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048 – Healthcare PhDs road test strategy risk

Posted by  Shawn Callahan —October 29, 2019
Filed in Business storytelling, Podcast, Strategy

When developing a strategy, it’s essential to talk to as many people as you can from different parts of your organisation. As this story suggests, you’re likely to find something you hadn’t considered.

Assessing strategy risk

In this episode, we welcome Paul Ichilcik to the podcast! Paul, who joined the Anecdote team a few months ago, is filling in for Shawn while he’s on holiday!

If you haven’t met Paul, or read his introductory blog post, he has recently returned to Australia after spending six years in the United States. There, he worked for Amazon and Microsoft.

Paul discovered business storytelling when he was a management consultant. The great ideas people were having around him just weren’t being put into practice. He had always been fond of screen-writing, so he decided to help others use stories to communicate their ideas.

If you’d like more information about the workshops Mark and Paul mention in this episode, visit our events page. Our Story-Powered Sales workshop is on November 14, not November 13, oops!

For your storybank

Tags: feedback, road test, strategy story, strategy

In 2015, Paul was working for a communications agency in San Francisco. He had helped Eric, the CEO of a multinational healthcare company, shape a 17 bullet-point strategy into a strategy story.

When it was time to launch the strategy, Eric and his team of senior executives held an event in Monterey. They invited 200 company leaders from all over the globe to come and hear the new strategy.

On the first day of the event, spirits were high. The group of 200 eagerly filtered into the building. Eric and his team formed a panel on the stage and shared the strategy story without a hiccup.

Then, just before they were due to break for morning tea, a woman cautiously raised her hand.

“Hi there, what’s your question?” Eric asked.

Voice shaking, she said, “I like the strategy, but you’re asking us to take more risks… I don’t know about others, but my bonus and the remuneration that I receive are strongly tied to not making mistakes or taking risks. I’m quite fond of my bonus. Have you thought about that?”

There was silence. The executives on the panel looked at each other. They tried to answer the question, but what they said didn’t land.

Another hand shot up.

“Yes?”

“Look, most of us have PhDs. We don’t like to be wrong.” Everyone nodded along.

A third hand.

“We’ve got great systems. They’re all designed to minimise risk.”

The executive team called an early morning tea so that they could meet with Paul’s communications team. They had unearthed something that they hadn’t considered when they develop their strategy.

The two teams together decided they should use the event to produce an improved strategy. They divided the cohort into groups and asked each group to road test the strategy by finding stories about what might be wrong with it.

They adjusted the strategy then and there or promised to follow up on points soon after the event.

The company now has a road team. The team road tests new plans and strategies before the company announces them.

Podcast transcript

Mark: 

Welcome to Anecdotally Speaking- a podcast to help you build your business story repertoire. Hi, I’m Mark Schenk and with me in the studio for the first time on this podcast…

Paul:       

Paul Ichilcik from the Sydney office—good to be with you, Mark.

Mark:    

You’ll notice there’s a slight change of format here with me hosting and Paul here in the studio with me. By the way I do use the word studio very liberally. Shawn is currently travelling in the south of Spain for 5 weeks so I’ll be hosting the podcast in his absence and we’ll be having a number of guests and a few of the Anecdote team sharing some of their experiences to help you build your own business story repertoire.

As Paul mentioned he’s running our Sydney office and I’ll let Paul introduce himself.

Paul:   

It’s great to be here. I’ve just returned recently from 6 years in the U.S. I’m originally from Sydney. I spent some time working with Microsoft in Seattle with a brand/comms agency in San Francisco and most recently with Amazon in their Seattle headquarters. But it’s great to be back in Sydney.

One of the things that attracts me to Anecdote is there is a real focus on telling practical stories; that’s really important to me. I learnt a lesson early on in my career where as a management consultant everyone would come up with these great ideas and nothing would really happen in practice.

And on the other extreme I’m a screenwriter writing screenplays.

Mark:  

In fact, I remember you saying that was the reason you went to the US in the first place; to be a screenwriter.

Paul:  

That’s exactly right. I had dreams of getting into the big screen in Hollywood. I found there was so much passion and interest in storytelling when it came to screenplays yet management and business storytelling seemed to be so dry. So I ended up combining the two in one piece of work with Microsoft.

I thought I’m going to train these Microsoft programmers how to tell a story in the Hollywood way because that’s what I enjoy and love.  I put together a fantastic full-day programme and we went through all the Hollywood movies and the Hero’s journey; the ups and downs, the dark night of the soul.

People enjoyed it but nobody told a single story after that because it was too damn complex. That was a big realisation and learning for me that if you’re going to apply storytelling in business don’t make it intimidating or too dramatic because it needs to work, be practical and for me, Anecdote just fits the bill in that respect. That’s why I’m really excited to be joining you and be part of Anecdote.

Mark: 

It’s great to have you here. That is an important part of our philosophy. The hero’s journey is fantastic in its place which is Hollywood. Whereas the types of things we need in business are much more straight forward; much more practical, simple structures you can very quickly and are repeatable.

The format of the programme is we share a business story you can use in your own work, then we talk about why it works and how you can use it in a business context. So Paul, you’re going to share an experience you had back in 2015 I believe.

Paul:  

That’s right. This experience occurred when I was working for a business communications agency in San Francisco and we were working with a healthcare CEO and his executive team—let’s call him Eric (not his real name).

Eric had a traditional 17 point strategy which he wanted to share so we worked very closely with him to shape that into a strategy story, which is really critical if you’re going to engage people. We had a [00:04:22 inaudible] strategy story and then it was time to communicate.

So Eric and his strategy team invited their top 200 leaders to a big event in Monterey (an hour south of San Francisco on the bay). And this was an event we helped them plan meticulously to bring in all their top leaders and share this strategy story.

Mark:   

Is this just from California?

Paul:      

No, these are people from Europe, Asia, Africa—it was a big healthcare company. No expense was spared and they really put on a show. The first day, everyone filters into the convention centre and it went really well. It was filled with multimedia presentations, the executive team were up on stage and everyone was sharing the strategy story with examples and the audience seemed to be engaged.

It seemed like the job was done until just before morning tea. We had a discussion and it was petering out and one lady on a table at the side cautiously put up her hand and Eric the CEO asked her what her question was.

She said, ‘I liked the strategy’ (her voice was shaking, you could see she was reticent to share) ‘but a big part of this is you’re asking us to take more risks but for me (I don’t know about others) my bonus and remuneration is quite tightly tied to not making mistakes and not taking too many risks. I’m fond of my bonus but I just wanted to know if you had thought about that’.

There was silence.

Mark:  

So, they’re sitting up on stage overlooking?

Paul: 

That’s right. There were 8 members of the exec team up on stage. There was an awkward pause; they did try and answer it but it didn’t quite land. Then, lo and behold another guy at the back of the hall put up his hand and said, ‘another thing, we’re all PhDs here in the drug development business and culturally we don’t like to be wrong—we’ve got to look smart’.

And everyone was nodding along and again the executive team were looking at each other.

Mark:   

It’s a bad omen if your strategy involves taking more risks.

Paul:  

Exactly, that was a key part of the strategy as the lady correctly identified. Anyway a 3rd hand went up, ‘another thing is all of our systems are designed to minimise risks and to make sure we don’t make any mistakes. So then the exec team let’s just call an early morning tea; we need to regroup.

Mark:  

A strategic retreat.

Paul:    

Exactly. So, they all went off to the bay to have coffee and we, the comms team and executive gathered to have a think about what we were going to do because it was clear this had unearthed something that hadn’t been factored in and that was a really important piece of whether it was going to be executed well or not.

To their credit, the exec team said, ’ok we’re going to put this meticulously planned strategy to the side’ and we’re going to go back in and they divided everyone into teams to road test the strategy for all the different elements beginning with the risk part.

Road testing meant collecting a whole bunch of examples and stories and then sharing them with everyone. The exec got back on the stage after all these stories and examples had been collected about what might be problematic about the strategy execution. And it was actually a really positive atmosphere because they didn’t have all the answers—the exec team was very open about that.

These little stories brought things to the surface that if they could be overcome would make the strategy work in practice and be embraced. It couldn’t all be done in a day but they’d follow up on those things. For other things, they adjusted the strategy story. And by the end of that first day, it was a very positive atmosphere and it felt like the strategy had been thoroughly road-tested.

And from that session this health care company has actually developed a team called the road team which anytime they’re developing a big plan or strategy their job is to road test the grand strategy story that everyone’s come up with and make sure there are no gaps in the story and it’s going to work in practice.

That’s how the road team came about in Monterey.

Mark: 

Fantastic and it’s great they’ve institutionalised it.

Paul:   

Exactly.

Mark:  

Fantastic story. Now we’re going to talk about why that story works and how could it be even better. One of the things I like about it and why it works is that pretty much all of us have been through that strategy session where the strategy gets shoved down our throats and there’s not much room for exploration or road testing.

Paul:   

Absolutely and you’ve just got to sit there and listen to it.

Mark: 

I was remembering a session in Canberra where I was one of the senior execs but I hadn’t been included in the strategy process and the head of strategy got up alongside the managing director and delivered the strategy and I was furious because they were talking about parts of the business that I had a big say over. So that’s one of the reasons I like because it’s relatable.

Paul:

Absolutely. And there are a few places where there is tension in the story and one of them is the strategy is being presented and the lady puts up her hand cautiously and she hits on a raw nerve with something that hadn’t been factored in.  That’s when you feel the story shifts.

And the other point of tension is when the execs have to decide what to do. Do they just sweep it under the carpet?

Mark: 

And go, ‘thanks very much; we’ll just park that for now’. And we’ll just keep talking about the strategy as if you didn’t raise that issue. And make sure she doesn’t get her bonus.

You were in the room when this happened. What was the feeling in the rest of the room when she raised this issue?

Paul: 

It felt like there was a lot of whispering.

Mark:   

So the emotion in the room was ‘what will they do?’

Paul:  

That’s right; a lot of nervous anticipation—weren’t sure in which direction it was going to go.

Mark: 

In the air force we had things called ‘career-limiting moves’. Had the execs reacted in a different way that could have been a career-limiting move from that lady.

Paul:  

Exactly and I think that’s why she was a little nervous.

Mark:  

That’s good that high stakes bit. Another thing I like about that story is it raises some very important issues around how strategy is developed and communicated and many of us have seen it go horribly wrong. When it’s developed in a small group there are often blind spots and if you don’t road test it.

Paul:  

That was one of the takeaways in this story. The road team became such a fixture because it did make a fundamental change to what happened not only on that day but to the strategy story afterwards.

Mark: 

Was the road team something people wanted to be part of or was it like ‘don’t get on the road team’?

Paul:  

The road team was a little cheeky; people loved being on it and in the future, it became cross-functional over different levels of the organisation because the road testing can be done by different parts; they all had a different perspective.

Mark:

The diversity of thought being applied to the strategy.

Paul: 

Exactly.

Mark:

Now, how can we make that story even better?

Paul:

I think one thing is to zoom in on the tension points and the details around them. Originally when I told it I raced through the 3 objections but if you can zoom in and say how this lady on the side was nervous, raising her hand, waited, her voice was trembling; those little details bring out the tension.

Mark:   

As you described everybody was waiting to see how the execs reacted; ‘what will happen now?’ because anything could happen. Yeah so zooming in on those could make it even better.

For me the timing was pretty good—that’s a story you can tell in 90 seconds to 3 minutes depending on how much time you have. It’s definitely short enough to be used pretty easily which is a very important part.

Paul:  

And you don’t have to remember a lot; it’s fairly memorable. The strategy was there and everything is going well.

Mark:   

And the lady raising her hand—that’s a piece of imagery that’s really important for if I thinking about how to tell that story. That’s a picture I would have in my mind to help me tell that story.

Paul: 

And also raising the stakes because once she put up her hand, if you hadn’t gone into so much detail about how everyone flew in from around the world, a lot of money, big centre in Monterey, everything planned to the minute—those things raise the stakes so when she put up her hand are they going to sweep this under the carpet?

Mark:  

Tell me what did you think was going to happen?

Paul: 

I knew the CEO because I’d done a fair bit of work with him and he was very much into being transparent and open in practice so I didn’t think he was going to let it go and to his credit he didn’t. But in other organisations, it could’ve gone in a different direction.

Mark:  

Now, this is a really important part of the podcast; how might our listeners use that story in a really practical way in their business activities?  What springs to mind for you?

Paul:  

One of the things is especially in big strategy things don’t shy away from tackling things head on so you could use this story to the point of addressing things, maybe there’s an elephant in the room or something that people are cautious or shy to address or it’s going to ruffle some feathers.

You could use this story because it has a positive outcome and you have the road team in the institution now as something positive that emerged from having the courage to address things.

Mark: 

Yeah, control is an illusion so if you brush it under the table bad things are going to happen. Another application of that is where you’ve got any team working on strategy. It’s a cautionary tale; make sure you get diverse views because you might not be seeing something that’s obvious to somebody else.

While you may not have a road team make sure you’re out there talking to as many different people about the aspects of the strategy and you don’t have that surprise when you’re standing in front of those 200 people from across the world.

Paul:  

I think that’s a great point and added to that is the employee engagement piece. By involving more people they get ownership of the story.

Mark: 

And at the end of the day, there was a very positive view of the strategy because there was a level of ownership. And I imagine if the CEO had reacted in a different way then people would have just been waiting for that day to end and for the bar to open so they could whinge about how bad the day and the strategy was.

Paul:  

That’s absolutely right.

Mark:    

Believe me, I have been that person.

Paul: 

And that’s the last thing you want with a strategy story.

Mark:  

The road team reminds me of a Tom Cruise movie: World War Z—the world is overtaken by zombies but there’s one place and the Israelis believed the things they were hearing and they built a massive 50 foot wall around the city.

They called it the 10th man rule and one of the Israeli politicians described it; when 10 people agree on something (the rumours coming out of Africa about this plague must be completely wrong). If 10 people agree one person is appointed to look at the issue again but from the assumption that it’s true. It’s the 10th man rule.

Because they did road-test the idea and found out it was true they were able to take the precautionary measures. It didn’t help them in the end.

Paul: 

A strategy story is a great way not just as a communication tool—it’s really helpful to road test your strategy because if there are gaps in the story as happened in this case you have to go back and fix them and either devote more resources or culture change. That’s the value of a strategy story; it brings out how this is going to be executed in a really valuable way.

Mark:   

We’ve heard a number of ways you can use that story and you need to pick which point you want to make with the story at any particular time and that will help shape how you tell it. That’s one of the principles: be clear on the purpose of your story at any one time and shape the story to make that point.

Any other thoughts on how we might use that in a business setting?

Paul: 

The road teams is also a way to cascade that they collected a lot of different anecdotes that brought to life a lot of this theoretical strategy story (which was much better than the 17 bullet points they had) but to really bring it to life collecting those little anecdotes positive and negative is really important.

And also not making everything rainbows because it’s in those open frank admissions.

Mark:      

All the messiness of real life that are revealed by those experiences.

Shawn:   

Then the audience start to think these people are serious about it; they’re actually going to do it because they’ve addressed all these problems or following up on them—they’re not just pontificating.

Mark:  

Or sweeping it under the carpet. Don’t tell me the bad things; I’ve put a lot of hours into this. Now we get to the part of the programme where we give the story a rating and because it’s your story I’ll go first. Based on how effective and easy to tell that story is I’m going to give it a 7 out of 10.

Paul: 

In the right context, I’m going to give it a 7.5; there are a few different moving pieces you’ve got to get right so you’ve got to practise it—it doesn’t easily flow. But in the right context because it fundamentally changed things it’s got a big punch.

Mark: 

And in the right context a very powerful story. Before we wrap just a quick plug; we are running public workshops in Melbourne (end of October) and Sydney (mid-November). We are launching our story powered sales programme on the 13th of November in Sydney and for more information on our events just go to our webpage www.anecdote.com/events and you’ll see all the details there.

So, if you’re in Sydney or Melbourne there is an opportunity to come along and we’d love to see you there. That’s another episode of Anecdotally Speaking. Please tune in next week and we’ll give you another story to help you put stories to work.

 

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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