Don’t Go Chasing Waterfalls: Why Cascading Comms No Longer Works
— December 1st, 2022
Before I started working in internal communications, I associated the word “cascading” with waterfalls. Sadly, this piece isn’t about idyllic views in tropical locations.
In the world of internal communications, cascading is the idea that a message is shared with a certain group of employees in advance—for example, people managers—who then relay the message to a further audience (such as their team or division).
This approach appeals to leadership and internal communicators alike for two reasons:
- Firstly, it improves the chances of a message landing, as the manager has the opportunity to tailor the message and pick the most appropriate channel to ensure it is heard and truly resonates with their team.
- Secondly, it means that you do not have to communicate directly with every single employee.
I’m sad to say, I don’t believe these message waterfalls—or cascading—work anymore.
But why, you might ask.
The Multi-Million Dollar Impact of Communication on Employee & Customer Experience
There are three key reasons why I feel this phenomenon has fallen over:
1. No one’s listening
Employees have never been subject to so much information, both from inside and outside of their place of work. Capturing and sustaining their attention is a huge challenge. That goes for both the group being pre-briefed and the audience they are intended to cascade to.
2. Too many question marks
Cascading is solely reliant on the pre-briefed group proactively communicating the message and it can be extremely difficult to monitor and track whether they do this—and how well they do this.
It may be that you aren’t aware a message didn’t reach all employees until you see the results of your annual or pulse surveys.
3. The message isn’t landing
Let’s assume all your managers engage with the pre-brief. While some managers may be excellent at communicating, to others, it may not come as naturally.
So even if they do relay a message to their team, it may be that the audience doesn’t actually hear and acknowledge the key points that they are meant to.
So what does this mean for internal communicators?
To put it simply, this means we will have to change our strategies and plans to ensure that all employees we wish to hear a message are communicated with directly.
That direct communication needs to be tailored to that audience, shared through a channel popular or frequently used by that group (whether that be email, digital signage, mobile, newsletter, intranet, etc.), and communicated at a time that suits that specific group’s working pattern.
Here are my three top tips for those who choose to make a move away from cascading:
- Keep the message simple. Have no more than three key points you want to land in any communication and make sure they are prominent in the content. Don’t hide them! These three points will be consistent across the different communications, albeit tailored or tweaked slightly for each audience.
- Don’t abandon your people managers altogether. Don’t ignore those who have previously helped to cascade messages. Still pre-brief so they can reinforce messages; just don’t rely solely on them to deliver them. People managers are also an excellent method for capturing feedback – so encourage them to determine how well a communication has landed among a specific audience. Which leads me on to my final point…
- Measure, measure, measure. We all know how valuable internal communication is, but we need to have sophisticated and thorough ways of measuring and reporting on the success of our efforts. Your measurement framework should include different measurement methods (focus groups, surveys, interviews) and ensure that all employee groups and levels are represented and heard from on a regular basis—and that any feedback that requires a response or adjustment is actioned.