We help lots of organisations turn their strategies into memorable and concrete strategic stories. In doing so, a key factor is ensuring its not a 'Pollyanna' story'. You know the ones…everything is upbeat, previous successes are emphasised, failures are not mentioned. Theses stories might be politically correct but risk being viewed as inauthentic or not believable.
I recently watched this Steve Denning video of his TEDx talk in late 2011 on the topic of 'Leadership storytelling'. In it, Steve describes exactly the same concept in a very succinct way. He calls them 'Titanic Stories'…"700 people arrived safe and happy in New York after their voyage on the Titanic."
This story only works if two conditions are met: (1) listeners don't know about the 1500 people who died on the trip and (2) you can keep it that way. As soon as either condition is not met your story, your strategy and your credibility will plummet to the icy depths never to be recovered.
The golden rule in business storytelling is 'be authentic'.
Filed in Strategic clarity.
Last week I flew to Vienna to help a pharmaceutical company develop their strategy. It was a two day event. We used the first day to explore their current situation and past by, among other things, creating a massive visual history across one wall. We delved into the important events that have shaped them and the lessons they've learned so far. We looked at the challenges they faced and told stories of how these challenges were really impacting their work. For me this is the foundation for any strategy. The executives need to know and share the problems and opportunities they want to tackle. They need to get talking and make some real choices.
On the second day we focussed on the future. I stepped them through a visualisation to get them out of their heads and then we shared stories of where the future was already happening in their business. We call these Gibson stories inspired by William Gibson who is reported to have said: "the future is already here, it's just unevenly distributed." This idea of finding things that work and then work out ways to do more of it certainly appeals as it avoids the dreaded problem spiral (if you look for problems you will find them) which can drain the energy from even the most upbeat group.
Towards the end of the second day we had things on every wall: purpose statement, goals, illustrations of a desired future, strategic themes. You can imagine that the participants might feel a little punch drunk by this stage as each new idea smacks them about the head. Then we finally we pulled it all together with a strategic story. I'm always amazed by the effect. All of a sudden everything falls into place for them. It has meaning. It's something they can now explain to others.
I like to finish a workshop by getting everyone in a circle and just asking, "so how do you feel right now? Not what you think, but how do you feel?" For many they felt energised and a sense of accomplishment. They all admitted to feeling a little confused half way through and wondered how it would come together. I warned them they would. For others they wanted to get to the next step and work out the plan. For me I wanted them to keep their strategic conversation going because no matter how good a two day event might be it's often the beginning of the decisions they have to make. Executives need time to let the possibilities sink in. But it's far better to make some real decisions, put them into action, learn from experience and adjust moving forward.
"Government managers secure the resources they need to operate not by selling products and services to individual customers, but by selling a story of public value creation to elected representatives of the people in legislatures and executive branch positions."1
Private sector leaders have it easy: they sell their products, they generate revenue, they manage their costs, and while they're making profits and creating value, they keep their jobs and stay in business.
Public sector leaders, on the other hand, obtain resources by gaining support and legitimacy from politicians, public opinion and a myriad of other invested institutions each pulling and pushing in their own directions. Then, as the work gets done, it's difficult measuring the impact it has made because the outcomes often emerge years after initiatives are implemented and working out what caused what is near on impossible. It's a tough gig.
According to Harvard Kennedy School Professor, Mark Moore, the strategic challenge for public sector leaders is "… the ability to imagine and articulate a vision of public value that can command legitimacy and support, and is operationally doable in the domain for which you have responsibility."1 Business storytelling has a role to play in each of the three elements of Moore's strategic challenge: public value, legitimacy and support, and operational capability.
Firstly, public sector leaders need to tell the story of the public value they intend to create. And like all good strategy this is best done by creating the story with your stakeholders rather than creating it alone and springing it on the unsuspecting. We call it a strategic story but don't think is merely a single story to be parroted throughout the organisation. Instead it's more like an original score where each leader composes their own arrangement and tells their own anecdotes to bring it to life.
Legitimacy and support comes from both external and internal sources. Externally, politicians and leaders in other institutions must stand up for and support your vision of public value. And of equal importance, your leaders and managers inside your department must be engaged, believe and actively support the direction the department is taking. Time and attention are the valuable resources you need and storytelling and story-listening will help cut through the noise.
Lastly, you'll need the organisation capabilities to make your initiatives happen. Government is inherently noisy because, unlike private enterprise, unhappy customers just stop buying your products. Public sector stakeholders don't have that choice. So they get vocal. And in this noisy environment you need to be heard and you need to get your message to stick. Companies are starting to include storytelling as an essential skill for their leaders. Victorian Department of Treasury & Finance is a leader in this regard.
Storytelling has three characteristics that make it an effective technique for all three aspects of the public sector strategic challenge because stories are memorable, meaningful and emotional
Stories are Memorable
Attend a presentation and as we walk out the door we have already forgotten most of what was said. We only remember the gist and the feeling it leaves us. More often than not the only thing we will remember with clarity are the stories.
Stories are more memorable than facts alone or abstractions such as talking about "business transformation processes" because they create pictures in our minds--we can see it happening--and these pictures conjures up our own experiences helping us to judge the plausibility of what's happening. We get engaged in the story and because multiple neural pathways are activated (because of the detail in the story such as the places, the characters, the events) we remember it.
Researchers from Princeton have even found that when someone is listening to a story their brain lights up (in a MRI scanner) in the same way as the teller's. The two brain are synchronised. When the listener hears only opinions and viewpoints, activity is limited to just the language area of their brain. During a story, areas across the brain light up as the listener and teller relives the experience. For example, if the storyteller talks about kicking a ball, the parts of the brain associated with the mechanics of kicking a ball lights up. It's a whole brain experience. The most remarkable finding of their research was when they noticed there were times when the story listener's brain lit up before the storyteller; the listener was anticipating what came next and when this happened comprehension increased further.2
Stories are Meaningful
"What's the story here?" This is what we say when we are trying to make sense of something. We need to tell ourselves a story to give it order and meaning.
Stories provide the context and connections we need to place the information we are receiving into a bigger picture of the other things that are happening in the organisation and our own experience. When we hear a story things start to make sense.
A couple of years ago, a university library was preparing to move to a new, purpose-built, ultra-modern building. The move required a huge number of things to change, including the library's culture, and we were invited to help it with this aspect. The first thing we did was to collect stories from the library's employees which illustrated the current culture and values. Then we gathered everyone together for a workshop to identify the patterns in those stories.
At one point in the workshop, 10 librarians were looking at a set of anecdotes about their value of 'excellence'. After reviewing their cluster of post-it notes, they concluded that the key issue was that they needed more training. They refused to change this view despite our gentle prompting that there might be something going on at a deeper level. Then we suggested they use a story spine to tell the story of 'training' in the library.
The librarians then set about creating a story that explained what was happening in the organisation around training. The story they produced was about a woman named Sue (not an actual person but a character representative of a type of person in the library) and it went like this: ‘Sue had a bad habit of talking behind people's backs. She was always bitching about people on the one hand, but always said the right things to the right people on the other hand. Then, after Sue was promoted, people realised she couldn't do the job and they started bitching about her. One day, one of the staff, who had left because Sue was mean to him, ran over her in his BMW at some traffic lights. Many people danced and were happy’.
The librarians were shocked at this story. They looked at each other and, almost in unison, said: "We don't have a training problem in our library. We have a bitching problem." And right there and then they committed themselves to tackling bitching, which they ultimately did.
It's stories rather than logical arguments that convey meaning.
Stories convey Emotional and inspire action
“I've learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” Maya Angelou
Stories make you feel something. And getting someone to take action is impossible without emotion. Leaders need to tell stories so people feel it, so people are inspire to take action. Sometimes it takes a story to change behaviour and to create the conditions for new stories to emerge.
Nick was standing in front of a wall of stories. Each A4 sheet of paper sported a single anonymous anecdote illustrating either a good or bad management behaviour, collected from Nick's company. One story had captured Nick's attention and made him agitated: "I can't believe this guy. Imagine answering a phone in an interview. My God, he even stepped out of his office to chat with someone who was just passing by."
His complaints caused others in the workshop to wander over to see what was going on. As Nick was spluttering his displeasure, Paul, one of his colleagues, jumped in: "That was my anecdote, Nick, and it was about you." Nick's faced turned red and before he could say anything, another colleague added: "It totally nails you Nick. It's spot on. You do it all the time." By now, everyone in the workshop was watching. It seemed the next few seconds would reveal Nick's true character.
Nick's face was ashen as he looked around the room. He gathered himself and then apologised to his colleagues, adding: "I can't promise you it won't happen again - I wasn't even aware I did this. But I can promise you that I'm going to make every effort to change my behaviour." And to Nick's credit, he did. At the time of the workshop, Nick was the head of sales and marketing at the company; he's now the CEO.
There was a big difference between what Nick thought he was doing and what he was actually doing. It took a story, and the willingness of his trusted colleagues to speak up, to make him aware of his poor behaviour. As a result, Nick's insight was both cognitive and emotional: cognitive in that he could rationally understand what he was doing wrong, and emotional in that he felt intense embarrassment at having discovered that the bad behaviour he had ridiculed only moments before was his own. This combination of insight and emotion created a powerful impetus in Nick to take action.
Government is difficult to manage and lead. There are many stakeholders involved and things are constantly shifting. Engagement, influence and persuasion are essential to impact those who provide legitimacy and support for government initiatives, both inside and outside the organisation, and storytelling techniques are an effective way to achieve this.
Dan and Chip Heath, in their best selling book Made to Stick, summarise their findings this way:
"Stories can almost single-handedly defeat the Curse of Knowledge. In fact, they naturally embody most of the SUCCESs framework. Stories are almost always Concrete. Most of them have Emotional and Unexpected elements. The hardest part of using stories effectively is making sure that they're simple--that they reflect your core message."3
- Moore, M.H. & Khagram, S. 2004, On Creating Public Value: What Business Might Learn from Government about Strategic Management, Harvard.
- Hasson, U., Ghazanfar, A.A., Galantucci, B., Garrod, S. & Keysers, C. 2012, 'Brain-to-brain coupling: a mechanism for creating and sharing a social world', Trends in Cognitive Sciences, vol. 16, no. 2, pp. 114-21.
- Heath, C. & Heath, D. 2007, Made to stick : why some ideas survive and others die, Random House, New York.
Herb Kelleher [the longest-serving CEO of Southwest] once told someone, “I can teach you the secret to running this airline in thirty seconds. This is it: We are THE low-cost airline. Once you understand that fact, you can make any decision about this company`s future as well as I can."
“Here`s an example,” he continues. “Tracy from marketing comes into your office. She says her surveys indicate that the passengers might enjoy a light entree on the Houston to Las Vegas flight. All we offer is peanuts, and she thinks a nice chicken Caesar salad would be popular. What do you say?” The person stammered for a moment, so Kelleher responded: “You say, `Tracy, will adding that chicken Caesar salad make us THE low-fare airline from Houston to Las Vegas? Because if it doesn't help us become the unchallenged low-fare airline, we`re not serving any damn chicken salad.`”
Source: Heath, C and Heath, D (2007): Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die. Random House, New York.
Last year IBM released their Global CEO Study 2012, which involved more than 1,700 CEOs, general managers and senior public sector leaders from around the globe. It makes for fascinating reading.
One of the things that really stood out for me was the finding that most CEOs largely think alike, (their views differed on less than 20 percent of the questions). However, the real difference between those CEOs who are out-performers and those they are under-performers is in "their ability to engage the C-suite in evoking significant change across their organisation".
A shared understanding of the company's strategy is key to building a highly engaged leadership team.
Typically, the C-suite is made up of really smart people who are at the top of their game and if you were to ask them about their company strategy, they'd be able to repeat it, or at the very least articulate it well. They'd most likely talk in abstractions, concepts and 'corporate speak'.
However well-intentioned, these abstractions often get in the way of real understanding and action. On many occasions we've worked with organisations who's executive team thought that they had alignment and agreement on their strategy, only to discover that once we pushed them a little and started to tease out their story, they discovered misunderstandings and disagreements.
Often these are not major differences of opinion, but even the slightest deviation can make a big difference to the outcome.
Consider this analogy. An angle of one degree is difficult to draw on paper because it is too small. However, if a flight from New York to Los Angeles is off course by just one degree, the plane will arrive closer to Tijuana, Mexico, than Los Angeles.  Small differences can make a big difference in the long-term.
Stories can help reduce this gap.
One of the things we've discovered when working with companies to make their strategies stick, is that stories have a unique way of uniting people around an idea. Stories provide them with concrete examples and models. In turn they highlight subtle differences in understanding, which helps to reach agreement and build strong alignment around their strategic story.
As we often say, you don't really understand something until you can tell a story about it.
: Turkel, L. and Turkel, S. 2004. Small Change: It's the Little Things in Life That Make a Big Difference! New York. Tarcher/Penguin.
I recently had the opportunity (and privilege) to attend a masterclass with Richard Rumelt, one of the world's most influential thinkers on strategy and management, and author of 'Good Strategy Bad Strategy: The Difference and Why It Matters'.
As the title of his book hints, he sees lots of examples of what he calls 'bad strategy'. He sees the hallmarks of a bad strategy being 'fluff', failure to face the challenge, mistaking goals for strategy and bad strategic objectives. He defines fluff as "a form of gibberish masquerading as strategic concepts or arguments," and argues that fluffy slogans become substituted for strategy. In the masterclass, as he does in the book, he provided plenty of stories and examples to illustrate his point.
Attending the masterclass reaffirmed just how important the work we are doing with our clients is. We commonly see the problems he describes, where strategies are full of ambiguous and abstract language. Employees are encouraged to be ‘customer-centric’ and ‘results-driven’, and to have ‘a high degree of professionalism’. They are expected to live a company’s values of ‘integrity’, ‘passion’ and ‘honesty’. They have to continually improve the way they work to make themselves more ‘efficient’ and effective’, working ‘smarter not harder’ so as to ‘get the right things done’.
Whilst they may be well-intentioned, these abstractions often get in the way of real understanding and action. One of the ways we help organisations get past this, and bring their strategies to life, is to use real-life examples from within their own business. We help them find and share stories and specific examples of these abstract concepts in action, which helps them to understand and apply them. In other words, the stories help them to make the abstractions 'concrete'.
Rumelt believes that the mark of "true expertise and insight is making a complex subject understandable." That's what we're aiming to achieve using stories.
Filed in Strategic clarity.
One of the challenges embedding a strategy is helping people relate their job to it. Strategies often seems distant and abstract. How does a person in one of the far flung corners of the organisation contribute to the pursuit of a new corporate strategy?
This simple technique is based on the idea that we don't really understand something until we can tell ourselves a story to explain it.
So why not help people tell a story about their job and the new strategy with a story spine.
Readers of this blog were introduced to story spines in 2007. They're a simple story structure that can be used to help people construct a story. They look something like this:
Way back when...
But one day...
Because of that... (repeat three times or as often as necessary) Until finally...
Ever since then...
Imagine asking people to create a story that explains how their job relates to the new strategy using this story spine,
Way back when...
But one day we were told of our new strategy
Because of that... (repeat three times or as often as necessary) Until finally...
Ever since then...
Of course the cynics will say, "yes, and because of that I ducked for cover and kept doing exactly what I did before the new strategy was announced…" In which case if you can get people to share these stories they provide incredible insights into your company culture.
But I find this doesn't happen when story spines are created in groups. In fact, amazing insights emerge for your teams.
Let me know how you go using story spines or if you have any good story spine stories to tell.
Cynthia A. Montgomery is the Timken Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School. One of the programs she teaches is for accomplished executives and entrepreneurs at one of Harvard's flagship programs.
Very early on in the program she asks these senior business people to list three words that come to mind when they hear the word strategy. Collectively they have produced 109 words, frequently giving top billing to 'plan', 'direction', and 'competitive advantage'.
In more than 2,000 responses, only 2 had anything to do with people: one said 'leadership', another 'visionary'.
Isn't that amazing. In over 2,000 responses from experienced, senior leaders and business owners, the term leadership was mentioned once in regard to strategy.
And as Montgomery, author of the book The Strategist: Be the Leader Your Business Needs, says; "Downplaying the link between a leader and a strategy, or failing to recognise it at all, is a dangerous oversight...After all, defining what an organisation will be, and why and to whom that will matter, is at the heart of a leader's role."
In a recent McKinsey Quarterly article 'How strategists lead' (paid access required for full article) she goes on to say:
"It is the leader...who must make the vital choices that determine a company's very identity, who says, "This is our purpose, not that. This is who we will be. This is why our customers and clients will prefer a world with us rather than without us." Others, inside and outside a company, will contribute in meaningful ways, but in the end it is the leader who bears responsibility for the choices that are made and indeed for the fact that choices are made at all."
Do you as a leader understand your role in creating, communicating and embedding strategy?
So, how can organisations effectively deliver their quarterly results and at the same time maintain their competitive advantage when faced with so much change?
The November 2012 edition of HBR includes an article by John Kotter titled 'Accelerate' [note: payment is required to access the full article] that poses a solution. Kotter advocates letting the formal 'operating system' (the hierarchy) run the day-to-day activities and creating a second operating system using the informal system to design and implement strategy.
Kotter argues that the formal structures and hierarchies in organisations are excellent for the day-to-day operation of the organisation and delivery of business results, but they are barriers to implementing strategies to adapt to changes. "…the old ways of setting and implementing strategy are failing us." The formal structures and processes have difficulty even keeping up with changes, let alone getting ahead of them. Kotter points out that his 'eight step change process', developed in the mid-90s, has a hard time producing results in a fast-moving world.
The majority of the article is focussed on a 'new' concept Kotter calls 'Strategic Accelerators'. In effect, he is talking about using Communities of Practice/collaborative networks to tap into the power and agility of the informal capabilities of an organisation. The network of strategic accelerators complements the formal systems; it does not replace them. Collaborative networks are not a new concept, but Kotter's application of them to the arena of strategy is very insightful.
Kotter's article has crystallised a natural link between two of Anecdote's core activities: Making Strategies Stick and our many years of work in helping organisations develop effective collaborative networks.
If you want to establish a network of 'strategic accelerators', our experience highlights some of the things you need to focus on:
- more leadership, less management - the network members are volunteers so they can't be managed as conscripts. Networks require leadership that creates the conditions for them to succeed. Importantly, leadership support must be visible yet it does not require enormous effort. Here is an example of the effect of 'being managed' on a network
- follow the passion - network members have 'day jobs' so the amount of time they spend on network activities will vary. In essence, the effort they invest in the network is discretionary. The things that are most likely to get done are things they are interested in or passionate about
- invest in social capital - network activities require high levels of trust between members so attention is needed to activities that build better and deeper relationships. It can't be 'all work and no play'.
Networks of strategic accelerators can be developed purposefully and intentionally. To do so requires paradigms of 'control' to be replaced by 'empowerment and autonomy'. Kotter notes that if you succeed "the network and the accelerators can serve as a continuous and holistic change function - one that accelerate momentum and agility because it never stops. They impart an kind of 'strategic fitness'".
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.
* * * * *
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.