I am listening to, “Originals: How non-conformists move the world” by Wharton School professor Adam Grant in Audible. In that book, he analyses some of the leaders who made a significant contribution to the world that we live in today. He had picked up anecdotes from different periods which makes it even more exciting.
He analyses Martin Luther King Jr’s famous, “I have a dream” speech. It is one of the path-breaking moments in American history. It is referenced in several leadership communication sessions for how to communicate a vision that has a clear call to action and galvanizes people.
But, Dr.King didn’t utter the “dream” word for the better part of his speech, and it was his friend Mahalia Jackson who shouted from behind, “Tell them about the dream, Martin!”. And the rest, as we know, is history.
This speech is an example of how compelling a strategic narrative can be when it is specific it motivates, engages and connects people to a higher purpose. Great leaders use narratives during crisis communication to deliver key message. In business, it is about communicating a company’s strategy or vision in a way that employees can connect their jobs to the overall vision of their company.
Often, companies spend millions in coming up with a strategy once in a few years, and they spend an insane amount of effort to craft customer communications. But how often, the same importance is given to communicate the strategy to their employees?
A typical organization might do an offsite for senior management, few workshops for their top managers across regions. But beyond that?
And, then some bland internal communications emails would be sent to all employees about what is the new vision, which goes something like this.
To be the most efficient service provider on the earth or World-class customer service or To be the preferred partner to world’s leading blah blah blah
To a frontline employee or a mid-level manager, what does To be the most efficient service provider on the earth mean?
How Good is Your Strategy?
According to management thinkers Chip Heath and Dan Heath, “A strategy is, at its core, a guide to behaviour. It comes to life through its ability to influence thousands of decisions, both big and small, made by employees throughout an organization.”
For employees of SouthWest airlines, it could mean deciding on what to be served to passengers on board – peanuts or a chicken salad. Their next question will be, will serving a chicken salad help us become the low-fare airline in this route? If not, then they are not serving that salad.
A good strategy delivers financial success and drives action that differentiates a company in that specific industry. But a bad strategy can result in less differentiation and drag the company down.
When sitting down to formulate a strategy, every leadership team aspires to come up with a great strategy that could deliver them differentiation in the market and inspire their employees to act. It doesn’t happen always.
Strategies may be powerful in a PowerPoint document or on the walls of the organization or in the leadership speeches. Still, if they do not manifest in action, they are inert and irrelevant.
What differentiates a vision statement from being just on the wall to something that inspires people to act is a compelling narrative. A narrative essentially inspires and moves people to act. It is more than off-the-cuff spontaneous storytelling, but a clear and consistent story in every discussion about vision and strategy be it with the leadership team or an employee town hall.
One of the main reason that strategies don’t stick with a broader audience is the way it is communicated, and the prime culprit for the same is leadership’s curse of knowledge.
Curse of Knowledge
Most of us might have experienced this at some point in time in our career. As people move up the ladder, the curse of knowledge afflicts leaders when they try to communicate a strategy to the rest of the organization. It leads executives to talk about strategy as though they were the audience.
When someone uses high-level and abstract matter, you can say that the curse of knowledge afflicts them. The bigger problem is that they are not even aware that they are speaking abstractly.
One can overcome the curse of knowledge by using stories, as it helps to demystify concrete language.
FedEx has an award called Purple Promise which honours employees for making sure FedEx’s delivery promise that packages will “absolutely and positively” arrive overnight.
When a delivery truck broke down in New York, and the replacement van was running late, the FedEx driver after having delivered few packages on foot realized that he might not deliver the other packages on time. But he managed to convince a driver from a competitor to take him on the last few deliveries.
Now this story can be used by a top sales executive to convey, “this is how FedEx employees take the delivery promise seriously”. A new delivery driver can use this story to guide her behaviour that it is not about working from 9 to 5, but it is about getting the packages delivered come what may. The same story could be used by a procurement person to negotiate better maintenance contracts such as the fastest possible maintenance/replacement vehicles for delivery trucks.
Communicating the Strategic Narrative
A strategic narrative is best represented by contrasting the current situation with the promised land. It is a structure that inspiring leaders have used in their speech to inspire, influence and act. This is what Martin Luther King Jr did in his speech as well as Steve Jobs used that in his iPhone launch in 2007.
It consists of four parts,
- In the past…..
- Then something happened….
- So now….. and
- In the future….
It addresses the, “Why.”
So, when a sales leader wants to pitch to VP-customer care on their solution, it could go like this.
With one of our clients, their prepaid telecom customers had to wait for 12 minutes before they could speak to the call centre executives, this resulted in bad customer experience, and customers started dropping off their network. Then the client implemented a customer agent intelligence solution that predicts the call volumes of a day and assigns call centre agents by which the customer’s waiting time is reduced to under 1 minute. Now customers are happy, which is resulting in more referral business.
Stories that speak to an organization’s strategy have two parts. The story itself and the moral of the story. It is nice to have both, but if one must choose between the two, choose the story. Because the moral is implicit in the story, but the story is not implied in the moral. And the story with its concrete language, specific protagonists and the real-world setting is more likely to guide behavior.
By using a clever mix of stories and concrete language, leaders can overcome the curse of knowledge and everyone in the organization stands to benefit from a shared understanding of the strategy.