Every strategy starts as a story

And far too many stay that way

Before the “offsite.”

Before the POAM (Program of Action and Milestones).

Before the glossy-cover, limited print-run edition.

Before the completely unscientific balancing of ends, ways, means, and risk.

Before the unnecessary capitalization of jargony terms and phrases.

Before a single PowerPoint slide’s been crafted.

Before even the first scheduled huddle with “The Boss.”

Every strategy’s born as a story.

Strategy starts as a story of success. Maybe not fully-fleshed out, maybe not novel-length, but certainly with characters, a plot, conflict, and a resolution.

In the winter of 1776-1777, George Washington’s story was: If we attack an isolated outpost (or two), these successes will keep the “Glorious Cause” alive (and, as important, resources flowing to our army).

In the spring, summer, and fall of 1864, Ulysses S. Grant’s story was: If we keep fighting and maneuvering south around the adversary—continuous pressure not only here but everywhere—the adversary will suffocate and surrender.

In the spring and summer of 1944, Dwight D. Eisenhower’s story was: If we focus all our energy on a single concentrated attack, supported by at least two secured ports, we’ll push our adversary back from occupation and into their own home country.

In 2002 and 2003, the Bush administration’s story was: We’ll use the post-9/11 moment to rid ourselves of Saddam and his weapons that might threaten us; the world will thank us, the Iraqis will love us, the oil will pay for any rebuilding costs, and the Iraqis will quickly return to self-governance.

Sounds simplistic, doesn’t it? But isn’t that how human beings think through the world on first glance? Story is a strategy’s first sketch. It’s the architect’s pocket-notebook, the ad exec’s napkin, the accountant’s envelope-back, the notecard with some squiggles.  

Every story carries elements that will be helpful and harmful to a strategy.

It’s the strategist’s job to subject these stories to scrutiny. To force them to fit into the most basic causal explanation. As Tami Davis Biddle writes, “the strategist must be able to defend the statement, “If we use resource X, then we will achieve objective Y (or at least move in the direction of achieving objective Y).”

This is an enormous pitfall for strategy. Strategy that stays stuck in the story stage. That goes untested. That gains groupthink-momentum, a sense of unearned invincibility.

The key determinant is the organization’s leadership and the backbone of its strategist(s). If the leadership pretends the story is sufficient on its own, they’ll coast along until an adversary tests the story for them. And every story gets tested, eventually, like any real strategy.