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4 Steps to Help Your Big Team Master the Art of Small Business Communication

Posted on October 08, 2015

Teams that communicate well win. This is true in both business and sports. It’s the reason why small, nimble groups that communicate ideas, collect feedback and have frequent discussions, are often the quickest of champions.

A 2010 Towers Watson study found, “Companies with highly effective communication practices enjoy 47% higher total returns to shareholders compared with the firms that are least effective at communicating.”

Small businesses, with their leaner staff, say this advantage works in their favor. The problem is the small business communication model doesn’t always scale. Problems can accrue as a small firm grows to mid-size (defined as $10 million to $1 billion in revenue). As the team grows, reporting structures emerge and a hierarchy is created. Employees become decentralized and work becomes more silo’ed to individual departments.

Unless a conscious effort is made to prevent it, the flow of communication in a mid-sized organization can easily get choked off. The hierarchical structure creates an environment where information tends to flow in a more top-down direction than bottom-up. As one mid-level manager once inelegantly said, “Sewage flows down.”

The Problems That Arise When Communication Breaks Down

Without an ability to solicit feedback from lower ranking employees, managers are forced to make decisions in a vacuum and this disconnect can create serious issues. For example, when the corporate headquarters of the Florida-based restaurant chain Hurricane Grill and Wings wanted to push a limited time offer discount without first communicating it to franchise owners, the owners rebelled because the discount would reduce their individual profit margins.

The plan ultimately failed and company President Martin O’Dowd explained, “We failed on several levels because we just rolled it out and didn’t pre-sell it to our people.”

Other examples include when internal tools are created (or purchased) for team members without their insight or buy-in. Leadership will often put forth a substantial investment of resources, that sit unused after launch because they failed to address the needs of people who use them first. This waste could have been avoided if the people who were intended to use the tool had been included in their creation and design. Even with the best intentions, managing within a vacuum cuts out one crucial component in decision making - your people.

Scaling Internal Communications

In his recent Forbes column, writer Robert Sher emphasizes the need for mid-sized businesses to formulate a plan for handling internal communication before problems get out of hand. From this, we’ve derived a few simple steps to keep internal communications for your mid-to-large sized organization working like a small, nimble team.

  1. Plan Ahead. Now, planning isn’t easy, and the larger your team gets the more it might feel like herding cats, however . . . It is important for senior management to discuss how internal communication will be handled in the future. Regular meetings should be scheduled ahead of time, and at a regular cadence to keep the team operating smoothly.
  2. Include the WHOLE Team. It is important to knit together meetings between decision makers and constituencies affected by these decisions. In this way decisions are not made in a vacuum and unintended consequences can be avoided or mitigated by other actions. This communication plan should be then committed to calendar.

  3. Beware of Overkill. Care should be taken to not over-do meetings. They should be short, focused, well-led and attendance should be limited to people who are essential to the discussion. The meeting should either be valuable or not happening at all.

    CAUTION: Even with this plan in place, it is possible for internal communication to devolve into too much output from a select number of employees and not enough input from others (ie. the quiet ones). Feedback should always be actively solicited as it is crucial for successful initiatives.

  4. Find the Right Tool. Because managers cannot process all the information their reports can impart, a solution for sorting good ideas from bad is through the use of employee suggestion software. Crowd-sourcing solutions to business challenges can generate a number of ideas from employees and the best suggestions can be sorted from less useful ones through the use of social-media “Likes” and comments.

In an ideal situation, a company will have the revenues of a large or mid-sized firm while retaining the strength and speed of a small business’ internal communications system. Internal communication is too important to leave to chance and this goal can only be achieved with a cohesive plan.

And if your team is struggling with growing pains or finding the right communication and idea management platform, then it’s time to call the Vocoli Team at 888.919.5300 to help build the solution for your team!


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