One question new clients tend to ask when we begin working together, is “what do I get at the end of this?”.
Naturally, they get a strategy – and all the ensuing clarity, growth, fame and fortune that goes with it. But that’s not really what they mean. What they mean is what actual “thing” will be produced.
It’s a fair question, since unlike a website, ad campaign, manufacturing plant, or spritely new employee, nobody knows what a “strategy” actually looks like. How it’s delivered and disseminated; what you actually hold in your hand, what you look at.
Given that it’s essentially a piece of information, there are an unlimited number of ways you could go about formatting it. Most common no doubt is “The Deck”, probably containing a few pillars, visions, purpose statements and so on.
Common, but in my opinion not quite right.
Imagine, for a second, that you have a great strategy. It’s tight, it’s exciting, it’s clever. Then imagine finding yourself in a bar, chatting to a prospective investor / employee / dating option, and the conversation gets around to it. How do you explain it to them?
First up, you’re not whipping out a diagram. Any strategy that needs a drawing of some sort to explain it has already got some serious problems. And second, you’re not going to spit a bunch of jargon or “copy” at them. You’re a human trying to communicate with another human, after a couple of drinks, so there’s no room for corporate spin here.
No, instead you know what you do? You just explain it to them! You open your mouth, form some sentences, and try to string them together into a compelling argument, culminating in the punchline of what your strategy is.
That’s all there is to it. So why in the business environment would things be any different?
The way you’d tell someone about your strategy is the way you write it. A single page of A4, with a few paragraphs of argument, which lay out the plan and why it works. Easy.
There are many reasons why a mini-essay like this is the best way to lay down a strategy, for instance:
1 – It can be read rather than presented
PowerPoint is a magnificent program, and I won’t hear a word said against it. But did you ever stop and think about what it’s actually for? Presentations. It’s a presentation tool. And that means it’s designed to be accompanied by the spoken word – though you wouldn’t know it from the state of most decks.
To make a strategy sharable you don’t want to have to be “presenting” it all the time, and that’s why Microsoft, in their wisdom, came up with another (criminally underused) tool: Word. Word is designed to create documents that are read, not presented. And that’s why it should be used here. By laying down the full explanation of your strategy as a piece of writing, you’ll never need to “walk anyone through it” ever again.
2 – It allows for an argument structure
Although a strategy will always be wrapped up in a sentence or phrase which summarises it, we shouldn’t forget that a full strategy is actually a story – with a beginning, middle, and end. It first sets the scene (“this is who we are”), then it sets the challenge (“here’s the situation in the market”), then it drops the twist (“here’s what we’ve realised we can do”), and finally the punchline (“thus our strategy is X”).
This whole line of reasoning is required to explain to anyone precisely what your game is, not just the conclusion. It’s like a lawyer’s closing argument in a courtroom trial. It seeks to persuade the reader that the arrived at conclusion is correct. It seeks to win hearts and minds.
Short of making a movie about the strategy, nothing will do this better than a crisp piece of writing, since unlike a table or framework it has that all important narrative flow.
3 – It makes it repeatable by actual humans
As I mentioned above, what we’re going for here is really nothing more than the way you’d explain the strategy to someone verbally, but written down. This means not only that it will be structured in the most human manner possible (since we are verbal creatures) – but it also means that you give others the gift of being able to talk about it too.
When someone has internalised the argument, there will be no quibbling over precise wording, or mindless repetition of phrases they don’t really understand. Instead they’ll be able to explain things in their own way – just as you and I can have a stab at explaining the strategy of Apple or Amazon, even though we’ve never actually seen their mythical “strategic decks”.
Generalised understanding is the gold standard we’re looking for here – not rote memorisation.
That then is the crux of it. Any good strategy will lend itself to being written as a narrative on a single page of A4, and if you can’t do that, well, then I’d question the strategy not the medium.
Still, all that being said, I appreciate that this may be a little bit too free wheeling for some, so there is a modicum of structure you can overlay on this to make things a bit more manageable.
Personally I normally break it down into something like the following:
(Please note that these sections are only indicative, and you should feel free to change them based on what feels write when you’re writing it out)
A little intro the the company, its current state in the market, and what it would like to do.
The compelling mini-essay laying out how the business plans to deliver surprising new value to its consumers, and why this will work.
There really is no structure to this segment, but the “flavour” will be something like:
“The thing about this category is [X]. But this doesn’t really work because of [Y]. Fortunately however our brand is the only one who can do [Z]. If we were to do [Z] in [Q] manner, then it would completely change [Y]. Therefore our strategy is to [P].”
Seriously do not actually try and fill in these random letters. I’m just giving you an idea of what an argument sounds like. All actual ones will need to be written from scratch.
At the close of your argument, you will probably want to have “the strategy” articulated simply as a sentence. The [P] I put in the example above. There’s no trick to this, just make it as plain spoken and clear as possible.
What I also like to do is to give the strategy a jazzy name so people can refer to it in a shorthand manner when talking internally – e.g. “The Botox Strategy”, or “Premium Junk”, or whatever. This is the only time you should be getting fancy with copy here.
Finally you’ll want a section outlining, in broad brush strokes, how you intend to deliver on this. You may want to break this into sub sections, such as “product” and “brand”, where you detail the elements of these things which answer the strategy. These might be attributes that already exist within the business, or things you intend to add. Either way, they are the “proof points” that you’re really actually doing this thing.
So there you have it. A nice crisp little document which does all the heavy lifting, and makes everyone’s life a hell of a lot easier.
It’s not much to look at. Nothing more than a glorified email really. But then Jeff Bezos essentially strategised the whole of Amazon in a handful of well written emails, so that’s nothing to sniff at.
Forget the jargon, just step forward, and make your case.