It’s that time of year again. Strategies and the colossal PowerPoint presentations that embody them are ripening. But is all the effort worth it?
I once worked with a leader who said that he preferred a poor strategy well executed to a great strategy poorly executed. I railed against the idea – I love strategy! – but now I (begrudgingly) agree with his emphasis on pragmatism. I still think that strategy development is important, but have we got the development:execution balance right?
Winston Churchill said, with characteristic understatement, ‘No matter how beautiful the strategy, you should occasionally look at the results.’ In 2008 Neilson, Martin and Powers showed us that the results aren’t good. They reported the findings of a MASSIVE employee strategy execution survey in Harvard Business Review. 60% of the 125,000 (I did mean MASSIVE) survey participants said that their organisation was weak at execution. That’s a big waste of strategy.
I believe organisations fail to execute partly because they don’t make enough effort to engage their key constituencies in their shiny new strategies.
John Kotter would probably agree. He said that said that one of the fatal errors of organisations making a change effort (I include a new strategy) is to under-communicate by a factor of ten. It’s easy to imagine how it can happen; after spending months developing a strategy, we understand it so well that we expect everyone else to get it immediately. But they won’t.
So, we probably need to communicate our vision and our strategy more often. But we also need to make sure that our communications are arresting if we want them to prevail versus the Twitter feed.
Here are a few ideas:
- Stories: when we hear abstract concepts and jargon we start to think about all of the things we need to do when this presentation is finally over. But we will always pay attention to a good story. In The Storytelling Animal, Jonathon Gottschall explains that our minds have evolved to pay attention to stories. And, with a little effort, strategies can make very good stories. Like good stories, strategies are about subjects we care about, tough challenges, difficult decisions and resolution. Tell your audience how you came across an insight. Explain how an incident with a customer or a colleague informed your strategy. Use a story to illustrate the difference your new strategy will make to the lives of your customers.
- Metaphors and analogies: cognitive scientists like Antonio Damasio tell us that all thoughts begin as images. A metaphor or an analogy can help your stakeholders to convert your strategy into a memorable mental image. Can you anchor the challenge you are facing to a memorable one faced by another organisation or an individual, historical or fictional?
- Surprise them: When Art Silverman at the Centre for Science in the Public Interest discovered that the average bag of popcorn contained 37g of fat versus a RDA of 20g, he could have told the American public just that. Instead his campaign showed that popcorn contained more fat than a cooked English breakfast, a Big Mac and fries and a steak dinner – combined. How can you frame your strategy in a way that gives your audience a jolt?
- Ditch the slide with all the key issues and CSFs or strategic imperatives. Nobody will remember it anyway. Give them a simple, memorable headline instead.