A great strategy is a great story. And, like all great stories, there are classic elements which, when expertly crafted, evolve a good plan into a great strategy.
I love mythology and epic storytelling. Through my study of storytelling, I have discovered the similarities between it and the development of great strategy. In the Hero’s Journey by Joseph Campbell, Campbell sets out a classic blueprint to structure an epic story. This structure has been used on numerous occasions, most notably by George Lucas in the development of Star Wars.
The basic structure includes a beginning where a dilemma gets presented to a seemingly ordinary individual destined for glory (our hero), the destination or the special world “the hero” is called on to manifest and finally, the journey. The journey is the path the hero must take to move the ordinary world to the extraordinary world where the dilemma is masterfully resolved. (Well, resolved until the sequel!)
A great strategy has these same elements and should capture the imagination, but how do you build your epic strategy story?
I find that although many have the raw materials for a great strategy, they lack the understanding of how to work with these materials. In fact, many are completely overwhelmed at the thought of starting strategy development and call on strategic planning consulting firms to help. Yet, many avoid strategy development altogether and opt to focus on incremental (year over year) planning or take the DIY approach. Neither method produces strategic thinking that propels their organizations to epic new levels of performance.
Here are the three core elements to build your epic strategy.
- The dilemma: your strategic assessment. A strategic assessment is the first element of your strategy; it should set the stage for your epic journey. It is a mix of the facts and realities of your current state as well as key factors identified during the exploration of the broader context in which you operate. This new information provided by your exploration may not be well understood or may get overlooked during the ordinary rigor of the day-to-day. But, just like a great storyteller, you need to take the time to fully articulate the current state and give clues to what might be ahead. In your strategic assessment, these clues are the basis of your dilemma or the strategic issues to be resolved by your planning effort.
- The special world you are called to manifest: your vision. Your vision defines an ideal destination and should motivate stakeholders to make it a reality, in effect transferring the hero persona to all. This shared vision provides a picture of what it will be like when you arrive and defines the shift or transformation ahead. Like the challenge set to Luke Skywalker, it must be aspirational and a bit intimidating (if not downright scary to those most comfortable with the status quo). Finally, it should set the tone for the journey
- Your hero’s journey: your strategic direction. Simply put, your strategic direction is how you plan to transform over time. It is the path you intend to take and explains why it is the best way to go. Like the wisdom shared by Obi-Wan Kenobi to Luke, it defines the big milestones of the quest, but it does not tell every detail of the journey. The details (annual operating plans) are filled in as you focus on each successive milestone on the path. The critical part here is to establish milestones to complete the journey so it can be envisioned rather than leave huge gaps between where you are now and your vision. It should stimulate imagination and commitment to the future. You capture hearts with a compelling vision, but you activate the body with a strategic direction that provides milestones for the body to move towards.
Structuring your strategic planning process with these core elements of an epic story will deepen your thinking and leverage the great material you already have to propel your organization forward.