Corporate strategy is a funny beast.

It’s often built from a few extremely well worn phrases: statements like “We are one team”, or “Sustaining the future”, or “Empowerment”, perfectly executed in the brand colours and font, as tall and wide as the most prominent office wall allows.

Some of your more cynical colleagues suggest it can all sound a little 1984-esque. But most people ignore these statements: research shows our brains actually switch off when we hear clichés. Even when we make people wear these words around their necks every day, they ignore them. The words are the starting point of 200-page-long “agile transformation blueprints”, “pyramids”, “love keys”, and “brand onions”. Most of us ignore those too.

Why? Why does the clear and guiding light that the C-suite wants to become a fog generator for the company’s people and customers? And how do you find your way out of it?

Behavioural science has some answers.

From top-down to bottom-up

Imagine you’re on your C-suite away day. You’ve hired a top consultancy and they’ve got everyone in the room energised and focused. In three hours you’ve come up with a fresh vision (or purpose, or core idea, or whatever it’s called this week). It has a PR-able social dimension, and you can fully explain why you’ve picked these things to your stakeholders, colleagues, and customers.

Unfortunately at this point, you’re probably suffering from The Ikea effect: like the shelves we build for ourselves at home, we put more value on something if we’ve made it ourselves than other people do. But you can make that effect work for you: involve people beyond the top team and more people will feel that sense of ownership.

In the jargon, this is “co-creation”. Maybe it’s about working groups to flesh out how you’ll show and deliver “one team”. Maybe every employee gets an equal vote on what your strategy should be. You might even try to find out about the personal values of your people, and match your corporate values to those. The point is to include as many people as you can.

From words to behaviour

Think about the last time you tried to get a child to stop having a tantrum. You could say “In this family, our aim is to always be well behaved”. But that would probably be met with continued crying and rolling on the floor. In real life, we instinctively focus on their behaviour: “get up”; “follow me”; “put the sweets down”.

Behavioural science helps us understand the difference between giving people a goal, like “be healthy”, and giving them practical steps to hit that goal, like “eat five pieces of fruit and veg a day”. There’s lots of evidence that focussing on day-to-day behaviour is the only way abstract big picture thinking to work.

The same applies to strategy. You need to give people clear and defined steps that lead to the goal. If your culture is to ‘empower’, then don’t just talk about it, change how your business works to empower people: let the people doing the work set the timelines. Let call centre staff decide the outcome of a complaint. Give votes on HR issues to employees as well as the board. (Changing what people actually do also shifts their attitude than any amount of top-down communication.)

Test what’s actually working

A crucial insight from psychology is that as humans, we spend a lot of our time substituting questions. If a question seems too big, we’ll trick ourselves into answering an easier question. Instead of answering “Am I healthy?”, we ask ourselves: “Do I eat salads sometimes?”. Because we’ve answered a question, we feel good. Feeling good offsets the fact we didn’t answer the first, trickier question (and justifies our whole tub of ice cream in one sitting).

Say you wanted to “put customers first” as your strategy. Maybe you’ve hired a whole bunch of Customer Experience people and given them a fancy toolkit. They’re happy, and you’re happy: it feels like you now have progress towards being more customer-centric.

The hard question you need to answer in time is: “Are we actually putting customers first?” But often we substitute easier ones: Is my Customer Experience team changing things? Are they spending a lot of time changing things? Is everyone involved happy? Did I pay a lot to make this happen?

But answering those questions doesn’t mean you’re necessarily answering the harder one.

This is where well defined behaviour come back in. You can measure that people are really doing the practical things that lead to your strategic goals, and make sure that behaviour is having an impact on your business results. That way you can prove your strategy isn’t just languishing in a PowerPoint deck, but really making a difference.

The brutal truth is that just because a strategy’s clear, it doesn’t guarantee that anything ever changes. Thinking about how people actually think and behave means you might need to shift your focus. Yes, paint a big picture. But you also need to think about the 10,000 tiny behavioural brushstrokes that make it up.

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