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Do Employees Understand Your Business Strategy? Use This Surprising Method to Engage Your Team

Don’t use PowerPoint to present the strategy. Do this instead to involve employees.

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BY Alison Davis - 08 Nov 2017

PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images

The most brilliant business strategy doesn't get you anywhere unless employees in your organization understand what the strategy means and know how to do their jobs to support it.

The problem is that most strategic plans are--appropriately--complicated. After all, smart senior leaders and strategists work for months to create a plan that takes every factor into account.

But the end product is often indecipherable. For example, here is a very small excerpt of a 15-page plan for a healthcare company:

"Our strategic focus is to transform our business by addressing customers' critical priorities of quality, cost and safety. We will achieve by continued innovation in our core product lines, expansion into promising geographic areas and development of new solutions in high value markets."

Huh? Even if you try to simplify a strategy like this into slides, you often end up with a confusing chart or a big hairy list. Richard Rumelt, author of Good Strategy/Bad Strategy, writes about the problem of including too many separate items in your strategy overview. He gives the example of a small city's "strategic plan," which contained 47 "strategies" and 178 (that's right, 178) action items.

My advice is this: No matter how complicated your strategy in the background document the team developed), you should articulate your strategy in the simplest and most focused way possible. But--here's the tricky part--even when you do create a straightforward version of the strategy, it's difficult for employees to immediately grasp how it works and what it means to them.

That's why having a senior leader make a presentation is not enough. Instead, use this surprising method to fully engage employees: an interactive exercise using visuals.

The idea is to involve employees in the strategy, instead of just listening to someone talking about it. And the objective, quite simply, is to help employees actually learn what's in the strategy--to build knowledge so employees know how to support it.

Here's how it works:

1. Allocate 30 minutes at a meeting for the exercise. The best venues are smaller group sessions (like staff meetings), but you can include as part of an all-hands meeting.

2. Divide participants into small teams--five to eight participants--and give each team a table to work on.

3. Provide each team with the strategy summarized on a page. Also provide these tools: a poster board, markers, a glue stick and an envelope that holds about 20 photos.

Photos? That's right: the crucial part of this exercise is the photos. Rather than trying to convey the strategy in just words (or scary charts), the exercise unlocks the visual part of participants' brains--and invites them to uncover the meaning behind the strategy.

Dan Roam, author of The Back of the Napkin (and many other books), is a strong advocate for even the simplest visuals. As he puts it, "Visual thinking means taking advantage of our innate ability to see--both with our eyes and with our mind's eye--in order to discover ideas that are otherwise invisible, develop those ideas quickly and intuitively, and then share those ideas with other people in a way that they simply 'get.'"

That's why the images you select for the kit are so important. You can cut out photos from magazines, print them from the internet or use stock photos. In any case, photos should reference the strategy somewhat, but should be more metaphorical. Here are examples of the type of images that work well:

  • A fireworks display against a dark spy
  • A female runner speeding down the track
  • Steel puzzle pieces connected together
  • Hands with a pencil and protractor, working on an architectural drawing
  • A Formula One race car, traveling fast
  • A close-up on a chess board
  • An abstract rendering of the Earth, with satellites orbiting
  • Three women working together in the kitchen to mix a cake
  • A man leaping between two cliffs
  • Two hikers celebrating because they've reached the mountain peak
  • A dart hitting the bulls eye of a dartboard

4. Now that you've got everything together, assign each team to address an aspect of the strategy: a pillar, a priority or another part. Ask the team to identify one photo that captures what success will look like. Team members will paste this photo at the top of their poster.

5. Have each team brainstorm what the organization needs to do/change to achieve this success and write the team's top three ideas on the poster. Also ask the team to come up with three ways their function or group can support the strategy.

6. Ask a person from each team to explain his/her team's poster. Hang posters around the room during the meeting, then collect them and hang them in the workspace. And, to share them with the whole organization, take photos and post them on the internal social media platform or the intranet.

The result? Employees won't have the strategy memorized, but they'll have a strong foundation for understand what it's about--and what it means to them.