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.

More posts

Learn what content design is, why it matters to third sector organisations, and how to implement it with this comprehensive guide.

From planning and preparation to managing group dynamics, explore the elements of facilitating successful content workshops.

How to deliver the best possible information for our audience without undue harm for the planet.

Like this? Get more, straight to your inbox.

Sign up and get new blog posts emailed to you. Plus, get the 10 Things newsletter: articles, opinions, tools and more curated to spark ideas and make connections for anyone who’s interested in content with purpose. No more than four emails a month. Unsubscribe whenever you like.