Quick. Tell me the strategy of your organization. For bonus points, tell me how your team and your role fits into that strategy. And how it affects your actions each day, especially in terms of what you choose NOT to do as a result of the strategy.
If you’re like most of us, you’re frantically digging through your mental files for the strategy deck someone showed you months (or years) ago. In your mind’s eye, you’re scrolling past the first thirteen pages of “blah blah blah” with dense text and squinting at imported Excel charts. You’re wondering how those people in the strategy team missed the class on effective Powerpoint presentations, blithely putting eighteen bullets on a page in 11-point font.
And in the moments it takes to do that, your brain just says, “Stop! Forget this stupid exercise. Go back to work. Do your job. Keep your boss off your back. Leave that stuff to people who don’t have better things to do with their time.”
And that’s when you’re a member of the strategy team.
Imagine you’re a member of the organization just minding your own business and trying to hold down a job. In that case you don’t even bother risking a mental paper cut by digging through your mental files. You just smile benignly, wait for the person asking you to repeat the strategy to go away, turn on your heel and get back to your own little corner of the world.
This is a dirty secret of most organizations’ strategy process. They invest countless hours and most of the organization ignores the work. It’s not necessarily because employees don’t care or the strategy is poor. It’s often just because the story is way too complex. It may make sense to those who were in the room during the strategy sessions. But it may as well be the plot to Memento to everyone else.
If strategy is coherent action in response to a challenge backed up by a rationale, this should make every leader squirm. And here’s why.
As a leader, you may have a stranglehold on the strategy, its interdependencies, and its nuances. You may be able to see the choices that are implied in the strategy, how you’re giving up one thing to get another. Maybe you can spot the useless rabbit trails a mile away and skillfully avoid them.
The problem: most of the time on most days for most of your people, you’re not in the room! Unless your company is super small or you’ve installed a secret surveillance system or you’ve invested in cloning yourself, for most of your organization’s life you’re simply absent. Sure, you show up at all of the big events and big meetings. But that’s not where coherent action actually needs to happen. Coherent action needs to happen when no one’s looking. Too often, what happens when no one’s looking is incoherent action in response to personal agendas backed up by wishful thinking.
This is why a simpler strategy story matters so much. Your job as a leadership team is not just to be brilliant and insightful and clever. On their own, these traits are lovely but over-hyped. No, you need to be clear and simple and memorable. You need to give people handles on your strategy so that they can make smart everyday strategy decisions when you’re not in the room.
A simpler strategy story usually follows a predictable storyline:
- Here’s where we came from
- Here’s where we are
- Here’s where we want to go and why
- Here’s how we plan to get there despite the terrain ahead
- Here are the first five tactics to implement the strategy and how they fit together
If we stopped ten people in your organization and asked them about these five basic elements, how many could answer them in one or two sentences?
Your job is to make the story both simple and memorable, getting it down to one short sentence or better yet one central picture. This is why I almost always recommend bringing visual thinking into strategy work. Pictures truly are worth a thousand words, especially a thousand words in 11-point font. Brain science backs it up: a whopping 30% of the brain is dedicated to visual processing.
It’s also why I prod reluctant leaders to share strategy in the form of “chalk talks” using hand-drawn pictures instead of slide-whipping people with not-so-SmartArt-graphics-laden decks. Nothing says “I’m not invested” like generic graphics. In contrast, nothing says “I own this” more than pictures drawn by and explained by leaders.
Making a simpler story is challenging. It will probably take you much longer than doing the normal 38-page Deck of Density. But you can bet your next paycheck that the next time they’re talking with a project team or a client, your people will not quote your jam packed slides no matter how brilliant your McKinsey consultant was. But they just may scribble a set of pictures of your brilliantly simple strategy on a whiteboard or a napkin when you’re not in the room. It might change how they think and feel and act. It might give them a consistent context for the everyday choices they make. Repeated over and over, it might give your organization coherent action in response to a challenge backed up by a rationale in a scaled up way.
Imagine that everyone in your organization knows why they’re doing what they’re doing and how it fits with the larger plan whether you’re in the room or not. That would make the challenge of creating a simpler story worthwhile.