Three ways to make your strategy stick

Posted by  Shawn Callahan —January 7, 2010
Filed in Anecdotes, Business storytelling, Leadership Posts, Strategy

In my hands is a corporate strategy. It’s a glossy six-page document designed for every employee to memorise and enact. There are seven themes each with three sub-themes. There are also seven values. All the information is presented as dot points well set out with lots of white space for easy reading. Sadly this strategy is unlikely to stick. Perversely, it could even cause the exact opposite behaviour the leaders desire. Here are three reasons for my statement.

1. It’s hard to remember a set of ideas without an organising schema. Neuroscientist John Medina reminds us that we need to get the overall gist of something before we can attend to the details. Watch this video for an example of what he means.

One way to provide the overall context for a strategy is to create a strategic story that places the company’s directions within a schema. That way people get the gist of the strategy and can then attach more and more meaning.

2. Too many things on our mind diminishes our willpower. Implementing a strategy requires willpower and as a recent Wall Street Journal article describes it only takes a moderate cognitive load before we succumb to temptation. In my opening example here are at least 28 things to remember about the corporate strategy which will definitely overload our ability to remember it but more importantly it could be sapping our will to stay the new strategic course.

In one experiment conducted by Baba Siv at Stanford University undergraduate students were divided into two groups. One group was asked to remember two numbers and the other had to remember seven numbers. They then had to walk down a hall and choose one of two snacks: a slice of chocolate cake or a bowl of fruit. The students remembering the seven numbers were nearly twice as likely to choose the cake than students with two numbers to remember.

In applying this idea we would be better off introducing parts of the strategy over time so people can concentrate on one or two changes at a time, perhaps over a 90 day period, before introducing the next part.

3. We remember what we see. In a corollary to the aphorism, ‘we remember was we feel,’ it is also true that we much more likely to recognise and recall something when we can see it. As John Medina puts it, “The phenomenon is so pervasive, it has been given its own name: the pictorial superiority effect.”

This idea immediately gets us thinking of the splendid pictures we can include with our strategies, those striking images that conjure the essence of what our company is all about. This is the standard approach but there are two other types of images you should consider back-of-the-napkin drawings and the images created by stories.

Dan Roam has created a business from helping people sketch out their thinking, back-of-a-napkin style. In his book with the unsurprising title, The Back of the Napkin, Roam illustrates the power of a simple diagram to share an idea. If you can’t sketch it on a napkin, forget it, it’s too complicated. So ensure everyone can tell your company’s strategic story with the aid of some simple sketches.

Effective stories paint pictures for us as well. When someone recounts a compelling story we visualise what’s happening. And because we are playing out the action in our mind’s eye the story becomes memorable for us. If we tell the story a number of times it becomes embedding in what we know. As the story researcher Roger Schank said, “To tell a story is to remember.”

About  Shawn Callahan

Shawn, author of Putting Stories to Work, is one of the world's leading business storytelling consultants. He helps executive teams find and tell the story of their strategy. When he is not working on strategy communication, Shawn is helping leaders find and tell business stories to engage, to influence and to inspire. Shawn works with Global 1000 companies including Shell, IBM, SAP, Bayer, Microsoft & Danone. Connect with Shawn on:


  1. virginia Yonkers says:

    Communication theory talks of the “rule of three”. People tend to remember up to three things. So Powerpoint slides should have no more than three points, no more than 3 words per point.

  2. Michael says:

    OK, this was worth reading just for the awesomely amusing and educating video.
    Also liked this insight:
    Too many things on our mind diminishes our willpower.
    I’ve read lots about our brain’s limited capacity to take on too many pieces of information (David Rock’s latest books are good on this), but never made this connection before

  3. I love the book and the material on workplace design and human nature as especially insightful. The DVD though is too silly for words and I found it unhelpful. Brain Rules remains a must read for anyone involved in communications.

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