Sunday, October 20, 2013

Communicate to Engage Not Direct

Why is communications so hard?  Why are some civic leaders unwilling to communicate?

Increasingly I answer both questions with one word: complexity.

Communications within complicated organizations is most often used to direct or tell. Leaders communicate to their staff as to what they want them to do. Corporations tell their customers about their products. Funders tell their grantees what outcomes they want.

In complex systems no one is really in a position to tell anyone else what to do. Instead of using communications to “direct,” communications should engage stakeholders in ways that that foster collaborations capable of achieving collective impact. During the early stages of a collaboration it is rarely clear what the stakeholders will do together. Within a complicated organization such uncertainty would rarely be communicated. Instead the organization would wait to communicate until a strategic direction is set. So leaders accustomed to complicated organizations where control and clarity are preferred are reluctant to communicate early and often when they are leading a collaboration in the civic arena -- where complexity is nearly always a given and control and clarity are rare.

Leaders used to communicating to “tell” often have little experience with communicating to engage. And sometimes even the audience is more accustomed to being told rather than being engaged. So a communication inviting stakeholders to engage can cause confusion with stakeholders.

Communications to engage must be designed to facilitate shared understanding among many stakeholders. Such shared understanding is achieved when stakeholders learn together from each other. A communications system that enables many-to-many engagement  is pretty much the opposite of the centralized communications systems used in complicated organizations. Thanks to online tools many-to-many communications is much easier today than ever before. But just because it can be done, doesn’t mean it is either easy nor does it mean we’re comfortable doing it.

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