Communication Needs to 'Cascade' From Executive Suite

By Patrick Lencioni

One of the most powerful tools for transforming any organization, whether it has fifty employees or five thousand, is a communication program that eludes most companies. I call this tool cascading communication - here is how it works.

Members of an organization's executive team leave each of their meetings having agreed on a common set of messages that they will communicate to their respective staffs within a set period of time, usually between 24 and 48 hours after the end of the meeting.

Then, members of their staffs communicate those same messages to their staffs, and so on until they have cascaded throughout much or all of the organization. While the depth that is reached by cascading communication varies depending on the size and structure of an organization, in most cases it manages to descend two or three levels below the executive team. But what is important is that messages are being communicated consistently and quickly in a personal way.

Benefits

The benefits of a cascading program are numerous. First, it forces executives to get clear after each meeting about what they have agreed upon and what specific actions they will take. Second, it creates an environment where employees throughout an organization, in different departments and at different levels, hear the same messages from their respective leaders. This gives employees confidence and allows them to pursue their work without doubts and distractions about what is going on above them in the corporate food chain.

Finally, cascading communication allows an organization to implement decisions more quickly and effectively than does any other method of information dissemination. It also provokes action and buy-in around decisions that other forms of communication cannot.

So why don't all companies do this?

The Obstacles

One of the most common inhibitors is the tendency of many executive teams to become enthralled with more exciting communication tools. These include Intranets, corporate videos, glossy newsletters and large company meetings. While each of these tools certainly has its place, none provides the value and effectiveness of cascading communication.

For one, they are expensive. Establishing an intranet or a newsletter often requires adding incremental resources to an organization, something a cascading program does not.

More importantly, they are impersonal, and give employees little sense of connection to what they must do to support the executive team. Cascading communication, on the other hand, because of its personal nature, provokes more trust among employees who have learned to discount the sincerity of "internal mass marketing". There is simply no substitute for personal, interactive communication when it comes to inspiring people to act.

Discipline Is Key

Probably the greatest inhibitor of cascading communication is a lack of discipline among executives who often are unwilling to take ten minutes at the end of their meetings to get clear about what has been decided and what needs to be communicated within the organization to turn decisions into action. An example will help illustrate the dangers of this problem.

There once was a group of executives who were in charge of a large but struggling company. During one particular executive staff meeting, it was agreed that the company should implement a temporary "hiring freeze" in order to slow expenses and get the organization turned around.

When the staff meeting ended, the head of Human Resources immediately went to her office and sent an e-mail message to all managers within the company announcing the hiring freeze. Within five minutes, three of her peers were in her office insisting that they had never agreed to stop hiring people within their organizations.

So, the executive team had to call yet another meeting to discuss the matter again, and then had to issue a new announcement exempting some organizations from the freeze, but not others. The result was a delay in implementation of the policy, resentment within the executive team, and a loss of credibility among employees who wondered how their leaders could be so disorganized.

This is not an uncommon problem. But it can be easily prevented by implementing and adhering to a cascading communication program. Unfortunately, as sensible as this is, most executive teams can't seem to find the time or inclination to make it happen.

The key for them is to embrace the notion that some of the best ways to drastically improve the effectiveness of an organization are neither innovative nor exciting, but rather, remarkably simple. For some, the power of that simplicity is the most difficult thing to grasp.