Lesson 13: Miscommunication Is Death By a Thousand Cuts


When your startup company is small, communicating important company objectives can be pretty simple. The three or four executives meet on a daily basis and then walk to their respective corners of the small office and cascade information down to their two or three direct reports. Easy.

Because of the simplicity, process documentation for communicating objectives doesn’t seem necessary at this stage. Do we really need a process for talking to John and Mary about our Q2 focus? Well, yes, actually.

You can’t anticipate how quickly communication changes when your team grows fast. Suddenly, each department has two or three sub-teams, and walking over to direct reports and shouting out the latest company focus doesn’t work anymore. Hell, the Executives aren’t even talking every day, and whole departments and teams start to miss important messages from above. Before you know it, one hand doesn’t know what the other hand is doing.

So what’s a company to do?

Many companies I’ve worked at attempt to scale the same communication process that worked early on. It becomes a game of telephone. The CEO tells the C-suite, who informs the VPs, who informs the directors, managers, contributors, etc. It’s a professional game of telephone! What happens in the game telephone? Messages get mixed. People misunderstand. Things fall apart.

So, rather than play a game of telephone across several layers, they choose to skip one or two. Invites go out to as many leadership members as possible for a weekly or monthly meeting.

Execs use that time to disseminate the key objectives for each team. Now you have twenty-five hands in the air asking questions, raising objections, voicing concerns, and going down rabbit holes. It’s an open forum of chaos. Your most expensive employees are in one room, wasting time.

Every time that a key company objective is miscommunicated it hurts. Bad. When I talk to disgruntled employees, it often boils down to miscommunication. Being kept out of the loop. Not understanding what they should be focused on and why. Each miss is a figurative “cut”. I’ve seen great people leave after enough of them. Death by a thousand cuts. Let’s avoid that.

Here’s how:

  1. Create company OKRs (objectives and key results) as an Executive team.

  2. Choose whether or not your OKRs are “business as usual” or “transformational”.

  3. Invite a second layer of leadership to the meeting to help cement the “why” behind the goals. Review together and get buy-in from those key leaders.

  4. Choose a spotlight OKR. Something labeled, “transformational”. The objective the whole company will be focused on. Something that will help change the business.

  5. Choose an Executive sponsor and project lead - typically a project manager that keeps everyone organized.

  6. Let the sponsor and the lead work together to establish KR’s (key results) for that objective, and they should select a team of relevant stakeholders to work on the project. The team should be cross-functional.

  7. Select responsibilities for each member of the team together, review the key results and set a meeting cadence.

  8. Once this has all been decided, review with the Executive team and select proper messaging for the rest of the company, including the “why” behind it. Make sure all messaging is consistent. As you reach 250+ employees, consider adding Internal Comms to distribute. Let them OWN this.

  9. Document this messaging. (Again, don’t forget to include the “why” behind it!)

  10. Cover messaging down to individual contributors beginning in your quarterly all-hands meeting. Follow up in all monthly meetings and weekly meetings. Lastly, follow up with the documentation.

Over time, if you’re executing well, that transformational objective will be reached. It will shift from transformational to “business as usual”. You can choose to keep the team working on this objective to the extent you feel it’s necessary. Next quarter, move on to a different transformational objective.

By selecting goals as a small Executive unit, getting buy-in from the leadership team, and cascading messaging in unison, your departments and teams will be in lock-step.