What’s the #Strategy? Let Me Tell You a #Story

Dominos Delivery VehicleMore #Storytelling Tips for Your #StrategicInitiative

A strategic initiative leader is a story teller. The story being told looks into the future; it is a prospective story about stakeholders receiving a stream of future benefits.

My audiences continue to tell me that they find the chief story teller role a new and compelling idea. I’ve provided a number of practical ideas in earlier articles (click on the “How to Improve Your Story Telling Chops” category on the right). In this article, I provide a tool for helping others to engage with the bigger picture.

Heroic Narratives and Romantic Narratives

There are two basic kinds of narrative*. In the heroic narrative, the central struggle is for discovery of a “new self.” The heroic narrative is most applicable for strategic situations where you are looking for growth: new business models, entrepreneurial opportunity.  In this narrative, the hero heads off on a quest, often accompanied by a team of fellow travelers. They travel into the unknown and experience personal changes through the journey. For more, see my earlier article on the heroic quest and the call for action.

In the romantic narrative, the central struggle is for a rediscovery of the “purer self.” The basic structure is for the romantic narrative structure is resembles a religious awakening: Our organization was once pure and filled with wisdom, grace, energies, and fruits of our founders. Over time, we became alienated from those values and it is necessary to atone for falling away. Even more importantly, our task is to return to our original (presumably true and natural) selves.

Let’s stop and put that in more concrete and less mythic terms.  Successful organizations, over time, necessarily get more complex as a result of growth. With complexity comes specialization, bureaucracy, entitlement, and impersonal relations. It’s not surprising, then, that “back to basics” is a frequent theme of strategic initiatives.

The romantic narrative is most appropriate for a situation involving a turnaround or reconfiguration of the existing organization. Here you invoke the legacy of the organization. Here are two examples:

  • Domino’s has its first delivery vehicle (a Volkswagen Beetle) in the lobby of its HQ. It was an important icon of tradition in its Pizza Turnaround video. (For more discussion of this as a case study, see this article.)
  • Louis Gerstner Jr wrote of his efforts in turning around IBM, “Our strategic moves had much to do with returning IBM to its roots as a research-driven builder of large systems and infrastructure.” (See his book, Even Elephants Can Learn to Dance, page 257)

As I explained in this article, it is useful to constructing a timeline that displays the major events in the organization. The strategic initiative is a turning point.

Anticipating Your Audience’s Three Needs

As you think about the narrative, you need to consider the audience’s response.  Is there a need to clarify the vision and direction of the company, and the role of audience? I had a project with IBM during the 1990s where our work product was a training course to explain the process and new responsibilities of its new product development process. In this situation, we strove to use clear language and to show the expected transitions from the old process to the new process. This communication style is called a “plain narrative.

The Domino’s Pizza Turnaround video was intended to stimulate interest in its new product. This is an example of a “tempered narrative,” although it also had telling elements of the grand narrative

Finally, a “grand narrative” is intended as more emotional and motivational message. Again, I’ll use IBM’s turnaround, which included an initiative to centralize all advertising and marketing. The first commercial in 1994 had the theme of “Solutions for a Small World” that featured an international cast that included Czech nuns and old Parisians speaking in their native language. Louis Gerstner explained that it served to signal that

“we were staying together as a world-class integrator” and it “signaled that we were a very different company – able to change and make bold decisions, just as we had done with the decision to consolidate; able to move quickly; able to take risks and do innovative things; and we were more accessible.” (See Even Giants Can Learn to Dance, page 92).

How have you used narrative ideas in your leadership?

* Acknowledgement: The ideas here originated in an academic paper by David Barry and Michael Elmes, Strategy Retold: Towards a Narrative View of Strategic Discourse.

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Benefits of Being a Visible Expert

In earlier articles, I’ve explained that the strategic initiatives are a kind of program. All strategic initiatives are programs, and are amenable to the tools of program management. (However, not all programs are strategic initiatives.) One of the most important functions of programs is to create and deliver a stream of benefits to stakeholders. Benefits can be of two types: economic benefits and emotive benefits.

In this article, I want to briefly list (in prioritized order) benefits that flow to stakeholders through exposure to “visible experts.” A *visible expert is an individual with pronounced visibility in their subject matter as evidenced by writing books, articles, keynote speaking, and etc. They have an earned reputation as an expert. Here is the list:

    • We learn just from working with them
    • They introduce new solutions we had not considered
    • They solve problems more quickly
    • The solve the most complicated problems
    • They help increase our credibility
    • They reduce our risk

Leaders of strategic initiatives have big jobs in closing organizational performance gaps. They have a big challenge in the benefits realization piece, especially articulating and delivering emotive benefits. You can use the above list as a way to probe for and deliver things that will enhance your credibility.

How have you become a visible expert or used one? Are you working toward becoming a visible expert? How do you provide benefits realization?

* The source of this list was research done by Hinge Research Institute and published in their eBook: The Visible Expert: How to Create Industry Stars. And why every professional firm should care.

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Strategy is Not Long-Range Planning, Vision, Mission, or Values

This is NOT StrategyA while back, a seminar participant, who was a senior administrator in local government, showed me a nice 1-page statement that was his organization’s “strategy,” his term for a statement of mission, vision, and values describing the borough’s desire to be a preferred place to live and work. I asked him some questions:


Me: Let’s assume that you showed this statement to the top administrator at a neighboring borough. What would she say?
Him: That’s a nice statement. Our strategy document expresses similar ideas.
Me: Are you in competition for attracting industry and jobs to your borough, and would not the neighboring locale want to have the same industry and jobs?
Him: Yes they would.
Me: So, you are in rivalry with the adjoining borough?
Him: Yes.
Me: But, does this document give guidance to you and your employees on how use your resources?
Him: No it doesn’t. We really don’t have a strategy.

He was holding a list of aspirations and guiding values.  His locale was in a competitive situation. It was substituting a nicely-worded poster for the hard assessment of its situation. His borough had many resources, but it wasn’t using those resources strategically.

Here’s a practical test: You have a strategy if your competitors saw your strategy, would they be worried? If you truly have a strategy, the rival will be worried. They won’t fear your aspirations.

An equally-matched rival should fear your strategy, but won’t fear your aspirations!

Aspirations, for most people and most organizations, are cheery statements that provide a sense of energy and closure. They’re comfortable.

Strategy is Not Long-Range Planning

People often fail to distinguish strategy from long-range planning. The result is “bad strategy;” the appearance that a strategy is present when there is none.

Long-range planning is an effort that is focused far into the future, often years. Long-range planners tend to focus mostly on internally-focused plans to accomplish agreed-on goals. Long-term planning is used to project budgets and so forth into the future. Long-range planners assume that the external environment is relatively stable; therefore, the future is predictable. Waves of change are ignored.

Strategy is different in that strategists believe that the organization must be responsive to a dynamic, changing environment. Strategists are skeptics of someone who assumptions that the environment is stable or the future is predictable. Strategy involves ambiguity. That ambiguity starts with picking signals out of the context, and defining a clear core challenge.

As I have written previously, a strategic initiative is a response to performance gap. It’s purpose is to close it.  A leader of a strategic initiative needs to watch out for the “fluff” of attractive artifacts and documents.

Strategy is “hard work” in the sense that tolerating ambiguity is uncomfortable. Maybe it’s more fun to create multicolored poster or a polished brochure?

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Five Ways to Involve Smart New Voices in the Strategy & Agile Innovation Conversation

Next Gen Leaders Smart New VoicesStrategic initiatives – by definition – intend to achieve organizational transformation. The transformed organization will be owned by the next generation of leaders. It makes sense include their energy and ideas in a strategic initiative.
I recently was involved with an exceptional strategic initiative team. One of the things that stood out was how the initiative allowed for – and encouraged the contributions of next-generation leaders. How are you doing at mentoring, coaching and developing them?
Here are five suggestions for including and leveraging the talents of new, smart voices.

  • Engage – Look for ways to make the team experience one of action. Strategic thinkers have a playful mindset. If you don’t know what the word ‘gamification’ means, look it up!
  • Listen – This is a part of engagement, but is so important that it needs to be called out separately. As a generational cohort, we have a group that has been told their whole life that they are exceptional individuals. Ask for their advice.
  • Tweet! – Twitter and other social media can give you a better perspective on the strategic environment. I can open you up to some of the latest and best thinking.Also, check out and participate in Tweetchats, a fast-moving discussion on a special interest topic.

I confess that I was a little slow to establish a presence on Twitter. Now I am active (follow me @GregGithens, and search for #strategicthinking, #strategyexecution, and #strategicinitiatives as some examples). I am learning new and valuable ways of seeing the world of strategy and of work. The 140 character format has caused me be to a more concise communicator.

  • Encourage Disruptive Thinking – Change is prevalent in every organization, industry, and situation. Next generation leaders like to talk about disruptive technologies. Let them!
  • Learn – I stand in front or audiences all the time and see the contrasts of the next generation of leaders with Baby Boomers. Next generation leaders must become competent at 1) thinking strategically, 2) understanding the parts of the business and how they fit together, and 3) driving change.

I teach two seminars that provide for a nice mix of thinking for Boomers and for next generation leader (shameless plug). The first is Leading Strategic Initiatives (Program Management) which is full of practical tools and insights for the topic. My newest seminar is How to Think Strategically and Apply Business Acumen, which I designed to provide tools for the top-three needs of next generation leaders.

Do you agree that organization need to include new, smart voices in their strategy development and in their strategic initiatives? What other ideas do you have for including and leveraging their talents?

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Is it Possible to Have a Perfect Strategy?

Perfect StrategyThat was the question posed in a recent forum. It’s an interesting question and deserved a response. With the benefit of hindsight, I’ve edited and embellished my answer:

“Yes” there is a perfect strategy in the sense that you could design a strategy for a given moment in time that effectively addresses the core competitive challenge.

As I covered in previous posts, strategy is a word for which many well-meaning people have opinions.  Strategy is not goal setting and it is not the steps to a goal.

Because the word strategy is ambiguous, I define strategy as a crafted, designed response to a specific and important challenge. The core challenge is unique to each situation. As the cliché goes, a problem well-defined is a problem half solved. Strategy changes over time, as the business changes. For example, Starbucks (at the time of founding) could afford to be experimental in the tweaking of its concept. Nowadays, under competitive pressure, Starbucks must be much more focused in applying its resources. Starbucks has a different strategy now than when it was founded.

A “perfect” strategy is an elegant design that applies your resources in such a way as to give you advantage. Perfection, in this case, means it is entirely adequate for the situation and you would gain little benefit from further tweaking. It is good enough and you gain more benefits from bearing down on execution compared to polishing a presentation deck.

Other commenters said that perfect strategy was “impossible.” I disagreed, writing,

I suspect those who say that there is no perfect strategy are confusing predictability for strategy. I agree that no person can predict what will happen: predictability is apples to the oranges of strategy.

Do you agree? Is a perfect strategy possible? Do people assume that strategy is a prediction of the desired future?

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Facilitating the Business Model Canvas: A Few Lessons Learned (Part 1)

Value Propositions Strategic InitiativesI’ve had the privilege of introducing the Business Model Canvas to several audiences in the past year. As you might be aware, the Business Model Canvas shows 9 interlocking and integrated elements, the most important of those being the value proposition. The canvas is developed specific to one business, and when completed, promises users they will understanding how your business model works and makes for competitive advantage.

I thought it would be valuable to share some of my learnings as a facilitator in order to help readers know what to expect if they are facilitating or preparing to participate.

By far, the biggest challenge for participants is taking the names of the 9 categories and identifying specific instances.  For example, they list “customers” as a category under “customer segments” instead of breaking that down into more meaningful segments. Perhaps this is because I haven’t had enough marketing people in the sessions.  I find that participants outside of marketing don’t have working knowledge of their employer’s strategies for segmentation.

Most established companies have more than one business model, but their organization is trying to cope by asking people (including the top managers) to run all of the business with one organization.  I’ve tried to anticipate this in setting up the facilitation sessions, but is remains a difficulty because the people who should know their businesses are deeply immersed in their activities and have a tough time stepping back.

It’s best to provide plenty of clear and relevant examples of the Business Model Canvas for other organizations.

Given that the client companies have many moving parts, and individuals sometimes lost in the details, I recommend devoting plenty of time to the development work.  I also find it important to help them understand the value of the exercise:

  • “You are going to see a bigger picture of the parts of your organization.”
  • “You are going to see the value proposition, the basis of your advantage over competitors.”
  • “You are going to gain insights on how to grow your business.”
  • “You are going to gain insights on how to streamline your business models.”

Participants report that they find the exercise very interesting in understanding their business. Every person believes that the resulting canvas is a tool that could be used to guide strategic initiatives.

How have you used the Business Model Canvas? What additional lessons learned do you have?

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Designing Strategic Initiatives for Results: The Two Kinds of Coherence

constraints and strategic initiative designI’ve met many leaders of strategic initiatives, and nearly every one of them mentions the challenges of resource limitations. But there are other constraints, too, such as perception of time, understanding of the situation, tolerance of ambiguity, leadership, and ability to focus. Design is fundamentally concerned with constraints, and I’ll connect to that point momentarily.

The concept of coherence is an important principle for the design of a strategic initiative. When something is coherent there is a relationship between elements that implies logic and design. Stated simply, coherence means that things make sense. Thus, a leader of a strategic initiative should be asking this question,

How can I recognize and increase the coherence and integrity of my strategic initiative?

We’ll start with recognizing coherence.  There are two types: Imposed Coherence and Narrative Coherence.

Imposed Coherence

As I wrote above, design is fundamentally concerned with the constraints found in the organizational environment. I find it useful to think of a continuum ranging from zero constraints to many constraints.

Policy is another word for design, but the word design is strong in its implications of active thought. The role of design changes as you move along the continuum:

  • When there are no or few constraints, there is too much freedom and a design must be imposed to channel energy and power.  An example of this is an entrepreneurial situation filed with opportunities that are being pursued by energetic people with lots of good ideas. If they try to chase every idea and opportunity they will dilute their efforts. The common design prescription in this situation is to establish a vision and mission statement to inform the organization about why it exists and what it is trying to achieve.
  • At the other end of the continuum, there are many constraints: rules, limited resources, processes, legacy capital commitments and market, etc. Habits and mental models are powerful constraints that tend to perpetuate the status quo. In this case, design is the act of imposing a superordinate constraint on the organization. It might involve removing a constraint that is deeply embedded in the organization’s culture or process. It means saying “no” to things that some powerful stakeholders think important. In other words, it is the act of making hard choices about what objectives are pursued.

To say that something is “strategic” is to say that it is important.  As I’ve addressed in prior articles, it’s a real challenge to develop an understanding about what is most important and then set priorities.

Yet, the idea of setting priorities is commonsense.  Coherence is just another way to say commonsense. However, coherence has some other meanings that add power to the analogy.  A laser beam of light is coherence because all of the waves or fields are in phase. There is a single frequency.  Lasers have power because they focus their power on one point. By contrast, an incandescent bulb radiates lights in all phases and frequencies.  Incandescent bulbs are general purpose whereas lasers are specialist tools.

Now take the analogy to a competitive situation: if your organization is an incandescent bulb and your competitors are lasers, it should be obvious that the laser is going to be more powerful.

How do you impose coherence? That is one of the primary responsibilities of setting strategy and of leadership. I have addressed those competencies in earlier articles.

Narrative Coherence

Narrative coherence refers to a time-based arc of stories and events. As I’ve described in earlier articles, strategic initiatives are prospective stories about moving from the past (the backstory) into the future. A strategic initiative can be seen as a turning point in the organization’s narrative arc.

Designing a Strategic Initiative for Increased Coherence

Narrative coherence and imposed coherence are not mutually exclusive concepts. You can apply them in parallel.

However, you probably want to keep it simple. My advice is to start with narrative coherence and look at the elements of storytelling to find a tension between two forces and the heritage values that run through the narrative. I would also spend some time trying to articulate possible futures, as the strategic initiative is an attempt to navigate the organization towards that new future.

As I consider the narrative, I would work to identify constraints. As you look back into time there were constraints that were adjusted or even battered away! Are there any lessons to be learned from the past?  Next, what are the current constraints facing the organization? Finally, what might be the future constraints?

We’re saving the really tough work for last. A function of leadership is to impose design onto an organization by persuasion or by more formal authority mechanisms. Leaders have to acquire and use power for the benefit of the organization.

For more of my advice related to the constraints and design of strategic initiatives, you can review tools in prior articles, including:

What might be a third kind of coherence?

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