Communicating in Chaos – The Gongs and Banners Model

On the field of battle, the spoken word does not carry far enough: hence the institution of gongs and drums. Nor can ordinary objects be seen clearly enough: hence the institution of banners and flags.

Gongs and drums, banners and flags, are means whereby the ears and eyes of the host may be focused on one particular point.

In night-fighting, then, make much use of signal-fires and drums, and in fighting by day, of flags and banners, as a means of influencing the ears and eyes of your army.
      — Sun Tzu (The Art of War)

ImageThis has to be one of the most profound lessons from the great book – not only militarily but also for managers in knowledge organizations. Simply put: you cannot communicate by ordinary means in extra-ordinary circumstances. You have to use stronger and more forceful tools to get your message across the battle chaos. 

In theatre in front of live audience, the gestures and motions of the actors on stage are louder and exaggerated – for example, they will move their hands in a wider area around their body. They will speak louder too. Even their facial makeups are more pronounced. This is to ensure that their emotions, gestures and words communicate effectively to the audience in a setting which is more challenging and demanding. 

Remember, Communication is what the listener does

Its the same in organizations when the times are challenging. Even where there is a positive change underway, its still chaotic – change is always chaotic. A project may be in trouble, a huge organization restructuring underway, an acquisition or merger creating uncertainty, workforce being reduced, budgets being cut or massive expansion on the cards. In such times – the spoken word would not carry far enough. The pitch, medium, frequency, channels and tools of communication have to be changed to make them more aggressive, effective and timely. May be more one-on-one and all-hands meetings, repetition of the same message through various channels, more traffic on internal social networks, more face time of staff with executives, special question hours. The routine channels and tools may not be able to cut through the chaos and get you to your troops. You need gongs and banners, a funny make up and exaggerated gesturing.

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