A strategy story does more than communicate your strategy

Posted by  Shawn Callahan —June 28, 2019
Filed in Business storytelling, Insight, Strategy

 Strategy stories are important but they’re not exactly life and death, right? Well, actually, you’d be surprised.

business meeting discussion

Our very first strategy story was for the Transport Accident Commission (TAC) back in 2009. TAC is the government insurer for any injuries sustained on the roads in the Australian state of Victoria. It plays a key role in trying to minimise deaths through dangerous driving, drink driving, driver fatigue and other risk factors. Few government agencies operate with such a non-negotiable and potentially stark bottom line.

When a new CEO, Janet Dore, stepped into her role, she found that the previous CEO and their executive had only recently developed a strategy for a way forward. Janet decided to go with that strategy, but first she needed to communicate it and get her team members to understand and own it.

A year after crafting and embedding TAC’s strategy story, I met with Janet and asked her what she felt had been the impact of the strategy story project. She told me, “It definitely did a great job in helping everyone understand the strategy and work out how each and every person could play a role to bring it to life. But perhaps even more importantly, my new executive team came together around the strategy as we crafted it. We all got on the same page in understanding it. We made sense of it in the conversations that happened during the story-creation process.”

Could there be a better way for a new CEO to genuinely bond with her executive team, and align her vision and theirs?

We have now done roughly 50 strategy stories for some of the great brand names across the globe, including Shell, Allianz, Danone, IBM, Coca-Cola, KPMG, Microsoft and Chevron. Time and again we’ve discovered executive teams who didn’t have a strong grasp of their strategy, or worse, they just assumed that everyone was on the same page – right up until we asked them to explain various elements of the strategy, at which point it became clear that each person had a slightly different take on it.

In this article (which you can also download as a PDF) I’ll explore some of the additional benefits you get from crafting and sharing a strategy story beyond helping your strategy to stick, and unpick why these benefits are gained.

I’m going to briefly touch on the following points:

  • Clarify the strategy.
  • Help craft the strategy.
  • Make the strategy story ring true.
  • Tighten the rope (translate the strategy story for the front line).
  • Increase motivation through purpose and progress.
  • Provide the gist before the details.
  • Discourage unethical behaviour with clarity.

Clarify the strategy

One of the first steps we take when creating and embedding a strategy story is to convene a workshop with the executive team and clarify the strategy story crafting process. We use a clarity story pattern which is simply: “In the past … then something happened … so now we are doing this … so the future can be like this …”

This process generates lots of conversations as each executive shares their take on what happened in the business that explains the strategic choices being made. It’s usually during these conversations that shifts in the strategy begin to happen, but the real magic is in the fact that, because all the executives are involved, a natural and easy consensus emerges. Even better, once we’re done, all involved share a sense of ownership of the final story, which makes it more likely that each person will carry it with them.

Just imagine this for your own organisation: you have made strategic choices around simplifying your business, but the initial strategy story conversations help your executives realise that these simplifications will amount to much more than process improvement – in fact, they will require significant culture change, starting with the beliefs and behaviours of those in the executive team.

Organisational psychologist Gary Klein says that insight comes when there is “an unexpected shift to a better story”. Your executives are garnering insights as one story replaces another during the strategy story creation process.

And this only happens when stories are at the forefront of the conversation. When talk is dominated by opinions, viewpoints and reactions, you tend to get arguments. People then shut down, and insights evaporate.


Help craft the strategy

Sometimes we discover that an organisation doesn’t really have an explicit strategy.

I remember getting a call from a global company’s head of strategy, who looked after a team of 20 people. They told me they wanted a strategy story.

“OK,” I said. “Please email us your strategy so we can see if it’s in good shape for translation into a story.”

“Well,” replied the head of strategy, “it’s not really in one document.”

“No problems, just email what you have.”

“Actually, it’s not written down anywhere.”

It turned out that the strategy team was a planning group and they didn’t have an explicit strategy. But as the great strategy academic Henry Mintzberg pointed out, all companies have a strategy, whether it’s written down or not. If it’s not written down, the strategy emerges from the actions of the business.

Discovering that a company lacks a defined strategy doesn’t deter us. In fact, a great starting point for getting a strategy written down and agreed among the executives is to take them through the strategy story crafting process. With the story worked out, the company can then run an analysis to determine whether the strategic choices that emerged in the process stack up against what the data is saying.

I explain this benefit in this short video: https://buff.ly/2XpsqtT

business meeting

Make the strategy story ring true

Humans like to believe what they hear. This is bad news for some politicians, but we prefer to be told the truth. And importantly, we have defined internal systems that help us process whether we regard statements as true or false. It turns out that the easier we find something to understand, and the more it fits with our beliefs, and other people believe it, and it comes from a reliable source, and it’s coherent and there’s good evidence for it, then the greater the chance we will find it to be true.

It’s that simple.

Actually, let me break that down for you.

It’s easy to understand

If the strategy story just rolls off our tongues and makes perfect sense, it probably means there is no jargon, no management-speak, and it talks about things everyone can understand. These are the typical features of a great story. In fact, it is often remarked that an effective strategy story seems so simple. Experience often seems to teach many executives and team leaders that strategies need to be complex and difficult, but it’s so much better if they’re not.

It fits with our beliefs

When, for example, the strategy story talks about how technology has exploded and everyone now has a smartphone, or how regulators are now taking more interest in consumer experiences instead of letting the industry regulate itself, or how the business has bought many other businesses and created a lot of complexity, our beliefs are not challenged – these things either happened or they didn’t. A good strategy story rarely challenges beliefs. In fact, we tend to be nodding along when we hear it.

Other people believe it

If the stories that make up the wider strategy story have been heard before, and especially if they have been frequently heard or, better yet, the listener has experienced such things for themselves, then it’s clear that other people will believe the strategy story, and this lessens the need for us to question it.

An executive I coached recently sought an anecdote to illustrate the digital transformation that is happening all around us. She said, “The other day I looked in my wallet and I didn’t have any cash at all, and that was normal. It was only 18 months ago I used to, with some trepidation, tap my credit card for a coffee in the morning. Now I tap everything and no longer need cash. And this is just one of the things technology is doing to change how we work and live.” When her people heard this story, they all nodded in agreement.

It comes from a reliable source

Strategy stories are designed to be told orally by leaders throughout the company, from front-line managers to senior executives. In any business, your front-line manager is often your most reliable source.

It’s coherent

People want to hear a coherent strategy story, one that explains what happened and why the proposed action needs to be taken – there can be no gaping holes. And because the strategy is shared as a story, it effectively illustrates the events that caused the strategic choices to be made. Those choices come in a single, coherent entity: a story.

There’s good evidence for it

The events in the story are the evidence that underpins the strategic choices. The more well known these events are to people in the business, the more plausible the story becomes. The story contains the good evidence.

You know the strategy story rings true when audience members are nodding along with it. It makes sense, it’s simple and it’s familiar.

game of tug of war

Tighten the rope

Because a strategy story is not a script, each division and sub-group of the business can maintain the story’s essence or spine while modifying the details so they relate to the local conditions. For example, we once developed a strategy story with 100 leaders of a 1,000 strong IT department of an energy provider. Once the overarching narrative was complete, the heads of software development, infrastructure, operations and support took that narrative and created a version for their own part of the business.

We’re all for that, but it does lead to the question of how much the different arms of a business can tinker with such a key asset as a strategy story before it starts losing its essence.

We like to think of the main story as the original score and the variations as arrangements. The arrangements can have their own flourishes, tempo, instruments and dynamics – varying how loud and soft they are – and perhaps even the insertion of different styles of music. However, the original score must stay intact: the basic melody and form need to stay the same. It must be recognisable.

Say the strategic choice is about simplification. The overall IT department version of the strategy story will have an explanation of this that the whole IT group can relate to. The IT architects might have a different history of the strategic choice, told using different language, but they also need to focus on simplification.

I describe the way a story moves through a company, and between the levels of the organisation, as being like having some rope lying on the floor, with your executives at one end of it and the front-line employees at the other. When the rope is coiled, a shift in direction at one end is not felt at the other end. However, as the narrative unfurls from management through to the front line, the rope tightens to the point where a small movement by the execs is felt and can be responded to by the front line, and vice versa.

business meeting discussion

Increase motivation through purpose and progress

Just hearing stories of people making progress on a strategy is extremely motivating. When we help leaders tell their strategy story, it’s important that we also help them find anecdotes about the strategy happening. It shows everybody that progress is being made and builds each individual’s repertoire of strategy anecdotes.

I believe that if you want to change an organisation’s culture – and strategy is all about change – you need to change the stories being told. So you need a process to find and share these strategy progress stories. The increase in motivation is an invaluable side-benefit.

The following is from my book Putting Stories to Work, illustrating an experiment that shows the motivational power of feeling that progress is being made:

It’s hard to get a clear insight into what a large group of employees is thinking and feeling, especially over time. But that’s what Harvard professors Teresa Amabile and Steven Kramer were able to do when they conducted a lengthy investigation into the inner work life – the thoughts and feelings we have about our work and colleagues that set our mood and level of engagement – of 238 people in 26 project teams across seven companies. Each day the researchers emailed a short survey to the employees that asked them to rate their mood and feelings. The employees were also asked to “briefly describe one event from today that stands out in your mind”, which they were encouraged to do by sharing a short anecdote. Over a couple of months, the researchers collected nearly 12,000 anecdotes, and in them, they discovered what they called “the progress principle”.

We all know from our own experiences that each day we’re boosted by a complex set of small wins, recognition, respect, connection with our group, and improvement in our skills. We also have setbacks, and these negative events often overwhelm the positive ones. Yet of all the influences on our daily outlook and inner work life, Amabile and Kramer found that the most significant was making progress in meaningful work.

When managers are asked what things they might do to engage and motivate their employees, highlighting the progress being made rarely gets a mention. But this can make a significant difference to a team’s productivity. One of your jobs as a leader should be to find and share these stories of progress, to make apparent what largely remains invisible to most of your people. Just talking to employees about this will give them the strong sense that you care about what they do. It will also help you keep a finger on the pulse of what’s happening in your area.

To get these progress stories, you can actually hack the research technique I mentioned above: give each individual in your team the daily task of briefly describing one event that helped them to make progress that day. These stories can then be shared in team meetings. This will give you a far greater insight into the health of your team and your project than the standard around-the-table project update.

To hear me explain this benefit, visit: https://buff.ly/2XtbwKK

Provide the gist before the details

A company changing direction or pursuing a newly defined strategy will require the undertaking of many real-world, everyday tasks and deliverable projects to get to where senior management wants the enterprise to go. What would it be like for the employees if they were only given the list of tasks, without knowing why they were being given this list?

Happily, I can tell you. A clever study by John Bransford and Marcia Johnson, both from New York University, showed just how important it is to give the gist of something before you share the detail. They asked participants to listen to the following paragraph being read aloud and to remember it:

The procedure is actually quite simple. First, you arrange things into different groups. Of course, one pile may be sufficient depending on how much there is to do. If you have to go somewhere else due to a lack of facilities, that is the next step, otherwise, you are pretty well set. It is important not to overdo things. That is, it is better to do too few things at once than too many. In the short run, this may not seem important but complications can easily arise. A mistake can be expensive as well. At first, the whole procedure will seem complicated. Soon, however, it will become just another facet of life. It is difficult to foresee any end to the necessity for this task in the immediate future, but then one never can tell. After the procedure is completed one arranges the materials into different groups again. Then they can be put into their appropriate places. Eventually, they will be used once more and the whole cycle will then have to be repeated. However, that is part of life.

(I’ve shown this paragraph to perhaps thousands of workshop participants and needless to say they were universally bamboozled. I imagine you are too.)

The study tested a couple of variations. The first set of participants only received this description and their comprehension and recall were measured by the researchers. The results were not great.

The second group was given one tiny morsel of information at the outset: “This is about washing clothes.” Their recall doubled and comprehension shot up.

The third group got the titbit of meaning at the end. Interestingly, the result of that group was the same as for those not receiving any information about washing clothes at all.

The strategy story is like being told up-front that what follows is about washing clothes. It provides the overarching gist to allow the entire workforce to understand. Only then can you provide the detail.

Discourage unethical behaviour with clarity

At a recent Global Business Forum, Professor Jill Klein from the University of Melbourne, an expert in ethics, made what I found to be a remarkable observation. She said that the number-one remedy for reducing unethical behaviour in business is to remove ambiguity. What a brilliantly simple and elegant solution.

Through that lens, we can see how a strategy story – along with all the stories illustrating the strategy coming to life – offers a concrete, unambiguous example of what “good” looks like.

I explain this benefit here: https://buff.ly/2FRxa0u

Help your people believe

As you can see, a strategy story done well can do so much more than just communicate a strategy. It can make your people believe: in the meaning of the story, in the direction in which the company is heading, and in the values of the organisation. Being allowed to own and tweak the story, including finding new anecdotes that show the values in action, enhances buy-in even more. Stories of progress and achievement underline that the strategy is working and that work has meaning.

And finally, the strategy can be like the North Star, providing a destination for all the daily tasks required at those times where otherwise it might be difficult for employees or even managers to know why they’re being asked to perform certain work.


We’ve created a PDF white paper of this blog post.
If you would like to download it, click here.


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:

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