It was 9 am Monday morning and I settled in the back of a strategy roadshow clutching my coffee. The CEO of the organisation was getting ready to speak. I sat down and looked around. There was a quiet sense of anticipation. Folk looked fresh and ready to listen.
Great! I thought. This should really clear up a few things I have been wondering about.
The CEO began to tell the group about the three themes that made up the organisation’s strategic approach. One by one I could feel the folk around me start to drift back to their personal preoccupations.
“Tell us a story!” I mentally urged the CEO. “Tell us about our customer’s lives and how we are going to help them. Tell us how our work will make the world more liveable for us all! Please we can tune in again, if you only tell us a story.”
Like a bunch of pre-schoolers at book hour in the local library, we need stories that connect directly to us to catch and keep our attention and focus.
Stories stay with us. They require little effort to engage and can happily be stored alongside our memories of real life. That is the power of stories. They move us and stay with us to inform and direct our behaviour again and again. Strategy without the story is a to do list. Practical to remember things you must do in a given time period but lacking in the ability to cohere a group’s past to its future.
Which got me thinking, why do we make strategy so boring when thinking about the future can be so much fun?
Ok, so I work in the field of strategy. The future! Yay!
I was forged in the hallowed offices of The Boston Consulting Group but do not call myself a management consultant. Management consulting sounds so…. well dry. Strategy is my calling. I get a tingles whenever I get to start playing with alternate futures. My whole brain lights up with possibilities of a better world!
And I’m not the only one.
My 5 year old told me that she was going to figure out how to talk to animals because that is the most important thing in the world. She then went off to look for snails in the garden.
There is something inherently human in working to make life a little better.
Sadly, my ideal of making strategy rarely seems to match with the reality.
The number of “strategy workshops” I have sat through with pages and pages of small font and people pushing agendas in powerpoint. Yawn. Hours upon hours of powerpoint. Days of our lives we will never get back.
So why is it a problem that strategy is boring?
Let’s break down what we are hoping will happen when we make strategies.
Powerful strategies lead to action. How? A good strategy is a kind of story that creates an unresolved tension that the organisation cannot ignore and yearns to resolve.
So what makes a great story?
Great stories connect to our experiences. The greatest stories connect to the deepest part of us and make us yearn for resolution of the tension inherent in the human condition.
Our joy as writers comes through to the reader. It resonates in the bodies of our readers because it connects to some shared experience of being human.
If strategy making is boring, that will come across to the audience (like in my experience at the roadshow) in the ‘telling’ of the strategy and will ultimately be ineffective as a means of engaging the organisation.
It follows that in order to make strategies that people will enact we need to imagine a better kind of future that resonates with our people — employees, customers, leaders, funders, partners — our community of action.
Strategy work in organisations I have known has rarely been about making an alternate future, but more often is had been concerned with optimising what we have for a known present. The conversation centres around re-allocation of existing resources in order to deliver value in a more efficient way. Even in the face of stagnant growth, executive teams that I have worked with have struggled to move the conversation beyond the known, the analytical and the probable into the realm of what could be.
Focusing on the efficient allocation of resources for a known present may create value in the short term, but only if the business had been poorly run, or the organisation has grown faster than it could efficiently handle. But it will not create value in the longer term or deliver growth of any significance. And it will not create the kind of future that makes a group of people yearn to make it.
So what can we do?
In order to make the kind of strategies that will energise entire organisations to act we need to work on and deeply understand what connect to and motivates people.
The best place to start to create great strategy is in ourselves by building our ability to truly listen to the raw experience of life and begin to tell the stories that matter.
We can learn a lot from those people who are experts in connecting to what is human in ourselves — authors, designers, scriptwriters, documentary film-makers — and then adapt what is relevant to bring to our business and organisational strategies to life.
As executives try to make sense of what is going on in their organisations they call for data. And rightly so — data can help map a picture of where we are on many dimensions, but data can be misleading when we are trying to figure out where we want to go because it is only traces of a current reality that can, with interpretation point to future behaviour. To these traces of existing human behaviour we must add empathy and a deep understanding of people’s underlying experience of pain and hope.
In order to build empathy and understanding for pain work with more raw human stories as the input to strategy making. Keep people focused on what happened (not interpretation) and what they experienced in their bodies, through their senses. Practice catching and communicating raw experience of people relevant to the strategic questions being posed across a wide and diverse community of people including customers, employees, owners, non customers and any other folk key to unlocking organisational potential.
Listen for dissonance and resonance. Feel in your body when people get excited and when people are bored. Always go down the path marked by the emotional ‘vibrations’ — whether passion, humour or anger, these ‘vibrations’ always lead to the real issues.
As we make sense of what we are hearing we also need to build muscle for sitting in the uncomfortable parts of reality.
Too often we try and make sense of the complex reality of our organisations by dumbing it down, or by trying to make exhaustive maps.
Don’t avoid the drama!
Again and again I have seen senior executives avoid the big opportunities because they can’t handle the tension of trying to tackle what makes everyone uncomfortable. This is a natural response. As humans we avoid what makes us uncomfortable and gravitate towards what gives us pleasure. But as strategy makers and leaders we need to understand that tension creates energy. The biggest unresolved tensions we have now lead to the largest future opportunities.
In this moment of widespread disruption of traditional industries, innovation and the creation of new value is not a luxury but an imperative for survival. Questions of new value creation and strategic evolution need to be at the centre of senior executive conversation.
So forget the power points and the theme based strategies and lets focus on finding the stories that resonate with our communities. In these stories we will find new areas of growth for our organisations and fresh inspiration for living meaningful working lives.
This article was first published on Medium in October 1st, 2015