Strategy as the Backstory: Another Leadership Tip

Marlon Brando as Jor-El, with Kal-El played by...

Superman's backstory helps us understand the narrative arc. Strategic initiatives are one episode, and the strategy is the backstory.

Fiction writers and journalists use backstory to explain the circumstances that occurred in time before the main story. Backstory provides information that is relevant to understanding the main story.

The strategic initiative is but one episode in a long narrative arc for an organization. In the role of chief storyteller, the leader skillfully uses the backstory to help the audience make sense of the initiative; sensemaking being key to stakeholder alignment and commitment.

What is Strategic Initiative Backstory?

The strategic backstory includes the specific events and decisions are essential to understanding a given strategic initiative.  This can include inputs such as organizational mission, vision, values; SWOT; customer analytics, technology roadmaps, budgets, and balanced score card metrics.

The strategy-as-backstory also includes the organization’s history and culture. It also includes key individuals, as you can often discern strategy simply by observing which executives presently have more power and influence.

Do Not Let the Backstory Overwhelm

The narrative arc of Superman orginates with Jor-El sending the infant boy away from the planet Krypton. Occasionally the writers reference this backstory, but they don’t belabor it.  The writers know the audience is more interested in the current action (episode at hand).

In contemporary novels and movies, there is very little backstory presentation. Why? Modern audiences are impatient.

People want action and progress in executing strategy. Effective storytellers selectively  weave in backstory details in a way that is useful and relevant for telling of the main story (the strategic initiative). It might be as simple as introducing pertinent facts with a short phrase such as, “our customer analytics reveal,” or “as you recall, ___” or “did you know, ____” or “it’s important to note ___.”

The key point for the strategic initiative leader is this:

Know your backstory, but share it selectively. People care more about where the initiative is going, rather than how the strategy was developed.

EXCEPTION: When the Strategic Initiative Involves the Heritage Story, Emphasize Backstory Values

Many strategic initiatives involve changes that remind the organization of its founding values. This is called a Heritage Story. A heritage story calls upon a recognition of early successes and personal values. In evoking a heritage story, the leader emphasizes the return to – or continuity of – values.

Here are two examples:

  • Starbuck’s CEO Howard Shultz, in announcing a 2008 strategic initiative, explained, “By embracing our heritage, returning to our core – all things coffee – and our relentless commitment to innovation, we will reignite the emotional connection we have with our customers and transform the Starbucks Experience.”  Schultz is suggesting that Starbuck’s strayed from its values, and is making a return to them.
  • Domino’s Pizza Turnaround showed its original delivery vehicle (a Volkswagen Beetle sitting in the lobby of its corporate office), 41 seconds into its Pizza Turnaround video.  CEO Doyle emphasizes that Domino’s has always stood for quality pizza, and that pizza turnaround is a logical extension of that value.

Given change in the external environment, all organizations have to establish strategies to address new competitive realities.  The principle, when applying a heritage story to a strategic initiative, is this:

If anything, we are reaffirming our identity, our purpose, and our beliefs. Our turning point is one of strategy, not of values.

Strategic initiatives are elements of a larger narrative about the organization’s journey and mission: a smaller story inside of a bigger story; a bridge from the past to the future.

The chief story-teller role is one of the four leadership roles for strategic initiatives.  How have you used strategy as backstory?


About Greg Githens

Author, How to Think Strategically (2019) Executive and leadership coach. Experience in driving change in Fortune 500 and mid-size companies through strategic initiatives and business transformation. Seminar leader and facilitator - high-impact results in crafting and delivering strategy, strategic initiatives, program management, innovation, project management, risk, and capturing customer requirements.
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2 Responses to Strategy as the Backstory: Another Leadership Tip

  1. Pingback: Strategy-as-Story: The ABCDE Model | Leading Strategic Initiatives

  2. Pingback: Know The “Follow-The-Money” Story. How was Your Strategic Initiative Funded? | Leading Strategic Initiatives

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