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Linguistics and Your Strategy – Life or Death

August 15, 2013

Good linguistics can make your strategy much more compelling, easier to
understand and improve execution.  Then again, it can kill all the effort
you put into creating a strategy.  In fact, most organizations employ linguistics
that just stomp the life out of a strategy.  How about you?  Keep reading
and let’s find out, but more importantly, let me share a couple of linguistic
tips that work great to make-over your strategy.

Ok first the bad news.  A lot of strategic plans come across my desk,
and most have very common linguistic mistakes.  As I describe them,
you’ll know right away if they fit what you have for a strategy as well.

Linguistic mistake #1.
Here’s some examples of strategy statements… what’s wrong with them?
– Investor Satisfaction
– Balanced Budget
– Green

Hopefully this jumps off the page at you, but the problem is they are
labels.  You could print them and stick them on a folder (which is where
the strategy is probably going next… that’s not good).

The first linguistic mistake is to define your strategy with something that
is essentially a categorization process, a label.  It serves the need to feel
organized, but doesn’t define or launch a strategy well at all.  Don’t do this.

Easy remedy for Linguistic mistake #1 (labels):
I use this term “actionate” to describe how to fix it, but that’s probably
poor linguistics as well as you wouldn’t know what I mean.  So here’s
what I want you to do.  Take each of those labels, and put a verb in front
and some type of metric on the back end.

Treat your label like a hot dog, and wrap it with verbs and  metrics, and
“walla” it suddenly becomes more actionable… hence the term actionate.

Let’s take that first label above – Investor Satisfaction.  Put a verb in front,
let’s choose “Improve”, no let’s make it more compelling, let’s choose
“Significantly improve”.  Then add a metric at the back end.  Let’s choose

Now look at the strategy statement:
From: Investor Satisfaction
To: Dramatically Improve Investor Satisfaction by a minimum of 15%.

Source: University of Cambridge – http://www.mml.cam.ac.uk/research-committee.html

Quite a difference and all we did was apply a linguistic or language form
change.  Here’s one more tip.  Well first a bit of explanation.

There’s some great information of specific do’s and don’ts when it comes
to crafting strategy.  Peter Chisambara has done an excellent job in his
blog “The Four Major Characteristics of a Bad Strategy” of reviewing
Richard Rumelt’s book, Good Strategy/Bad Strategy.  Covering
mistakes you can avoid, like confusing performance goals with strategy
(which I see a lot of) or failing to identify and address the “challenge.”

That leads me to…
Linguistic mistake # 2.
If you agree with me (even if you don’t, just hang with this one for a moment),
that all strategy should be focused on how to “grow” or “move the organization
forward”.  Then the strategy needs to be clear about the reason’s or hypothesis
about what the obstacles are in the way of growth, before a plan to overcome
them is likely to be accurate, much less make sense.

Boy, have I lost you?  Got wordy on this one.  Here it is.  Failure to identify,
to write out, the assumptions, the root cause analysis, underlying the obstacles
to be overcome… is like… I don’t know, you fill in something bad or ineffectual
here, you’re probably already thinking of a good word.

When you don’t get clear on your hypothesis about the issues holding back
the growth or the moving forward process, guess what happens?  The rest of
your plan’s value runs the risk of being entirely misguided, useless, a waste
of everyone’s time.   Did I say that strong enough?

Take a quick look, back to the Customer Satisfaction strategy.  Here’s the
first three strategic initiatives you might see underneath it.
Strategy #1: Customer Satisfaction
– 1. Establish a customer friendly environment
– 2. Build a customer engagement strategy
– 3. Develop customer cultural sensitivity

Ok, so here’s how I see it.  When you think of any growth strategy, it’s best
to start out by being accurate about what’s holding the improvement back.
So if you want to build customer satisfaction, it’s best to start (write them out)
with your research, findings, assumptions about what’s driving customer
satisfaction.  Otherwise your plan, like the one above, may sound and
look good, but be a total waste of time.

So, what about that plan above?  What if the biggest driver or obstacle for
customer satisfaction, was not delivering timely service?  All three of
the action items would be misguided and relatively worthless in terms
of improving customer satisfaction.  All of this just takes the legs out
from under any enthusiasm about paying attention to the strategy.
Your front line people will recognize it’s not a high-value add.  Good
luck on executing this strategy.

Easy remedy for Linguistic mistake #2 (assumptions):

Always define the assumptions (even better if you have actual data) about
what is the obstacle holding back or driver for improving the area your
strategy is targeting.  Write it out!  Do it as part of the definition of
your strategic goal.  Consider it “ill formed” until you have completed that.
Then, and only, then put together your strategic initiatives.  They’ll make
a lot more sense… work better as well.

Bottom Line:
Everyone wants to create effective strategies,  and yet most strategic
plans are decidedly lacking.  You can immediately improve your
strategic plan by 1) Actionating the text (verb before, metric after)
and 2) Defining the assumptions behind what will drive growth.
Most strategies need a make-over, have some fun with it, the pay-offs
can be tremendous.


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