I always look forward with anticipation to listening to General Stanley McChrystal’s new book. From listening to My Share of the Task in 2013 onwards, I have come to know that Stan McChrystal will masterfully combine experiences from his life and career, the issues that had to be overcome, the approach he took to getting results, and the lessons he learned from reflecting on the entire process. Stan McChrystal’s books are studies in open-minded analysis, adaptation, and reflection, and his most recent book, Risk, is (in my opinion) his most refined, stripped down, and broadly applicable work to date.

The balance Stan McChrystal strikes in Risk, between his career in the military and his experience since then in the corporate world, means that Risk is a valuable book for anyone who wants to improve the structure and functioning of an organization.

I was very pleased when I started to listen to Risk, as the first section of the book is concerned with the significance of good communications. McChrystal argues that no organisation can function well without good communication, and that even though good communication is critical, communication can’t make up for failure in another area. I am halfway through a Master of Media in Strategic Communication as a result of reaching a similar conclusion: communication isn’t everything, but no system or organization will work well without comprehensive and effective communication.

In keeping with Stan McChrystal’s normal practice of digging deep and thinking broadly, he starts with two key questions that are rarely given sufficient attention in strategic communications: can we communicate with everyone we need to communicate with, and will we communicate with everyone?

In too many situations, people assume that communicating with everyone will be easy. All we need is everyone’s phone number and e-mail address, and then everyone will communicate with everyone else. Think about how many times you have sent an e-mail at work and haven’t received a reply in time, or how often you have left a voice mail, because someone won’t answer the phone, and you haven’t received a return call in time. Even though we may have the technical ability to communicate with everyone that we need to communicate with, this doesn’t mean that regular and two way communication are normal characteristics within our networks.

Communicating means sharing information, which really means sharing power and influence. Most people are willing to share information to get a better overall outcome, but there are always some people who don’t want to lose the power that holding on to information affords them. Until an organization normalises sharing information to develop insights, too many people will be unnecessarily kept in the dark. Sharing information means that ideas can start to flow in all directions.

Once you know that you can communicate with the people you need to communicate with, then you can establish norms of regular and two way communication, so that information and insights will move freely, which is critical to organisational success. In earlier books Stan McChrystal has discussed the need to develop shared consciousness and smart autonomy and/or strategic alignment and empowered action within networks, all of which require that we can and will communicate across our entire network.

Unless we make a concerted effort to remove silos, undo stovepipes, reduce the power of gate-keepers, and demonstrate and support open communications, information and insights will not flow to where they need to go, and people with good ideas won’t know that their perspectives are valued and transformative.

As Stan McChrystal argues persuasively in Risk, organizations aren’t likely to get communications right unless they create and maintain a cohesive and comprehensive narrative. People within a network need to know what the organization does, how what they do contributes to what the organization does, how the organization responds to new information and insights, and how they can successfully contribute to the organization’s overall understanding of its purpose and direction.

A cohesive and comprehensive narrative is not a luxury, and it shouldn’t just exist on a brand identity or mission statement page. A narrative is the story an organization tells itself about its collective endeavour, and it is through developing an inclusive and adaptive narrative that an organization can grow stronger, more capable, and more adaptive. If there is a gap between an organization’s narrative and its behaviour, then people are going to trust what they see people doing, not what the organization says.

Communications professionals are the ideal group to facilitate the development and dissemination of an organization’s narrative, but they can’t do this successfully without the support of all key stakeholders and a commitment to listen and share across the entire network. If an organization perceives that its communications professionals only have a limited role across a minority of areas, then that organization is going to fail to get the most out of information, insights, and the collective narrative they can inform.

As well as contributing to an organization’s narrative, communications professionals should take a lead role in developing a common organizational language for describing strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats. Each professional group within an organization is likely to have its own technical language and jargon for discussing the specifics of what they do, which is likely to be as useless for outsiders as it is useful for people within the group. How often have you heard people from different areas within your organization talking at each other rather than talking with each other?

The team who detects anomalies may have a markedly different professional language to the team who assess their significance, which can be different again from the team who mount a response and the team who write up the lessons learned. It is quite possible that each team will write up their own lessons learned in their own professional language, resulting in no part of the organization having a comprehensive and cohesive picture of what happened from start to finish. Communications professionals can assist all areas of an organization to develop a common language, so that information and insights can be shared and understood by everyone across the network.

In his role as a Task Force Commander in Baghdad, Stan McChrystal used open communication and a comprehensive narrative to bring diverse teams together to achieve remarkable outcomes. Risk sets out what he learned about how organizations can employ communications and narrative to achieve success in a very clear and succinct manner. As someone who is studying communications, and who has transitioned my career to communications, I appreciated his explanation and discussion of the difference effective communications can make in high-stress and high-consequence situations. I encourage you to read Risk and to learn to appreciate the significance of effective communications.

If you would like to improve the communications within your organization, or to develop a cohesive and comprehensive narrative that helps your personnel to reach their potential, then please contact me.

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