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How We're Going to Get There (A Strategy Story)

This lesson is a part of an audio course 10 Stories Great Leaders Tell by Paul Andrew Smith

A strategy is a set of choices about how you’re going to get from where you are now to where you want to be. In other words, a strategy is a journey. And what better way to describe a journey than a story? Here’s a creative example I came across.

The cough cold industry is a seasonal business. You know, the overwhelming majority of cold medicines and cough syrups, and facial tissues are sold either in the winter cold season or the spring allergy season. And like a lot of businesses, there’s usually one dominant brand and then a distant second, and third place brand.

Well, one year all the employees at one of those second-place brands got to work one morning to find something unexpected on their desks. A copy of what looked like an article from the Wall Street Journal, except it wasn’t really a journal article. It was just a memo designed to look like one. And strangely, the date at the top was six years in the future. And the title was how David beat Goliath.

And here’s the gist of what it said. It introduced a guy named Vivek whose 12-year-old daughter had just signed up to play basketball on a team with a bunch of girls, who’d never played the game and who had no coach. Now he knew they didn’t have much of a chance of winning a game even with a coach and none without. So he volunteered.

They ended up in the national championships.

How? They changed the game. Instead of conventional basketball, they ran a full-court press every game, all the time. Now, why did that work? It worked because when you’re the underdog, letting your opponent play the game that they trained for is a sure path to losing. Vivek’s opponents had very little practice against a full-court press. And when they did get the ball close enough to the goal to make a play, they were too exhausted to run to their play.

And that’s exactly what the second-tier brand in the cough cold category did that year. They took a play right out of Vivek’s playbook. Instead of only running ads during cough, cold, and allergy season, they started advertising twelve months a year. The ground they picked off-peak gave them a head start the next peak season. They also stopped marketing their brands as only good for colds and allergies. For example, you can use facial tissues to remove makeup or wipe away tears, not just blow your nose.

And while most brands market their products exclusively to women, they started advertising to men also. All those new users and new buyers grew their market share even more. Well, the final line in the article said that after five years of executing these strategies, this distant little second-place brand had just overtaken the dominant brand in market share, for the first time in its 50-year history. David 37%, Goliath 36%. And then at the bottom of the article, was a handwritten note that said, “Thanks for everything you did to achieve these amazing results,” signed by the boss.

Now, yes, because it was dated in the future, you could consider this a visual story. But make no mistake, this was a strategy story. It explained each piece of the brand’s strategy and why each one would work, using layman’s terms, a brilliant analogy, and an inspiring story. Well, by the afternoon, people all over the office had pinned that article to their cubicle walls, because for the first time, they finally understood the strategy in a way that they could understand, appreciate, and most importantly, execute. A well-crafted strategy story can do the same for you.

So, to try this particular execution, pick a date in the future by which your strategy should have worked. And then write what amounts to a newspaper or a magazine article, looking back at your success. And include all the metrics of success, like revenues, and profits, and market share whatever, and describe each component of your strategy, in terms of how it played out and how it impacted your business results versus your competitors.

Now, you certainly don’t need to use a sports analogy, and it doesn’t have to be a story looking back from the future. It can just be a hypothetical story delivered in the present tense, starting with, “Imagine this,” and then follow that with the journey to take you where you want to go. And that becomes your strategy story.

Okay, in the next lesson, we’ll talk about a corporate values story.

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Written by

Paul Andrew Smith