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Strategy isn’t supposed to fit on the side of a bus.  It’s less sexy and emotionally resonant than that.  And it’s important to understand the difference.

In case you haven’t heard, the Toronto Raptors won the 2019 NBA Championships.  It was pretty magical – and the tagline “we the north” was literally on everyone’s chest during the finals.

I’ve been thinking about the force of that tagline for a while.  It’s as iconic as Just Do It.  It appeals to the primal need to belong to a tribe, to a clan, to a force of people all in sync with you.  It’s one of those rare, magical examples of a three-word chant that surpasses this moment, and becomes timeless, where the boundaries between people are erased and everyone fuses together in hope and joy.

“We the north” is a magical tagline.  But what it is not, is a strategy.


I was thinking about this because it’s really common — when we are deep in the work of creating a strategy in an organization – that someone responds to strategic themes and priorities with the comment “I can’t imagine that on the side of a bus.”

But strategy isn’t supposed to fit on the side of a bus.  It’s less sexy and emotionally resonant than that.  And it’s important to understand the difference.

Most of our work involves creating strategies for organizations and systems, and part of that is helping people understand what strategy is, exactly.  We define strategy as having a few dimensions.

At the core, it’s the story of how you want the world to see you, the story of what makes you unique.  It’s an articulation of the domains you want to focus on for the next few years that will let you fully combine your strengths, assets and energy.  It’s the encapsulation of what differentiates you against the other people in your space, so you have a way to make decisions about what to invest in, what to start and stop doing.  It’s how you’re going to organize and focus your work to get to your goals.  And it’s the way you communicate what’s you’re doing  to the outside world.

Fundamentally, strategy is a management tool.  Yes – your vision should be inspiring and should have an aspirational allure to it.  It should have a sense of what you’re reaching for, the difference you want to make.  But a good strategy also includes a lot of concrete, not-so-alluring elements that support focused decision making.

One of our clients was talking to me the other day about what strategy really means.   He said “win the NBA championship is not a strategy —  it’s a vision. But some people get that confused – they think being clear about your direction is enough.” I agreed.  The strategy behind the vision “win the championship” is all the behind the scenes stuff about trading players, hiring the right coaches, creating a cohesive, energized team that can work together, making sure you have the money to pay the players enough, investing in sports science and research, and mobilizing a fan base so the franchise is appealing to your sponsors and owners.  The boring stuff.

A tagline like “We the north” is a piece of that strategy – the rallying cry, the mobilization of fans even through tough years.  “We the north” is a powerful tagline.  It’s an emotional appeal.  And it evokes deep commitment for everyone.  But it’s not a strategy.

It looks really good on the side of a bus, though.

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Empty toolkit

For some strange reason, despite having tools and approaches that represent best practice, teams often struggle with using someone else’s tool.

I recently started taking what I think is a great program for entrepreneurs.  It focuses on helping small business leaders to grow their business while supporting them to have a balanced life. I quite like the program. It is expensive and weirdly simple, but it has really helped me think through how to best support my goals. In fact, I kind of think that all small business owners would benefit from a program like this. I have told others about the program and why I like it and so far, a total of zero other colleagues have signed up. I thought this was odd — why would someone not want the benefits of a program that from my perspective represents a best practice?

This relates to a question that comes up a lot in our work.  Teams across the healthcare system are in a continuous process of improving care and services. Through our many years of working in healthcare, we have been struck by the consistent level of passion and commitment our clients have to improve the care and experience that patients and families have. Many of these teams have discovered new ways of approaching care and through their own small ‘r’ research they have developed and evaluated new tool kits that can support others in the system to apply their learning. The interesting thing that we have noted is that while tool kit creation is growing, tool kit use may not be.

So why is that?   How is it that best evidence and best approaches often struggle to translate into practice more generally across multiple settings?

The answer might rest in the missing pieces of the puzzle: ownership!

For some strange reason, despite having tools and approaches that represent best practice, teams often struggle with using someone else’s tool. Almost every setting we come across has a profound story of uniqueness. “We have a unique culture here!”  Or – “this might work elsewhere but I am not sure this will fit for our clients.” It seems that if something is not our own, we have a tendency to dismiss part or all of it.

So, what is the answer?  “Making it your own!”

The secret to adoption of an existing practice is to always assume that the practice will need to be adopted / adapted in some way for a new setting.  All we can share with others is the framework for a new way that will be adapted in small or large ways. If it is too prescribed, it is much more difficult for others to gain a sense of ownership over the process or tool.

If we really think our great idea is worth spreading, maybe our job is to inspire a dialogue where other interested parties can talk about what they need and want and are encouraged to look at a framework, idea or tool through their unique lens. In the end, they may adopt it outright or with enough customization that it truly feels like they own it.

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Change itself isn’t hard – we’re adaptive creatures.  What is hard is having changes imposed on us that we don’t see the point of.

Last week, I was at the sinks in a public washroom and I heard the woman next to me make a frustrated sound.  She was waving her hands around under the taps but nothing was coming out. She sighed loudly and said “I can never figure out how to turn on the damn tap anymore!”

I agree.  I’m always waving my hands around under a paper towel dispenser that actually requires you to turn a knob, or trying to find the under-faucet sensor.  “Why do they have to keep changing these things?” I think as I grit my teeth.  “Why can’t they decide on one method?” Even though I think of myself as a person who is very open to new ideas – and I spend a lot of time trying to debunk the notion that “change is hard” – there are some specific places where my expectations grind up against some unanticipated change, and it’s a frustrating experience.

So what is that?  Is change automatically hard?  Or is it a particular kind of change?

When we’re teaching about change, one of the things we often have people do is to close their eyes and slowly imagine all of the changes that have taken place for them in different situations: in their professions since they finished school… in their neighbourhood since their moved in… in parenting since they were children… in the clothes they wear in the past few years…in the weather over the past month… in their bodies since they hit puberty.  That last one usually gets a laugh, but people open their eyes and get it – we’re changing all the time, every day.  Adjusting to change is part of how we orient the world.  Change itself isn’t hard – we’re adaptive creatures.  What is hard is having changes imposed on us that we don’t see the point of.

The constant barrage of different wash/dry/flush technologies is a good illustration of this for me.  In new bathrooms, there is often a brief moment where I have to figure out how to do the thing that I have been doing mindlessly for 50 years.

Why do some of us get so irritated with the endless changes to basic handwashing?  First, we didn’t ask for them, and they surprise us.  We just want to go about something we do countless times in our lifetimes without thinking about it – and suddenly our flow grinds to a halt.

Second, technological innovation in bathroom hygiene can’t seem to find common ground – sometimes you have to wave, sometimes you don’t, none of the sensors look the same – we can’t just “settle” on what we need to do, so it’s always disruptive.  And half the time it doesn’t seem to work.

And finally – and this is the most important one – for the most part, it feels to me, this change is not necessary.  Washing our hands with soap and drying them on paper towels is a pretty effective technology.  The dozens of options are irritating and interrupt our flow.  No one wants to stop and think about how to dry their hands in the bathroom.

The lesson in all of this?  Change isn’t hard in and of itself.  Look at all of the profound changes in parenting and other cultural norms that have taken place in one generation — it’s no longer acceptable to spank children, drive drunk, smoke in public buildings or casually utter racial slurs.  And unlike when I was a kid in the 1970s, most people know where their children are when they leave the house.  These are profound changes, and they happened relatively effortlessly.  Because people moved toward something better.

What IS hard is change that lands on you disruptively with no apparent reason.

We are embedded in a constantly changing, adapting environment.  In your workplace, give some thought to which of those changes are actually moving toward a generative future – and which ones are the motion-activated splashy taps.  Try to minimize those and focus on the work that truly moves you forward.  Then change becomes natural adaptation and learning, not a disruptive irritant.

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