Leadership & Management

Strategic Success: How to Communicate Your Gameplan

In this episode, Jesper Sørensen explores why organizational strategy can be both top-down and bottom-up.

November 08, 2022

As Professor Jesper Sørensen sees it, a winning strategy is the result of conversations, not commands.

Sørensen says strategy can be directed from the C-suite, but it doesn’t have to be. “Lots of great strategies are discovered,” he says, “they’re discovered because the leaders were able to listen to their frontline workers or their frontline managers.” A more iterative approach, says Sørensen, helps companies adapt their strategy to an ever-changing landscape.

In the latest episode of Think Fast, Talk Smart, Sørensen joins host and lecturer Matt Abrahams to discuss how organizations can use better communication to craft better strategies.

Think Fast, Talk Smart is a podcast produced by Stanford Graduate School of Business. Each episode provides concrete, easy-to-implement tools and techniques to help you hone and enhance your communication skills.

Full Transcript

Matt Abrahams: I passionately believe that strategic communication is critical to success in business and in life, but we must also think about strategy and how we communicate that. Many of us focus on our day-to-day work on just the tasks we need to complete and executing them well. Taking time to reflect on strategy in our organizations and our own life can help us be successful. I’m Matt Abrahams, and I teach strategic communication at Stanford Graduate School of Business. Welcome to Think Fast, Talk Smart: The Podcast.

I am very excited to speak with Jesper Sørensen. Jesper is a professor of organizational behavior at the GSB along with being the senior associate dean of academic affairs. Jesper specializes in dynamics of organizational and strategic change. He teaches strategic leadership, crafting and leading strategy. And along with fellow professor Glenn Carroll, Jesper wrote Making Great Strategy: Arguing for Organization Advantage.

Welcome, Jesper. Thanks for being here. I’m super excited for our conversation.

Jesper Sørensen: Thanks for having me, Matt. It’s really an honor to be on your podcast.

Matt Abrahams: Well, thank you. Let’s go ahead and get started. You’ve been studying and teaching strategy for over 25 years. Can you share with us how you define strategy? And explain how it’s different from planning.

Jesper Sørensen: Sure. The tagline here at the GSB: Change lives. Change organizations Change the world. What I always like to tell students is if you want to change the world, you have to build great organizations, because large scale change always happens through organizations. And if you’re going to build a great organization, you have to have the resources to sustain that organization.

And strategy is really about explaining how you secure that organization’s economic prosperity. And if you’re a public company, that means how do you maximize profits, perhaps. But even if you’re a nonprofit, you have to have a strategy that is somehow to logic by which you get enough resources to be able to survive and do what it is you want to do.

Now that’s different from planning. I think planning is really about the order of operations. Because the sequence of things that you’re going to do, once you know why it is that you have a reason to do something and what the outcome is going to be. And so, I think strategy is, that sense, much more complicated, because in order to get the resources that you need, you have to engage with other actors. So, you have to engage with your customers and suppliers and so on and so forth, and you don’t have control over them. Planning is about the things that you can control, but strategy is really much more complicated in that sense.

Matt Abrahams: So, it sounds like planning is much more tactical. Once you have the strategy, you then invoke the plans to enact that strategy.

Jesper Sørensen: Exactly.

Matt Abrahams: You shared that one of the prime directives for leaders is to focus on building a strategy. What are some of the mistakes or misconceptions you found over the years that leaders have about strategy or its role in their organization?

Jesper Sørensen: So, I think the biggest misconception that a lot of managers in organizations have and leaders is that strategy is not their job. So, I think in a lot of organizations we have this image of strategy being dictated at the top, that the CEO is going to articulate here’s what the strategy is. It’s like a football coach sending the play in from the sideline and then we’re all just going to go and execute.

Matt Abrahams: Right.

Jesper Sørensen: And so, you’ll meet tons of managers who will say, “I don’t do strategy. I’m just about execution.” But of course, strategy is really about how you’re going to best allocate your time and your resources. That’s ultimately what it’s about. And so, if you have any responsibility in the organization, you’re doing strategy. And so, you need to be able to engage with the strategy.

And I think one of the things that happens is that we disempower ourselves if we think about strategy as that. The related misconception is then that people think of strategy as like a set it once a year or once every five years kind of thing, and then we’re just going to go execute on that plan. But if you think that strategy is set — No battle plan survives contact with the enemy. Right?

Matt Abrahams: Right.

Jesper Sørensen: And so, as soon as you start to do things, things start to change. And so, it’s not just about drafting this beautiful architectural blueprint and then handing it off for somebody to go build it, because you got to adapt to a changing landscape.

Matt Abrahams: So, I’m hearing you say that strategy is something that everybody owns within an organization — it’s not just comes down from on high — and that it has to adapt and change. I have been part of several organizations where when people say “We’re going to strategically plan,” everybody’s eyes roll and they think, oh, we’re just going to put another document on the shelf or it’s just going to sit on some website somewhere. And what I’m hearing you say is that it’s living and you have to evolve it and everybody’s involved in it.

Which leads me to the next question, which is in your book and teaching, you and Glenn Carroll make a very convincing claim that organizations should craft strategy arguments. Can you share what you mean by a strategy argument? What are they and how can they help?

Jesper Sørensen: What Glenn and I are trying to do in that book is basically help people think about strategy not as just a set of analytical frameworks, which is what we teach many times in business schools.

Matt Abrahams: Right.

Jesper Sørensen: If you think about the classic way of teaching strategy in a business school, it’s Porter five forces or differentiation versus low cost. And those are all really important. But when you’re doing strategy on a day-to-day basis, you have to understand like how is this working. So, it’s an explanation, and that’s how I do think it’s related to communication. It’s an explanation for how you think you’re going to succeed. And that’s an argument, and an argument is simply a set of assumptions that lead to a conclusion. Right? That force a conclusion.

And so, what a strategy argument is, it’s a statement about what are the investments and the activities that we are going to undertake that’s going to lead us to be able to create and capture economic value. And if we can do those things, if we can understand the connection between those investments and those activities and how we create economic value and how we capture economic value, then we can start to have sophisticated conversations about what is it that’s working, what is it that’s not working. And it gives us a model through which we can see the world.

Matt Abrahams: The thing I feel is so powerful about this notion of strategy as an argument is, one, it involves how you think about it. Because when we craft arguments, we think about things like who are we speaking to, what’s the context. And it implies that this is a conversation that has to be had. Again, it’s not some dictation that comes down from somebody. So, I find that really powerful.

And it also implies in an argument that there is debate and discussion and change and evolution, and I think that’s really, really important. And it fits very nicely with what — As you know, I teach strategic communication. And while I talk a lot about the importance of communicating strategically, I’m really curious to have you share your thoughts on how communication is important in strategy.

Jesper Sørensen: So, I think there’s two different parts to that. And one, just to key off of what you just said, I do think — And in the book, Glenn and I, we devote an entire chapter top basically thinking about how can you argue constructively as a group in an organization.

Oftentimes what we say when we teach, if we teach MBA students or executives, we say, “You should go and you should argue more in your organizations.” And then a lot of people are then like, “Whoa, no way. I don’t want to do that.” Because what they’re hearing is fight.

And we’re not saying you should go fight more. Because a fight is kind of like you’re throwing assertions at each other and you’re just waiting for somebody to give in, so it’s like a street fight. But there are ways to structure debates and arguments so that they are constructive. And part of that is about having the ability to listen to somebody else and hear what it is that they’re trying to say and hear what their logic is.

I think most people believe things for a reason, like they have a reason for believing it. You might disagree both with their conclusion and with some of their reasons, but you can’t engage constructively in a debate unless you hear them on that dimension. And so, really it’s about how do you structure engagements with each other to create that space.

I think the other part of communicating strategically that’s really important is when we think about delegation. So, what we know is that if you want to build a great organization, you’re not going to be able to do that yourself. You can’t make all the decisions, much as you might want to. And so, we all know that we have to be able to delegate and we have to be able to empower people.

And we have lots of books that tell us delegation is wonderful, and even the word empowerment sounds so wonderful. But of course, the truth is most leaders wake up at 3:00 in the morning petrified because they’ve delegated a task to somebody else. And what they petrified, what are they scared about? They’re scared that their subordinate is going to make the wrong decision. And at 3:00 in the morning, what is the wrong decision? It’s not the decision I would have made.

So, there’s this tension. Like on the one hand, you don’t want to make all the decisions. And yet, you want to make all the decisions. Or at least you want somebody who might be closer to the information to make a better decision because they have more information, but you want them to think about it the way you think about it.

And then the question is how do you get people to think about things the way you think about things. That’s through communication. So, that’s about really explaining why you think we win, why you think we are a successful organization, why you think these sets of actions are the things that we need to do in order to accomplish our goals. And so, that’s where I do think really clear communication is going to be essential to effective strategic leadership.

Matt Abrahams: The fact that you are invoking the power of listening and being willing to engage in conflict, but productive conflict, so we can get to a collaborative place with our strategy is a very different way of thinking about strategy in general. And I think that’s really powerful for all of us to think about. And clearly, being able to articulate your strategy, packaging it and communicating it in a way that not only motivates people, but also helps makes better decisions is absolutely critical, for sure.

Jesper Sørensen: Right. I mean, there’s this element of strategy that we have a — I think most of our stereotype of what strategy is, is very top down.

Matt Abrahams: Yes.

Jesper Sørensen: And so, then you would think communication is just broadcasting. But of course, we also know that lots of great strategies are discovered, and they’re discovered because the leaders were able to listen to their frontline workers or their frontline managers tell them here’s something that’s even better than what we’re doing now.

And so, of course, strategy is really both. It’s both top down and bottom up. And so, you have to be able to both be able to articulate what it is that you want to say and where you think we should be going, but then also be able to listen and hear where you might be wrong. Because I think the other part that we really emphasize is in an argument, well, how do you make an argument? You make assumptions.

Matt Abrahams: Yeah.

Jesper Sørensen: And assumptions are testable. They’re going to be proven wrong or they’re going to be proven right. And you have to be open to the possibility that the assumption you made yesterday has turned out to be wrong today, and that you therefore need to revise your theory. That doesn’t mean you have to go back and give up, but it means that you have to update your understanding of the world.

Matt Abrahams: We’ve talked a lot about testing assumptions and how to really challenge yourself to be open to what the reality is instead of staying fixed on what you thought it was, and thank you for reemphasizing that.

I have to tell you, when I was doing research for our conversation, I had a big smile on my face when I saw that in your class and in your thinking about strategic communication and communicating about strategy, you talk a lot about how important storytelling is. And I’m curious if you can help us understand what makes a good story about strategy.

Jesper Sørensen: So, if you think about strategy as an argument, then I think a natural criterion suggests itself, and that criterion is logic. So, a good strategy story on the one hand has a clear narrative to it and you can follow the steps and so on and so forth, but it should also be internally coherent. And that is the realm of logic.

And philosophers and logicians have spent centuries thinking about how do we assess arguments in terms of whether or not — like, whatever assumptions you’re making, do the assumptions that you do make lead to the conclusion that you think it does? And that is, I think, incredibly important in assessing strategy stories. And where it’s particularly important is when you’re doing strategy for the future, like when you’re trying to say, “Here’s where we want to be in five years, here’s my narrative.”

Well, think about it. You’re telling a story about something that hasn’t happened yet. And so, how do you know whether that’s a good story? You can say, “Well, it resonates with me. It inspires me,” and those are important and useful criteria. But of course, they could also be foolishness. So, you want to also be able to say, “Okay, I don’t know whether all these assumptions are going to be true, and I can’t know until I act. But at least I want to know whether if they are true, will they lead to the outcome that I think they will lead to.”

In the book, Glenn and I get into a somewhat technical set of chapters on thinking about what is logical validity and soundness and so on and so forth, which I think a lot of people who are doing strategy are like, where did that come from, and I had stopped thinking about that in eighth grade or something like that. But I do think that holding on to those ideas is like — The way we should assess each other’s arguments in the first instance is by the extent to which they’re internally coherent.

Matt Abrahams: Right. And one of the things I strongly advocate whenever you’re creating content, stories, et cetera, that there is a logical coherence, things follow, and that there are premises that you could support.

I’m curious to get another dimension of story that I wonder your thoughts on, which is once you have a strategy, you have to propagate it in an organization. And sometimes I think the most effective way to do that is not putting it on posters or little notecards people have. It’s the stories that leaders tell. Do you have experience on that or thoughts on how once we have the strategy, how do we actually communicate it and use story to actually motivate people to align to that strategy?

Jesper Sørensen: First of all, I totally agree with the premise of your question. I do think that communication of these stories is really important. And I would add relentless communication.

I think one aspect of that is it’s very easy to approach management and leadership as an exercise in giving orders. And I think that’s fine. I think there’s an element to it that’s about giving delegation and giving orders. But maybe give people a little bit of grace in the sense of saying here’s why. Like here’s what I’m thinking. And just let people into your mind and your logic, because then they’re going to do a better job. I just think that’s the most important thing.

And so, I think the most you can just be aware of the need to always be communicating what your reasoning is and what your logic is, the better off you’ll be.

Matt Abrahams: I absolutely agree. And if people can internalize your logic, they can then be able to not only know what they need to do and feel confident that it’s the right thing, they can then communicate it to others. So, it becomes a way of propagating that information.

Jesper Sørensen: And they can more productively disagree with you.

Matt Abrahams: That’s true, that’s true.

Jesper Sørensen: Because then they can say, “Oh, but wait a second. You thought that this was going to be true, and it’s not. So now, Boss, we got to do something differently.” It’s not disrespectful or anything like that. It’s just like the world wasn’t the way you thought it was, and I can help you do a better job.

Matt Abrahams: Right, and it allows for that immediate feedback so you can make those adjustments, for sure.

Before we end, I’d like to ask you the same three questions I ask everyone. You okay with that?

Jesper Sørensen: Yep.

Matt Abrahams: All right. Here we go. If you were to capture the best communication advice you’ve ever received as a five- to seven-word presentation slide title, what would that be?

Jesper Sørensen: The five to seven words would be: a classroom is a theater. So, I had the pleasure of working — a number of times, actually — with a teaching coach named Barbara Lane Brown. And she was a former actor and theater director. And she really helped me think about how when you’re teaching a class, which is obviously a very strong form of communication, you’re putting on a play. And you have to think about it the same way.

So, when you’re first starting out, for example, you tend to just, “Okay, let me just start talking,” as opposed to taking command of the room. The play doesn’t start by somebody just wandering out on stage and deciding to start talking. Right?

Matt Abrahams: Well, a good play doesn’t.

Jesper Sørensen: A good play doesn’t. And a good theater performance has different characters. And so, thinking about yourself as an individual and the different characters that you might deploy in the same class, and thinking about engagement with the audience and how you move and all those other kinds of things. It was really powerful for me. It changed the way I taught, and definitely for the better.

Matt Abrahams: I have to say that I’m pleasantly surprised and a bit shocked. I see you as somebody who is — I mean, you’re a fantastic teacher, and you’re very logical and methodical. And I love that I now see behind the curtain, literally and figuratively, that you think about it as a play. And I think all of us should think about the theater of our communication.

Now I don’t mean we have to be actors, but think about the way the environment’s set up. How are you starting, as you mentioned. How do you end? How do you build excitement? And all of those are things that we can learn from acting. And thank you. That’s fantastic.

Who is a communicator that you admire and why?

Jesper Sørensen: So, having listened to your podcast, I, of course, knew you were going to ask this question. And I’m, in general, terrible at answering questions like who’s your favorite X.

Matt Abrahams: I’m sorry.

Jesper Sørensen: And so, I was stumped. No, no, no, that’s fine. So, I texted my kids — my kids are all grown — and I said how should I answer this question? And one of my sons said, “Bill Belichick,” because I’m a big New England Patriots fan. And my other son said, “The Swedish Chef,” because [we hate] the Muppets. And then my daughter said, “Emmett,” who is our dog, one of our dogs.

And I thought about it. Because what Emmett the dog does, he has this amazing ability to get me up with nonverbal communication at 5:30 in the morning. Like his just ability. So I, too, thought, well, what unifies all those? Because the thing about Bill Belichick, most people would not think of him as a great communicator because he very intentionally, actually, I think is not communicating, doesn’t want to say anything.

And so, I actually thought while I was trying to make sense of that of like why would they all say that as a response to what they thought I would be. And I think it actually has something to do with nonverbal communication.

And so, then I thought about it some more. And I actually think one of the musicians that I really have always enjoyed and loved is a jazz pianist named Keith Jarrett who has this amazing style of performance. And again, entirely nonverbal. But if you think about the way great musicians use pacing and rhythm and the ability to create drama without ever saying anything.

Because I think what I find hard about this question — it’s a great question — but what I find hard about it is it’s so hard to separate the message from the communication style. So, that’s where I think the music helps me think about, okay, I don’t really know what the message is, but I know how it moves me in different kinds of ways.

Matt Abrahams: Well, first, I am glad that I had an opportunity to bring your family together. I was very curious how you were going to have a football coach, a Muppet, and a pet lead to something. But you’re right, nonverbal communication is critical. And you were one of the very few people to answer this question focused on nonverbals. Most people speak about people who communicate and speak in a certain way.

Question number three: what are the first three ingredients that go into a successful communication recipe?

Jesper Sørensen: My first ingredient is not going to surprise, given what we have just been talking about. But I think the first ingredient is clarify your logic. So, be really clear about what your argument is. And that saying that clear thinking is what leads to clear writing or clear speaking is really key.

And when I’m oftentimes giving feedback on papers to students or whatever, it’s usually about the writing is a mess until they get to the point where they’re actually clear about what they’re trying to say. Which is oftentimes hard, so that’s not a criticism, but it’s just like that’s the process. And related to that is writing is rewriting. You have to keep doing it. What you’re doing is you’re revising your argument as you go along.

Second ingredient, I think, is imagine what the audience might hear, not just what you say. I think we focus very much on getting the words right, but not enough on what the audience’s perspective is going to be and how they’re going to interpret the words. And I think one of the ways that I got better as a case class teacher was to be able to anticipate better how students were going to interpret a question, like all the different ways they could interpret it. And that, I think, is really key.

And then I think the last ingredient, I would say, is be all parts of yourself. Which goes back to this idea of the classroom as a theater and you actually have within you many different characters that you deploy at different times: the stern person and the joking person. And that you shouldn’t be afraid of using all of them at the appropriate moments in any given communication task.

Matt Abrahams: I really like that notion of bringing your whole self and giving yourself permission to be who you are when you communicate. That’s very powerful. I feel a lot of us put on this communication person instead of who we are. And that notion of really thinking about the impact of your words on your audience and planning for some of that in advance I think speaks very nicely to your strategic thinking. And clearly logic is critical. We’ve all heard people who just ramble and we wonder why and what makes sense.

Well, Jesper, thank you so much for joining us. You made quite a convincing strategic argument for the value of strategy. And further, you help0ed us understand what makes for good strategy and good communication as well. Thank you.

Jesper Sørensen: Thank you for having me.

[Music plays]

Matt Abrahams: Thanks for joining us for another episode of Think Fast, Talk Smart: The Podcast from Stanford Graduate School of Business. This episode was produced by Jenny Luna, Michael Reilly and me, Matt Abrahams. For more information and episodes, visit gsb.stanford.edu, or subscribe to our show wherever you get your podcasts. Finally, find us on social media @stanfordgsb.

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