere after the rollout of a new SharePoint site for time management and before the fix to a COBOL routine in the payroll application.  In other words, we were probably going to have to build an external innovation site in the short term.

“We’re working on that” Susan said with a wry smile.  “We’ll have something ready within the next two weeks.”

Leslie agreed to work with us to include our communications into the Accipiter communications calendar, and promised us feedback on our plan and talking points within a week.  That would give us enough time to build at least a sample innovation site to provide some insights into the Accipiter innovation process.  As for the internal site development, we were still waiting on approval for hardware and trying to find the staff to do the work.

By Jeffrey Phillips

About the author:

Jeffrey Phillips is VP Marketing and a lead consultant for OVO Innovation. Jeffrey has led innovation projects for Fortune 5000 firms, academic institutions and not-for=profits based on OVO Innovation’s Innovate on Purpose™ methodology. The Innovate on Purpose methodology encourages organizations to consider innovation as a sustainable, repeatable business process, rather than a discrete project. Jeffrey is the author of “Make Us More Innovative,” and blogs about innovation at Innovate On Purpose. He is a sought after speaker and has presented to corporations, innovation oriented conferences, and at a number of universities.