Vision or no Vision – The Art of Storytelling in Strategy

When it comes to designing strategy, I often see two approaches collide. Vision-driven strategy versus problem-driven strategy. Vision-driven strategy starts with describing a desired status quo, at some point in the future, for example 3-5 years from now. Problem-driven strategy, on the other hand, aims to define and address the biggest immediate hurdle to overcome to be successful, within months.

Fans of problem-driven strategy argue that strategy is a problem-solving mechanism. I hear one core arguments: ‘Lofty vision statements don‘t work. They don’t help to address what’s happening right now and don’t drive change. The situation gets worse, not better.’

I can sense the frustration that proponents of problem-focused strategy must have gone through with vision-based strategy. Problem-focused strategy feels like the antidote: its focus on the immediate future creates a sense urgency. The resulting action addresses pain points. The adrenaline rush from harvesting the first results leads to a feeling of accomplishment: ‘We’re making great progress here!’

The problem-solving approach to strategy has its merits

There is great value in addressing glaring problems. After all, left unaddressed, a hole underneath the water line can has the potential to sink your ship. Examples include lack of product-market fit, cashflow and financing issues, and eroding customer trust.

Depending on the nature of the problems, a vision-based approach to strategy might not even make sense. For example: If a business is in rough weather the only thing that matters is to stabilize the business immediately. In such a situation I wouldn’t even use the term strategy. Restructuring is the name of the game – and restructuring isn’t strategy. It is a precursor.

Strategy can only be created and executed in the right environment

A vision-based strategy only makes sense when a business is in relatively calm waters, as opposed to being in survival mode. Only then will leaders have the mental capacity to think about anything important, that isn’t critical for the immediate future.

Vision-based strategy describes the handful of choices that you make to achieve a desired future state: winning in your market – however you define winning. And depending on what winning means, it can be close to impossible to achieve this vision in just a few months, even if that’s 12-18 months. Many industries simply operate on longer cycles, e.g. automotive, pharma, or credit unions.

Vision-based strategy prevents you from mistaking short-term problems for strategy. A vision as such is not a strategy. By the same token, problem-solving is not a strategy. The biggest waste of time is to solve issues that shouldn’t be solved in the first place, because they don’t have strategic relevance. If you define the right problem, you avoid this trap. But what is the right problem? We can only define the right problem if we understand what we are solving for, long-term.

Integrating the two approaches into one

Rather than philosophically leaning toward one side or another, I suggest to combine vision- and problem-based strategy into one approach: Start with what I call a ‘working vision’. Don’t write a vision that sounds like a marketing slogan. Your vision is not meant to be published. It doesn’t have to sound flashy. Instead, a working vision describes the desired future as a compelling story. A story that makes your key stakeholders say, ‘I want to be a part of bringing this future to life’. That’s the purpose of a vision statement.

From your vision, you derive options. From them, you chose the most promising way. That’s your theory of how you’ll win. In this theory, you will find the problems worth solving to achive the vision. Which problem comes first, which comes next? How many problems can we afford to solve at the same time? What’s the critical path?

Great strategy communication starts with great storytelling

The reason I suggest combining vision- and problem-based strategy is simple: a vision is a story. Storytelling is the most powerful approach leaders have in their toolbox to communicate strategy. We love stories! We’ve been telling them for thousands of years. A compelling story moves the masses more than a problem ever will. And move the masses you must. Strategy brings change. Change only happens when you move people on a large scale.

Executing a purely vision-based strategy can become a challenge. If your vision is far out, it might be hard to link immediate action to long term outcomes. You might struggle to build momentum and end up feeling like beating a dead horse. Purely problem-based strategy doesn’t engage the masses. Problems are weak motivators. We don’t lose weight because being overweight is a problem. We get fit because we want to feel healthy and live longer. We don’t stop polluting the environment because pollution is a problem. We care about the future because we see our children in it.

Don’t choose between the two approaches. Integrate. Start with a vision and rally the troops around it. In your story, link to the burning platform and define the problems you want to solve. Then derive immediate action. Help your teams see how they contribute to solving problems and how they connect to the strategy. Help them understand what’s in it for them. This will create momentum on a large scale.

Remember: business don’t implement strategy. People do. And people love stories. Tell them.

Main Image by Mike Erskine