Scatterwork guest: How do we Talk about Strategy?

Should we change the way we talk about strategy?

Most people don’t understand strategy. It may sound obvious but the reason why many strategies are never realized is that most people in large organizations don’t understand what the strategy means, even if they know of its existence.

Senior managers assume that their employees understand them when they talk about strategy. Unfortunately this is rarely the case and indeed strategies are often articulated in a way that makes them impossible to deliver.

My name’s Jonathan Norman. I published nearly 120 books on projects and programs for Gower Publishing and I wanted to talk to you about the subject of strategy.

Have a look at some of your current strategies. If they aren’t as effective as they could be, it may well be because they’re written in a language which is far too vague and fails to understand the role of the users in the equation.

Or perhaps on the other hand they are hugely detailed and run into pages of documents so that even the most enthusiastic employees
struggle to see the wood for the trees.

I have used the ideas in Phil Driver’s Validating Strategies to highlight some of the most common problems associated with the way we talk about strategy.

Exploratory Verbs:

Words such as explore, investigate and address are exploratory words. They are useful in early-stage high-level aspirational strategies when the main work essentially involves framing and sense-making the opportunity that the strategy will endeavor to see.

But as strategies move from the aspirational to the more operational, they are of much less value and can signal a delaying tactic to avoid taking concrete action. And using further reviews or investigations to give an impression of useful activity.

Improvement Verbs

Because they point to the need for change but their main shortcoming is that they provide no indication of how that change will be implemented. Think of words like enhance, improve, increase and consolidate. These are all words in this category and all require more specific action-oriented verbs as well as measurable targets before
they can be used at an operational level.

Certainty Verbs

Certainty verbs appear to convey confidence that the strategy will have the desired effect but they are generally illusory. One of the most popular of these verbs is “ensure”. However comforting the word, there is no such project action as “ensure”. Organizations may take actions which have a high likelihood of producing the desired result but they cannot ensure that the community will use the outcome nor can they ensure the benefit.

Collaboration Project Verbs: Collaborate, cooperate, engage have become popular as words in recent years, particularly in the public sector where there’s been a belief that
collaboration, cooperation and engaging are universally good things. This means that they often appear in strategy documents with little indication why they will add value to a strategy or how they will be applied in its implementation or development.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the repeated theme in all of this language involves
exaggerated claims for certainty, outcomes and benefits of projects that will deliver the strategy. It’s only human nature to express confidence and show a tolerance for risk and uncertainty. None of this language is wrong or bad in itself. The danger lies in the meaning that’s intended.

Now this communicates a strategy to stakeholders and strategies that
misuse this language create an environment for projects that are challenge before they’ve even started.

Thank you for listening.

Dr. Deasún Ó Conchúir (pronounce) is a Collaboration Consultant at Scatterwork, which supports Project Solutions for Virtual Teams.


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