The Secret to Great Strategy (Hint: Make It a Story)

The best strategies are stories.

Think about how your organization’s strategic plans are usually delivered. A list of OKRs. A SWOT analysis. A series of bulleted goals. 

They intend to keep everyone aligned on its objectives, but the result? They don’t stick.

Strategies in these formats are woefully forgettable. They feel disconnected from the actual work. People rarely reference them again after they’re delivered. 

But what if you could make them memorable? 

Try this: Tell a story.

“This is where we are today. This is where we want to end up. And these are the adventures we're going to experience along the way. These are the landmarks we’ll visit and the stops we’ll make. There'll be highs, and there’ll be lows. But it will be quite the journey culminating at this destination.”

Now, just insert a few details specific to your organization and its vision, and, poof, your strategy is now an unforgettable story.

Roger L. Martin has written about this concept for the Harvard Business Review, and his approach is even simpler: When writing your story, just make it happy.

He writes: “It doesn’t have to be right, and it doesn’t even have to be sensible. … It doesn’t have to be constructed analytically. The only real requirement is that it be a happy, aspirational story.”

Once you’ve written it, he continues, you can deploy the most critical question in strategy. Ask: “What would have to be true?”

What I love about this method is that everyone can then tell a version of the story—working backward from a winning possibility to what it would take from them to get there—in their own, individualized way. It’s a single narrative with everyone’s story written on top and in the margins. 

And it’s one you’ll tell over and over and over again. Like the very best stories, it’s a strategy you can’t possibly forget.

— Charlene

What I Can’t Stop Talking About: 

  • The all-time best episode of Star Trek. I recently rewatched the 1989 episode “The Measure of a Man,” in which a captain wants to disassemble Data, an android, to study him. It calls into question the rights of AI agents: Are they considered property or sentient beings? Such a fascinating concept to debate. In fact, there’s a lively conversation about it happening in my LinkedIn comments here!

  • The double standard facing women leaders. I can’t tell you the amount of times my partners, most of whom were men, would tell me I was too “bossy” (that other b-word has certainly come up, too!) after a meeting or presentation. Yet I’d take the feedback to heart. I’d quiet my voice, find a way to be heard without offending. I bet you can guess what they said next. “You’re too … nice.” Sadly, this double standard hasn’t improved much since my days waffling between being labeled a “dragon lady” or a pushover. In my coaching practice, my clients who are women of color bring this issue up constantly. Do you deal with this, too?

  • The power of subtle translations. I’ve been having fun translating my content into different spoken languages with generative AI. But this post by Dan Shipper discusses the ability of ChatGPT to make “subtle” translations—for example, translating start-up founder speak into the language of venture capital. He writes, “Subtle translations allow people from different walks of life, in different parts of the economy, to communicate and coordinate efforts. They break down barriers that would normally take months or years of effort to break down.” Think about how many times you’ve been misunderstood, how the ability to phrase something in a subtly different way could have made all the difference to be seen and understood. I’m looking forward to having a universal translator that can not only bridge languages, but also generations, genders, races, and social-economic strata.

My Latest: 

  • How AI can revolutionize your marketing game. Top marketing and communications leaders can take generative AI’s potential well beyond the basics—and actually transform their customer relationships. Watch my latest livestream or read my LinkedIn newsletter for my advice on how to get the most out of technology.

  • Why AI is an indispensable thought partner for CEOs. Executives who aren’t using AI will fail. That was one of the boldest takeaways from my recent conversation with Coursera CEO Jeff Maggioncalda.. In Leading Disruption, I share more of his invaluable insights—including all the ways he uses AI before most people even wake up in the morning! 

  • Using values to guide your decisions. “Let’s look to our values to help us think through this” is something no top leader says, ever. But we should be letting our values guide our decisions. For advice on how to find alignment with these foundational values, tune in to my next livestream on Tuesday, Feb. 6 at 9 a.m. PT / 12 p.m. ET on LinkedIn and Facebook Live.

  • AI Ethics with Olivia Gambelin. It’s not enough to know what responsible AI is. We need to collectively learn how to be responsible AI practitioners. One of the women leading this charge is ethicist Olivia Gambelin, the founder and CEO of AI advisory firm Ethical Intelligence. I’ll be discussing the practical application of ethics to technological innovation in an upcoming livestream on Tuesday, Feb. 13. Save the date!

My Upcoming Appearances:

If you are interested in having me speak at an upcoming event or to your executive team, please drop me at note at [email protected]

Thank you for subscribing to the Disruption Dispatch, which goes out to thousands of disruptors every other week to help you on your disruption journey—plus a curated recommendation list of a few Good Things I’m enjoying. 

Want more? Check out my weekly publication, Leading Disruption, on LinkedIn.

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Charlene Li

If you found this note helpful, please forward and share it with someone who needs the inspiration today. If you were forwarded this, please consider subscribing.