Forget the Strategy PowerPoint

Harvard Business Review

I have for decades watched CEOs and other executives try to explain a corporate strategy to a small group of senior managers or to a much larger group of staff. For the most part, it has not been a pretty sight. In the case of senior managers, I usually hear 3 or 4 different interpretations of what the boss said, or disagreements about what they thought he or she said. In either case, no alignment at the top. In the case of a larger group of staff, often many people look on blankly during the presentation. They may appreciate a CEO’s willingness to share crucial plans. But because they don’t have the context or experience, they can’t even begin to understand what is being thrown at them in a thick PowerPoint deck. And what they do see certainly doesn’t make them want to get up in the morning and come to work.

I have watched CEOs have better success communicating a good vision. It is much shorter, easier to see (literally), at best emotionally compelling. It is the place that a strategy is trying to drive the enterprise. But better success communicating the vision only goes so far. To truly help an enterprise succeed, this needs to be tightly connected to the actual strategy, and often is not. Worse, the vision can come out sounding as if it has no real content, or antiseptic or foggy.

My colleagues and I have found an alternative that is easier to communicate, more effectively aligns people, and generates and sustains energy better and for longer. We call it “The Big Opportunity” and I devote an entire chapter to it in my new book Accelerate. We have been using this in all our field work with different kinds of companies and organizations.  I have been impressed with the power of this simple, clear concept.

Briefly, here is the idea: a Big Opportunity articulates in language that is analytically accurate and emotionally compelling an opportunity that will move an organization forward in a substantial way. It is that exciting possibility which, if you can capitalize on it, will place you into a prosperous, winning future. It is related to vision and strategy in a very straightforward way: a strategy shows you what you need to get to a vision; a vision shows you what you will be doing if you get to, and are able to capitalize on, a big opportunity.

The Big Opportunity Graphic

A written statement of a Big Opportunity can be a very useful tool. It is short, like a vision statement, and unlike a strategy description which is often much longer. “Short” usually means about half a page long. The crisp clarity of it is one of its advantages. Another is its tone. Both strategies and visions can sound like: OK, this is what top management has decided and now you will go do it. Effective Big Opportunity statements direct attention to an inspiring rainbow outside; they don’t feel like a finger pointing out what the managerial and employee children should be doing inside the organization.

Big Opportunity statements, as we have used them, have real rational content (like any good strategy) and are emotionally compelling (like any good vision). Here are the basic characteristics of an effective Big Opportunity statement:

Short. Written on less than a page, often just a quarter of a page. Short length makes it easier to share with others and to create a sense of urgency among large groups of people.

Rational. It makes sense in light of real happenings inside and outside an organization. A good statement concisely addresses issues of what, why, why us, why now, and why bother.

Compelling. It is not all head. There is heart in it. And it speaks to the emotions of all relevant audiences — not just to select people and groups, excluding others.

Positive. Because it is about an opportunity, it has a positive tone. It is less like a statement about a “burning platform,” which seeks to scare us out of our complacency, and more like a statement of a “burning desire.”

Authentic. It feels real. It is not just “good messaging” to motivate the troops. The senior leadership team that puts it together, or at least signs off on it, must genuinely believe in it and feel excited about it.

Clear. You can create a statement that is short, rational, emotionally compelling… but still unclear. A great statement makes people rush off in the same direction — not different directions.

Aligned. The statement is aligned with any important existing statements of strategy in the group or organization. Or at the least, it is aware of any non-alignment and the stresses and strains that will create, so leaders are prepared for it.

In our experience, we have found that you can get 75% of a large employee population to understand, believe in, and be energized by a good Big Opportunity statement in a way that just doesn’t happen with a larger description of a business strategy or a vision. In an increasingly fast-moving world, this achievement can be hugely helpful in dealing with rapid-fire strategic challenges.

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