What I’ve Learned About Strategy

What is strategy and why do you need it? How do you communicate strategy effectively? Here are some valuable lessons I've learned from experts and from personal experience.

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What is strategy and why do you need it? How do you create a strategic plan? How do you communicate strategy effectively? I’m going to share some valuable lessons I’ve learned about strategy, from experts and from personal experience.

I’m going to attempt to answer those questions after a lot of trial and error as a young communications professional. I don’t want you to have to learn the hard way I did, so I’m going to share ten things I wish I knew earlier about strategy.

First, here’s what I’ve learned about strategy from experts Chip and Dan Heath, the authors of Made to Stick:

Strategy: a guide to behaviour.

Strategy is a guide to behaviour, and an effective strategy drives action. Over time, these intentional behaviours and actions should have a direct, positive, and lasting impact on your overall business.

People are expecting a 15-page document, but they rarely remember a 15-page document.

To improve the success of your strategy, communicate it using shared language across your organization.

Everyone — and I’m talking from interns to remote employees to the CEO — should be able to talk about your strategy and use it to help drive decision-making.

Create a strategy that’s compelling, memorable, and concise. If you can, distill it down to a one-page visual that’s easy to read and understand.

Strategy isn’t set in stone.

Strategy acts as a living and breathing guide to daily decisions and operations. It’s not set in stone. As your business and your customers adapt, so does your strategy.

Use stories strategically.

The stories you tell – to customers, investors, employees etc. – should speak to your strategy. If you want people to remember something (read: your strategy!), tell them a story.

And if your company doesn’t have stories to convey your strategy, or why you do what you do, that’s a red-flag! Your strategy might not be clear enough to influence people.

Here are 5 more things I’ve learned through experience:

Your strategy starts with who and why.

Start with WHO you want to reach and WHY you do what you do.

Define your mission, values, and business objectives. Why does your organization exist? What do you do better or differently than everyone else?

Then, use research to get hyper-specific about your target audience because hint: it’s not “everyone.” What are your target audience’s needs, values, interests, and challenges, and where does your product or service intersect?

If you’re familiar with Simon Sinek’s concept of The Golden Circle you’ll discover is your strategy is the “how” behind your WHY.

Strategy isn’t created in a silo.

Not only does consulting with stakeholders generate buy-in, but these individuals might have insights that can strengthen your strategy.

And don’t forget about the people who will be responsible for implementing the strategy! It’s probably wise to set some of your strategic goals collaboratively with these stakeholders.

Does the thought of “strategy-by-committee,” give you hives like it does for me? Perhaps look at it this way; a strategy that fails to engage stakeholders, is a strategy for failure.

Measure what matters, but it won’t matter to everyone.

Yes, your strategy should be compelling, concise, and memorable. But you also need tactics and metrics (or measurable actions to gauge your progress and effectiveness). ⁣⁣
Now I love me a good SMART strategy!

But the biggest mistake I’ve made? Sharing the nitty gritty strategy details — timelines, tactics, metrics — with everyone. That’s how you end up with a 15-page strategy document that isn’t compelling, concise, or memorable.

Where does that leave us?

You need to measure what matters, so you need measurable goals and SMART objectives. But this information won’t matter to everyone.

I’ve learned to save these details for my boss, whoever is involved in implementing the tactics, and as an appendix for anyone who’s interested in reading it.⁣⁣

Which leads me to my next point…

Sharing your strategy takes, well, strategy.

If you do have to share your strategy with your wider team or organization, HBR says “keep the message simple, but deep in meaning.” I suggest keeping it simple by sharing these 3 things:

1) The WHY behind the strategy (reinforce your vision and align your business objectives). Share your WHY using a story.

2) WHO you want to reach and WHAT you want them to do or think after hearing your key message(s).

3) HOW will you know the strategy is successful? What does success look like? What are the high level milestones you hope to achieve?

When sharing strategy, keep the message simple but deep in meaning.

– Georgia Everse

Don’t show, tell.”

When it’s time to evaluate and update stakeholders about the strategy, remember the principle “don’t show, tell.

What do I mean?

Don’t just show your data. Don’t just move from a pie graph to a bar graph to — oh wow, another pie graph — in your presentation. Tell a story about your data.

Give your strategic update a narrative structure and use your data to support your recommendations.

Check out #2 and #3 on this list of storytelling books to help improve your data storytelling!

Notice the story told in this slide above? Notice how the data supports the recommended strategy? Watch this talk by Cole Nussbaaumer Knaflic

Success starts with strategy.

If I’ve learned anything, strategy is the difference between organizations who are successful and those who are not.

And in 2020, it’s baffling to me how many businesses and organizations operate without a strategy. It isn’t productive, purposeful, or profitable.

So whether you hole up in the boardroom for 6 hours, or go on a 6-day retreat, the time you invest in creating and implementing a strategy will set you apart from your competitors, strengthen your organizational culture, and help you reach your customers.

I hope you have a better idea about strategy – why you need a strategic plan, how to communicate your strategy effectively, and how to incorporate storytelling into your strategy.

If you learned something new about strategy, let me know in a comment below!

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