Changing the Way the World Thinks about Strategy

By Thomas E. Ambler, Senior Consultant

This article was previously published in Compass Points September 2007

Strategic Planning Expert

Strategic Planning Expert

What stories do you find yourself repeatedly telling people inside and outside your walls to illustrate “who you are” and what values are key to your organization’s success? Why do you do that? I’ll tell you why. You recognize that people love stories, particularly ones that reflect human struggle and triumph and illustrate lasting values.

If you are a leader and are not sharing important stories with others, you are missing out on a significant strategic success factor used by many companies you admire and probably your competitors as well. Why are stories really important? They are typically the best means of intentionally communicating your values. The beauty of a story is that you need only remember the “punch line” and you can reconstruct the whole story and easily internalize its meaning. In several of my previous articles (1) I have made the case for how crucial core values are to culture and how crucial culture is to sustainable competitive advantage. Culture influences all aspects of every organizational function–culture is the “glue” of an organization. As noted in the previous articles, culture is tantamount to being a “squishy” strategic competency and can be a cornerstone of a winning strategy.

Many highly successful organizations rely heavily on stories. Which ones come to your mind? How about Nike, GE, Johnson & Johnson, Wal-Mart, HP, Southwest Airlines, IBM or Fedex? How about the Navy Seals, or The Metropolitan Opera? How about your own organization and some of your customers or suppliers?

How familiar are you with some of the ins and outs of storytelling? Let’s take a look at some of them.

Storytelling Principles

Nike and GE are great examples from which to extract some principles of effective storytelling for shaping winning cultures. Both have:

  • Clearly defined the cultural values they want to promote (perpetuate or change) — (e.g., GE’s “Shared Values,” which committed to such cultural characteristics as continual change, constructive conflict, pervasive doing the right thing, etc.)
  • Identified heroes with heroic stories that communicate values — (e.g., Nike founders Bowerman and Knight and runner Prefontaine with their legendary innovative spirit and commitment to helping athletes and to “Just Doing It”)
  • Icons that symbolize their values– (e.g., GE’s Crotonville Management Development Institute or Nike’s store, which is Nike’s Smithsonian Institute)
  • Processes that fosters effective, organic transmission of the values to all who need to believe in them and adopt them for their shared success–(e.g., GE’s “Work-out” process of management development and modeling by top management or Nike’s high-level, traveling “storytellers, who work with all levels in the company and with value chain partners)

Additional principles to consider incorporating into your culture-building process include:

  • Heroes: The companies above had ready-made heroes for great stories. Organizations that recognize the importance of culture will not only use existing heroes but will often create heroes to provide the story that conveys the desired cultural trait. Created heroes are often energized to do heroic deeds because they know that they have been placed in positions that are both highly visible and have produced situational heroes in the past. Outlaws and mavericks also make great heroes for stories.
  • Cultural Network: Your leadership team needs to recognize and exploit your organization’s “Cultural Network.” This major part of the amorphous, informal organizational structure that doesn’t show up on your official Organization Chart is a very real and powerful force for exercising influence over the direction of the organization and for promoting cultural characteristics that you want to have stick. There are recognizable roles in most Cultural Networks, including:
    • The Storytellers (share the stories of the heroes, shape the values of new employees, have access to a lot of information)
    • The Priests (guardians of the values and shepherds of the flock, helping in times of personal need)
    • The Whisperer (has the ear of key people)
    • The Administrative Assistants
    • The Spy (a storyteller loyal to you and “watching your back”)
    • The Gossip
    • The Cabal (two or more people, who in a common situation will act in unison)

Like any networking process cultural networking requires a continuing investment in getting to know your people at multiple levels. (To understand Cultural Networks at a deeper level, consult the book entitled, Corporate Cultures–The Rites and Rituals of Corporate Life (2).)

  • Story Development Process: Developing stories is an art worth cultivating. It involves multiple steps:
    • Finding stories–Finding stories that support your values may require a harvesting process with your people that draws out the gemstones from history that represent “who you are” and inform how you do things.
    • Digging into stories–Draw out things like moments of great pride or a person who has had great impact inside or outside of the organization. Multiple stories that illustrate the same value are powerful.
    • Selecting Stories–Generally, you will select stories because they support a goal or espoused value of the organization. For credibility, one must be certain that the stories shared have enough “shadows” of the organization to include people who may be on the margins and to indicate where there are disconnects between reality and desired condition. You need a real-life balance of dark and light stories about the organization.
    • Crafting Stories–Stories need to be concrete, full of details and compelling to engage people at every level.
    • Embodying Stories–Live oral storytelling is far preferable to video, which is passive. It can be enhanced by props, pictures, icons, etc. Live is a full body experience that builds a relationship with trust and makes the stories real and engaging.

(To delve further into story development consult the book entitled, Wake Me Up When the Data Is Over (3).)

Stories are a means of branding–internally and externally. Those that have real value for internal culture are often the very same ones that can cement your market brand (e.g., Nordstrom and the legendary return of tires or 3M and the serendipitous development of Post-Its). Know your stories, manage your stories and milk your stories.

Good or bad, your organization will have a culture and it will have its values. They can either (a) be clearly understood and fostered to become a big-time, winning strength or (b) they can be fuzzy and confused and dilute your effectiveness. It’s your choice–winning cultures don’t happen by accident. They are built, transformed and sustained by focusing energy and continual commitment, much of it through stories. Are you winning with yours?

1. T. E. Ambler, “The Strategic Value of Values,” Compass Points (CSSP’s Quarterly Newsletter); “Know Thyself–Culture in Strategic Management,” Course and Direction(CSSP’s E-zine); “Winning the High Way–Organizational Success by the Golden Rule,”Course and Direction (CSSP’s E-zine) (all available free from the Article Archives in the Tools and Resources section of
2. Terrence E. Deal and Allan A. Kennedy, Corporate Cultures–The Rites and Rituals of Corporate Life, (Cambridge, MA: Perseus Publishing, 2000)
3. Lori L. Silverman, Wake Me Up When the Data Is Over–How Organizations Use Stories to Drive Results, (San Francisco,CA: Jossey-Bass, 2006)

For more information on how to take your strategic planning to the next level please listen to our webinar: Why Isn’t My Strategic Planning Working?

© Copyright 2011 by Center for Simplified Strategic Planning, Inc., Ann Arbor, MI — Reprint permission granted with full attribution.

Tom Ambler is a Senior Consultant with Center for Simplified Strategic Planning, Inc. He can be reached by email at

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