Communicate with Greater Clarity Using the Execution Triangle

K12 Institutions are complex systems that require clear and transparent communication to keep all departments and schools aligned, employees and students engaged and families and communities informed. When departments and leaders are misaligned, the impact cascades down to student outcomes.

Education leaders who are skilled in clear communication can help drive alignment and improve engagement, especially when managing through change or disruption. The Execution Triangle gives leaders a consistent method to develop and deploy effective communication.

Why Communication is Critical to Success

For any organization to be successful, employees must know how to execute on the goals. Most often in education, leaders and employees know why the work is important, and they understand what needs to be done to achieve goals. What isn’t always clear is how to get the work accomplished.

If leaders delegate without making expectations clear, it’s unlikely that the expected outcome will be delivered. When expectations and strategic direction are clear, employees understand the need and can use their expertise and skills to define how the work gets done.

In K12, the partnership between the school system and the community also plays a major role in successfully achieving outcomes. Education leaders must be able to effectively communicate strategies, initiatives and needs to interested parties. Well-crafted communication can enhance the perceptions people hold of leaders. When their actions consistently match their words, leaders are more likely to gain long-term trust and support from the community, families and governing boards. Sadly, poorly executed communication is highly detrimental. Miscommunication creates misunderstanding, confusion and uncertainty. It can also erode people’s trust in the organization.

What is the Execution Triangle?

The Execution Triangle outlines the three key principles that drive top-notch execution: consistency, reliability and accountability.

execution triangle: accountability, reliability, consistency

Consistency and reliability form the foundation of the triangle with accountability at the apex. When all three components are present in an organization, execution is most effective.

This framework can be used to drive action as well as to execute communication in a way that will bring more clarity to the message.

The challenge in getting results lies in consistency and reliability of execution.

Leveraging Reliability to Communicate with Greater Clarity

Reliability is defined as “the quality of being trustworthy or of performing consistently well.” To be perceived as reliable, leaders must follow through on what they say. Whether a leader knowingly acts against their word or unintentionally miscommunicates what they are planning, the outcome is the same – they lose the trust of their team and the people they serve.

To craft communication that clearly conveys the intention, it is essential to understand how the receiver will interpret the message. There are four key principles that make communication feel more reliable to the receiver:

  • Empathy – Do they care about me? Do they understand the impact the news they are telling me will have on me?
  • Transparency and Accuracy – Are they telling me the whole story? Is it the truth?
  • Timely – Am I hearing this at a time that is relevant to me?
  • Follow-through – Will they really do what they are saying they are going to do?

Begin with Empathy to Build Reliable Communication

When there is difficult news to deliver, it’s instinctual to respond to the urgency and immediately relay the information. Take time to pause and reflect. Begin with an empathetic statement. Showing understanding first softens the news and helps people to be more open and receptive. Share the why behind the decision or new process. Focusing on the what of the message will drive compliance, but the why builds understanding and commitment.

In everything they do during a crisis, resilient leaders express empathy and compassion for the human side of the upheaval.

Sample scenario:

A previously planned school event must be cancelled due to current restrictions on group congregation. Using a Key Words a Key Times template, the Superintendent of the district plans a message that starts with empathy.

Message/Issue: Need to cancel spring bus tour for new families.
Questions to Answer Key Word Response
Why are we doing this? Why is it important? Because we care about your health and safety…
What are we doing? … we must cancel the spring bus tour scheduled for March 15.
How will we implement it? How will it impact me? We understand this cancellation presents an inconvenience to you and your family. We pledge to re-schedule the event at a time when we can gather safely and enjoy time together. Stay tuned to your email for details.

This opening empathetic statement frames the why behind the cancellation and shows understanding and care for the reader. The how message that follows the news also shows empathy.

Relay Key Information with Accuracy and Transparency

While empathy is important to build into difficult communication, the information itself is the crux of the communication – it’s the what of the message. Facts need to be accurate and transparent for the message to be reliable. Key information should always be direct yet delivered with care.

It sounds simple but designing the what of the message has many facets to it. It can be difficult to determine what is key. How much is the right amount of detail to offer? Where is the line between information overload and not enough explanation? With too much detail, people get lost in the information and stop reading. With too little detail, people become confused or skeptical that they are being deceived. Leaders who master this balance reduce doubt and ill feelings that come from disingenuous communication.

As you saw in the Key Words at Key Times Template above, you must answer the question, “what are we doing?” or “what is happening?” when we relay the what.

Be Prepared: A Plan to Maintain Reliable Communication in Urgent Scenarios

During a crisis, when a leader is addressing arising issues minute-by-minute, it will be difficult to pause long enough to design an effective message. Execution of this all-important communication about the crisis may suffer for many reasons:

  • What happened was sudden and unexpected.
  • Everything is unfolding so quickly that you do not capture details. You are just too busy reacting.
  • There isn’t a clear chain of command. No one has been identified as a key communicator, so people don’t know their roles in communicating the news.
  • You aren’t thinking ahead of what people may need to know because you are focused on handling the situation.
  • You are busy handling the anxieties, concerns, or fears of those in your organization first before you work to relay the news to the public.

The best time to prepare for crisis communication is before a disruption occurs. A Crisis Management and Communication Plan is something that every school system should have prepared and easily accessible at any time.

The sample template below comes from Crisis Management Expert and Author of Crisis Ahead: 101 Ways to Prepare for and Bounce Back from Disasters, Scandals, and Other Emergencies.

This template asks a list of comprehensive questions about the crisis, to help leaders build accurate and direct communication about the crisis and what the school is doing. A communication plan template provides a rational framework for identifying key information to convey at a time when distraction and emotion are high.

Crisis Management and Communication Plan for: Springfield School District
Prepared/updated on: November 1, 2021
Prepared/updated on: C. Smith
Test in Crisis Exercise on: November 4, 2021
Topics Answer

Crisis Trigger

What happened? What triggered use of this plan?

Contingency Plan

Insert whether and where there are back up plans in case this plan does not apply to the crisis.

Crisis Details

Describe what you know about the crisis, and how current the information is.

Who:

What:

When:

Where:

Why:

How:

Impact

What impact will the crisis have on the operations, activities, reputation, market share, or bottom line of your company? What can be done to lessen that impact?

Awareness

Who already knows about the crisis, and how they learned about it?

Notifications

Who should know about the crisis and how and when will they be told?

Success

Describe how you will define success in dealing with the crisis.

Priorities

List what must be done and in what order to address and resolve the crisis.

Deadlines

List any deadlines that must be met.

Messaging

List the three or four most important messages that you need to communicate about the crisis.

Distribution

Describe how you will distribute these messages via your communication tools or channels.

Questions and Answers

List the questions that people will most likely ask about the crisis and how to respond to them. Will the Q&A be posted online or distributed to key audiences? If yes, when?

Hotline

Will a hotline be established to answer questions about the crisis? If yes, when?

Challenges

List the challenges you may face in resolving the crisis.

Opportunities

Describe any unanticipated opportunities created by the crisis and how you will take advantage of them.

Needed Resources

List the internal or external resources that are needed, such as WiFi access points, computers, paper, printers, cell phones, etc.

Important Contact Information

Insert contact information for those who need to be informed about the crisis.

Approvals

Insert the names of those who will need to approve any decisions, actions, or media materials. To help save valuable time, consider preparing preapproved statements and media materials for different crisis scenarios that can be quickly updated or revised for immediate use.

Red Tape

Insert a list of obstacles or resistance that must be dealt with or overcome.

Crisis Team Members

Insert names, contact information, responsibilities, etc.; include back up team members in case anyone is not available.

Crisis Team Spokesperson and Back-Up Spokesperson

Insert name and contact information of a primary spokesperson; include a back up spokesperson in case the primary spokesperson is not available.

Recovery

What steps must be taken to bounce back from this crisis?

Distribution

Insert a list of those who have a copy of this plan and which version of the plan they have.

Documentation

Insert a chronology of the events and activities associated with the crisis and what was done to address the situation.

Words Matter: Careful Consideration of Word Choice

When it comes to reputable communication, clarity, brevity and accuracy are certainly important. Written communication should be free from errors and carefully reviewed. But, reliability is about much more than copy editing. Skillful communicators consider the connotation of the words they choose. When planning a message, strive to use words with neutral connotation unless there is a distinct reason for selecting words with heightened emotion.

For example, the words ‘Confident’, ‘Secure’, ‘Proud’ and ‘Egotistical’ can often be used interchangeably. ‘Confident’ and ‘proud’ are positive, while ‘secure’ is a more neutral description of the same trait. ‘Egotistical’ portrays a negative perspective of self-confidence.

Sample: Change vs. Adjust

Organizational transformation and continuous improvement depend on changes in strategic direction, processes and team roles. Change makes some people anxious. It implies a somewhat jarring move in another direction from a place where people feel secure. These people may be more likely to respond favorably to the word ‘adjust’ because it assumes an intentional weighing of options and a proactive new direction being taken.

It may seem timely to review each word, but what it takes in time to craft the message saves time spent addressing anxieties that arise from misinterpreted connotation. It also helps to have a reliable editor read the message for connotation and recognize words that may be off-putting or insensitive as well as identify opportunities to use words that convey a more positive tone..

Planning Timing and Cadence of Communication

One of the biggest barriers people express about communication is that it isn’t delivered in a timely fashion. The information may be organized and clear, but it doesn’t get to the audience in time to be of benefit. By staging the communication to be released early and often, leaders ensure that everyone who needs the information has the opportunity to hear it or read it.

When leaders wait until a final decision is reached to communicate it, employees feel that the impact on them isn’t understood or isn’t respected. Leaders who communicate along the way and offer updates regularly earn the trust of the people they lead and serve.

‘Manage Up’ the Process

Strategically timed communication also mitigates rumors, speculation and unnecessary work. Even when leaders don’t know the answer, or the answer is out of their control, communicating something puts people at ease. When things are uncertain, or you don’t have an answer to share consider 'Managing Up' the process.

What is ‘Manage Up”

‘Manage Up’ is a strategy designed to paint the organization, decision or person in a positive light. It is a tactic designed to decrease anxiety and build a sense of confidence. Leaders may ‘Manage Up’ a new hire to decrease anxiety and instill confidence in the team. A few well-chosen words about why this person was hired shared when the employee is being introduced will go miles to build confidence and reliability.

This same strategy can be used to ‘Manage Up’ the organization when information is uncertain.

A ‘Manage Up” Scenario

You are being asked a question for which you don’t have the answer: “What will the district do if COVID cases escalate in the return to school?” The protocol for this possibility is being determined but it is not yet complete. You don’t serve on the committee creating the protocol.

The four-step ‘Manage Up’ process below outlines a sample of how to answer the question in this scenario, beginning with empathy and then offering what details can be communicated.

Four Steps to “Manage Up” When The Answers Are Unknown

  1. Express empathy “I can understand why you want to know this answer. I want to remain healthy, and I understand you do too. Work needs to be a safe place for all of us.”
  2. Be vulnerable and honest about what you know and don’t know“We are dedicated to your health and safety and are making this a high priority. While I am not on the committee, I am confident in the team that is making that recommendation.”
  3. Manage Up the Process being used to address their question by offering what details you know and reassuring the person that you have high confidence in the process“The team that is creating the protocol is comprised of administrators, employees, and public health officials. They are using CDC guidelines and recommendations from our public health department in designing the protocol. I also know they surveyed to determine employees’ concerns with safety at work and are using that data in their deliberations. This team has been working all summer. I have high confidence in them and in the work they are doing.”
  4. Let them know when you will have more information“I believe they will have that protocol published by December 15. When it is published, please review it and then contact me or a member of the team if you have any further questions. Does that sound good to you?”

Leveraging Consistency to Communicate with Greater Clarity

Consistency is the principle in design where a pattern or concept is repeated to create cohesion and conformity. Consistency is soothing and reducing anxiety.

Conformity in communication is built upon sameness. Communicating the same thing with frequency builds consistency in execution. Two principles of consistency in communication are key: repetition of key ideas and consistent voice.

Frequency

Long-standing research in advertising tells us that it takes three to seven impressions before a message registers. A frequency of fewer than three messages is a waste of money. But a frequency beyond seven continues to have a cumulative benefit; diminishing returns don’t set in for a good while. You’ll get tired of your ads long before your prospect does.

Frequency of messaging is key at all times, not just at a time of crisis. Studies show that for a message to sink in, the message needs to be seen or heard an average of three times. Frequency of messaging builds habit and awareness. When planning to communicate information, the message needs to be repeated multiple times across a variety of mediums (twitter, website, email, newsletter, etc). While it may feel redundant, designing the message to be delivered in various ways multiple times increases the likelihood that the message will reach the largest intended audience.

Dissecting Delta Airlines’ Communication in Crisis

Delta Airlines set the bar for good communication practice in their response to customers concerning travel during the coronavirus pandemic. An example in the communication released on their website opened with these words:

COMMITTED TO YOUR SAFETY

We’re doing everything we can to deliver a safe, healthy and clean travel experience. Caring for our customers and employees is our top priority.

The phrase “committed to your safety” connotes concern and relays the company’s dedication to the reader. These four words underscore all of Delta’s coronavirus pandemic communication. The communication is anchored with a few key words and then detail is provided about what they are doing to deliver three things: a safe, healthy and clean travel experience. The communication is tight. Each time they communicate on their pandemic response, it is framed with this repeated message.

Multiple Messengers, One Voice

There is a difference between one voice and one person. One voice sending the same message builds consistency. This is not the same as only one person delivering the message. In larger organizations, a Chief Communications Officer may lead the communication for the organization, but smaller districts may not have someone assuming this role.

When crafting communication, it’s important to understand who in the organization is viewed as an unofficial spokesperson. Even if informal, the community, students and parents view all employees as spokespersons for the system. When a message is carried with varying voice, people lose confidence in leaders’ ability to make decisions and execute on them.

Use the Key Words at Key Times Template to Build Consistent Messaging

By using a key word template to create a message for both official and unofficial spokespersons, leaders can systematize message planning and prepare the entire staff to speak confidently about decisions.

A Key Words at Key Times tool is helpful to create the talking points for a group of key communicators. It is most powerful when completed as a group, where the entire group has input on selecting intentional words to use in their communication.

Sample template:

Message/Issue:
Questions to Answer Key Word Response
Why are we doing this? Why is it important?
What are we doing?
How will we implement it? How will it impact me?

While working with Huron to develop a strategic plan, Burton School District in Porterville, CA used the Key Words at Key Times approach to present talking points on the plan to the Board of Education. In this case, the template was presented as a simple slide in the presentation that include key talking points.

Board members commented on how this slide gave them just the right amount of information to use when talking to citizens in the community about the new strategic plan. They felt more prepared to respond with confidence when asked about their decision to adopt the strategic plan.



Leveraging Accountability to Communicate with Greater Clarity

Accountability is defined as responsibility. Who has the responsibility to do the job? Accountability is at the apex of the Execution Triangle because it all comes down to someone feeling it is their job to get the job done right.

If we achieve accountability, the organization will also be consistent and reliable.

Communication Tools to Create Accountability

Having a process to build accountability in communication is key to achieving it. People in the organization execute with greater fidelity when there is clarity about:

  • What the message is
  • Who should communicate the message
  • When it should be communicated and in what order
  • What mediums of communication will be used

Clarity about these four items instills accountability. It increases the likelihood the communication will be delivered systematically with sound execution.

When the Communication is Simple

If the information to be communicated is more straightforward, a simple communication template like the one below tracks the information key communicators need to understand about the message and how it will be communicated and tracks explicit actions they will take.

When the Communication is Complex

For more complex communication, a more advanced process can be used to stage the communication process:

  • Step One: List each target audience who must receive the message.
  • Step Two: Determine the modes of communication that best reach each audience.
  • Step Three: Determine the sequence with which each target audience will receive the message. Who will hear first, second, third, etc.?
  • Step Four: Determine the person(s) who will be responsible for delivering the message to the identified target audiences.
Date and Time Target Audience Will Receive Message by What Mode Person Responsible for Deploying the Message at the Right Date & Time
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