Good business leaders help their company survive because they know how to adapt to change. Great business leaders go even further by generating the change inside and outside their organization before they suffer it. Many CEOs look for opportunities to use technology to trigger radical change intentionally in their market. That’s disruption. As we’ve seen this year, disruption can also come from an external factor, like a virus.
Since the dawn of time, we’ve survived thanks to our ability to believe in common myths. We do this through fictional narratives. When we imagine things collectively, we can cooperate in large numbers and organize for survival. This concept is explained by Yuval Noah Harari in his book Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind. It’s a powerful idea that proves why investing in constantly changing the strategic narrative of any organization is vital for its survival, whether it is a government, a religious institution or a company.
Unfortunately, one of the most common reasons why CEOs fail is that they don’t understand the impact of their strategic narrative and they fail to control it. That is something that is easy to say and very hard to do.
We, business leaders, are the victim of common narrative sins. Here are seven of them, that I constantly observe in my strategy work.
It is easy to position our product, service, solution or company as the hero of the story we tell. But who cares, really? Customers buy our product and recruits want to join our company because we can clearly tell them how it’s going to transform them. They are the hero of the journey. We should always leave enough room and take enough time in our conversations, to ground our strategy around who we serve first.
We obsess over telling why our product is better and different than our competitor’s, not why it represents a change in how customers do certain things and why that change must happen. We are not showing enough the alternative to the way the customer wants a specific job to be done. We are assuming that the existing way to do things is right and that all we need is something that does it better, not differently. Without a clear change in perspective, we can’t differentiate. We should strive to think of transformation instead of optimization.
We don’t add enough drama to show what is at stakes if the customer doesn’t accept change. This tendency is driven by our fear of the negative. If we want people to act, we have to be transparent and realistic in showing them not only the opportunity but also the risk that they are facing if they don’t change. We need to dig the hole before we can fill the gap with a plan. That’s messy and that’s OK. Otherwise, our narrative doesn’t create enough urgency. Instead, inertia wins.
We think we know what our customers feel and want. But in reality, we are almost always the victim of false knowledge of the customer. Deeply understanding people is one of the hardest things to do, because it takes time, courage, as well as questioning and listening skills. We should always consider our strategy as a hypothesis to be tested and keep in mind that it is always like sci-fi until it gets validated by the peoples’ reactions.
Because we’ve built the product and the business, we are passionate about it and we lack emotional distance with it. We want to say too much in fear of being rejected. We are trying too hard to be credible. This is a trap. We seem to be urged to say everything, instead of curating the strongest ideas. This creates confusion and makes it unclear why people should choose us. Instead, we should only keep what’s strictly necessary. Perfection occurs when there is nothing else to take away.
It’s easy to fall into the trap of repeating the same perspective as everyone else on the market. Common wisdom appears to be a safe bet. Being an anomaly is scary. However, what stands out and comes across as a bit crazy is always interesting and gets noticed. Ideas that are familiar are unlikely to garner much attention. We should invest in developing a different way of viewing things, one that renews our understanding of the world.
Rigorous repetition of the same exact words is more important than we think. It builds credibility, it helps us gauge what resonates with people, and helps them move through change. By not repeating ourselves enough, we let our message get too fuzzy. If we let too many versions of our strategic narrative exist, we lose our unique position in peoples’ minds. We should commit to our own narrative and make sure everybody else in the organization does.
We are a victim of these sins, but we also have a moral responsibility for them.
So I’d like to ask you: what will you do to make your strategic narrative profitable?