How do you create a strategy that’s meaningful to everyone who needs to engage with it? Finding a story that connects our present to how we see the future is key. Jamie Jauncey looks back in time to find out where we should start, and how we can use this to look forward.
Strategy. It comes from two Greek words: stratos, an army, and agein, to lead. Army leaders, let’s call them generals, need to be good planners. Strategy, therefore, is the art of the general, or of good military planning.
In World War II the Allied strategy was to defeat Germany first, then Japan. But the Allied forces lacked the capacity to invade mainland Europe, and so support for the Russian war effort became a key part of their strategy. This was high level planning. It involved vast numbers of men and vast quantities of materiel. It called for intelligence-gathering, secure supply lines, knowledge of topography and climate and many other critical factors.
As a strategy it was something everyone could grasp, not least because it conformed to classic storytelling structure: there was the previously existing situation (in this case, being at war); then something happened (the tide began to turn against the Allies); so then (victory on the Eastern front became crucial); in order that (Germany should be defeated and attention could then be turned to Japan).
People also grasped it because their liberty depended on it and they could picture it clearly – the scenes of conflict, the mud-churned battlegrounds, the smouldering cities, the wretched columns of dispossessed civilians and ultimately, perhaps with some effort of imagination, a bowed and beaten Hitler. For all these reasons, people believed in the strategy and understood the roles they had to play in it, however small.
Since those days, the word strategy has increasingly entered the business and organisational leaders’ lexicon, though its association with story has perhaps been less obvious. But since stories can look forwards as well as backwards, they offer a valuable and compelling way to frame strategy, especially since it’s the job of strategy not only to set direction, but to engage people with the thinking behind it and carry them along in trust and belief.
This requires that they feel invested in the plan or story, that they have an emotional connection with it; and that is hard to achieve in the abstract. Indeed, stories work precisely because they deal in the concrete, creating pictures of real people doing real things. That includes facing challenge or conflict, or even failure. There is no story that doesn’t have the overcoming of some difficulty at its heart.
How does this help someone who has to create or write strategy for a modern organisation? In a complex world, strategic thought tends to be conducted and expressed in the abstract. For example, a university might declare that its strategy was ‘to develop a reputation as a global centre of excellence in teaching and research’.
Yet until the tangible realities of that are made clear – its consequences for people and places and things – it remains merely a concept with which people may struggle to feel an emotional connection. And that same university might tend to brush aside previous difficulties, particularly failures, even though these might hold the clue to why it is necessary at this moment to develop that reputation – a crucial part of the story.
Every strategy ever devised has an underlying story and that story will, at the very least, involve a response to some kind of change of circumstances, very often adverse. To say simply ‘we’re going to be the best’ is no story. It’s no strategy either. One reason that some organisational strategies end up being deemed impossible, implausible or even incomprehensible, is that the stories behind them have not been properly explored.
Understanding the story fully not only helps to formulate the strategy, but also to engage people by setting it out clearly, directly and in simple human terms:
– once it was like this
– then the thing(s) happened
– so now we need to do this
– so it will be like this in future
Can you frame your strategy according to these four classic storytelling steps? A tip from Shawn Callahan of Australian storytellers Anecdote in his book Putting Stories to Work: it may help you to start in the present, since that’s where the choices are being made that you need to explain to everyone. Then look for the cause – the thing(s) that happened – to which your choices are the response. Then you can fill in the background and imagine the future.
Jamie Jauncey is a business writer and trainer, who has spent the last thirty years helping organisations and individuals to find their voices and tell their stories. He is the author of ‘What’s in a story?‘, ‘Of grit and granite‘ and ‘How kind are your words?‘.
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