At the risk of dating myself, I’ll share that when I was in high school, the wildly popular television show Buffy the Vampire Slayer was coming to an end. If you’re not familiar with the show – as I wasn’t at the time – it was, and continues to be, recognized as one of the best television shows of all time.
Given its popularity, it should come as no surprise that one of my high school teachers had the idea to leverage the collective hype around the show in an attempt to create an engaging classroom lesson for us. The show made such great use of some of the literary devices we had been discussing in class, that surely there was no better way to get a group of moody highschoolers smack dab in the middle of their “I’m not participating in class discussions!” teenage years than to show us an episode of this wildly popular show.
She had recorded the final episode on VHS tape (now I’m really dating myself) and brought it in to share with the class. And that day in class, we watched the final episode of this epic seven-year saga unfold. Not only were we watching one of the best television shows of all time, but we were also watching what is considered to be one of the best episodes of the series. Mathematically, out of all television shows ever created, we were watching the top 1% of content ever produced. We were quite literally watching something considered to be among the best of the best of the best of television. In school! How lucky were we!?
As the VHS tape faded to gray with those weird squiggle lines (if you’re old enough to have watched something on VHS you know what I’m talking about), I distinctly remember my teacher confidently striding over to the VHS player. As she ejected the tape she looked up and cocked her head to the side with an assured look and said “So… what did you think?”
What did we think?! Instead of doing writing assignments or reading out of a textbook, we got to watch one of the best television episodes of all time.
And we HATED it!
It was the stupidest things I had ever seen. Witches? Vampires? Super vampires? A magical necklace? What did I just watch and how could anybody like something so stupid?
How could it be that an entire class of students watched some of the best television ever created and universally hated it?
Fast forward (pun intended) 10 years later: I’m now happily married, and my wife arrives home from the store to announce, “Look what I found at the store today!” only to triumphantly display the DVD box set of every episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Here’s how the conversation went:
Me: Why would you waste money on that?
Her: Waste money? This is my favorite show!
Me: How can you like that show? That’s the stupidest show I’ve ever seen!
Her: It’s a great show! You need to watch it.
Me: I’m not watching it.
Her: You’re watching it.
Me: I’m not watching it.
Her: You’re watching it.
So, as you do in marriage, we decided to compromise… and watched every single episode.
And I LOVED it!
My wife was right. It was – and is – a great show. So how could I have watched one of the best episodes of one of the best shows ever and completely hate it, only to watch it a decade later and completely love it?
Well, unsurprisingly, the last episode of the show made a lot more sense once I started at the beginning. By starting at the beginning, I understood the plot points, the drama, the characters, the stakes. It was no longer the stupidest thing I’d ever seen. In fact, it all made sense once I had the right context!
My teacher made the same mistake that I see senior teams make every single day. She assumed that because something was important to her and because it was high quality, it would automatically galvanize the class. But for those who had not been part of the journey, we thought it was confusing, uninspiring, and stupid – regardless of how great it actually was.
And that is exactly how many senior leaders treat their organizational strategies. They spend months (sometimes years) creating a strategy to win in evolving marketplaces, responding to shifting customer expectations, new technology, moves made by the competition, or increasing financial pressures. But when the big strategic reveal comes, no attempt is made to immerse employees in this story. It’s just one big information dump. And instead of understanding, advocacy, and action; they end up with confusion, eye rolls, and disinterest.
In other words, instead of treating your strategy like the last episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, give your employees the chance to see the story unfold from the very beginning. It’s a lot more logical and a lot more compelling.
Colby Fordham is a Principal of Strategic Growth at Root, a part of Accenture with over 20 years of experience and expertise working with G2000 organizations to successfully bring their strategy to life.