The nature of the successful strategy is changing. Today, a company’s success depends in large part on how deeply its strategy is understood and embraced. This understanding and acceptance gives an organisation the ability to learn and adapt to changes faster than its competitors. It becomes more agile.1
While most companies expend considerable effort and resources on creating a strategy, few focus on the fundamental question, ‘Do we have a strategy that will be understood and embraced?’ Or to put it another way, ‘Do we have a strategy that will stick?’
There are many things you can do to make a strategy stick. At Anecdote, we have a 12-month program that helps participants to achieve this result. But some strategies are just better than others from the moment they come out of the strategic planning gate. Here, we will examine the stickability of the new strategy.
There are a number of obvious factors that reduce the chances that people will understand or believe your company strategy. For example:
- If it’s longwinded, it will be forgettable.
- If it’s merely a task list, a series of dot points, it will be forgettable.
- If it’s abstract or ambiguous, it will be forgettable.
We all know this. These are the obvious mistakes.
But less obvious are the factors that will increase the chances that your strategy will be understood and embraced.
Here are five things that will help your strategy stick.
1. A meaningful purpose
The executive team sat around the boardroom table. They’d reached an impasse. Half the group felt the company’s purpose was merely to return value to its customers and shareholders. The other half thought the company existed to provide a financial safety net for its clients’ families during the toughest times. In the end, they compromised and said it was both, instantly reducing the potential impact of their strategy.
Purpose is the bedrock of strategy. If employees don’t care about their company’s purpose, they are unlikely to invest any energy in understanding it, let alone believe it.
A strong purpose, one that everyone is proud of, one that has meaning beyond merely making money, helps make your strategy stick.
2. Clear, bold moves
Companies have gotten into the habit of believing that a strategy is a vision, a mission, with values and strategic objectives or goals. But as strategy guru Richard Rummelt makes clear, this alone is a recipe for a bad strategy. A good strategy requires strategic choices, or what we call bold moves.2
Objectives such as ‘Great place to work’ or ‘People engagement’ are not bold moves. Rather, employees want to know, in broad terms, ‘What are we going to do?’
A case in point is when the natural resource giant BHP Billiton shed ‘all parts of the business that weren’t natural resources’ – a bold move. It sold its steel business, its IT consulting division and its fleet of vehicles, among many other things. Its goal was to focus on being a leading global resources company, and it was willing to make bold moves to achieve this.3
Strategies with clear, bold moves are more likely to stick.
3. You can feel it
Even as a boutique consulting firm, we still take ourselves through a strategy creation process every three years. In fact, we’ve just finished the process of creating our new strategy, and I have to say that, while considering our next bold moves and where we want to get to in the next three years, I had a knot in my stomach, a mixture of excitement and trepidation. We were facing a real challenge and I could feel it – it was palpable.
Humans are hardwired to notice differences. If a strategy is just ‘more of the same’, then it’s likely to remain unnoticed. On the other hand, a strategy that evokes an emotion will grab our attention and we will want to know more.
We remember what we feel. A strategy that triggers an emotion, that make us feel it, is more likely to stick.
4. In sync with leadership behaviour
People have finetuned bullshit detectors. If a company strategy says, for example, ‘We are going to embark on a strategy of collaboration’, but every single employee knows that their leaders have never demonstrated a single collaborative behaviour, then they are highly likely to dismiss this strategy as BS.
However, if a strategy is in sync with what we know is the character of our leaders and the culture of our organisation, it becomes plausible. For example, when IBM took the bold move of leading with IT services, the history and capabilities of the company supported its strategy. It was a plausible story.
A strategy that is aligned with and reinforces the ingrained behaviour of a company’s leaders is more likely to stick.
5. Can be shared as a story
A strategy that can be shared as a story is more memorable and meaningful than a collection of dot points and abstract statements like, ‘We will provide branded products and services or superior quality and value that improve the lives of the world’s consumers, now and for generations to come’ (from Procter & Gamble).
Converting your strategy into a story has three other benefits: 1) the story explains why particular bold moves were chosen; 2) it’s easier to retell a story than a series of dot-point arguments, no matter how well honed they are, so it’s more likely it will be shared across your organisation; and 3) a story can be expanded or contracted depending on the audience and the time you have available.
Wrapping your strategy in a memorable story will help make it stick.
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So as you are developing your strategy, think about how you can craft it to increase its chances of being quickly understood and embraced throughout your company. The five factors described above are a good checklist to start off with.
1. Allen, J. & Zook, C. 2012, Repeatability: Build Enduring Businesses for a World of Constant Change, Harvard Business Review Press, Boston.
2. Rummelt, R. 2011, Good Strategy/Bad Strategy: the Difference and Why It Matters, Crown Business, New York.
3. Thompson, P. & Macklin, R. 2009, The Big Fella: the Rise and Rise of BHP Billiton, William Heinemann, Sydney.
Are you organising a conference, event or workshop and want to make it more interesting and engaging? Stuck for ideas or looking for a fresh approach?
Whether it’s a small executive team offsite, or a leadership conference like the one Kevin recently did for 250+ people, or even like the one Mark did earlier this year with more than 1500 people, Anecdote provides a refreshing new perspective with talks you remember and ideas you can use.
We just wanted to remind you that the Anecdote team are available for speaking engagements. Topics might include:
Translating your strategy into a story that everyone can understand and retell. Engaging your executives in working out your company’s strategic narrative and then helping employees connect with it to create strategic clarity.
Communicate with stories. How to be memorable, persuasive and interesting by telling business stories.
Making your values stick. A systematic approach to using stories to embed your company’s values in action. How to build engagement after you are presented with your employee engagement survey results.
Inspiring your leaders to bring out the humanity in your company. How to use stories to influence, engage and inspire your staff.
Building a collaborative workplace using stories. Different ways of cementing collaboration in your workplace, using real-life experiences as your guide.
The vital role of business storytelling. The why and how of business storytelling.
Influencing change through the natural power of stories. How to make change happen using stories to inspire action and engage employees.
If you would like know more, or book us for a speaking engagement, please get in touch.
I like to ask senior executives this simple question: is there a story going around your company that's causing you pain?
I remember asking one HR director this question who immediately sighed and said that their board recently appointed a new CEO. A couple of months after he arrived a new strategy emerged and the story employees told was that the CEO went home one night, pulled out the strategy for his previous company, did a search and replace and presented it as the new company strategy.
Now, the reality actually involved the executive team meeting a few times to work out the strategy. It's probably a good example of what can happen without broader participation. But here's the thing: no amount of just setting the facts straight would change employees' minds. A recent article by Lewandowsky et. al. (2012) summarises the research on how misinformation emerges, is sustained and can be corrected. And the answer hinges on storytelling.
When a misunderstanding takes hold we formulate a story to understand what's happening. This story is important because it's how we decide whether what's happening might affect us: good, bad or benign. Once we have the story in our head, and it reinforces what we believe, then we'll retell it and with each retelling the neural connections become stronger. It sticks.
The story of how the CEO pulled his strategy out of thin air, for example, might reinforce a dim view employees have of management and this story is just more evidence of management's incompetence. It makes sense. It's plausible. It's gets told.
The worse way to combat misinformation is to just set the record straight by merely setting out the facts:
- our strategy was created by the executive over a three week period
- we used a well defined and accepted strategy formulation method
- the board has approved the strategy and all the executives are committed to its execution
It turns out that by simply stating the facts merely reinforces the misinformation. The original story gets stronger.
So what do you do? Well, you can only displace a story with a better story. And in fact you need to tell two stories to correct misinformation.
The first story should explain how the misinformation happened in the first place.
For example, you might say that when Bob (the CEO) joined in May we were in one of our busiest times of the year. The end of the financial year was looming and everyone was focussed on closing sales. At the same time Bob wanted to get our new strategy in place quickly and rather than get everyone involved he only included the executive team over a short period to create the strategy. It must have felt like it came from thin air.
The second story should then explain what actually happened.
Bob kicked off our strategy process by asking Sally to manage it. We engaged the services of Acme Consulting to facilitate the process as they were already working with us to design our leadership framework. The executive met for four sessions over three weeks where we reaffirmed our purpose, assessed our opportunities and competitive landscape and made a series of strategic choices, which you have now all seen. In hindsight we should have got more people involved but moving forward we will do just that as we learn and improve our approach.
The original story can only be displaced by an alternative narrative and these two stories (plus a glimpse of the future) combine to create a new story of what happened.
A couple of caveats. 1) The stories you tell must be what happened: no spin. 2) Your leaders must be able to tell these stories orally and tell them often. Repetition matters because we believe what is told often and what is believed by our colleagues (influence psychologist Robert Cialdini calls this social proof).
Lewandowsky, S., Ecker, U.K.H., Seifert, C.M., Schwarz, N. & Cook, J. 2012, 'Misinformation and Its Correction: Continued Influence and Successful Debiasing', Psychological Science in the Public Interest, vol. 13, no. 3, pp. 106-31.
Cialdini, R.B. 1993, Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion, Quill Publishers, New York.
We created this little 3-minute video to introduce our new deliberate practice program that helps you build your business storytelling skills. You can read more about the program here.