Finding Your Way in a Digital Age

Understanding Business Evolution As A Guide For More Effective Decision-Making, Communications Planning and Organizational Positioning

Sometimes watching companies and brands evolve in today’s digital reality is a painful experience. The communications and storytelling approach doesn’t align with the business reality, causing confusion, apathy and distraction. Much of it has to do with the speed and connectivity that digital entails.

The business acumen and leadership discipline required to generate a savvy, smart portrayal of a company as it evolves today goes without saying. What’s really intriguing, from a communications perspective, is the ability to inform and influence decisions projected on how the business would evolve, and not on what it is today.

This reminds me of what hockey legend Wayne Gretzky once said: “A good hockey player plays where the puck is. A great hockey player plays where the puck is going to be.”

Understanding business evolution is not just about corporate strategy. It’s also about clearly designing initiatives and programs, directing behaviors and guiding resources on behalf of the enterprise. Business evolution requires companies to think on two planes at once: where they are, and where they are headed. It requires leaders to make moves today that will affect the way their world looks two or three iterations down the road. Companies hoping to understand their evolution – and where their game will be played in the future – need to foster alignment among their leadership, core management and communications. Each is an essential ingredient required to anticipate – and define – the future.

From a communications perspective, knowing where a business is in a digital-oriented lifecycle allows managers to better determine the real questions that need to be answered involving corporate reputation, brand relevance, internal credibility, competitive balance and customer trends. Additionally, from the standpoint of communications as a system and corporate function, comprehending a business’ evolution is critical, because it:

  • Ensures various elements of the organization (departments, locations, managerial levels) are sharing information – and that all of this information is filtering upward to senior management;
  • Brings the outside world into the organization, eliminating the myopia plaguing many laggard companies;
  • Helps identify best practices from comparable industries through an ongoing exploration of how leading companies are marketing themselves and carving out new niches.

Even in today’s digital world, there remain finite ways for organizations to distinguish themselves. These include employee knowledge and motivation, technological superiority, manufacturing practices, product development and unique pricing strategies. Communications enables companies to understand how all of these are evolving.

If you insist that “communications is for telling people about us,” it’s time for your organization to evolve, as well.

The magic, if you will, lies in comprehending and pulling the right levers at the right time to advance the business.

Business evolution is far more than a euphemism for “keeping current.” Over the course of time, we’ve learned that, successful businesses drive growth that incorporates lessons and failures to push it forward.

The organization that fails to see its own evolution is too often dismissive, or has its figurative head in the sand. It fails to capture its narrative  adequately, and eventually becomes marginalized, purchased, or non-existent.

Managing Evolution

Ultimately, there are three major evolutionary phases that managers and communicators must be cognizant of in their strategy planning, budgeting and training:

Managing the Downside

At each phase of a company’s evolution, it will confront downside issues. The downside comes for every company – upward trajectories don’t last forever. The key is to manage the downside, minimize its “steepness,” and identify ways to reverse the curve as quickly as possible. This requires constant reality-checking and information-sharing among the various company functions. It can even mean employing outside-of-the-box thinking, such as consulting with futurists about cultural trends that might directly or indirectly affect what you provide.

Leading the Growth

Growing companies feel invincible. But, the growth needs to be channeled and guided, lest spending run amok and employees fail to keep up. It’s critical that senior management continue to articulate a vision that is simultaneously aspiring, inspiring and practical. Communications and training must facilitate the ability to lead and maintain growth, while performance measures and reward and recognition must encourage the behaviors to support it.

Shifting the Playing Field

The time comes for every organization when the nature of the game shifts – huge stereo systems gave way to portable music and online music options, for example. Assuming that your company has anticipated this sort of shift, it is imperative that you adequately prepare your organization and your customers to accept you as a player of a new game – after all, what gave Apple the “right” to become a music company?! It built a reputation for being at the forefront of technology. Apple could probably invent a better automobile today and be accepted.

Getting the Right Inputs – Analytics and Insights

One of the most subtle – meaning often missed – aspects of determining your organization’s evolutionary position is how the company gathers information.

More often than not, strategy and planning sessions undertaken by the Board, CEO and leadership team are comprised of the same type mindset – that is, people who are in the business now and have been for a while. While their opinions are certainly important, they are also biased by what they can and cannot see.

How does such blindness happen? Simple. The inputs sought and received are from people who share the same beliefs, see the same data, and interpret the same insights.

Smart organizations utilize analytics, insights and perspectives concerning stakeholders who either are or aren’t using the company’s products to open the aperture and gain different viewpoints.

Further, strategic-oriented chief communications officers, sensing the need for “fresh air” in decision-making and internal discussions, are “opening the windows,” so to speak, and peppering internal communications and management communications channels with external cases, viewpoints, philosophies and business models from outside the organization’s core business.

Self-awareness requires a full 360-degree scanning.

Who do we talk with to gain insights? How many “outsiders” are invited to strategy, planning and/or management sessions?

Does our senior management engage outside influencers and experts to discuss common issues and opportunities?

Coherence Out of Chaos

One of the key elements of recognizing the organization’s current state in its evolution is the ability to bring coherence out of chaos for employees, which is inherent in business today.

Employees are inundated with information, contradictory objectives and irrelevant messaging and are watching actions versus words. In effect, people are “working with the volume off.” To crack this code, leaders must employ a “discover versus sell” approach to managing and communicating with today’s employees.

With growth a necessary reality, it’s both practical and critical to assess how leaders can create and sustain momentum in order to move forward. Is leadership continuously focusing on the future, maintaining a sense of urgency, testing the limits of individuals and teams, challenging the status quo, embracing uncertainty and driving real and substantive changes?

One of the most beneficial aspects of comprehending your organization’s position, and thus its evolution, is that it allows you to frame initiatives, decisions and programs against a real-time view.

For example, a relatively innocuous program to improve the content and channels of internal communications can in fact be a window on its future. The results of such an effort may in fact provide a clear vision of the need to overhaul or dramatically strengthen all of communications or even other key staff functions, such as marketing, HR and IT.

Starting from a place where everyone inside the organization comprehends the company’s current position is the basis for creating new excitement around the brand and new ideas around the products.

In today’s complex and competitive business environment, leaders and communicators who figure out where the game is being played, assimilate their position, and encourage an active dialogue among employees will avoid the downward slide of business’ evolution.

So, where are you?


12 Strategic Considerations to Properly Navigate Your Business’ Evolution

Where is your company on the evolutionary curve? Equally important, are you directing decisions and aligning communications to optimize your position? Ask yourself:

  1. From a digital standpoint, where is the connectivity with key stakeholders?
  2. Can we realistically expect our product/service to still be in strong demand next year or two years from now? If not, what are we doing about it?
  3. Do our senior leadership, management and communications functions jointly envision the future?
  4. What is the current state of our industry revealing to us about “where the game is being played?” Is it marketing, technology, innovation, channel, pricing, etc.?
  5. What are smaller competitors doing that looks and feels fundamentally different from what we do? What do they see?
  6. Where are we right now on the Business Evolution scale? How do we know? Do our employees know?
  7. If we keep doing the same things the same way, where will we be in our lifecycle one year from today?
  8. Do we have the right employees in place for what’s needed tomorrow? If not, are they trainable?
  9. What analogous industries can we study to determine how they have dealt with such issues as disruptive technologies, commoditization or maturation?
  10. Do we have an infrastructure that brings the outside world (trends, industry news) into our world? Do we analyze that data and then do something with it?
  11. How smart are our employees about the business and the future?
  12. Forget products and services for a moment. What made us “uniquely us” when we became successful and do we still operate that way today?

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Gary Grates
Gary Grates
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