Editorial by Jonathan Norman, Publisher

The following editorial was written by publisher Jonathan Norman on gpmfirst, Gower's new soon-to-be-public site:



Changing the way we talk about strategy

GUEST EDITORIAL: Take a look at some of your current strategies: if they aren’t as effective as they could be, perhaps you need to rethink the language being used – especially the verbs – suggests Jonathan Norman.

It may sound obvious but the reason why many strategies are never realised is that most people in large organizations don’t understand what the strategy means, even if they know of its existence. Senior managers assume that their employees understand them, when they talk about strategy. Unfortunately this is rarely the case and, indeed, strategies are often articulated in a way that makes them impossible to deliver.

Have a look at some of your current strategies: if they aren’t as effective as they could be, it may well be because they are written in a language that is far too vague and fails to understand the role of the users in the equation. Or perhaps, on the other hand, they are hugely detailed and run into pages of documents so that even the most enthusiastic employee struggles to see the wood for the trees.

I’ve used the ideas in Phil Driver’s Validating Strategies to highlight some of the most common problems associated with the way we talk about strategy.

Exploratory project-verbs

Words such as explore, investigate and address are exploratory verbs. They are useful in early-stage, high-level, aspirational strategies when the main work essentially involves framing and sense-making the opportunities that they strategy will endeavour to seize.

But as strategies move from the aspirational towards the more operational, they are of much less value and can signal a delaying tactic to avoid taking concrete action and using further reviews or investigations to give an impression of useful activity.

Improvement project-verbs

These verbs are useful within high-level strategies because they point to the need for change but their main shortcoming is that they provide no indication of how that change will be implemented. Enhance, improve, increase and consolidate are all words in this category and all require more specific action-oriented verbs as well as measurable targets before they can be used at an operational level.

Encourage, promote and optimize do little more than identify an issue that needs to be addressed. In most cases, an effective strategy will encourage, promote and optimizeany elements that enable its realisation, so that these words are essentially redundant.

Certainty project-verbs

Certainty verbs appear to convey confidence that a strategy will have the desired effects but are generally illusory. One of the most popular of these is ensure. Yet, however comforting the word, there is no such project action as ensure. Organizations may take actions which have a high likelihood of producing a desired result but they cannot ensure that the community will use the outcomes nor can they ensure the benefits.

Collaboration project-verbs

Collaborate, cooperate and engage have become popular in recent years, particularly in the public sector where there has been a belief that collaboration, cooperation and engaging are universally good things. This means that they often appear in strategy documents with little indication of why they will add value to a strategy or how they will be applied in its implementation or development. They must involve collaboration/cooperation/engagement about a specific issue in order to improve the way that issue is addressed. Without this element they have no independent value or life of their own.

Other aspirational project-verbs

Educate is a very provider-driven concept which is at odds with modern thinking about learning. Educate implies that the primary actor is the educator; whereas learningimplies that the main actors are the learners and since learning is a voluntary activity, it is impossible to educate anyone, unless they wish to learn.

Enable is a particularly well-meaning, end-user focused verb. It recognises that most of the end-uses of projects are voluntary (on the part of the user) and thus that it is important to make it easier for end-users to use the results but, in itself, it provides no picture of how end-users will be enabled.

Deliver. Perhaps the most widely used and widely misunderstood of project verbs. We talk about delivering services to customers or citizens whereas the reality is that all we can do is make available. Services cannot be delivered to, delivered at, or delivered for citizens.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the repeated theme in all of this language involves exaggerated claims for the certainty, outcomes and benefits of the projects that will deliver the strategy. It’s only human nature to express confidence and show a tolerance for risk and uncertainty. None of this language is wrong or bad in itself. The danger lies in the meaning that is intended, how this communicates the strategy to stakeholders and how strategies that misuse this language create an environment for projects that are challenged before they have even started.

Adapted from Validating Strategies by Phil Driver, published by Gower Publishing.


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