"WTF! (spelled out in full color). Isn't there anything we can tell these people to get them on board?" This was last week. A normally very chill client kicked-off our (typically bland) catch-up meeting with a couple four-letter words and a plea to no one in particular to go straight to happy hour. I put my pen down. This was about to get interesting in a way that a polite consultant won't take notes-- at least, to your face.
Where was this extreme frustration coming from?
I'll spare the details but the trigger on this particular day has sadly become more commonplace. Someone asked (again), "so...why are we doing this?" And after years of slides, conference calls, analytical tables, texts, beer summits, and impassioned monologues, he faces more resistance today from his counterparts across the agency than he did on Day 1. He's understandably fed up, tired, and cranky. What happened?
Unfortunately, this program has become a victim of it's own success. Interestingly, the program's early launch--and subsequent growth and visibility-- created a different problem than the one they were originally trying to solve. People who were onboard initially are now fighting progress because they feel out in the cold. The program has grown so significantly that there isn't room at the table for everyone to be in on every decision. The client has segmented, organized, and differentiated themselves into a much larger, scalable operation. Lots of small businesses deal with growing pains but federal programs are less accustomed to recognizing the signs and coping with the symptoms. What to do?
When building (or in this case rebuilding) support, the approach has to be personal AND provide a sense of a very short connection between the individual at the top dog. The closer people feel to someone calling the shots, the more receptive they are.
The problem with a lot of commonly used communication strategies is that they depend too heavily on official, polished messages to come out from the leadership to help garner support. Unfortunately, the bigger and flashier the broadcast, the more disconnected people feel. Everyone wants to feel that they have the inside scoop. This means that much of the communication has to be right but raw and person-to-person. Unscheduled and unconstrained conversations help which sort of flies in the face of many of our more traditional communication "best practices."
Obviously, this approach isn't scalable to any sizable program so that's why allies are critical to helping grow that solid, supportive core. The first step is reaffirming allies. Whether you call them individually or call a meeting, ensure those closest to the decision-driving epicenter are solid. The second step is then working in concentric circles from the inside out. Each person at the core is on point to reach out to a colleague with concerns. Listen to their issues, document them, and pull them into a solution group at the supportive core.