Do You Have an Empathetic Strategy?

A little empathy can help your strategy.

 

I’ve kept this one in the queue for quite a while.  Sometimes things just get stuck there.

In an early 2015 insight by McKinsey, Catherine Courage, SVP of Customer Experience at Citrix Systems, landed this outstanding strategic punch while talking about “design thinking” with an interviewer:

“Design thinking is an ideal framework for us to use because it focuses on developing deep empathy for customers and creating solutions that will match their needs—as opposed to just dreaming up and delivering technology for technology’s sake.”

Design thinking has been, for me, one of those near cringe-worthy topics because of the essential nothingness of the term.  As a matter of fact, a large proportion of the interview in the link above is dedicated to merely defining “design thinking.” And, while I still think “design thinking ” is better suited to a marquee than to a management process, I think Ms. Courage nails it with her comment on empathy.

We would do well to extend her comment on empathy to our company strategies as a whole.  If design thinking is the focusing of product design and development on the experience of the customer, then strategic thinking shouldn’t stray far from a focus of resources on meeting the needs of customers.

Call it strategic empathy.

I’ll be the first to tell you that strategy is all-too-often devised for internal purposes and not for attainment of external goals.  Strategy, in the wrong management team’s hands, becomes just another process.  It becomes a set of steps to complete so that a capital request can be approved or a new project can be started.  It loses customer empathy very early on.

Similar to unenlightened product design efforts that never really touch the customer, unenlightened strategic plans ignore the market and customers as well.  The worst offenders wrap their strategy around a financial model.  As a huge believer in the financial model as a foundation of strategy, I can also say that a financial model is necessary but insufficient for defining a company’s strategic plan.

That requires listening to the market.

That requires empathy.

That requires patience.

Take the time to understand what it is your capabilities can deliver to your customers, then set direction.  You might find that a little bit of design thinking–applied empathy, just as Ms. Courage from Citrix describes–can help your strategy.

What do you think? 

 

Top WGP Blog Posts of 2016

WGP’s most popular posts in 2016, and a few strong late entrants.

 

2016 has been another fun year on this blog.

The blog itself is nearing 200 posts since 2014.  That’s hard to believe. While it makes for a nice hobby, I have to admit that I fully appreciate the supportive comments and suggestions I receive.  I appreciate all of you who read regularly.

As we get ready for the new year, I thought it might be good to list some “most popular” reads from 2016.  This is totally unscientific, of course–posts from January 2016 get more play than posts from December by virtue of exposure time. So, to offset that advantage, I’ll put a few “honorable mentions” at the bottom.

The blog’s top 10 posts in 2016 were:

  1. A Song for Me At 23 – Some personal reflections on work and life as a youngster.
  2. It Ain’t What You Put Into It That Counts – Why an overweening focus on input is a loser’s game.
  3. The Pain of Mourning Alone – Some reflections on the importance of team and community in hard times
  4. What You Learn is What Matters – Reflections on making the best of any circumstance.
  5. Shark Tank And Manufactured Choices – Why it’s important to take a breath and evaluate all your choices.
  6. Real Talent Never Dies – A tribute to Prince and his influence–written in strategic talent terms.
  7. What Tesla’s First Autopilot Fatality Teaches Us – A short stab at the challenge of a killer product.
  8. Why I Don’t Believe In Recruiters – An experience-based screed about recruiters and headhunters and how to use them.
  9. The Worst Strategy Metaphor In Use Today – An older post about the “chess fallacy” in business strategy.
  10. When The Spin Stops – Why the Theranos case shows the limits of spin and hyperbole.

And, a few honorable mentions from the second half of the year:

  1. That Dead Guy In Your Organization – Why you put it in their belly, not their back.
  2. Cheese, Change, and Cheyenne – How to handle change, and why that matters.
  3. When Your Karma Runs Over Your Dogma – Why leadership via questionable means can come back to bit you.
  4. Ooh! That Smell – Why it’s important to know whether your organization stinks.
  5. They Believe In Good Ethics, Too! – A post from early October about how highly unethical people can thrive in highly ethical environments.

Onward to a great 2017!

GW

Why You Need A Little Intransigence

 

An effective organization has a little intransigence.

 

The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man.

 – George Bernard Shaw

Meditate on that quotation for a minute.

Now, think about whether you have ever encountered the marginalization of an “unreasonable” person.  Once you’ve been in leadership positions long enough, you come to accept that it happens.  The brilliant researcher whose ideas are just too outlandish gets ignored by the cool-kid MBAs because he’s too likely to call their spin what it is.

The exceptional sales person whose ideas would revolutionize the way the company sells is just too aggressive with senior management to “get things done” the political way.

It happens all the time.

Now, think about someone you know who has actually built or turned around a company.  Think about how much of their style depended on being accommodating and flexible vs. directive and uncompromising. You will find a lot more of the uncompromising style in a real builder.  The easiest ones to name are nearly caricatures of doing things their own way–think Jobs, Rockefeller, Ford.

Somebody, somewhere, thought each of them were “unreasonable.”

And, there’s a lesson in these two thoughts.  You, as a leader, might buy into the notion that you have to go along to get along.  That’s fine, but you have to realize that real progress–real growth–requires people who are willing to challenge the status quo.

If you find yourself marginalizing people with new ideas because they don’t “get” your earnings target, you are part of the problem.  If you find yourself being bothered by someone whose entrepreneurial push to get you to try new things threatens your own well ordered sense of the world, you are limiting progress in your organization.

In short, if you aren’t the unreasonable one, then you need to find a few of them on your team.

There’s probably a critical mass of “stubborn” on a given management team.  I would guess it’s somewhere more than 20% of the team and somewhere less than 50% of the team; but I believe that proportion depends highly on the leader of the team.

A leadership team composed of a group of acolytes who only seek to enshrine themselves alongside the leader can be successful in the short term (if you read this blog you know that I believe that anyone can be successful in the short term).  But, it will lack the capacity to challenge the status quo.

Don’t murder or marginalize your unreasonable ones. Find a way to “dose” and channel the stubbornness into new things.  Create forums for intransigence and revolution.

You just might build something.

Finding Value in Your Vision

Your vision for your career and your company should start with an articulation of the value you provide.

 

Does your vision articulate value?  It ought to.

Often, in the middle of coaching discussion with young professionals, I asked a basic question:

“What do you want to accomplish?”

The responses I receive to that question are often telling.  In some cases, I get interesting, highly functional visions of the next step in a career:

“I want to become a trusted finance leader.”

“I want to become the best project leader in the company.”

“I want to be an expert on M&A processes.”

These are visions that imply a strong value orientation.  They imply delivery of value on the way to accomplishing the vision. One cannot become a trusted finance leader without developing the skills necessary to, in fact, be a trusted finance leader.

Sometimes, though, the answer is more problematic:

“I want to get promoted.”

“I want to run a business.”

“I want to be a senior executive.”

These are visions that imply a strong status orientation.  They create ends that are status driven. One can “get promoted” under the wrong circumstances.  One can “be a senior executive” without developing the skills and capabilities necessary for the task.

Having witnessed multiple highly corrosive senior executives who were placed via the machinations of their own ambitions rather than the value they provide, I can tell you that fulfilling someone’s vision of position and status is exceptionally dangerous if that vision is not accompanied by a vision for value.

And that’s the point of this post:  Vision devoid of value is rubbish.

But, though I’ve articulated the examples above in terms of individuals’ visions for their careers, individuals aren’t even the worst offenders.  I know plenty of individuals who are great professionals but who can only articulate vision for their career as “promotion” or “a raise.”

They will be okay (if a little shortsighted).

Where the vision-devoid-of-value issue often comes up–and causes the most damage–is actually in business strategy.  We see status goals articulated as vision all the time.

“We will double the size of our company.”

“We will be number one in our market.”

“We will be a great place to work.”

These are all corporate level equivalents of “I want to be a senior executive.” They are status oriented visions.  They pass for leadership art in companies the world over.

And, they are entirely insufficient.

Shoot for specificity in the value you will provide.  Articulate a vision for that value…and then, go!

Can you articulate a value oriented vision for your career?  What about for your organization?

At WGP, our own vision statement could use some of the scrutiny I’ve suggested here.  We say our vision is to be the premier strategic advisory firm in the region.  What we really mean is to be the premier strategic advisory firm in the region because of the quality of our insights, advice, and people.  

There’s a difference.

What do you think?  How do you articulate a value-driven vision?

 

The Asymmetry of Action

Seeking massive upside can lead you to inaction.  Watch out for “asymmetry driven inaction” in your strategic plans.

 

Sometimes you have to kiss a few frogs to find a prince.

 

In the lexicon of strategy and strategic plans, the word asymmetry is a useful one. But, it’s a dangerous one.

There is information asymmetry in negotiations.

There is asymmetry of outcomes for a strategic decision.

There is asymmetry of allocations: talent, resources, mindsets, and any other “resource” that can be allocated.

Asymmetry is everywhere. It’s the real world. We can engineer symmetry through repetition and reduction of variability, but reality is filled with imbalance, particularly in the land of business strategy.

Business strategists rarely have the luxury of making the same decision over, and over, and over, and over again. They usually have a few big decisions to make, and they have to guard them very closely.  Why?  Because the world is finite.  There are only so many customers you can piss off when trying to get your sales approach right.  There are only so many acquisitions targets you can approach with the wrong pitch before you run out of them.

True strategists face a series of one-shot games. They can learn from their shots, but each game is different. Each deal has a different flavor. In fact, if you sit in a position where you face only a continuous series of outcomes vs. a discontinuous one, you are probably not a strategist. You are a portfolio or risk manager. Those are not the same thing.  A true strategist has to account for everything before taking one shot.

And, this accounting is where the real danger of taking popular and business press too literally comes into play.

The popular press likes anecdotes, and can lead you to try to mimic anecdotes that simply don’t fit your model. And, in search of an easy “positive asymmetry,” you read an anecdote about how company X has created massive value via acquisitions.  You then go to mimic the actions of company X without understanding the strategic context or capability sets company X had to its advantage.

The academic press isn’t much better.  You read an academic study about how, on average, business transformation efforts fail.  This leads you to pooh-pooh the notion of driving big change in your organization.  “There’s too much downside.”  And, yet, the academics have only generalized from a broad set of companies without outlining the real strategic and organizational contexts at play.

So, the popular press can lead you to seek only those moments that “look” like the founding of Facebook; and the academic press can convince you that management initiative has too much downside.  You bog yourself down in “inaction” by taking both anecdotes and statistics too literally.

So what?

We all want more upside than downside. We all want massive “positive asymmetry.” It’s a natural desire. It’s analytically comfortable.  We all want certainty.  But what happens when our search for massive upside leads us to sit out the game? What happens when we choose to do nothing as a rule vs. as a strategy?

We waste time and resources. That’s what.

I once knew a senior business leader who was given a beautiful portfolio of opportunities and the sponsorship to do whatever he wanted. The problem? The guy couldn’t get out of the spreadsheet.  He couldn’t place moderate size bets that might pay off because he kept looking for bets that would only pay off.

He, therefore, did nothing. He destroyed value by stripping away valuable assets and capabilities to meet earnings targets, but never really got off the dime when it came to making possible bets.

He squandered a beautiful opportunity to grow and inspire.

Doing nothing–whether it be with your career, your business unit, or your corporation’s resources–has a cost. It has downside.

And, an easy way to do nothing is to only look for sure things–massive “positive asymmetry” in the bets you place.  In my experience, massive positive asymmetry only exists ex post.  It exists before hand only in some popular press anecdote.  The strategist who achieved it usually knows there was a struggle to get there.

They know what frog lips taste like. Go, kiss a few frogs.

What do you think? 

It’s Your Value Proposition, Stupid!

The missing link in too many strategies is the master link.

 

Have you ever walked into a store and said “I’m buying brand X because they have the best scientists?”

How about “I’m going to buy this car because the maker has an outstanding leadership development program?”

What about “I’m buying from them because they are going to double the size of the company in 5 years?”

Probably not.

When we are customers, we buy based on a really strange thing called a value proposition. That is to say that we buy something because it is worth more to us than the time and money it takes to (a) buy it in particular and (b) buy it or anything else from someone else in general.  That’s it.  That’s how you win.

The crazy thing, however, is that I see corporate and business strategies spending less than an iota of time defining a true value proposition. They instead tend to focus on internal capabilities or realities and pose them as value propositions.

Have you ever seen this?

“Our strategy is to be great at business to business sales.”

Okay, fine, but does the customer who actually buys from you really care?

“Our strategy is to use our impeccable R&D capabilities to drive innovation.”

Um, maybe, but unless you sell R&D services, the customer doesn’t buy R&D from you, they buy a different product or service.

I’ll leave this one shorter than it needs to be: Your value proposition is what wins you business. Your strategy has to encompass your value proposition. Sure, it can also encompass other competitive advantages like operations, unique skills, or low-cost assets; but if you cannot articulate your value proposition (which may very well be delivered via your competitive advantages) to the customer, then your strategy is probably a waste of space.

Are you wondering why your growth strategy isn’t resulting in growth? Are you struggling to figure out why your customer acquisition strategy isn’t acquiring customers? Are you clueless about why your operations strategy hasn’t given you the boost you expected?

Then, check their links to the value proposition you are delivering to the market.

It’s your value propositions to the customers you hope to serve that determine your success…and too often the customer value proposition is disregarded in favor of some internal, known, but altogether insufficient drivers of success.

Your value proposition is far too often both the master link of your strategy, and the missing link.

Mind your value proposition, stupid.

What do you think? 

Your Platitudes Are Showing

Strategic platitudes can ruin your day.

 

Have a look at these:

“We’re going to be number 1 or number 2 in our markets.”

“We’re going to double the size of the company!”

“We’re going to focus on M&A as our growth driver.”

“We’re going to build a growth engine in our product development department.”

“We’re going to out-compete our competitors.”

Ever hear any of these articulated as “our strategy?”  Probably.  Maybe in your own company, today.

They are the chunks in the chunky soup of management platitudes.  You hear them and their derivatives at all times.

Let’s take them apart…

“We’re going to be number 1 or number 2 in our markets.”

This is a bastardization of an old portfolio management philosophy most famously articulated in the U.S. by General Electric.  It was and is a good one, in my opinion.  But, one cannot confuse a portfolio management philosophy (which is strategy at one level) with a strategic plan for a business.  Yet you hear people ripping off Jack Welch, even today, and claiming it as a strategy for a business.

You want to be number 1 or number 2?  Okay, fine.  How?  That’s where strategy comes in.

“We’re going to double the size of the company!”

This one has been strewn across management thinking in the worst of ways. Put simply, “growth” is not a strategy.  It’s not a strategy for a portfolio and certainly not for a given business.  In fact, anyone who articulates strategy as “we’re going to grow” is only slightly removed from the guy who says his strategy for winning the football game is to “score more points than the opponent.”  It’s a nice notion and definitely a metric, but it isn’t going to determine the concept of your passing or ground game.

 “We’re going to focus on M&A as our growth driver.”

This one is especially dangerous because of the implications it brings with it.  Focusing on M&A as a tool for growth is ok.  It really is.  Plenty of companies allocate capital to acquisitions all day long and book the growth.  But, let’s be clear, acquired growth without a coherent strategic philosophy is a loser’s proposition.  In the 1970’s, AMF Corporation made motorcycles and bowling pins. Its management team walked itself into a non-performing corner by acquiring indiscriminately.  It died a slow death as all of its pieces were sold off in the ’80s and beyond.

M&A as a “strategy” implies that the current business is played out.  It lets management give itself a free pass on growing the existing business. Why would any board allow that?  M&A is not a strategy any more than “sales” is a strategy.  M&A is a tool in the toolkit of an effective management strategist.

“We’re going to build a growth engine in our product development department.”

This one is interesting because it presents a competitive advantage as a strategy.  Competitive advantages are great.  But, they aren’t strategy.  Strategy is direction, focus, resourcing, and value delivery.  Anybody who tells you their strategy is to invest in a competence needs to be asked whether the competence links to actual value delivery.  Building an asset is nice, but remember, an asset delivers cash.

“We’re going to out-compete our competitors.”

I threw this one in there for good measure.  Strategies that assume harder work than the competition are legion.  I mean that.  “Hard work” is not a strategy.  Neither is “focus.”  Yet we see these sorts of platitudes trotted out as components of a strategy.  We are going to work harder than the competition!  Sure, whatever. The competitor is a competitor because they are already in your market. What makes you think it’s a good idea to imply to yourself or your organization that the competition doesn’t work as hard as you?

Strategic management is hard.  To muck it up with low worth slogans and platitudes is to distract from the mission.

What do you do when your platitudes are showing?

 

Strategic synthesis: The art and corruption of brevity

Pithy management insights have their place—and their perils.

Geoff Wilson

I dig synthesis. I mean, I really enjoy enlivening concepts by making them simple and direct. You say, “I want to have the best service, best product, best operations, and the best brand.” I say, “You want a delighted customer.”

See what I did there? Same concept, synthesized. But synthesis is a Goldilocks proposition: too much and you get burned; too little and you’re left cold. Take the above example. Is it sufficient feedback? I’m not sure. That mostly depends on the leadership team receiving the synthesis.

I know some leadership teams that would take “delighted customer” and turn it into a map of service, product, operations, brand, etc. And I know other leadership teams that would hear “delighted customer” and knuckle down on their customer service function. It’s obvious, right? Customer service is the function that delights customers … right? Wrong.

That’s where synthesis is dangerous. Excess synthesis make you pithy. Pithiness is useful in some contexts. Look at the typical internet meme and you’ll see pithiness writ large. But go too far down the pithy path and you end up at pithy’s dangerous neighbor: glibness.

If synthesis is a beautiful red wine, pithiness is a wine cooler, and glibness is a nasty bottle of Boone’s Farm. Dilettantes guzzle Boone’s until they suffer the consequences. Boone’s is cheap, shallow, and insincere—just like a glib statement.

boones

To wit, I’m struck by a meme that recently passed through my LinkedIn feed. It depicts Simon Sinek and a quote about hiring attributed to him:

sinek-skills

This statement epitomizes glib, dangerous advice. Would you select your surgeon based on demeanor? Or choose a mechanic based on attitude? Of course not.

The advice is so extremely context-driven as to be useless. It’s not pithy, it’s shallow—glib, even. Such thinking may apply to the most basic entry-level or noncritical jobs, but adopting the same philosophy to hire your CFO would not only be moronic but could also put you in jail.

While I’m not trying to disparage Sinek—I don’t even know if he approves of the use of this particular quotation—I am denigrating truthiness in management advice. Sinek, I suspect, may know better. Synthesis is an art of the highest order. It delivers precisely what you need when you need it.

Pithiness is an art, too, but it’s a corruptible one. Pithy bullshit sells. But that same pithy bullshit can also get you in deep trouble. Leaders, strategists, managers, and people of all sorts must be skilled at hearing a pitch, proverb, or proposal and searching for the bones beneath it.

If I tell you to “delight your customer,” you may be able to find the full skeleton of a well-built customer-value proposition. At that point, I may have done my job. But f I tell you to “delight your customer” and you then zero in on only the customer service function, I haven’t done enough. I’ve delivered you a wine cooler when you actually need more wine.

If Sinek tells you to hire for attitude and then teach skills, and you rightly ask how that works when hiring senior software engineers, you have properly looked for the bones that were never there. You’re calling bullshit on a tidy, pithy, pseudo-synthetic glass of glibness. Think Boone’s Farm.

Such swill is from the bottom shelf of management thinking—just like a $2 bottle of “strawberry-flavored citrus wine” (a description that sounds like the recipe for a bad hangover). You can live with a wine cooler now and then, but if you’re swigging Boone’s Farm, you’re in for a rough awakening.

What do you think?

Don’t Forget Your Change

The focus of strategy should be on what needs to change, but too often, we leave the change behind. 

 

For those of us who still pay in cash, there is the experience of going through a modern checkout line, paying with paper money, and receiving paper money in return from the clerk, while coin-based change is chunked out by an automated machine.

Invariably, this setup requires the clerk to say “Don’t forget your change!”

Why?

Because what used to be a one-part activity (receiving change from a clerk) has now been split into two parts. This post is about not forgetting your change.

Allow me to outline two modes of strategic planning.

First is the mode that business owners tend to engage in–let’s just call it owner mode.  Working with owners on strategic planning tends to be very interesting and engaging for someone like me because you can dispense with the pleasantries of multi-constituency narratives and logrolling and just go straight to the spreadsheet.  Private equity firms are my favorites at this. My best private equity clients don’t want the PowerPoint; they want a well-structured and justified to-do list and a spreadsheet that outlines the costs and benefits of the action we came up with.

The same can be said for owner/operators.  A CEO client of mine who happens also to be an owner, when asked by one of his team members, “What do we need to do to start implementing the plan?,” simply said, “Why aren’t you implementing it already?”

While owners want to see justification for change, they only want so much before they put it in place: they want their change, as it were.  Private equity firms and owner/operators derive benefits from and demand near- and long-term changes in performance.

The second mode of strategic planning is manager mode; manager mode is extremely common in companies that are populated by managers who are not…you guessed it…owners.  The manager mode of strategic planning tends to be more status quo oriented, and there’s a reason for that:  current management doesn’t necessarily derive great benefit from explaining to its owners how wrong they have been over the past few years.

Face it, nobody walks into the office every day saying “Today, I’m going to do a bad job.  I’m going to misallocate resources and tamp down our sales culture with massive bureaucracy.  In fact,  I think I’ll demotivate a few people today.

Nobody says that, not even the worst managers.  Everything happens for a reason (or at least has a story for why it happened), even current structures and processes that really make no sense. So managers tend to focus more of their time on strategic planning and justifying why they are where they are vs. why that should be blown up and rebuilt.  They entertain their boards with creative narratives. They “kill the clock” with their owners and boards so as not to confront hard things. And they build plans that are heavy on narrative but light on change, and this is especially true when it comes to the specificity of change implied in manager-driven plans.

So with those two modes of planning outlined, the enlightened strategist has to understand that effective strategic planning, especially with manager-driven strategic plans, is a two-step process: There is the step of creating the paper plan, and then there’s the step of producing the hard change that will ensure competitive endurance.

So I’ll just leave this with you:

Strategic planning from a manager’s point of view can devolve into an argument for the status quo and why change is hard, while an owner’s point of view tends to ensure a focus on change sooner, faster, and deeper. In every strategic planning exercise, there must be a moment where the planners–whether or not they are owners–put on the owner hat and test for whether recommended changes are sufficient. 

A strategic plan should envision changes to meet challenges.

Don’t forget your change.

 

When Your Story Misses The Point

Narratives are fantastic…as long as they don’t skirt the point.

 

A couple of nights ago, I had the opportunity to watch the musical Les Misérables in NYC.

This was not the first time I had enjoyed the production.  I have fond memories of seeing the show about 15 years ago in San Francisco.  It was, however, the first time I’ve seen the show since actually reading the expansive and impressive book by Victor Hugo that the musical is based on.

The musical production was outstanding. If you’ve never seen it, it’s well worth your time. The music, the characters, the settings, and the story all combine into a moving experience.

But it got me thinking about something that might be relevant to our strategic management lives.

At the risk of going full literary nerd, I’ll try to keep this short.  Victor Hugo’s novel Les Misérables is a scathing polemic. It is a tour de force that takes apart real social issues of justice (and grace), poverty, class, politics, sanitation, and struggle.  The novelist went to great lengths to describe not only how things were in France, but why they were and perhaps what needed to change. This latter point he rarely takes on directly…leaving it instead to the reader to interpret his often sardonic references to things that just don’t make sense. He used characters to bring his narrative to life. And, he did that well. Hugo’s own words introducing the book show his purpose, and here they are.

So long as there shall exist, by reason of law and custom, a social condemnation, which, in the face of civilization, artificially creates hells on earth, and complicates a destiny that is divine with human fatality; so long as the three problems of the age—the degradation of man by poverty, the ruin of women by starvation, and the dwarfing of childhood by physical and spiritual night—are not solved; so long as, in certain regions, social asphyxia shall be possible; in other words, and from a yet more extended point of view, so long as ignorance and misery remain on earth, books like this cannot be useless.

Victor Hugo had a point.  He had an aim in writing the book (while in exile from his own country, I might add):  Illuminating the often senseless mechanisms of government and culture that conspire to destroy lives.  On some level, his illustrations ring as true today as they did 150+ years ago.

The musical play takes the characters and makes a stunning production–a stunning narrative–out of them, but only touches on the rest of Hugo’s point.  The play takes the characters–who were many ways incidental to Hugo’s point–and makes them the point.  And that ok, but only because one is a book and one is a play.  Which brings us (finally) to the point of this post.

The point…

Narratives–even really beautiful narratives that are moving and exciting and stimulating–can miss the point. This is true for a musical play on Broadway as much as it is for your leadership or business strategy.

The only difference is that people can still get their money’s worth from the Broadway play that is off point from the original work, while your business can run off the rails (and have you run off on  a rail) if you resort to creative narrative that misses your strategic imperative.

What do I mean by that?  Well, let me illustrate a few painfully real examples.

Company 1 has a real financial problem driven by the decline in demand for its products due to a real change in customer preferences. In small group sessions, management knows this reality and calls it out as a crisis.  In forming their creative and stimulating narrative, management buries the reality under a glossy brochure of product leadership, employee engagement, and brand.  The “book” that management writes confronts the issue directly.  The “play” almost buries it.

Company 2 has a clear threat from a much larger company whose product might also be better. In small group sessions management admits that its product might not be up to snuff.  In the narrative delivered to the entire organization, their own “outstanding product” is front and center.  The narrative misses the point of a real need to improve the product–urgently.

These examples are out there every day.  Why is it that more people have seen the play Les Misérables than have likely ever read the book?  Well, it’s because watching the play is easier.  It’s easier to digest and then to go on about your business.

And, that’s a good thing.  It’s the reason we use narratives to communicate strategy.  That’s why engaging employees around a great presentation or video or brochure can actually be effective.

But…

The narrative has to be on point.  The story you form to communicate your strategy must not bury the point. It has to confront the elephants in the room.

I suspect that if Victor Hugo were to magically appear at a production of the musical version of Les Misérables he would be astounded and flattered…and he might see called out implicitly in the play some of the social ills he worked so hard to call out in his book.  But, he would probably also know how much the convenient and entertaining narrative leaves out.

And, sometimes, it’s what you leave out that matters.

I’d love to have your thoughts on this one.