Did alignment matter in the 17th century?

Here’s a quick Q&A with two leading thinkers on strategic communication—drawing lessons, including on alignment, from 17th century explorers.  

I took part in a pilot version of this new workshop format called Bushcraft for Communicators at #Eurocomm18. 

Michael Ambjorn: Bushcraft for communicators: Why this, now?

Mike Pounsford
Mike Pounsford

Mike Pounsford: Uncertainty, pace of change, the need to build capability in-house to move swiftly in response to changing times. The old world of business is changing and we need new solutions to equip people to lead change in the new world. Something that is not top-down and cumbersome; but bottom-up and fast, with less emphasis on process, and more on outcome. If you want another metaphor imagine a team of special agents dropped in the bush to build relationships with locals, provide them with tools and approaches that help them prosper, rather than an occupying army trying to create news ways of working by imposing what they do at home.

Stephen Welch - Stephen is an independent communications and leadership consultant. He works with individuals and organizations to improve how they communicate their messages and drive change. Stephen has specific experience in leadership communication, marketing, and developing business simulations. He is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts, and a Founding Fellow of the Commonwealth Communicators Organization
Stephen Welch

Stephen Welch: Early explorers in new terrains often failed because they did not adapt to the surroundings, understand the landscape and the resources it provided, or tried to stick to old traditional approaches. Often the explorers who were successful adapted to native conditions and used what was “just enough” for the job. We have adapted those principles for communicators trying to succeed in the new world of work.

MA: Did alignment matter in the 17th century?

SW: Even more than today! Today we can have instant communication around the world and, via email and technology, monitor employees’ every move or decision. But 300 years ago, alignment was crucial: The earliest teams of the VOC or the Hudson’s Bay Company got their briefings in London or Amsterdam and then went without any kind of communication or instruction for up to a year. If there wasn’t complete alignment at the beginning, then trouble was sure to arise when they reported back a year later. Their business policies may not longer be appropriate for us today, but the importance of alignment hasn’t changed.

Bushcraft for Communicators pilot session at #Eurocomm18

Bushcraft for Communicators pilot session at #Eurocomm18

MP: Of course, but there is more to it than that. It is just about alignment but also about releasing energy and empowerment—focused on outcomes that make sense for the particular team, challenge and customer need that you face in the moment. Alignment suggests moving in lock-step. Bushcraft suggests moving in different ways as the situation requires. Ultimately all focused on the same common purpose (survival, competitiveness, great customer relationships) but delivering them in many different ways as demanded by the situation. So it is alignment of results and outcome, not of process. Unfortunately, too many corporate HQs are focused on rolling out global processes and lose sight of the fact that achieving the same outcome sometimes requires taking different processes in different environments.

SW: Yes, organizations that align around processes risk following the failures of Franklin and Scott: by thinking they can apply the same process everywhere, they fail to adapt to the new reality.

MA: Now the IABC Global Standard wasn’t around in the 17th century. Yet, the core principles are timeless. Got a good story that relates?

SW: The Sir John Franklin story is a good place to start. This ill-fated expedition to the north of Canada was thoroughly equipped, with two ships and lots of equipment. But because they failed to adapt and consider their environment and were arrogant enough to think that what worked in one place (Europe) would work in another (Canada), all 143 of them died.

MP: And the history of business is full of super-successful companies that came a cropper a few years later because they got arrogant and thought their success would be forever. Or failed to evolve. Surely the same applies to communicators. Without adaptation will we become the Kodaks of the communication world?

MA: Of all the tools in the Courers de Bois kitbag–which is your respective personal favorite–and why?

MP: Building bridges—it is so simple yet so powerful. It identifies and addresses age-old feuds or nips new ones in the bud. Just by creating a space in which teams surface mistaken assumptions, or share information, it shifts understanding and creates happier and more productive relationships.

SW: For me: starting points. This is a great exercise you can do outside and talks about different change journeys in a physical and interactive way. By getting people to physically move according to their change journey you really identify new perspective and can see why a focus on process is pointless.

MA: Did you secretly both just want to be lumberjacks?

MP: Yes! How did you know? When Michael Palin first uttered those wonderful lines his song rang in my soul. Especially the bit about shopping and buttered scones and all except for the bit about suspenders and a bra.

SW: How do you know I wasn’t one while working my way through school?

MA: How can you find out if bushcraft is right for you?

SW: Assess your skills! We have developed a little diagnostic tool to help you assess how “bushcraft-ready” you are. Try it out: Can you survive in the bush? 

MA: Which one book would it be useful to read before coming to the workshop? How else might one prepare–in order to get the most out of it?

MP: Just come prepared to talk and think about some of the changes in your world, the relationships that are important to you and your long-term aspirations.

SW: Come with an open mind. Read The Voyages of Pierre Esprit Radisson (Prince Society, 1885) – embedded below.

MA: Thanks—I’ll download it for my Kindle. Now is there a hashtag to follow in the meantime?

MP: #bushcraft4c. Or just look for the birchbark messages.

About the author / Michael Ambjorn (@michaelambjorn) is a committed espresso drinker, #OpenSpace aficionado and an SCMP. He provides 1:1 advice to Chairs, Chief Execs and senior leaders on strategy, change and turnarounds. He is particularly interested in how strategic alignment can focus people, enabling renewal and growth. With his colleagues at AlignYour.Org, he facilitates strategy for organisations that want to enable all their people to put a shoulder to the wheel. Through courses and 1:1 coaching and mentoring they also work to develop the next generation of leaders.

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