As you may recall, I believe strategy has two jobs:
1. To decide what to do
2. To motivate people to actually do it
The first is well understood, the second, not so much. People believe that good ideas should speak for themselves, and that energy will build behind a solid plan – but this is naive. Millions of wasted words have been spilled in boardrooms around the world detailing great strategies which ultimately never happened.
The problem is that nine times out of ten, nobody really gives a shit. So your responsibility as a strategic leader pretty clear: make them.
Make them care.
Make them notice.
Make them want to do it.
I talk about this topic a lot, but I’ve never really broken down how you make a strategy motivating, so I thought I’d try and give a few pointers here.
The crux is this:
It’s not a word we normally associate with strategy. I don’t think I’ve ever heard someone talk about “strategy style”, although I dare say I’m not the first. But when you think about it, all other things being equal, style is what counts.
Let’s say you have a strategy “S”. This is outline of what you’re going to do, and it’s fixed. So naturally you assume you’ve done your job, right? But you haven’t. You see that strategy can still be explained in various different ways – let’s say with the styles “x”, “y”, and “z”.
This means then that you don’t have just one strategy, you potentially have three:
The same idea, presented in three different ways – potentially yielding wildly different levels of buy-in and effectiveness.
See how important this is?
See how the strategy itself is only half the battle?
You’ve gotta get the sizzle right. You’ve gotta lay on the style.
So, what then is the correct style? Well, first I’ll tell you what it isn’t. It isn’t “simplicity” – even though that’s what people think it is. In fact I’d say that the fetishisation of simplicity has arguably done more harm than good.
Now of course, simple is better than complex. And of course, a good strategy must be simple. But the problem is that if you target simplicity with your strategy you’re also likely to end up with something that’s:
• Overly obvious
You’ll end up with the strategy equivalent of a piece of dry toast. Undeniably simple, undeniably sound, but with zero charisma.
No, what you should be aiming for isn’t to be simple, but to be interesting.
Interesting includes simplicity within it (because complex = boring), but has so much more besides. By its very definition it catches the attention, stops people in their tracks, and invites them to look closer.
It’s not the only thing that matters with strategy style, but it’s probably the main one, since without interest, nothing else is going to land.
Here are three ways you can take any strategy, and make it more interesting:
I. Show opinion
A colossal error people make when presenting strategy is to attempt to make it as “objective” as possible. This comes from the utterly heinous association people make between strategy and science – two things which have a similar vibe, but which are in fact at opposite ends of the philosophical spectrum.
Strategy – all strategy – is never more than a punt. It’s what you do when you have no certainty. When you have nothing “scientifically verifiable”. If you had such a thing it would’t be a “strategy”, it would be a “solution”. You don’t need a “strategy” to stop a bridge falling down, you know how to do that. Strategy is what you use when you don’t know.
Now, because all strategy is a punt, that also means all strategy is an opinion. It’s your opinion on what we should do.
Don’t apologise for this, own it.
Lace your argument with terms like “I think”, and “maybe”, and “what if”, and “it’s my opinion that…”. This isn’t just intellectually honest, it’s also compelling.
• It humanises the strategy
• It positions you as a leader, as an authority
• And it encourages you to highlight more interesting and lateral evidence to make your case; stuff you’ve intuited, not just dull lifeless facts
You are not some boffin, explaining the results of their equations. You are Napoleon, standing on the brow of a hill before battle, and backing your own genius.
Opinion makes this so.
II. Be radically honest
This point is both stylistically important and technically important for creating a decent strategy in the first place.
Basically the absence of good strategy in most organisations can often be attributed to the presence of lies. Things people in the organisation pretend are true, but know in their heart (and admit in the pub) to be false. Things like:
• Our competitors are crap
• Our customers care about the things we care about
• Our product is the best
Strategic breakthroughs regularly occur because someone (generally an outsider) has the courage or tactlessness to call one of these lies out. Then the real situation can finally be observed, and a plan made accordingly.
Therefore I expect that somewhere within your strategy there is a challenge to a lie. A bit of truth telling. Something that’s gonna scare the horses.
Again, don’t disguise this, amplify it.
Call the business out. Say what needs to be said. This has gigantic stylistic benefits, because not only is it naturally arresting and attention grabbing, but it also sparks recognition in people. You’ll get them saying stuff like:
“Finally someone’s said it”
“Yes that’s what I’ve been saying for years”
“You’ve put into words what I’ve always felt”
The second you hear this, you’ve won. It becomes their strategy, not yours.
So effective is the style of honesty that I’d even encourage you to engineer it into your strategy even when there isn’t a lie you’re confronting. Act like you’re being provocative. Act like you’re saying the unsayable. People dig this shit.
And thus, people will dig a strategy that does it too.
III. Master rhythm
Now I admit this one requires a touch more talent, and is difficult to learn, but you may as well be conscious of it at the very least.
Effective communication (including communication of a strategy) has rhythm. It has musicality; ebb and flow; narrative structure; all that good stuff.
Rhythm is the difference between being a good writer and a good copywriter. The former can coherently string together information. The latter can express information in a way that’s easier to consume than ignore – a rare skill.
You should have rhythm in your presentation of the strategy. You should have rhythm in your write up of the strategy. And you should even have rhythm in the name of your strategy. Everything needs artistry.
Perhaps you could hire someone to do this for you – a “storytelling expert” or some such. I’ve never heard of anyone doing this, but I think it could be a good idea. However in the absence of that you might want to think about:
• Narrative structure. Classic hero’s journey stuff (although don’t cleave to it too tightly otherwise it might mess up your argument). What’s the status quo? Why does this suck? What thrilling secret have you noticed / realised? How might this change things? So what are we going to do? That’s the basic structure of all strategic argument.
• Expressive language. Yes, we all understand that “jargon is bad”. That’s a given. But it’s also bad to be too plain in your language as well. You want to be a bit flowery, just not in a corporate manner. Allow some humanity, some exuberance, some poetry into your strategy – even if it makes it longer. Don’t be a slave to brevity. (But equally, only expand in the interests of deeper clarity, not to add complexity).
• Hooks. We all know about the importance of hooks in ads, social media content, clickbait, etc., but frankly they’re important in all comms everywhere. Ask curiosity-stoking questions, make contrarian statements, use manipulative words like “secret”, “surprising”, stuff like that.
I wouldn’t advise plotting this kind of thing too consciously, because it will probably give you some sort of paralysis and make things too unnatural.
However just being aware of the general idea should subconsciously loosen you up, and scare you away from the decidedly unrhythmical rubbish that most people churn out.
You know it’s funny – we’re a generation that has been bred to worship simplicity; in no small part because of the legacy of Steve Jobs and Apple. Simplicity, we’re told, was his genius. And so we see cack-handed attempts to mimic it wherever we look.
But when you think about it, simplicity wasn’t his genius. That’s a red herring.
His genius was poetry. Poetry and style.
That’s what’s really lacking from business today. So let’s do our best to fix it.