Making strategy stick with a strategic story

By ahhb
Tuesday, 15 December, 2015

Is an organisational strategy really that good when the majority of employees don’t know or understand it? Business strategist Mark Schenk discusses the importance of a clear, concise strategy that will unite an organisation - and how to develop one.

Steve Jobs bounces onto the stage and grabs the slide changer from his colleague with a friendly “Thanks Scott”. He’s looking thin and grey, illness having taken its toll, but his energy remains boundless. It’s the 2011 Apple Worldwide Developers Conference and Steve is about to announce a change in strategy for his company. The 1000-plus crowd cheers as he steps into the spotlight and then falls silent, hanging on his next utterance…“About 10 years ago we had one of our most important insights, and that was the PC was going to become the digital hub for your digital life.” With these words, Steve begins his strategic story.
Achieving strategic alignment has tremendous advantages - whether you are launching a new strategy or building a new healthcare facility. But, we are surprisingly bad at doing it. It’s a dirty little secret shared by so many organisations: ask any employee about your strategy, including the executive team, and they’ll lunge for a document that tells them. It’s rarely embedded in their minds and, as a result, the espoused strategy does not influence day-to-day decision-making.
Research by Kaplan and Norton [2005] showed that a staggering 95% of people in organisations are unaware of or don’t understand the strategy. A recent global study of 450 enterprises[2] found that 80% of those companies felt their people did not understand their strategies very well. Given the effort applied to strategy development, there is a massive disconnect here.
One of the possible solutions is potentially surprising - convert your strategy into a strategic story and teach leaders how to tell that story.
The beauty of this approach is its simplicity. A well-constructed story is easy to understand and remember and more importantly, it can be told and retold within the organisations. And, it happens without people even realising it - like you’ve planted a strategic Trojan Horse in their minds.
Here are four ideas that will help.

“If you can transform your strategy into a compelling story you will get better outcomes and more engagement from staff and stakeholders.”

Start with ‘why’
Most of the time we are busy. Communicating strategy takes a lot of effort and we tend to rush to the ‘what’ - the details. The trouble is, your staff won’t understand the details until you have given them the big picture. They need to know the ‘why’ before the ‘what’ becomes relevant. Steve Jobs spoke for 35 minutes when introducing iCloud but he invested the first 4 minutes and 47 seconds explaining the big picture - the ‘why’. Only then did he dive into any details about what iCloud did.
Use a simple narrative structure
No matter how complex your strategy, you can explain it using a simple narrative structure:

  1. In the past...

  2. Then something happened...

  3. So now...(this is the essence of your strategy, your key strategic decisions)

  4. In the future

In planning a new healthcare facility there will be many threads to your strategic story: facility design; technology; procurement; infection control; professional development; and possibly the transition to aged care. You can tell the whole story or the separate threads - once you have constructed your story it is almost infinitely flexible.
Chances are, your strategic story will be amazingly effective in engaging all forms of stakeholders: funders, regulators, designers, builders, managers, staff, patients and the community.
Keep it concrete
iCloud is a technically complex initiative, but in introducing it, Steve Jobs did not use a single technical term or abstract concept. He passed what we call ‘the pub test’. It’s how you would talk if you were explaining the strategy to a friend at the pub, at a barbeque or over dinner.
The next important step is to use concrete examples to illustrate key aspects of the strategy. When launching the new NAB strategy in early 2015, CEO Andrew Thorburn related a recent experience. He was teaching his son to drive and at one stage reminded him to indicate for three seconds before changing lanes. His son turned to him and said “But you don’t do that Dad”. He went on to make a point about leading by example. That story has spread like wildfire - people who were there remember it and those who weren’t have heard it.
Keep it short
This is easier said than done. Blaise Pascal famously wrote ‘I’ve written you a long letter because I didn’t have time to write a short one’. If you work really hard you can get your strategy story down to 10 minutes. If you work exceptionally hard you can get it to 5 minutes.
If you can transform your strategy into a compelling story you will get better outcomes and more engagement from staff and stakeholders. You’ll inspire people to get on board. Like Steve Jobs, you’ll be leading, not just managing. And you will one of the few organisations where people really ‘get’ what you are trying to achieve.

[1] Robert S. Kaplan and David P. Norton, The Office of Strategy Management, Harvard Business Review, October 2005.
[2] Vanson Bourne (2011). The link between strategic alignment and staff productivity: A survey of decision- makers in enterprise organisations.
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