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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