Strategy that sticks

making strategy simpleHow do you talk about your business’s strategy so that your employees get it?

Any strategic planning session eventually needs to deliver a robust strategy, one that anyone can understand and execute. The truth is this rarely happens, as most strategic plans end up in a binder somewhere, and confuse more than enlighten people.

What business leaders want to avoid at all costs is confusion, which leads to inaction. So, how do we solve this challenge?

Make strategy simple

What leads to inaction? I’ve heard consultants and business leaders talk about strategy in a way that is too complex for others to understand. Well, you conquer complexity with simple rules.

By keeping it simple, you are solving a problem called decision paralysis:

Decision paralysis is a finding from psychology that says that the more choices we have, the more likely we are to freeze up and go with the path of least resistance.

Making strategy simple requires some reflection, and frankly it’s not easy because simplicity requires time and effort to achieve. In the video below, Dan Heath, co-authors of Made to Stick, explains how to make strategy simple:

A more thorough explanation on how to make strategy simple can be found in an accompanying Change This manifesto called Talking Strategy, where they talk about an excellent example of a company that has turned complexity into a sticky strategy: Cranium Inc.

Cranium Inc. uses a very simple technique, which I’ve since adopted, to communicate strategy: CHIFF.

CHIFF — an acronym for “clever, high quality, innovative, friendly, and fun” — is both the spirit that animates Cranium and the criterion by which all its decisions are judged. It guides all product decisions at the company.

Simple Rules: How to Thrive in a Complex World, a book by Donald Sull and Kathleen Eisenhardt, explores the understated power that comes from using simple rules. As they define them, simple rules refer to “a handful of guidelines tailored to the user and the task at hand, which balance concrete guidance with the freedom to exercise judgment.” These rules “provide a powerful weapon against the complexity that threatens to overwhelm individuals, organizations, and society as a whole. Complexity arises whenever a system— technical, social, or natural— has multiple interdependent parts.”

Simple rules work because they do three things well.

  1. They confer the flexibility to pursue new opportunities while maintaining some consistency.
  2. They can produce better decisions. When information is limited and time is short, simple rules make it fast and easy for people, organizations, and governments to make sound choices. They can even outperform complicated decision-making approaches in some situations.
  3. Simple rules allow the members of a community to synchronize their activities with one another on the fly.

Also, effective simple rules share four common traits …

  1. They are limited to a handful. Capping the number of rules makes them easy to remember and maintains a focus on what matters most.
  2. Simple rules are tailored to the person or organization using them. College athletes and middle-aged dieters may both rely on simple rules to decide what to eat, but their rules will be very different.
  3. Simple rules apply to a well-defined activity or decision, such as prioritizing injured soldiers for medical care. Rules that cover multiple activities or choices end up as vague platitudes, such as “Do your best” and “Focus on customers.”
  4. Simple rules provide clear guidance while conferring the latitude to exercise discretion.

The last point is critical, they provide direction. Simple rules, like Cranium’s CHIFF, produce better decisions because they save time and effort by focusing our attention and simplifying the way we process information. Thus, simple rules are those rules that are fundamental to achieving successful outcomes.

Bottom line: Simple is smart. Complex is stupid. So, get simple to beat decision paralysis.