At one point in my life, I was had dinner often with a colleague whose favorite restaurant game was what what-are-they-talking-about-at-the-next-table? He was particularly fond of the game when the people at the next table looked excruciatingly intense and were speaking in hushed tones that allowed only snippets of their conversation to drift our way. His contention was that, if we played the game well, we could enjoy their conversation much more than they were. He was a much better story teller than I, and often had me howling with laughter at the expense of the much less happy diners at the next table.
Although it may seem far-fetched, the STORY matters in strategy as well.
What do I mean? First let me say what I do not mean: I do not mean that the strategy for your organization should be made up out of thin air. Facts matter. Knowing how your organization works matters. Knowing who your competitors are matters. Understanding what your costs are and what makes up your earnings matters. Each piece of that is necessary; but even all of it together is not sufficient.
In my experience, most successful people – be they leaders of organizations, captains of stand-out teams, or those in pursuit of individual endeavors – have both imagination about the possibilities engendered by their activities and passion for those possibilities. They also understand how their current activities are linked to, and are intended to achieve, what they imagine.
Neither imagination nor passion derives logically and deductively from data! To think that it might is analogous to thinking that you can create a great painting if you buy the right kind and color of paints, or that you can write a great novel because you know the English language and its grammar.
Even if your strategy is demonstrably correct in terms of your organization’s operations and environment, to create a strategy that engenders enough enthusiasm to do the work that is inevitably required to execute it requires being able to know and understand and tell its story: What matters? Why does it matter? How do you get from here to there? Why should the people you need to rely on to get there be sufficiently interested or care enough to help you get there?
Perhaps in the abstract, these points seem trivial or obvious. However, they are neither. Change is always hard; it may involve new priorities, new skills, new relationships, or all of those. To make any of those things happen requires commitment and, often, resilience. Particularly when execution of a strategy is going to require the work and commitment of a group or groups of people, the strategy needs to have enough tangible reality for all participants to experience for themselves why it’s important, why it’s worth the trouble and resources it’s going to take; its excitement. And whether it’s your bankers, your customer service reps, or your designers, they all need to be focusing on and supporting the same change.
They also need to be able to experience what may be an entirely new context for their work, even if it feels like an old or familiar context. A few years ago, an airline I use often changed its policy for using frequent flier miles; as a customer, I didn’t love the change, but I was very impressed – and grateful – when the agent reminded me that the new policy allowed me to think differently about when to use the miles, and how to schedule trips for which I wanted to use them. Similarly, not long ago, the The New York Times published an article about how the big high tech companies look at potential mergers differently than do traditional investment bankers. The big task – using miles or buying companies – may look the same, but the criteria that go into making choices may be entirely different. To understand how to apply the new criteria effectively, everyone has to understand the STORY of what the strategy it how it works, and what it is intended to achieve, not just the traditional rules.
Historically, the creation of this story has been assigned to the leader. Perhaps shockingly, many senior executives have actually left the task to subordinates and advisors. But the job is too important to be delegated, and too important for the senior executive to do in isolation: the strategy, and especially its story, has to be created and managed in such a way that everyone who needs to be involved in executing it in any capacity recognizes it, understands why it matters, and feels its meaning seep through daily activities.
As with my friend’s dining-out game, unless the key strategic story is told well enough and loudly enough to be absorbed throughout the organization, there are likely to be a myriad of stories made up from snippets overheard – directly and second- and third-hand – from the leadership team. It is hard enough to move an organization in a new direction; it is impossible when different parts of the organization are trying to move in different new directions!
You do not want to leave your competitors to enjoy the strategy you intended, at your expense.