The strategic tale


Shall we strategise or shall we tell a story?

OK, let me tell you this story. Once, many years ago now, I ran a workshop for a group of senior managers at the BBC. The objective of the workshop was to help the individuals in the group write more effectively about some of the big strategic policy issues affecting the BBC at the time. E.g., as a public broadcaster, how are we going to deal with the Internet?

I had read some of their internal policy papers. Believe me they wouldn’t attract much of a primetime audience. More to the point, they were hard for people internally to respond to. They were filled with management-speak: those jargon words most in favour at the time (‘Let’s leverage our assets to scale up for synergies’). Abstract nouns were crammed together like sheep huddling for comfort. Verbs were missing in action, certainly in short supply. Sentences swelled to absurd lengths like snakes digesting themselves, gobbling up too many qualifications, sub-clauses, confusing details. I really couldn’t understand these documents. I read them and they talked about ‘Vision’ while obscuring the vision in a fog of incomprehensible writing. More importantly, the people intended as readers – other executives in the BBC – struggled to understand them too.

I asked one of the workshop participants – the most senior, who had the word ‘strategic’ in his job title – what he meant by ‘strategy’? Was it just a grandiose word for ‘plan’? Could he explain it to me by, say, writing the story of ‘strategy’ as an entry in an Encyclopedia of Mythology? It was a tough challenge but he rose to it brilliantly. This is how he began:

Strategos was an artist who was charged by the Gods with painting The Big Picture….

It went on for another dozen lines, introducing the God’s assistant Tacticus who tended to get bogged down in too much detail. It told the story simply and vividly. Can we, I then asked, write our future strategy documents with some of that simplicity and vividness?

It seemed we could. Given permission and encouragement to write stories not management-speak, the corporate voice transformed from ‘croak-voiced daleks’ (in the words of Dennis Potter) to engaging narrators. The difference was brought about by the simple realisation that, if your words are to communicate effectively, you have to write as one human being to another.

So I now ask senior people in higher education, how effective is your own strategic writing? Does it demonstrate your own leadership? Do you paint big pictures with your words that your own people can relate to? Do your words inspire, engage and persuade? Do you motivate people to share your vision and act upon the clarity of the words you write?

If you do, congratulations. You are a rare breed. But we aim to make you less of a rarity in the future by working with your leadership peers in higher education.

At least, that’s our strategy.

A blog by John Simmons, Director and Programme Facilitator at Invisible Grail.

Published Tuesday 27 June 2017

3 comments for “The strategic tale

  1. June 27, 2017 at 4:46 pm

    I feel that these are wise words and very noble aims. Educational strategy certainly needs to be well-designed and carefully-positioned, but the major key has to be in how it is co-created and engaged with. I have been as guilty as others, on occasion, of straying into convoluted ‘Eduspeak’ in certain situations (I might be doing it now). I also feel that the act of ‘being strategic’ does need to be demystified to some extent for many colleagues. The concept needs to be linked more overtly to working in a planned and principled manner which takes overarching ambitions into account . My view is that making that happen returns back to the original co-creation of the strategy and then the ongoing conversations which are necessary with various colleagues in different working contexts, so that local interpretations and needs are factored in.

    My own work is focused on internationalisation within Higher Education, which is a set of activities with multiple interpretations which need considerable ‘unpacking’ in their own right. I won’t go into that here. However, I do feel that working across cultures continues to help me in taking stock of how a mission of any description might be viewed or received differently in different locations or situations. It also highlights in many ways how those range of views, if captured and acted on appropriately, invariably strengthen a project, plan or strategy.

    • July 3, 2017 at 4:26 pm

      Anthony, your comment highlights how important it is to make sure that developing strategy is interactive and iterative. In other words, a process which engages people in setting the direction of their institution, together with others. We love your sense of depicting this as “ongoing conversations”.

      We’ve worked recently on supporting an English university in running a series of internal events which engage colleagues widely across the institution on key strategic themes. This generates energy for change which is a world apart from the top-down management dictum. It also contributes to an organisational culture of open discussion of behaviours, and constant seeking and giving of feedback with a view to enhancing performance.

      This is exactly the kind of process we love to facilitate in partnership with universities. Click on our Programmes page to find out more!

  2. Catherine Harper
    June 30, 2017 at 10:35 am

    Vey useful in focusing my mind on a ‘strategic story’ I am developing as we speak – thank you for affirming my thought process !

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