Strategy via storytelling

“We’ve come together today to develop our organization’s strategy.”

”OK, how about this:
- Our mission is to revolutionize our industry.
- Our vision is to be the market leaders in our industry.
- Our values are innovation and teamwork."

“Nailed it - let’s go to happy hour to celebrate.”

While most organizational strategy processes aren’t quite that bad, many…aren’t far off. In my experience, this “mission/vision/values” approach often results in strategy artifacts that are so generic as to be worthless when it comes to directing employees on priorities and direction.

The grand reveal of the new strategy is often met with polite smiling, and within weeks, leaders are confused by signs that basically nothing has changed within the organization. This is at best a waste of time and at worst a major risk to the organization’s success.

“Many strategies are just statements of desire rather than plans for overcoming obstacles.” – Richard Rumelt, Good Strategy, Bad Strategy

I’ve been fortunate to facilitate strategy processes for many organizations, and an alternative approach that I've seen produce consistently good results is the use of a “strategic narrative” or “theory of change” that tells a story to connect long term goals (i.e. “Why does any of this matter?)” to short term actions (i.e. “What should you start prioritizing differently tomorrow?”).

The variation on this approach that I’ve developed leans heavily into storytelling by walking the audience through a step-by-step “How do we go from here to there?” artifact. Here's a real-world example from a startup called Door to Door Organics that I worked for a number of years ago:

This format seems to resonate with folks because it's easy to follow and it provides tangible rationale for what is being prioritized and why. Only allowing "one question per slide" was an accidental discovery that has proven particularly effective. I think that's because it encourages people to poke holes in the narrative — “wait, how did you get from the last slide to this one? That doesn’t seem to jive” – and the subsequent iteration on its content makes the strategy that much more compelling.

How to build your own strategic narrative

But a story only goes so far! For the strategy to be effective, there has to be buy-in, and that process starts well before presenting a slide deck. Here’s the inclusive process I employ:

  1. Share a strategy survey across the organization
    • Make it required for the leadership team, and encouraged for everyone else.
    • Keep it relatively short, use mostly free-form questions, and try to make the thing as enjoyable as a form can be.
    • Use this template or build your own
  2. Work with 1 or 2 others to do affinity mapping of the results
    • Cluster similar answers together into themes
    • Share these themes with the leadership team for discussion
  3. Have a conversation as a leadership team and take notes.
    • What are we seeing here? What surprised us?
    • What are the key areas of alignment? Of disagreement?
    • Where are there tradeoffs?
  4. Put together your strategic narrative presentation
    • Work by yourself (or with 1 other person). IMO, this step is very hard to do as a group.
    • Use this template or build your own
    • Focus on telling an opinionated story; don’t hedge!
    • Go from high-level to low-level, aiming to reduce “plot holes” between slides
  5. Get feedback on the deck from your team
    • Share the deck asyncronously for in-line comments
    • Meet to discuss the key open questions / areas of misalignment
    • Iterate on the deck; again, it should remain opinionated.
  6. Present it to the organization
    • Share it asyncronously and set up time to walk through it live
    • A good leader needs to repeat the same story over and over again
  7. Get feedback
    • Create and share a survey for collecting feedback
    • Incorporate the feedback into the deck that is a no-brainer
    • Store the other feedback to look back at when you do the next revision
  8. Profit

Notice that I bolded the word “opinionated” twice. It’s critical that your company’s strategic narrative take a stance — on direction, on customer segments, on priorities, etc. — and that means saying “no” to things. If you have 10 goals / priorities / etc, you have none. It’s reasonable (and expected!) to change your narrative over time as your organization learns new information. In the meantime, an opinionated strategy gives your employees a clear mandate for how to prioritize their time in order to best achieve goals.

Check out my "priority dams" post for feelings about prioritization

A good test of whether your strategic narrative is opinionated enough is whether it enables your employees to concretely answer the question “What should I not work on because it’s unaligned with our strategic narrative?”

Here's an example strategy survey form in practice:

If you give this approach a shot, please share how it went!

No one understands. No one knows my plan.


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