Achieving strategic alignment – Communicating strategy with story part 3

Posted by  Mark Schenk —May 11, 2015
Filed in Business storytelling

Today’s post is part three of a transcript from my recent interview on Lianne Picot’s radio show where we talked about communicating strategy with story, and the anti-stories that can affect changes that you’re trying to make in your business.

Lianne’s show is called ‘Story Powered™’ which is a platform for talking about all things story. Every week, Lianne chats with experts from around the world and asks them to share their expertise and experience in story powered leadership, employee engagement and business development.

You can listen to ‘Story Powered™’ every Tuesday at 1pm Eastern Time/10 AM Pacific Time on the VoiceAmerica Business channel.

Dolphins in alignment

In part 2 of this series, we delved a little deeper into  ‘story’ and the art of business storytelling, story listening and what we call story triggering.

In this post we’re going to really get into talking about a new strategy, or communicating a new way of doing business, which is one of the most important and most challenging things a business can do.

The podcast continues…


Welcome back, it’s Story Powered and I’m Lianne Picot, your host and I’m chatting with Mark Schenk of Anecdote in Australia. Before the break we had a great conversation. Mark was telling us his story about how he ended up being a story strategist, or consultant, and it reminded me of the journey that we all take and the richness of the number of stories that we have in our lives. It’s funny, whenever I work with leaders and say, “I don’t have any stories to tell.” It’s just impossible because we have so many rites of passage and so many different things that we’ve experienced.

Now, we’re going to really get into talking about strategy and introducing a new strategy, or communicating a new way of doing business, it’s one of the most important and most challenging things a business can do. Mark, tell us why story and storytelling is such an important tool for communicating strategy, please.

What are the challenges organisations face regarding strategy?


I guess it starts with understanding some of the challenges that many organisations face regarding strategy.

Kaplan and Norton, sort of household names, they developed the balanced score card. As part of their development of the balanced score card they looked at organisations and strategy, and their summary was that 95% of people in organisations don’t know the strategy. So that was in about 2005. It’s a scary, scary figure.

There was some research published in late 2011 and it was with 450 companies, a global study, and its summary was that 80% of people in organisations don’t know the strategy. It got better; it went from 95% down to 80%.

It’s a little bit better, but whichever research you subscribe to, the point is that it’s an horrendous indictment of how strategy is communicated. It’s really hard for people to buy in strategically if they don’t what the strategy is.

Since the seventies, people have talked about how organisations who could achieve this thing called strategic alignment are much more effective than those that don’t. Strategic alignment is simply where everyone in the organisation is aligned to the strategy.

It’s really hard for organisations to achieve strategic alignment if their people don’t know the strategy. So, why is it that strategy isn’t well communicated?

1. We communicate strategy in ambiguous terms

The first reason is that we tend to communicate strategy in extremely ambiguous terms. For example “we’re going to strategically align the organisation to take advantage of the merging market opportunities by becoming far more customer centric…” – I can go on!

Impressive sounding words that are highly ambiguous are part of the problem – when human beings are presented with something that’s ambiguous, we tell ourselves a story to explain it. The difficulty with ambiguity, when you communicate strategy in ambiguous terms, is that there are many different possible interpretations of what you mean.

Instead of achieving strategic alignment, we achieve the opposite. We cause people to spear off and completely go in a direction based on their interpretation of the strategy, so it’s the opposite of strategic alignment. That’s the first reason.


Also, I was just thinking that’s amazing because not only are you not achieving your goal of communicating the strategy, you’re actively creating the creation of so many stories that no one is clear.


That’s exactly right, so you sort of get the reverse affect. Ambiguity is a key reason that strategies aren’t communicated very well.

2. We focus on the ‘what’ instead of the ‘why’

The second reason that strategy is not communicated particularly well is because we tend to focus on the ‘what.’ A lot of strategies that I see are not actually strategies, they’re strategic plans. They’re lists of things that the organisation needs to do; it’s the ‘what,’ and there’s a little bit of ‘how.’ But there is very little of the ‘why’.

Have you listened to Simon Sinek, TEDx, talk on the importance of ‘why’?

Essentially, human beings crave ‘why’ and unless we know why it’s very hard for us to make sense of the details. There’s been some fabulous experiments done over the years that show that these people, if they understand the ‘why,’ – so why are we doing what we’re doing? – if they understand that first, then their comprehension of it and their retention of it is dramatically increased. We’ve got to lead with ‘why,’ and often with strategy we don’t, we lead with ‘what.’


Actually, I’m totally a ‘why’ person and whenever I’ve led organisations or other people, that’s the first thing to do in my mind. However, looking at a culture incorporations of the ‘what,’ which is to do as you’re told; and, not all companies, I don’t want to generalise too much, but for a very long time we’ve been in factory mode and, you know, “This is your task, you do this, if you do it well, you will be rewarded.”

I’m just wondering how, in terms of when you’re going into companies that have that kind of culture, or have had a history of that culture. How do you work with them to understand that the ‘why’ is so crucial?

How do you help organisations to understand that the ‘why’ is crucial?


There are some very simple demonstrations, simple ways to demonstrate how ‘why’ is very important.  Our philosophy is that you have to give people the gist, the big picture before the details, and so that the gist is the ‘why.’

There was an experiment published in 1972 that has a very simple example of this. People are asked to read a process description and it starts off ‘The procedure is actually quite simple. First you gather things into piles and then you sort them. It’s important to know at this point that it’s better to do fewer things than too many things…’ The description goes on like this for a paragraph.

Then they ask people to read the paragraph and they ask them what the paragraph is describing and what the process is. The vast majority of people don’t get it. It is a meaningless bunch of words.

The paragraph is actually describing the process of doing the laundry and so the research that was done in 1972, showed that if you tell someone in advance that it is about doing the laundry, they actually think it makes a lot of sense so there’s good comprehension and there’s a high degree of recall of that paragraph.


I’m thinking that they’re able to attach the process to an overall rationale, right? Without the overall picture, they’re grasping at trying to connect it to something in their brains that it’s not connecting to?


Absolutely, by telling them in advance that it’s about the laundry, you’ve given them a framework, you’ve given them a context within which all the detail can then be assembled and make sense.

There was a second group of people who were told afterwards that it was about doing the laundry, and there was a third group that weren’t told it was about the laundry at all. The interesting part of the research is that the people who were told that it was about doing the laundry after they’d read the paragraph had very little comprehension and recall, almost the same as the people who were never told it was about the laundry.

What that research demonstrates is that we need to give people the ‘why’ up front. You need to explain the big picture and only then go into the details. What happens in business is we’re busy. We want to get to the details, we want to get to the point, so we rush though the details without giving people the big picture and that’s when the audience are sitting there going, “Wow, that was an hour of my life I’ll never get back.”


Absolutely. Now I’m going to be a leader and I’m going to talk about the ‘why’ and I’m going to tell everybody that the ‘why’ is because we didn’t make enough money last year and we need to make more money this year. What do you think about that?

Why do we do what we do?


That’s not a particularly inspiring ‘why,’ because it’s really not about what the purpose of the business is, so the money thing, that’s an outcome. You need to go back to what’s the purpose of the business. Why do we do what we do?

For example, last week I was in a beautiful resort in the southern Philippines and I was working with a leadership team. I was there to work with them to convert their strategy into a strategic story.

When I arrived, I was an observer for the first two hours of the meeting on Thursday morning where they talked about what they’d agreed to the day before. It was a classic example of people talking in highly ambiguous terms. I sat there for two hours. I heard lots of people having very strong opinions about different things, but I had no idea what their strategy was or what they’d decided they day before; and I’m serious. I’m there and I go “Wow! I’ve got no idea what their strategy is or even what they’re debating.”


Because they’re wordsmithing rather than the ‘why’ right? Because at some point when you’re talking about stuff like that, you end up concentrating too much on the words.


Absolutely, and not on the meaning. We went through the process of – we have a narrative structure which I’ll explain to you and I’ll share with your listeners in the third segment that just forces you – it’s a simple narrative structure that just forces you to provide the context first, and so we went through that process.

A day later when we’re, again having a discussion about the strategy, it was remarkable how there was a huge amount of alignment about what the strategy was and what they were  trying to achieve, but the discussion was much more concrete.

People were able to talk specifics, share specific examples and the quality of the conversation was dramatically improved and they began to – the people in the room – have a shared understanding of what their strategy was.


Oh, nice and that makes a big difference.


Simply by forcing them to put their strategy into this narrative structure.


Yeah, that makes sense. Because if they can’t co-create a shared story then they can’t communicate it. That’s brilliant and I love that example because we spend all this time, and I’ve been guilty of it too, just trying to come up with the right word, the exact right word.

Because if I come up with that word it’ll make all the difference, and like you say, often there’s a disconnect. In that disconnect when we’re communicating strategy, there are 80 or 95% of the people in the room creating their own stories.

In Part 4 we’re going to talk anti-stories and how powerful they are.

You can listen to the full podcast below:

Mark Schenk About  Mark Schenk

Mark works globally with senior leadership teams to improve their ability to communicate clearly and memorably. He has been a Director of Anecdote since 2004 and helped the company grow into one of the world’s leading business storytelling consultancies. Connect with Mark on:

Leave a Reply