Overlooking Communication: Why Strategists Are Missing a Trick

Strategists often wait too long to invest in communication, and as a result they often miss multiple opportunities to make strategy development more productive, notes this opinion piece by Mark Leiter and Jeff Pundyk. Leiter is chairman of Leiter & Company, a strategy consulting and investment firm, and author of the book, Crafting Strategy in an Accelerating World. Pundyk is the former publisher of The McKinsey Quarterly and also led the Thought Leadership team at The Economist.

Executives crafting strategy often miss a powerful trick — instead of making communication a top priority throughout the entire strategy development journey, they typically focus on communication only as they approach the final stages of their work.

This may have worked when things moved slower. With every passing year, however, the available “time to decision” is shrinking while executives are buried in a daily communication avalanche. Cutting through the clutter requires strategic content that is crisp, compelling and inspiring at every point in the strategy process and beyond.

As the lines between strategy and operations continue to blur in an accelerating world, communication all too often sits apart — considered the last mile between the strategy team and the broader world. Those strategists who invest more attention in communication throughout the process are dramatically more effective and efficient practitioners; they gain back precious time in a fast-moving world while raising their influence — and their strategy is far more likely to be well understood and well executed as a result.

And, if the strategic work at hand is grounded in robust analysis, creative leaps or logical reasoning — to name just three core tools of the trade — each underlying piece of the strategy puzzle lives or dies as a result of amazing or lackluster communication.

Strategic communication should be viewed as much more than that 100-page strategy presentation followed by an even longer appendix, or that annual shareholder letter distilling key aspects of the strategy for the broader world. Rather, it can help shape better strategic decisions, accelerate their execution, and more easily re-package the core thinking as thought leadership.

“Strategic communication …  can help shape better strategic decisions, accelerate their execution, and more easily re-package the core thinking as thought leadership.”

The real action in developing strategy revolves around the many discussions and debates that ultimately drive strategic decisions. Throughout, compelling content fuels the process — clarifying insights based on knowledge, consolidating strategic direction, and ultimately inspiring and aligning various stakeholders through implementation.

Those who think about strategy and communication holistically can more readily elevate team conversations, showcase new market insights, reframe debates that inspire new ideas, and gain faster and stronger alignment around important decisions. Most importantly, they recognize that every day presents an opportunity to create the “building blocks” that can both move the process forward and become the basis for thought leadership that supports the strategy.

Five Strategic Communication Opportunities

In our work across numerous organizations we have identified five ways that communication can elevate and enhance the strategy development process:
(1) Central Questions; (2) Foundational Knowledge; (3) Core Concepts; (4) Touchstone Narratives; and (5) Thought Leadership.

Central Questions: Great strategy work starts with great questions. Meticulously framing central strategic questions allows teams to reflect on where the organization is headed, and how that might change. The more sensitive the topic, the more important it is to pick the right words. Probing known third-rail issues with the CEO or CFO can be a particularly delicate task.

Imagine you work in the wealth management sector. Asking your colleagues, “Will advances in artificial intelligence change the future of portfolio management?” is different than asking, “Can we utilize artificial intelligence to help our private bankers make better portfolio allocation decisions?”

These are similar questions, but subtle differences can drive very different strategic discussions. Framing questions in just the right way is a natural entry point for strategy teams to start bringing communication experts under the strategy tent, gaining their counsel while also briefing them on what’s ahead.

Foundational Knowledge: The ongoing synthesis of knowledge includes how we share and express our history, basic beliefs, research, facts, information and analysis. There are thousands of different ways to tell a story. In a world of small and big data that expands every year on every dimension, the ability to distill dynamic knowledge about the industry and business draws on a wide range of communication skills.

Imagine you are operating in the global energy sector and must frame the current and future energy needs of India. The key task is showcasing what’s happening in India in a way that enables the team to codify their “mental map” of how the market is operating and evolving. However, long before you start pondering clever infographics, you must frame and connect knowledge in a way that creates an impactful, memorable story.

“Meticulously framing central strategic questions allows teams to reflect on where the organization is headed, and how that might change.”

Core Concepts: These are higher-order communications that become important assets to focus strategic discussions. This often includes how we construct discrete ideas, frameworks, scenarios, options, choices, aspirations and goals. How we choose to design and position a key concept can have enormous influence on how the audience engages and reacts to our thesis.

Consider frameworks. Literally anyone can draw a 2×2 matrix — and the 2×2 is only one of more than 100 different types of frameworks that strategists use in their work. In this case, the heavy lifting in the 2×2 matrix is figuring out exactly how to define and articulate the two dimensions; deciding how to position the four cells with the right, pithy definitions; and then determining the best way to bring each cell to life.

From afar, it looks simple — but great, enduring frameworks are built on a foundation of logic and communication. If the framework comes across as intuitive and elegant, you can be assured that hours of discussion and debate went into the design process.

Touchstone Narratives: All through the strategy development process we pose and answer questions using finely crafted knowledge and concepts as input to constructing strategic narratives. Sophisticated, synthetic narratives become the focus of strategic discussions and debates.

This is where great strategists practically become litigators and must “prosecute the case” to support their recommendations. In fact, the best strategists are equally adept at making a case based on evidence and emotion to sway the jury — where the jury is the leadership team accountable for decisions and investments. In a world where any organization has dozens of possible futures, the winning vision and strategy paints a future that is simultaneously attractive, viable and exciting to the team.

It becomes much easier and faster to assemble these narratives when you have first crafted a foundation of high-quality knowledge and concepts. Too often, teams fail when they set out to write their strategy presentation and they haven’t first made sure each component is communicated in a way that quickly expresses the core thoughts.

Thought Leadership: Ultimately, strategy is meaningless without execution. Leadership teams need to endorse the strategy, including the board of directors when it rises to corporate strategy. The entire organization needs to understand the vision and their role in making it come to life. The market needs to understand where the organization is headed, and that includes customers, shareholders, alliance partners and journalists. Real engagement comes from sharing an inspiring vision that raises everyone’s energy level.

This is all thought leadership.

Remember those central questions? They are often the same questions keeping your customers up at night. Remember that foundational knowledge? This contains the proof points that ground the strategy in the internal and external environment. Remember those core concepts and touchstone narratives? They are the themes that reinforce and amplify your organization’s view of the world.

It may come to life in different ways — internal memos, white papers, strategy presentations, vision and value statements, shareholder letters, investor roadshow materials, immersive demos, events, public-facing research, op-eds — but it all should flow naturally in and out of the strategy process.

“Teams that take a multidisciplinary approach to crafting strategy will have a distinct competitive advantage.”

Ultimately it is strategy, not marketing, that is the basis of thought leadership that tells an authentic and useful story — one built on a deeply integrated partnership between knowledge discovery, content creation and strategic thinking.

How to Be Heard

As the amount of content coming at us all expands exponentially with every passing year, the ability to be heard and inspire only gets harder. While there is no silver-bullet answer to this challenge, getting your entire organization on the same page regarding your most important strategic themes and principles is a critical capability.

How do you break through the noise? With substance that flows naturally from the strategic process and that simultaneously serves it. That is no small task. It requires a commitment to the difficult work of developing a substantial and continuous body of knowledge that can serve as both the foundation for decision-making and the building blocks for thought leadership.

It requires making strategic communication a core competency while creating a culture of mutual accountability — where leaders hold one another accountable for creating stellar content that moves the world forward.

This also requires that we rethink how we staff strategy teams for success. Today’s strategy teams are typically packed with analytic thinkers, charged with doing research and analysis and with structuring the logic that underpins scenarios, options and recommendations for change. Meanwhile, creative colleagues sit in the communication department and at agencies, waiting for the output so they can package it for broader consumption. It requires a day-one partnership.

While specialized experts with the talent to effortlessly toggle between C-suite level strategy and communication discussions and decisions are a rare breed, they do exist — and these individuals can help integrated strategy and communication teams accelerate their progress at every stage of the journey.

Teams that take a multidisciplinary approach to crafting strategy will have a distinct competitive advantage. In fact, this investment always pays dividends in a world where clear communication supports clear decisions — and creates a fast track to greater performance and prosperity.

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