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Strategy and the power of a good story

Liberate yourself through storytelling and take a more exciting approach to planning
Thought Leaders

During the summer of 2009, with coalition troops engaged in fierce fighting, military leaders gathered in a small room in Kabul to hear the strategy to bring the war to an end. Unfortunately the COIN Afghanistan Stabilization Strategy, as it was known, became infamous for all the wrong reasons. An elaborate PowerPoint build culminated in a final slide that caused US military General Stanley McChrystal to declare that “When we understand that slide, we'll have won the war”.  The slide became an overnight viral hit – it even appeared on US talk shows. The problem however wasn't the strategy, or indeed the PowerPoint medium it was presented in, the problem was that the plan lacked one vital element – a story. 

I was reminded of COIN recently as I received a plan from a client. The email attached proudly declared it was a triumph of clarity, focusing on three core issues. What followed were 214 slides of tabulated and bullet point analysis, at the end of which I had no clue as to what the three core issues were. Or more importantly, as his new agency, what he wanted us to do about them!

There is a compelling argument to say that, while not novel, storytelling is now more important than ever

It's surprising that our industry, that has for many years trained its representatives to use stories as a powerful promotional tool, should shy away from them when it comes to its strategic planning process. After all, the strategic plan is the one document we need to ensure is understood by all.

Writing is thinking 
Strategic storytelling is nothing new; 3M has been embracing the concept for over ten years, believing its benefits go beyond that of clear communication. 3M believes that thinking of your plan as a narrative leads to better strategy. Templated, bullet point plans may make it easier to get consistency across a portfolio of brands, but they also lead to formulaic and generic thinking. As Gordon Shaw from 3M states “writing is thinking. Bullets allow us to skip the thinking step, genially tricking ourselves into supposing that we have planned when, in fact, we've only listed some good things to do.”

While storytelling is not exactly novel, there's still a compelling argument to say that it is more important now than ever.  In this era of connectivity, stories are the currency of conversation, and a compelling strategic story can move seamlessly from the plan presentation to connected communities or peer to peer discussions.  Big data, another current obsession, may be great for allowing detailed and complex analysis but it can confuse. In many ways, the bigger the data the more important the narrative.

Planning by narrative is a lot like traditional storytelling 
Planning by narrative is simple; it's a lot like traditional story telling in that you need a beginning, middle and end:

  • The Setting - the plan needs to set the stage, to define the current situation in an insightful, coherent manner
  • The Dramatic Conflict - introduce the dramatic conflict. What challenges does the brand face in this situation? What critical issues stand as obstacles to success?
  • Resolution - the story must reach a convincing resolution. The plan must tell us how the brand can overcome obstacles and win. The conclusion requires a logical, concise argument that is specific to the situation and leads to the desired outcomes.

If you need one final reason to throw away the templates and start storytelling then it should be this. Storytelling is a liberating experience; it's much more exciting to be asked to write a story rather than a strategy.

Article by
Jon Lee

managing director of CDM London

28th November 2013

From: Marketing



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