Sustainability → Strategy ← Storytelling

Completing my self-assessment tax return this week provided an unwelcome reminder of what an unremittingly shitty year 2009-10 was. Thankfully, though, it’s also served to accentuate a vast change in fortunes during this last financial year, which has even introduced me to the somewhat novel concept of having to turn work away (a nice problem to have!).

On top of the joys of hitting our straps with CommScrum and the 55-Minute Guides (4 new books imminent, btw), it’s particularly interesting to reflect on a year that will have been bookended by two really great projects that, though seemingly at opposite ends of my capability spectrum, are actually united by that core strategic consulting capability I’m always banging on about (most recently in CommScrum’s predictions for 2011).

It started in April 2010 with my Saudi sustainability project – my own best example of the value and importance of being T-shaped; one of those jobs where you find yourself effortlessly entering the rarified world of “leadership and strategy”, and that the “brand” badge that got you hired actually has virtually bugger all to do with the value you’re adding for the client.

And the year will end where I am right now – a 3-month assignment advising a Big Four firm on the use of storytelling to align people behind a compelling vision and strategy for a relatively newly-formed global organisation that brings together all its key support functions (IT, finance, procurement etc.).

The former case was pretty much a pure-bred piece of strategic consulting, helping the senior leadership team to realise that their stated aim in tackling sustainability (to become “the most trusted brand in Saudi Arabia”) would require nothing less than the complete transformation of their understanding – from ragbag of ad-hoc sponsorships and charitable donations to refocusing core strategy on delivering shared value for the business and for society. Without deep knowledge of the evolution of sustainability strategy, the ability to apply that knowledge (in particular the core principles of authenticity and materiality) to their particular operations and markets, and the MBA-backed credibility to advise on the strategy’s implications on organisational culture and design, no amount of “brand” specialism would have saved me from disaster.

By contrast, all outward appearances in the latter case are of an infinitely more tactical project. Yet, whilst my skills as a writer are obviously much more to the fore, that broader strategic acumen is still essential when comes to recognising the critical importance of context – understanding and answering the all-important “so what?” question that can act as a force multiplier for the effectiveness of a story, particularly when the critical audience is a bunch of partners wondering where the pot of gold is at the end of this particular “synergistic” rainbow.

Just implemented a new global HR system that enables more standardised and reliable data to be gathered on key people transactions across the business (hiring decisions, promotions etc.)? Fantastic, but so what?! How has that access to better information actually improved the speed and quality of business decisions?

Just done an amazing job of turning around a complex systems integration project in support of an acquisition, so that the new merged organisation has the common infrastructure to hit the ground running on Day One. Brilliant, but so what?! What were the stakes involved? What would the cost have been to the business if that hadn’t happened?

In my experience, asking these kinds of questions is often anathema to your average died-in-the-wool professional communicator. As my 55MG partner-in-crime, Kevin Keohane, puts it so beautifully, they’d rather sit quietly in a safe corner of the office debating with colleagues whether “anal-retentive” has a hyphen than dare to risk stepping up to the plate as a consulting partner to their clients and challenging them to answer the stupid questions.

Fortunately, that doesn’t seem to be the case with the IC team in this instance. Several of them have already enthusiastically embraced the fundamental change in mindset required to deliver a more Steve Denning-esque approach to storytelling – one whose focus is far less on the communication of information (timely, objective, factually correct) and far more on the communication of meaning (timeless, deeply personal and emotionally resonant). If you want stories to succeed as culture-carriers for the organisation, that’s the territory you need to be in.


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