3 Tips: What Your Strategy Needs, But is Missing

Meet Larry

Director of Human Resources

Larry runs the Human Resources group at a Fortune 1000 company. He’s on top of the latest trends and is always well-read on what works when it comes to engaging employees. He rolls out training, creates awards programs, and measures progress. But something’s off. Despite tremendous focus, turnover is still high and his employee engagement scores have barely moved – which is costing the company big dollars. Needless to say, his leadership team is perplexed and not pleased because growth plans have been stymied and the company isn’t where they think it should be. Larry is frustrated and worried because he truly believes he and his team have put some great programs in place.
He thinks to himself:

“What is with this company? I sent out memos explaining the training process we designed to support our growth goals. And I told everyone what it would take to win an award in the town hall meeting. The team leaders were supposed to reinforce all of this directly with their people so there wasn’t any confusion.  But something’s missing. I can’t believe we’re going to need to revisit this whole thing again. This will be the third time in two years that we go back to the drawing board on engaging our employees. And, gosh, what does that say about my leadership? My thinking?”

While Larry tries to figure out why his strategy has gone awry, and what to do it about it, consider the following data:

  • Unlike Larry, who believes the company has a sound strategy, including an initiative to engage employees, 54% of executives say they do not believe their company’s strategy will lead to success.1
  • 64% of leaders say the biggest frustration for managers is having too
    many conflicting priorities.2
  • 39% of workers feel their manager does not know how to best contribute to the company.3
  • 40% of employees don’t understand the company’s vision.4 Now, take a look at this:

While both the data and the image convey similar information about an organization, which one are you most likely to remember after one hour? One month? One year? Now think back to any PowerPoint, memo, or bulleted list you’ve received from a leader. How much of an impression do the words make compared to what a visual may have made?

Now look at this picture that shows a company’s view of its marketplace and sets up the new strategy it is about to launch.

Imagine, instead of sending out a memo to introduce your people to a new initiative like Larry did, your company rolled out a new strategy by holding small-group discussions around an image, an image that literally showed where the company was today, where it was headed, how it would get there, and what role you play. How do you think this would change people’s understanding of the organization and what was being asked of them?

“Say it with words and you’re lucky if they hear it or bother to read it. Tell your story with imagery, and it grabs your attention, evokes emotion, and is more instantly processed.” 5

If you’re like most people, you’ll remember the Canyon and Pepsi images here and be able to relate the stories they tell months – even years – from now. Studies find that the human brain deciphers image elements simultaneously, while language is decoded in a linear, sequential manner – taking more time to process. Our minds just react differently to visual stimuli.

Instead of sending out an email full of text, Larry really needed some visuals and metaphors to explain why what he was asking of employees was important. He needed to give them a clear and full understanding of what it looked like to achieve the goal and how they fit into the big picture.

“93 percent of communication is nonverbal.”
Psychologist Albert Mehrabian

1. Metaphors

The strength of metaphor is the emotional connection it creates with people about the “life-and-death” struggles playing out within an industry or organization. Metaphors make it obvious that if we continue to do what we’ve done in the past, we do so at our own peril. This is a powerful way to engage people in your vision for the company.


  • Allow us to simplify new or complex information by comparing it with something we already know.
  • Accomplish graphically what zip files do for data management: “shrink-wrap” large  amounts of information into manageable, usable formats.
  • Create a visual, common language that helps people more easily exchange data, share information, and discuss the business   so they can drive performance.

Larry needed to give his people some context and compare what he was asking of them to something they already understood. Things would have gone much more smoothly for him.

As Aristotle said, “The greatest thing by far is to be a master of metaphor.”

2. Visualization

By using visuals to appeal to most learners, we give ourselves the greatest chance of creating an engaged and knowledgeable workforce.

While conveying information through metaphor is a powerful technique, adding imagery and visualization greatly enhances learning and information retention. Learning happens when we stimulate the senses. In some people, one sense is used more than others. Presenting materials that stimulate as many senses as possible increases the chances of successful learning.6 One study7 presents four findings that support the use of visualization in learning:

  • People learn about 11% audibly and 83% visually.
  • Memory improves with imagery because it involves  “conjoint retention” of information encoded in different parts of the brain.
  • Studies show that technicians make about three times as many errors when using narrative instructions as when using flowcharts.
  • Learners sometimes need to see the literal “big picture” to prepare them for the details of a close-up view.

So what does all this mean for businesses? Visualization is a critical ingredient of employee engagement that delivers numerous benefits to organizations:

  • It forces us to “think simpler.” You can’t draw a crisp picture of something that hasn’t been thought through in great detail.
  •  It captures the drama and emotions of the business by illustrating struggles, risks, threats, opportunities, and emotion in ways that data and words cannot.
  • It challenges complacency and inspires activism by conveying how the business looks, and also how it feels.

Visuals help us think strategically by showing us the whole picture. This is what gets people to focus on the major forces that drive business rather than on the everyday tactics that often occupy too much time.

3. Discussion

So, how do organizations successfully leverage visualization and metaphors in the workplace? How does Larry use these as tools to engage everyone in his initiative and the company’s overall goals? By factoring in how people learn.

You can take it all the way back to Socrates. He engaged small groups of people to question and challenge their assumptions. Even then, he knew people needed other people to sort things out.

The most effective way to activate strategies and achieve better results is to change the conversations and the manners in which they are had.

In 1899, psychologist and educator William James asserted that adopting a single scientific perspective about a phenomenon only limits what can be learned about it because neither the whole of truth, nor the whole of good, is revealed to any single observer. This boils down to: taking a single view of anything is just entirely too narrow and serves basically no one. A man ahead of his time.

Over a century later, the work of education researchers Kaplan and Bracey emphasizes the point that learning is enhanced when the learner is engaged in discussion with others.

From way back in human history, all roads point to the effectiveness of sharing with others, learning from them, and appreciating varying perspectives. Socratic dialogue is still around today for a reason. It doesn’t mean having a wide-open free-for-all. It means that the questions are directed and connected to the strategy – they just don’t have a single right or wrong answer.

This is how you activate and sustain your strategy. When people can test their assumptions, learn from others, and abandon the fear of needing to be exactly right, we can unleash a search for ideas that changes mindsets and behaviors. By revealing unseen barriers, bringing hidden reservations into the open, and by collaborating with others in the process, we are better able to create new solutions and succeed in executing any new strategy.

Final Step: Blend for Success

If only Larry had known that research in psychology, neuroscience, and education demonstrates these facts about learning:

  • Metaphor is essential.
  • Visualization enhances comprehension and retention.
  • Small-group discussion facilitates the learning process and results in behavior change.

There they are – three tips for your (and Larry’s!) next strategic endeavor. Using metaphor, visualization, and discussion will take you places you’ve never been with your employees.

At Chiquita, 87% of management survey respondents said sessions with visuals helped them understand how Chiquita will execute the new strategy, and 89% understand the opportunities to grow as a result of the trends affecting the business.

At Scotiabank, 95% of people who participated in an approach that included metaphors, visualization, and small-group discussion agreed the method helped them understand the components of the Sales and Service business strategy. Additionally, 93% said it helped them understand their role, and 90% stated it helped them understand the bank’s brand position.

And when Starbucks took its employees through visualization sessions, its leaders agreed it was a great opportunity for people to interact, connect with peers, and enhance learning retention. These tools have helped countless leading brands all over the world engage their people in creative, memorable ways that make a real impact.

1 Booz & Company survey of more than 3,500 global leaders, June 2013
2 Booz & Company survey of more than 3,500 global leaders, June 2013
3 America’s Workforce Survey, January 2012
4 America’s Workforce Survey, January 2012
5 Lambert and Carpenter report, 2005
6 Lieb, 1991
7 Kirrane, 1992

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