The importance of articulation in business strategy development and execution

The question of articulation doesn't get nearly enough attention in business strategy.

Articulation is the ability to express every aspect of your business strategy in a way which is:

  1. crystal clear,
  2. engaging and
  3. encourages aligned action.

It applies to:

  • Your strategic analysis: Is it insightful? Does it create those aha! moments for your audience?
  • Your strategic goals and initiatives: Are they clear and unambiguous?
  • Your results tracking: Can everyone clearly see your strategy succeeding?
  • Each step in the process of gathering inputs and developing the strategy, as well as communicating the output.

There are four critical success factors for strategy articulation.

  • Communicating clearly and precisely.
  • Telling a story.
  • Leaving everything else out.
  • Being consistent.

Communicating clearly and precisely

This should go without saying. But we've all been on the receiving end of communications which are jam-packed with jargon and waffle, repetitive redundancies, which go on for ever without ever seeming to reach a conclusion or make a point and leave you wondering what the communicator meant or what you are supposed to do about it. (Yes, that sentence is deliberately poorly written.)

Make sure your strategy is not guilty of this.

Articulation starts with grammar and spelling. It proceeds to sentence, paragraph and document structure.

I often use a tool called to help me ensure my writing is up to standard. If you've not yet tried it, I suggest you give it a go.

Of course, there are other tools you can use. And I am sure they're just as good. If you have a favourite, why not share it with the rest of us in the comments?

It's not just about words and sentences. You can also use charts, tables and graphics. And its just as important that these are clear and well constructed.

"If you can't explain it to a six year old, you don't understand it yourself."
- Albert Einstein

Telling a story

People have been telling each other stories since the discovery of fire. It's baked into the way we communicate. It's part of how we make sense of the world.

You strategy should tell a story. It should have a beginning, middle and end. It should lead your audience on a journey from where you are now to where you want to be.

It should engage them on a personal level. It should tap into their fears and aspirations. Articulation should take the logic of your strategy and connect it to the emotions of your audience.

People are sense-making beings. We're programmed to make sense of the world. And we do it with stories. So if the story of your strategy doesn't make sense or contains gaps, people will simply fill in the blanks. They will make up the story in a way that makes sense to them. It won't always be what was intended. But it will become their understanding of the strategy.

Leaving everything else out

Why does James Bond never eat, sleep or brush his teeth? Of course, he does. But that gets left out of the film. It's not relevant. And it would bore the audience instead of engaging them.

Is your strategy packed with irrelevant detail? It may make you look clever. But is it detracting from your strategy?

Or have you refined it down to its essence? Just enough to tell the story and achieve the effect you're after. And no more.

At the end of many assignments I end up with a deck or document I call "the cutting room floor". It contains all the analysis and ideas that, whilst valid, didn't make it into the final strategy. They're not wrong, or bad. They may even have been important at during the process of developing the strategy. They're just not essential to the current articulation.

Being consistent

You've probably invested a lot of time and effort in coming up with your strategy.

So don't expect your audience to fully understand what you're saying in the first telling. They also need time to get to grips with it.

That takes repetition over time. And repetition requires consistency.

At school we may have been taught to vary what we say so that we don't bore our audience. We're taught to use similes and synonyms and flowery language. To mix things up.

But in business we need to be more concise and consistent.

I you say the same thing in two different ways, your audience will spend all their time trying to understand if you mean the same thing. Sometimes, they'll get it wrong and think the meaning is different when that wasn't intended. Either way it is distracting their attention away from your core message.

I know many people who think function is more important than form. That if your strategy is sound, it shouldn't matter how you articulate it. But the truth is, it does. So you might was well get good at articulating strategy.

A good consultant is like a good golf caddy

Someone recently told me that a good business strategy consultant is like a good golf caddy.

They knows the course well. They have played it themselves and/or caddied many other players around it before. They know the course conditions. They know the best lines and where all the traps are.

They haves a complete set of clubs in the bag. They knows which ones to use when. They can apply this knowledge on the course. And they can adjust it to the specific capabilities of the player they're caddying.

As a result, they can advise the player on every aspect of the game. They can act as a sounding board as the player things through each sot. And in doing so, they can help the player to play their best round.

But it remains the case that it is the player - and only the player - who must play each shot.

It's the same with a good business strategy consultant.

They know the theory of business strategy. They're familiar with the case studies. But more importantly, they've been through the process of developing and executing business strategy many times before.

They have experiences of different businesses, perhaps even different industries. They've developed and executed business strategy through different phases of the economic cycle.

They have experience of what works and what does not work. They've made and seen many mistakes, and learned how to avoid them.

They have, at their disposal a rich toolkit of frameworks and tools for developing and executing business strategy. They have practical experience of having used them. And, of course, the know when and when not to use each one.

And so like a caddy with a player, they are able to advise a business owner or executive; or just to act as a sounding board. To enable them to achieve their best results.

How do you know when it is time to give up?

In the Q&A after a presentation I did to the Federation of Small Businesses a few weeks ago, someone asked me: if I’ve tried a new strategy and it doesn’t seem to be working yet, how do I know when to stick with it and when to give up?

It’s a great question. We live in a world where too many people want instant results. Sadly, I think many businesses give up on great strategies too early. Yet others persist for too long with strategies which are clearly not working.

So here is my answer.

First of all, I must assume that the strategy you are applying is based on a sound analysis, and that that sound analysis resulted in a good strategic hypothesis.

(See also:

for more tips on this.)

By ‘strategic hypothesis’ I mean something along the lines of: if we do A, B and C, we will get X, Y and Z.

If your strategy isn’t based on something like that, then you have a different problem. I won’t be addressing that here.

But what if you’ve done that? What if you're doing A, B and C, but you’re not getting X, Y and Z? What do you do?

The first thing to do is go back and check your analysis and logic.

  • Are you still convinced by it?
  • Did you miss something?
  • Has something changed?
The world changes. And so do we. We learn. We develop new understandings of ourselves, our businesses and our environment. And so our strategies should remain under constant review and subject to change if required.

If that doesn’t shed any light, then the next step is to actively try to disprove your strategic hypothesis.

  • Can you find someone who thinks you’re wrong? Ask them to try and convince you.
  • Think about what evidence you'd need to convince yourself you were wrong. Then set out to find that evidence.

We’re natural optimists. And we’re very good and finding and interpreting data that confirms what we already believe (or just hope) to be true. By flipping things around and trying to disconfirm things, we build a much deeper understanding.

Then, if your logic still holds up, and if you’re unable to disprove your hypothesis, you should persist with your strategy a while longer. If not, it’s time to go back to the drawing board and try again.

Please feel free to get in touch if you need any help with any of the above in your business.

Image by Steve Buissinne from Pixabay

What is strategic alignment, and why does it matter?

“Building a visionary company requires 1% vision and 99% alignment.”

- Jim Collins & Jerry Porras

I love this image of the rowers.

The leader who looks forward and directs without doing any of the actual work.

And the crew puts in 100% effort in harmony. Trusting, disciplined, persistent, drilled, committed. Lovely.

But we all know organisations just don’t work like that.

People talk about:

  • “just do it”
  • ”the most important thing is to do something”
  • "analysis leads to paralysis".

But the real problem is getting everyone to ‘just do’ the same thing.

As a starting alignment requires clarity as to what everyone is aligning too. And that thing ought to be your business strategy!

Effort diffuses quickly

I once worked with an organisation that had only 130 employees but was running 100 projects! Everyone was very busy. Their days were filled with progress updates and prioritisation workshops. But nothing ever seemed to get done.

Alignment is about what you do, who does it, when you do it and how you do it.

And, as is usually the case with business strategy, it is also about what shouldn't get done and how much of what kind of involvement different people should and shouldn't have.

Alignment requires focus. Clarity about what's in and what's not.

People will fill in the blanks

A lot of strategies fail because it is just not clear to people what they should actually do to support it. 

They’re just vaguely worded statements of ambition.

And when that happens, habit takes over. And people inevitably go back to doing whatever it was they were doing before the new strategy was launched. Because that feels comfortable.

Or worse still, they just invent their own strategies.

Alignment requires a clear call to action.


Sometimes alignment fails because the strategy is at fault. But other times it fails because people just won’t align.

I remember a senior manager getting very excited as he told me about a great new idea he had and how he was mobilising his team around prioritising it.

But, I pointed out, this idea did not relate in any way to the 4 strategic priorities which his board had had agreed with the organisation only the month before. And in fact, when I asked him, he admitted he’d been so busy with this shiny new initiative that he had barely had time to think about those 4 strategic priorities, let alone do anything about them.

Was he too scared to implement the agreed strategy in case he failed? Did he lack the required balance between thought and action? Or was he just too easily distracted?

Either way, he lacked the discipline - the follow-through - required to execute the strategy.

Another senior manager in similar situation told me outright that she didn’t care that her plan didn’t align with the organisation’s strategy; it’s what she want to do for her career.

What’s more she didn’t think that the executive team were committed enough to their own strategy to do anything to stop her from just pushing ahead. And it turned out, in that case, that she was absolutely right.

Start with a solid foundation

One of the best ways to increase alignment is to base your strategy on a solid evidence base. (See Everyone is entitled to an opinion, but...)

The more you rely on opinions, instead of on evidence, the more you have to accept that everyone has a different opinion, and the less likely it is that you’ll ever get them into alignment.

It’s amazing how much more constructive conversations become when you stop talking about who’s right and who's wrong, and start talking about what evidence you have and what it means.

So, as business strategists, we should constantly ask: How will you align all of your people and resources to the achievement of your goals?

Choice, trade-offs and differentiation

“Strategy is about making choices, trade-offs; it’s about deliberately choosing to be different.”

- Michael Porter

In my previous post, I talked about the importance of focus. See Don't chase two rabbits.

Focus requires making choices. For example, the choice to do one thing rather than another. Or to do one thing before another.

Of course, the actual choices you make are incredibly important.

Chase the other rabbit

Going back to our rabbits - if you choose to chase the same rabbit everyone else is chasing, you’re much less likely to catch it.

So, chase the other one.

If you have to chase the same one, don’t follow the pack. Find a different way to chase and trap it.

Business strategy is not about being trying to be a little better. It’s about trying to be different. And in being different, being 10X better.

No one wants another Amazon or another Google or another Apple. Or even just another strategy consultant. Because we already have all of that.

-est and -er words can be the enemy of good strategy

Every time your strategy includes a word that ends in -est (biggest, best, fastest, etc.) (or even -er: bigger, better, faster), or anything similar, stop. Take a step back and think of Wayne Gretsky (see Skate to where the puck is going to be, not where it has been). He wasn't the biggest or the fastest or the strongest player. He was just in a different place.

Competing on price or features rarely ends well. It just starts a price or features war. To truly differentiate on price, I think the research says that you need to be at least half the prevailing price, maybe more. A similar statement could be made about features.

I remember working with a company that was losing market share. I asked them what they’d tried. They’d reduced prices. How did that go? It worked great for a few weeks until all their competitors followed suit. And then they were back to square one but with narrower margin. So then what? Well, then they added some product features. That also worked for a while until their competitors copied that too. Now they were back to square one but with a more expensive product still at a reduced price. Eventually we were able to find a completely different aspect of the business to focus on, and the business recovered the ground it had lost and then some.

Don't just be better. Be different.


Trade-offs provide a great way to deter your competitors from simply copying you.

When Southwest Airlines launched the world's first low cost airline, they deliberately chose not to do certain things. They didn't offer in-flight meals or allocated seats. They only flew point-to-point and to secondary airports. And they only used one type of airplane.

As a result, they were significantly cheaper. And for those people who did not care for the things Southwest didn't offer, they were perfect.

Their competitors could have copied them, of course. But that would have meant stopping doing those things also. And that could have lost them a lot of their existing loyal customers. The trade-off was too great for them. So they left Southwest Airlines alone.

Similarly, Ikea choose not to assemble or deliver the furniture they sold. And they chose large well-stocked stores with plenty of onsite parking. Again, this appealed to many customers. But the trade-off for traditional furniture stores was too large.

Unique and valuable

Where does that leave you?

In very simple terms, business strategy is about choosing to focus on only that which:

  • is different
  • your (target) customers value
  • can't already get anywhere else
  • which you are uniquely well placed to deliver.
If you can tick those 4 boxes, then you're in a strategically good space!

And so, as business strategists, we should constantly be asking: How will you differentiate yourself in the market in a way that enables you to create and capture value?

Everyone is entitled to an opinion, but...

“If we have data, let’s talk about data. If all we have are opinions, let’s go with mine.”

- Jim Barksdale

I'll start this post of continuing the story of Wayne Gretsky. I started it in two recent posts:

Gretsky was great and skating to where the puck was going to be. But, he never explained how he knew where it would be. It’s assumed that he was just very good at reading the play.

Where others saw chaos and unpredictability, he saw data/evidence/patterns/probabilities. He took the information available about the state of play and out-thought everyone else on the pitch.

Don't "just do it"

These days, we have a predisposition to action rather than thought. We’re told to “Just do it”. We're told the most important thing is to do something. Even anything. Because action is better than thought.

But, strategy teaches us that we need thought to choose the right actions. “Fail fast” and “test and learn” are great. But random experiments are at best inefficient. And ill-conceived experiments are even worse.

As Henri Bergson said, you should:

"Think like a man of action, act like a man of thought."

You have to look for evidence

It doesn't take a lot of experience to realise that you will probably never have all the data you want. But we still have to make decisions. And we can't always afford to wait to get more data.

But that is not an excuse for not bothering. My experience is that there is usually a lot more evidence available than people care to acknowledge. It takes a little creativity to find and interpret it. But that effort pays off in spades.

I remember hearing a proposal from the manager of a call centre within a medium-sized business. They weren’t keeping up with the number of incoming calls. He wanted to hire more call handlers.

But I asked him why people were calling in the first place. It turns out he knew exactly how many people were calling but had absolutely no idea what they were calling about. So I went and collected some data.

It turned out that most people were calling about things that the company had messed up. So it seemed obvious to me that they should at least consider that a better solution might be to hire more people or train them better to not mess those things up, rather than simply hiring more people to clean up the mess afterwards. But without having looked at that data, you’d have no way of knowing that.

Finding evidence is not enough, you still have to interpret it

It's equally true that we have a tendency to mis-interpret or over-interpret data the data they do have. 

  • We see what they want to see, and not what is actually in front of them.
  • We mistake correlation for causation.
  • We mistake what customers say for how they actually behave.

So its obviously important not just to have the data, but to use it well.

Evidence of the future

Another mistake is thinking that there can be no evidence for the future because it hasn’t happened yet.

But as the famous Science Fiction write William Gibson said:

“The future is already here, it’s just not evenly distributed.”

Consider COVID-19.

Think of all the companies who’ve been experimenting with remote work for years.

Think of all those films and that famous 2015 Ted Talk by Bill Gates. He not only predicted the global pandemic but also described how it would happen in pretty accurately detail.

The conspiracy theorists, of course, have a field day with that. But all he was doing was pulling together the evidence which was readily available to us all.

So, if we weren’t prepared for pandemic it wasn’t because there wasn’t any evidence, but because we hadn’t paid attention and acted on the insight.

Evidence versus intuition

I've heard other people argue that experience and intuition are better guides than evidence.

Don’t get me wrong: Intuition and experience are wonderful things.

But, they tell you:

  • what data to look for,
  • how and where to look for it, and
  • how to avoid misinterpreting it.
Experience and intuition also contain all our biases and failings.

So intuition and experience aren’t a substitute for evidence. They’re a tool for using evidence more effectively.

Hindsight is 20:20

We tend to turn for inspiration to very successful people or businesses. And what we see is what they did. That what’s visible. And I think that may be partly what is behind our current bias towards action. 

But what we don’t see is the thought they put into it and the evidence on which they based it.

Or, we see the few who succeeded without using evidence and thought. And forget about the vast majority who simply failed on that basis.


There is another saying about opinions: Opinions are like noses; everyone has one but they think each others' smell. (Although I think the original saying might have referred to a different piece of anatomy.)

Opinions are a weak foundation for business strategy. Evidence is the antidote.

So, as business strategists, we should constantly be asking: What evidence to you have to support your decisions? And what processes do you have in place for re-confirming or adjusting that on an ongoing basis?

Don't chase two rabbits

“The man who chases two rabbits catches neither.”

- Confucius

In a recent blog post, I talked about the legendary Canadian ice hockey player, Wayne Gretsky. Gretsky was famous for his ability to read the play and position himself ahead of the puck.

Gretsky, of course, could only skate to one place at a time. He had to make a choice. I bet he got it wrong a lot of the time. But, from his record, we must conclude, that he got it right even more often than that.

In my experiences, businesses hate making choices. Often, when I present a client with a range of different strategic options, their natural tendency is to want to do them all. To chase both rabbits.

This applies to choices about customers or customer segments, strategic initiatives, almost everything in business.

Strategy always involves choice. If there is only one rabbit and only one way to chase it, you’re not really doing strategy. You’re just hungry and trying to get dinner.

But as soon as there are two rabbits or two different ways to chase them, then strategy comes into play:. Which will you chase, why and how?

It is important to choose which rabbit to chase. It is equally important to choose NOT to chase the other one.

In fact, Harvard Business School strategy guru Michael Porter says that:

“The essence of strategy is choosing what not to do.”

But most organisations treat strategy only as deciding what new things to do.

So it’s no wonder that employees often greet a new strategy with a groan. They already feel over-worked and under-resourced. And now they have all this new stuff to do on top of all of the old stuff they were already doing.

As a result, they get demoralised. They end up falling back onto old habits. They end up doing what they used to do, and not what the new strategy requires them to do. Or, inevitably, they end up not doing anything terribly well. They end up chasing two rabbits!

I remember talking to the CEO of a startup division within a large corporate. He had become quite desperate. They hadn’t even launched yet. But already there were 130 employees. He told me that everyone was madly busy and constantly telling him they needed more people. And yet, he couldn’t understand why so little was actually getting done.

After a short investigation it turned out that those 130 employees were running no fewer than 100 projects between them. It was chaos, with almost no focus. It took a few months, but eventually we whittled those 100 projects down to about 20 key projects which were actually required to deliver the strategy. Everything else was stopped. And with that focus, people were able to move forward.

They were chasing too many rabbits. It was only be choosing to chase fewer rabbits that they could move forward.

Even if you do need to chase both rabbits, you’re still better off doing everything you can to catch the first one before you start chasing the second one.

I heard a great mantra the other day:

"stop starting, start finishing".

And so, as business strategists, we should constantly be asking: What will you choose to do? And equally importantly, what will you choose not to do or to stop doing?