There’s a simple exercise that you’ve just got to try.
Not only try in fact; you must make it a ritual. Every year, or half year even, you should be doing this, recording the results – and, hopefully, the progress.
It will tell you more about the strength of your organisation’s strategy (and thus its general strength) than any other metric short of profit.
Here it is:
1. Schedule a short meeting with each member of your team individually. If you run a large organisation with thousands of employees, choose a selection from across the board – janitor to marketing director.
2. Sit them down, and ask them this simple question: “What are we trying to give people with this business? What is our focus?”.
3. Note their answers.
4. And when complete, compare.
What do you find?
Is there a pattern? Is there a theme? Are the answers the same? Or all over the place? Do they even understand the question? Are they even able to answer it at all?
(I’d suggest the most likely thing you’ll find is fear, confusion, and silence).
Now it’s clear what I’m driving at here. That question is obviously a proxy for “what is our strategy?”, just phrased in more accessible manner. And the level of alignment and understanding across the business is a measure of how much this strategy actually exists.
You might think you have a strategy, but if your team can’t spit it out instinctively without a second thought then you don’t. Not in a way that matters.
This is a fairly subtle point, so it’s worth a bit of elaboration. Many leaders (and low level employees) believe implicitly that strategy is something that exists “up there”, in the boardroom, and isn’t really a concern of the worker drones going about their day-to-day tasks. But clearly this is nonsense, as the actual delivery of a strategy is accomplished by the alignment of a thousand tiny decisions, made by ordinary employees, every day, stretched over time.
Every problem fix.
Every stroke of a pen.
Every turn of a screw.
Everything is to some extent suffused with assumptions about what the business is trying to do. What the point of all this is.
And so it is all suffused by strategy.
The greatest brands then are simply those whose every move has complete coherence and alignment, because everybody knows what the game is. They might be only one square of a 5,000 piece jigsaw puzzle. But they know what picture they’re making.
When you stop and think about it, the fact that pretty much every business on the planet would fail this test miserably is insane. Like you almost think “how can they even operate?”.
But they can.
Just haphazardly, reactively, and relatively unprofitably.
So what do we do about this?
Look, obviously one part of the solution here is to actually have a strategy. That goes without saying, so I’m not going to labour that point.
No, instead I want to focus on something a bit more interesting, which is this:
It is the responsibility of every leader to be a propagandist.
Your job isn’t “management”. Or “decision making”. Or “troubleshooting”. That’s not what it means to be a strategic leader. No, your job is to be a sloganeer. To be a brainwasher. To repeat yourself – passionately, and endlessly – so nobody forgets what’s really going on here.
This is what the great CEOs do.
It’s their job.
They stand up in front of their teams, their investors, their customers, the press – and they repeat themselves. They say the same shit over and over again like a mantra, until it’s so embedded in the existential understanding of the business that it is the business.
Why do you think there are so many videos of Steve Jobs making the same basic points over and over?
Because he was doing propaganda.
Why do you think Jeff Bezos has gone to the tedious trouble of repeating his schtick about being “customer centric” in literally thousands of emails and memos?
Because he’s doing propaganda.
Why does Elon Musk have this thing called “the algorithm”, which obsessively outlines his management and manufacturing philosophy?
Because it’s propaganda.
Propaganda is their responsibility – and they know it. And therefore, the crucial things they want everyone to understand? Well, they know them too.
If your main activity every day isn’t repeating yourself, then, I would suggest, you are not leading, and furthermore you probably don’t have a great strategy either.
Because that’s the thing about strategy – real strategy – it demands repetition. It’s irresistible. It becomes an idea you fall in love with; which you get pleasure out of re-articulating again and again and again.
I don’t think those guys repeated themselves because they read some blog like this and thought “oh, I’d better keep talking about my strategy”. No, they repeated themselves because they couldn’t help it. They repeated themselves because they were in love.
• And until you fall in love with a strategy like this, you won’t repeat yourself.
• And until you repeat yourself, your business won’t be aligned.
• And until your business is aligned, you won’t create anything with singular greatness.
So start with the test at the top of this piece. Start by identifying the size of the problem; the woolliness and incoherence within your business today.
And then start brainwashing. And if you don’t enjoy the process, if you don’t enjoy the brainwashing, if it doesn’t spill forth naturally – then start strategising.
And keep going until you have an idea can’t shut up about.