Strategy Should be Simple

Office-speak and jargon aside, if there is an overused word in business world.

Office-speak and jargon aside, if there is an overused word in business world lexicon it is the word “strategy”.

There is nothing mystical or elusive about strategy that keeps it out of reach of front line employees – or at least there shouldn’t be – so why is it that so many corporate strategies can only be properly articulated by C-Suite executives?

It is generally accepted that the simpler the strategy, the easier it is to communicate, the easier it is to execute across an enterprise. Simple is good, complicated is bad and most organizational leaders go to great lengths to refine their strategy down to a simple statement. A reasonably coherent, guiding strategy like “Win the hearts and minds of our customers” gets bottled and flown around the world by senior leaders and the communications team and a new banner goes up in the bullpen. The trouble always seems to start after the circus is over. Ambiguity rears its ugly head and after the roadshow everyone ducks their heads down into their cubicles and forgets all about the CEO’s new strategy because “Like, I’m in finance, I don’t deal with customers.” The CEO’s new strategy becomes just a poster on the wall.

So enough about what strategy is not. If you have read this far you hopefully expect me to provide some kind of rule of thumb that can be applied to communicating strategy. I aim to please.

A good strategy is like a poison dart: it is simple to deliver not necessarily just simple in and of itself. Creating a poison dart involves the painstaking and dangerous work of collecting poison, preparing poison and applying poison to a dart and then storing the thing in a safe place where it can remain effective until required. For a corporate strategy intended to go enterprise-wide and be a guiding principle for thousands of employees, day to day, around the world, it needs to be embedded in a great story. It should deploy itself into the minds of employees and effectively grow, on their terms, into a personalized version of your over-arching strategy. That is the secret sauce that gets around the old (and still very true) management maxim that Peter Drucker espoused sixty years ago: “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.”

A carefully crafted narrative is therefore just as important as a vehicle to deliver the carefully crafted strategy to the entire organization. In this sense, the poison is the strategy, the story is the dart.

This is no easy task, as good storytelling is a craft honed over decades. But consider the effectiveness of a good story. You remember good movies and you forget (most) of the bad ones. You tell your friends about good books and you warn them off sleepers. There is a social power to a good story that makes a corporate roadshow look like two cans and a string.

Sun Tsu, a true master of strategy, said in The Art of War that the pinnacle of excellence is to beat the enemy without fighting. Less is often more in this regard and the key to good storytelling is to strategically let the audience fill in the blanks. Where the blank spots go is up to you but remember an excellent narrative is one that forms inside the mind of the listener/reader. We are hardwired to engage with, remember and share stories with each other. If we feel we created our own version of the story we are even more likely to share and reinforce the narrative with others.

If your corporate strategy is really worth sharing with the entire organization, ask yourself what type of story can best deliver it straight into the minds of every employee and put an equal amount of time and energy into crafting a solid narrative around it.

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