I cannot recall where I saw a passage similar to the one you mentioned, but the general idea is:
- Company strategies often fail, and 70% of the time, it’s not because the strategy is bad; it’s because the execution is lacking.
- Moreover, more than half of this 70% execution failure is due to inadequate strategy communication.”
I had my doubts about the accuracy of such statistics and the directional conclusions drawn from them in the past. However, as I’ve worked with more executive teams in training and coaching over the past few years, my belief in these conclusions has grown stronger.
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If you still have doubts, you can conduct a small experiment in your own company: ask several middle and senior managers to independently write down the company’s strategy and see how accurate and consistent their responses are.
Chances are, you will be surprised, and it might even be a bit shocking. In this context, you might find resonance and insight in the fable of “The Swan, the Crawfish, and the Pike” by Ivan Krylov, which you mentioned in your message.
Many top executives and senior leaders often underestimate the importance of strategic communication, overestimate their own strategic communication abilities, and overestimate their subordinates’ alignment and understanding of the strategy.
Without effective communication, alignment, and comprehension, even the best strategy remains a concept limited to a few individuals, and its execution is compromised, or it may not even get off the ground.
Here are some strategies to ensure that strategic communication is on point and that execution yields exceptional results:
First strategy: From Gaseous to Liquid to Solid
Ideas are often like “gases,” elusive and fleeting. When ideas remain in this “gaseous” state, communication between parties relies on vague non-verbal cues.
When expressed verbally, ideas become more “liquid,” taking on fluid forms that can be adapted and shaped as needed. In the “liquid” state, communication involves verbal responses and commitments.
Only when ideas are documented do they become “solid.” In the “solid” state, communication is formalized into written agreements, which can be refined, decomposed, and implemented. Effective strategic communicators are skilled at transforming high-quality ideas (gaseous) into easily understandable statements (liquid) and actionable documents (solid). They can provide simple yet inspiring descriptions of mission, vision, direction, goals, and strategy.
It’s important to note that strategic communication encompasses the communication of mission and vision because these elements underlie the strategy. Engaging in discussions and co-creation around mission and vision, although seemingly abstract and time-consuming, enhances the depth of understanding of the strategy. In cases where the strategy is not entirely clear, focusing on mission and vision can be an effective communication strategy.
Transitioning from a gaseous state to a liquid state and finally to a solid state may require some additional effort and time on the part of the strategic communicator. However, it significantly reduces deviations in conveying strategic intent within the organization and is generally a high-return investment.
Second strategy: Structured Expression and Presentation
Different schools of thought have different definitions of what strategy is.
Michael Porter, known as the “father of competitive strategy,” believes that strategy involves creating a unique and advantageous position. He sees the core task of top-level executives as developing a strategy, defining and communicating the company’s unique position, making strategic trade-offs, and establishing coherence among various business activities.
Another strategy consulting firm defines strategy as “An integrated set of actions that produces value: where to compete, when to compete, how to compete, and why.” In this definition, terms like “establishing coherence” and “integrated set” imply that high-quality strategies need to be presented with a certain level of structure.
Moreover, people tend to remember structured information better than a random list of multiple items.
In this regard, there are many tools available for reference, such as strategy houses, strategy maps, OGSM, and more.
Companies don’t need to reinvent the wheel by developing their own tools each time. Instead, they should focus on choosing the right tool, using it effectively, and filling in the content.
One important reminder here is that once you’ve chosen a strategy expression and presentation tool that suits your needs, stick with it and maintain consistency. Avoid constantly trying new tools; consistency in the use of one tool can be more effective.
Third strategy: Communicate at the “Critical Tasks” Level
In strategic communication, focusing solely on purpose, objectives, strategies, and performance metrics may not be enough. Relying on these elements alone for endorsement and approval may not ensure that the subordinate teams fully understand the strategy.
Effective strategic communication should dig one level deeper into the realm of “critical tasks.”
When setting critical tasks, it’s not advisable for the strategy creators or communicators to dictate them. Instead, the initial draft of critical tasks should come from the strategy recipients or those responsible for executing the strategy, followed by confirmation and alignment with the strategy creators or communicators.
This process of “back-and-forth” ensures that the critical tasks align with the right direction and that the actual execution of the “real strategy” matches the declared “nominal strategy.”
Even core leaders who are not accustomed to involving a broader audience in setting the strategic framework and major goals should consider involving more people in the process of “determining critical tasks.” This approach enables a minimal level of co-creation.
Fourth strategy: Repeat Important Things 21 Times
Why 21 times? There is no scientific basis behind this number, but it’s a piece of wisdom I learned from a successful CEO. He led a company to achieve a four-fold increase in market value in just ten years. He came from a military family background, had a strong masculine demeanor, was decisive and to the point in his communication, never wasting words.
However, in the communication of important matters like strategy, he had a mantra: “Repeat important things 21 times.” He didn’t just say it; he practiced it.
Jack Welch, in his book “Winning,” emphasized that a CEO is not only a Chief Executive Officer but also a Chief Explaining Officer. He believed that every employee invests 40 hours of their workweek into the company, and this is a form of investment. Therefore, a CEO should continually explain what the company is doing and why, just as they would explain to investors. Repeating the same message hundreds of times may seem repetitive to you, but for many others, it may be the first time they’re hearing it.
Furthermore, “repeating important things 21 times” serves not only the needs of the strategy’s audience but also the needs of the communicator. Some people “think with their mouths,” and the process of repeatedly saying something allows them to continuously reflect and iterate, thereby improving the quality of the strategy over time.
After reading these four strategies, you’ll realize that to prevent a strategy from becoming a mere “daydream” of a few, and to ensure effective strategic communication with doubled execution effectiveness, you don’t need any “high-tech” solutions. What’s required is simple, practical effort – the so-called “dumb work.” Business management often follows this principle; by mastering the basics, taking root, and patiently waiting for growth, you can turn business growth into a function of time and make your strategy a friend of time.