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Strategic narrative

Across the products I’ve worked on over the years, some excellent strategic plans have been developed by the teams involved. Strategic plans need to provide cutting insights and expose new opportunities and challenges — innovative strategies to meet these challenges must be devised.

However, regardless of the quality of your strategic thinking and your strategic plan, the greatest challenge comes in the capture and communication of it.

Inevitably it seems that nuanced arguments are condensed into bullet points, charts and tables. By doing this, words and phrases that might challenge are replaced with the deliberately ambiguous. Important connections between insights and ideas are ripped apart and clumped together in lists or abstract diagrams. Bullet points reign supreme!

In the end you’re left with a strategic plan that bears little resemblance to the thought that went before. To the outside observer it appears to be largely generic and is hardly inspiring to senior stakeholders who must approve it, or to those who must ultimately implement it.

Sound familiar?
Well, there is a better way. It’s called ‘strategic narrative’ and it means capturing your strategy — with all its nuances and interconnections — into a strategic “story”.

You may be aware that the single greatest influence on persuading a physician to adopt a new therapy is colleague recommendation and it’s proven that people best pass on (diffuse) ideas and experiences through narratives (stories), not bullet points. Therefore, when it comes to communicating a strategy to any level of stakeholder, a narrative is the best format with which to do it.

What does a strategic narrative look like?

Strat Narr Quote 1In their paper published in the Harvard Business Review, Shaw, Brown and Bromily* discuss how strategic narratives should flow through three sections:

Strat Narr Quote 2These interconnected sections need to be written as sentences and paragraphs that flow coherently, enabling the reader to fully absorb what you strategically intend to do or not to do. The whole narrative should be between one and two pages in length.

Engaging the reader in a narrative also gives them a chance to get enthused about the thinking behind it. Rather than cold bullet points in a SWOT matrix, they feel the excitement engendered in the challenges and opportunities because they better understand the context behind them. This in turn has them anticipating the eventual resolution.

Senior stakeholders get the chance to assess and contribute to a strategy, while fully understanding the context and issues around it. They can contribute more relevantly and endorse more wholeheartedly. The implementers of the strategy can feel the excitement surrounding their task and make more informed decisions on the ground.

However, there’s another benefit to using strategic narrative over shorthand PowerPoint.

Strat Narr Quote 3In short, you’ll create a better plan. It’s too easy to hide behind bullet points and colourful charts. The strategic narrative ensures that your thinking is coherent and complete.

In putting together strategic narratives with clients I’ve found that in most cases the vast majority of the thinking is already there, ready to be captured. But, without fail, crucial gaps in the knowledge or rationale are highlighted. This is another benefit of the process — when going through the narrative you might discover a flaw in your strategy that could otherwise unravel it.

How do you use the strategic narrative?
We all know that sometimes important meetings are won or lost before they start. Stakeholders need time to assimilate and then rationalize complex ideas, which is why pre-reading is so important to any major discussion, and a strategic narrative is the ultimate pre-reading document; conversely a PowerPoint presentation, without the human presenter with it, must be among the worst!

It may be that you require a few colourful charts to reinforce your strategy during the eventual live meeting, but the heavy lifting will already have been done.

If you’re like me, you’ll be feeling excited at the prospect of creating your strategic narrative, but also a little daunted. That’s excellent — it is how all good things start!

Strat Narr Quote 4

*Shaw G, Brown R, Bromiley P. Strategic stories: how 3M is rewriting business planning. Harv Bus Rev 1998; 76: 41-50.