Many people think of a top-down communication cascade as their go-to method for communicating important changes. A communication cascade begins when executive leaders take a set of messages to their staff meetings. Attendees are supposed to carry the same messages to their staff meetings and so forth, until theoretically every employee has received the information.

 

At most companies, and especially those that have not invested significantly in developing managers and leadership, the disadvantages of a cascade often outweigh the benefits. Don’t take it from me. The next time you plan a large-scale communication cascade, look for the following signs as indications that your critical information may not reach your audience with impact.

  • The window for delivering cascaded messages is months instead of weeks. A cascade over months makes it virtually impossible to track results. Employees who receive a message in July may not even remember it by the time another group is receiving the same message in September. In the time between, rumors and misinformation are almost inevitable.
  • There is no feedback loop. Half the advantage of a cascade is that it gives employees the opportunity to talk things through with their immediate supervisor. Managers can listen to employee reactions and pass that back to their leadership. When you send signals down to frontline employees, you should hear something back from them. If not, your cascade isn’t working.
  • You’re already planning what you will do when certain executives don’t cascade their message. Most organizations have a leader or two who don’t follow company discipline, including cascading key messages. You likely know who they are before you even start. A cascade begins at the top. Leaders who don’t initiate the message create a cone of inertia all the way through to frontline employees. A leader with 300 employees keeps 300 employees in the dark. A leader with 10,000 … well, you get the picture.
  • You aren’t measuring to ensure that people are receiving the message. No measurement equals no accountability. Cascades happen largely in the dark, and reports that they are taking place are largely anecdotal. Sending out a survey to employees can reinforce the deadline for making your cascade happen and will identify areas where you may need supplemental efforts.

Cascades done well can serve good purposes, but they can also be resource intensive. Before you turn to that tactic, make sure you have the right elements in place to make it work.