Strategy is just a story about the future...

2nd October 2020

I’ve sat through so many Executive Briefings over the years, where the obligatory PowerPoint presentation has absolutely murdered strategy – then danced on its grave. Given the centrality of strategy, vision and purpose to business growth and transformation – and given the importance of people’s buy-in to these constructs – you’d think we’d make a better hash of it than we do. I think there are two issues in play here that Executive Teams could pay closer attention to: understanding what Vision, Purpose, Strategy, Brand and Business Model really mean and how these components interact; and communicating them in a more compelling way, so that people can believe in them and get behind them.

The V Word…

Vision seems to be becoming fashionable again in corporate circles… Yet there is so much baggage around the term ‘Vision’ it’s sometimes hard to know what actually constitutes an effective Vision Statement. In one classical description of Vision by Collins and Porras around 30 years ago, they identified some core components of a Vision that removed some of the fuzziness around the term. They said that a Vision comprises a Guiding Philosophy (made up of a Core Purpose and Core Values) and a Tangible Image (made up of a BHAG – a Big, Hairy, Audacious Goal – along with a vivid description of the envisioned future).

The Core Ideology is timeless – your reason for being and your values are relatively fixed and immutable. However, the big hairy audacious goal identified in your Tangible Image changes as soon as you have achieved it, so Visions have sell-by dates, and need to be reimagined when the goal has been achieved. So, by preserving the core of the business while simultaneously stimulating progress, the Vision balances both continuity and change.

"Vision is not where you go to but where you come from"

I’d like to offer three perspectives on ‘the V word’ from my own experiences of business transformation

Perspective #1:Vision is not where you go to but where you come from...

The received wisdom about an organisational Vision is that it is a goal ‘out there in the future’ that the business strives towards. The business is not yet where it would like to be in terms of its growth aspirations, so the Executive Team sticks a flag on some Everest 5 years away, that shows everyone where the strategy is pointing. The assumption is that the business is not there yet and has to embark on some Hero’s Journey, slaying monsters along the way, and overcoming trials and tribulations to achieve success. This has always sounded exhausting to me…

However, what if vision is not where you get to, but where you come from? What if the Executive Team does not have to huff and puff to create something aspirational and motivational that does not yet exist, but looks instead within the organisation for examples of existing innovation, forethought and current best practice – and blows on those embers? This more relational perspective on Vision does not exhaust people, but acknowledges home-grown thinking, ‘joins the dots’ between disconnected big ideas, and elevates those responsible for creating pockets of excellence within the operation.

Perspective #2:Vision is not just related to strategy but to the whole enterprise architecture…

The connection between Vision and Strategy should be clear – Vision is Where and strategy is How. Yet many Executive Teams craft strategy without even considering Vision, which has always seemed to me a little like rearranging the deck chairs on The Titanic! Experienced senior leaders grasp how vision is intimately related to Purpose (Why the world needs us) because Vision gives Purpose direction…  Also, Vision is deeply connected to the business model (How we will structure our growth) and to Brand (Who we are at our best, in terms of our promises, values, culture, image and identity). So, Vision gives direction to purpose, momentum to strategy, structure to the business model and energy to the Brand. It is at the heart of the entrepreneurial ecosystem… to work on vision and strategy without also connecting to these other aspects of the enterprise architecture misses something.

Perspective #3: A vision statement is much more than a motivational bumper sticker…

Too often, I have heard Executive Teams try with great sincerity to write a jingle when creating a Vision Statement. Something vacuous results – and disappoints. The essential qualities of a vision are that it should be visual – it should put a picture in the mind’s eye; and it should be visionary – it should make people gasp a little, and wonder if it really is possible… Somehow you have to get people to care, and open their horizons.

Some of the most memorable examples of visions in corporate history are simple statements of audacious intent – for example:

  • Put a man on the moon (NASA)
  • A computer on every desk and in every home (Microsoft)
  • Connect the world (FaceBook)
  • Organise the world’s information (Google)
  • Accelerate the world’s transition to sustainable energy (Tesla)
  • Transportation as reliable as running water for everyone everywhere (Uber)
  • Enable human exploration and settlement on Mars (SpaceX)

There’s nothing insipid or inflated about these statements. They are much more specific and energising than the usual fall-back statement of “Become number 1 in our market”.

Communicating Vision and Strategy…

Noah Yuval Harari, in his scintillating book Sapiens, attributes the rise of human culture to our storytelling abilities. Storytelling brings us together and holds us together because it is central to meaning-making. It is through narrative that our minds explore beliefs, form opinions, land on truths, and gain new perspectives. Great stories have the power to engage, influence, inspire and ignite action. And a Vision and Strategy is the ultimate corporate story because it articulates the organisation’s future state in a richly meaningful way that people can believe in.

“Great stories are about how we change, and in the telling, stories have the potential to change others.”

We can learn a lot from Hollywood about how to tell compelling stories. Look at Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, Game of Thrones… They all describe a journey into the unknown, where jeopardy is faced, supporters pull together against adversity, learning and growth happens, and victory is as much about overcoming your own limitations as about overcoming external trials. If these principles were given more attention and PowerPoint less attention, I suspect Purpose, Vision and Strategy would have more of an impact. Perhaps this is the real utility of a Vision - whether it describes where you come from or where you arrive at, its power as a narrative force that gives meaning to our work and cohesion to our collective efforts, might be where its deeper magic lies?

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