How to pull a strategy together with a story

This post is by Shawn Callahan – Founder of Anecdote, a management consulting firm that uses its expertise in story to inspire enduring change.

Last week I flew to Vienna to help a pharmaceutical company develop their strategy. It was a two day event.

We used the first day to explore their current situation and past by, among other things, creating a massive visual history across one wall. We delved into the important events that have shaped them and the lessons they’ve learned so far. We looked at the challenges they faced and told stories of how these challenges were really impacting their work.

For me this is the foundation for any strategy. The executives need to know and share the problems and opportunities they want to tackle. They need to get talking and make some real choices.

Strategy with story

On the second day we focused on the future. I stepped them through a visualisation to get them out of their heads and then we shared stories of where the future was already happening in their business.

We call these Gibson stories inspired by William Gibson who is reported to have said: “the future is already here, it’s just unevenly distributed.”

This idea of finding things that work and then work out ways to do more of it certainly appeals as it avoids the dreaded problem spiral (if you look for problems you will find them) which can drain the energy from even the most upbeat group.

Towards the end of the second day we had things on every wall: purpose statement, goals, illustrations of a desired future, strategic themes. You can imagine that the participants might feel a little punch drunk by this stage as each new idea smacks them about the head.

Then we finally we pulled it all together with a strategic story. I’m always amazed by the effect. All of a sudden everything falls into place for them. It has meaning. It’s something they can now explain to others.

I like to finish a workshop by getting everyone in a circle and just asking, “so how do you feel right now? Not what you think, but how do you feel?”

For many they felt energised and a sense of accomplishment. They all admitted to feeling a little confused half way through and wondered how it would come together. I warned them they would.

For others they wanted to get to the next step and work out the plan. For me I wanted them to keep their strategic conversation going because no matter how good a two day event might be it’s often the beginning of the decisions they have to make.

Executives need time to let the possibilities sink in. But it’s far better to make some real decisions, put them into action, learn from experience and adjust moving forward.

Is your business developing strategy using story? Interested to hear your experiences. Please share with a comment.

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About Shawn Callahan

Shawn is a pioneer in the application of story methods to business and has helped some of the world’s top companies, including IBM, Shell, AMP and KPMG, to inspire lasting change and make sure their company values really stick. He regularly publishes his world-leading ideas on anecdote.com.au, one of Australia’s most visited blogs.
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