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3 Ways to Clearly Communicate Your Company’s Strategy

By Constantinos C. Markides and Andrew MacLennan for Harvard Business Review

A pilot once told us a story about an accident on an early morning flight in the 1950s. As the aircraft accelerated to take off, the captain noticed his flight engineer’s sullen expression and called out, “Cheer up, George.” But in his sleepy state, what the engineer heard was, “Gear up, George” — and he duly raised the landing gear — prematurely as they were not quite airborne. The aircraft sank onto its fuselage and slid to a halt, causing much damage. Luckily, nobody was hurt.


The story illustrates an important point: miscommunication and misunderstanding are both much more likely when context is unclear or not shared. Had George known that the topic of conversation was his mood rather than the flying of the plane, he would have been less likely to misunderstand what his captain was communicating to him, and he most certainly would not have acted the way he did.

What does this have to do with strategy? In survey after survey, employees of even successful companies claim that they do not know their organizations’ strategies. This is not for lack of communication by top management because the evidence shows that leaders spend a lot of time, effort, and resources trying to explain strategy to their people. George’s story suggests an explanation.


Our experience suggests that leaders at many companies communicate strategy without providing the necessary context for employees to understand what the words and sentences in a strategy statement mean or why a particular strategy was chosen, relative to others considered and rejected. For example, a statement that says: “a key element of our strategy is to leverage the benefits of our integrated model” may make perfect sense to the leader who has thought deeply about the company’s business model but may mean nothing to the average employee who does not even understand what an integrated model is or why this particular model was chosen in the first place.


Why don’t leaders provide this context? Quite simply, the answer is that it is impossible. When they make big and difficult choices that strategy requires, corporate leaders have considered a wealth of data and information about competitors, customers and market dynamics, utilizing in the process their own judgment — and that of other executives and advisers — developed over many years of experience. They cannot even begin to communicate all the implicit, often tacit knowledge that brought them to a particular decision, which means that they can never really explain their choices.


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