Leveraging Cascades to Improve Your Communications Plan

It may sound like another buzzword, but communication cascades are the real deal. And although the psychological underpinnings are complex, the idea is simple. Here’s the gist of it:

People are more likely to change their behaviour in response to personally-relevant messages that come from sources they trust.

 …Not very controversial, is it? However, although communication cascades are easy to understand, they can be challenging to execute properly. A strong cascade is a thing of beauty, creating a waterfall of alignment and a feeling of shared responsibility among your entire organization. A failed cascade can leave a new initiative floundering and fizzled.

Before we get into the meat of this article, here are a few principles to help you maximize communication cascades:

  • Start high. A successful communication cascade starts from the top. Whoever is the proponent for the change needs to initiate the cascade. Usually, this is a leader from the company’s C-Suite. The start of a cascade should preemptively answer the question that many employees will be asking: “Why does this matter?”
  • Be thorough. Increase specificity and relevance as you move downstream. While an employee should learn about the high-level rationale behind a decision from the C-Suite, it’s their direct supervisor that needs to explain what they actually need to do at the day-to-day level, teach them how to do it, and describe how they will be evaluated.
  • Think about channels, tools, and line-of-sight. Which communication channels are your employees receptive to? What support do your managers and leaders need to disseminate a consistent message throughout the organization? This is where tactical tools like leadership guides, posters, intranet content, videos, and meetings-in-a-box can be used to facilitate a strong cascade. In determining which channels and tactics to use, it’s important to identify the mediums that each leader is comfortable with, to ensure that they are genuine and authentic in their delivery.
  • Hearts and minds. Don’t be too cold or cerebral. Make people care. Engage their intellect and their emotions.

A Chance of Precipitation

Hopefully the previous section helped you understand the basics of communication cascades. A smart communication cascade strategy should always underpin any new initiative. Absorb it and put it to work for your business.

Now, let’s talk about one of the most interesting mechanisms that make communication cascades work: information cascades. The names are similar and the concepts are related, but there many important differences that a clever communicator should keep in mind.

An information cascade is what happens when people mimic others` behaviour because they assume that those people have better (more complete) knowledge or information. They occur when several people (or teams) engage in sequential, asynchronous decision making.

For example, let’s say you’ve gathered leaders together for a training session and are asking them to discuss and vote on a new internal communication strategy. This situation is the perfect storm to create an information cascade: people are making a bounded decision (yes or no), in a sequential order, based on private information.

The attendees of this leadership meeting will have diverse thoughts, and the actual opinions may be evenly split. However, if the first two or three leaders vote in favour of the new communication strategy, employees further down the line are likely to follow suit. Those later employees assume that everyone before them knows something that they don’t. They are valuing public information (about the choice of others) over their own private information (informed by personal experience). They think “I must be missing something.”

Note that this isn’t the same thing as conformity; the effect of information cascades is amplified when members of a group share familiarity and trust. The cascade is precipitated by the normative architecture in which people make their choice.

Making it Rain

Employees understand that their bosses and leadership team have more information than they do. And because of a psychological phenomenon called “social proof”, people are eager to model their behavior after an authority figure, especially in ambiguous or uncertain situations. This is why communication cascades need to start with a company’s senior leadership, and it’s why that first communication needs to be accurate and persuasive. When the ship springs a leak, people turn to the captain. And everything depends on the cascade that they create.

Information cascades are powerful, but they are also fragile. Even if a CEO speaks passionately and articulately about a new intranet portal, employees still need to see their managers using it. They need to receive the message in the context of how it affects them. This is why “engagement” is such a hot topic at the moment. Because when someone isn’t engaged, they break the cascade, disrupting the effect for everyone downstream. These principles explain why leadership transition can be so difficult, and it’s why strong change management always begins with effective leadership communication.

Do the Wave

Information cascades are a deep and fascinating topic. But you don’t need to be a social psychologist or game theorist to use them to improve your business outcomes. In addition to the general communication cascade tips at the beginning of this article, here are things to keep in mind when utilizing information cascades:

  • Information cascades create group alignment. When this is desirable, try to create a cascade. Start with a strong message from a knowledgeable and credible source (the CEO). Communicate that message downstream, and be sure to start with the employees that are most likely to succeed. These people are the ambassadors of your message, and when they communicate it effectively, people on the fence will assume that they are acting on exclusive information. Hierarchy matters. Order matters.
  • Sometimes group alignment isn’t desirable. This can happen when success depends on innovation or when the leadership team is working with incomplete information. In these situations, it’s important to stop an information cascade from forming. This is best done by preventing decision makers from seeing the decisions of those upstream. If someone is voting in a poll, make them vote before they can see the results. Another strategy is to expand the decision space: the more open-ended a decision is, the less likely a cascade is to form. Eliminate yes/no-style discussions and seek a greater quantity of feedback.

It’s important to think carefully about your message, audience, and desired outcomes. You would want to create an information cascade for your new marketing communication plan, whereas it might be better to avoid one if you’re still in the preliminary phases of intranet design. Developing a deeper understanding of information cascades will ensure that it never rains on your parade – unless you want it to.

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