Less is more when it comes to strategy

What Educating Rita can teach us about how to write a strategy that’s a map not a maze.
An old black and white map that has a tangle of lines and looks like it would be hard to follow

How to write a strategy that’s a map not a maze

There’s this bit in Willy Russell’s play Educating Rita (also a film with Julie Walters and Michael Caine) where Rita, a spunky working class woman on an Open University course, hands in a five-word essay to her stuffy middle class professor. In response to the prompt ‘Suggest how you would resolve the staging difficulties inherent in a production of Ibsen’s Peer Gynt’, Rita writes:

Do it on the radio.

Those five words are enough to answer the question. They show she knows what’s up with the play and provide a solution. But she’s not playing the game. She’s not meeting the word limit and giving a lengthy explanation to back up her answer.

I sometimes think about that bit in the film when I deliver a strategy to a client. I worry that I’m not playing the game and they’ll ask for their money back when I hand over 10–15 slides (in a big font, with pictures, and a lot of white space) as a deliverable rather than a deck with 100 slides.

But strategy isn’t academia. Strategy needs to be simple and memorable to be effective. A five-word strategy? Perfect.

Why? Too often strategy comes packaged in a PowerPoint, with hundreds of slides full of clever words and long sentences. And as a result it’s forgotten or ignored, because who has time for all that?

To keep strategy short, structured and easy to act on, I follow Richard Rumelt’s ‘kernel’ model from Good Strategy/Bad Strategy. When I deliver a strategy, it only has three elements:

  • Diagnosis: a sense-check, describing where we are, where we want to be, and what’s stopping us from getting there
  • Guiding policy: a direction of travel, a simple overview of how we’ll get where we want to be
  • Coherent action: a comprehensive, cohesive list of activities that will get us there

None of this has to be long; in most instances a few lines will do the job. What matters is the narrative. It has to make logical and emotional sense. It should be a kind of equation/story; it should flow, it should add up, it should show your working. It could be as simple as:

Once upon a time there was a company that was x, but wanted to be y. But it couldn’t be because of z.

So the company made a plan. It could become y if it a. To help it a, it would band d.

I find I can often condense a strategy down into a version that fits on a single page. I always include a one-line version too, and try to make it as catchy as possible, because it’s likely that’s all anyone will remember. I haven’t managed a five-word version yet, but give me time.

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