Why you shouldn’t use bullet points when creating strategy

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As part of strategy development, its commonplace for a presentation to be put together to wrap everything up.  Invariably, that presentation is full of bullet points – to the point now that we don’t even notice.

But, have you thought about the negative impact those bullet points might be having on your strategic outcome?

What’s wrong with them?

There are three key reasons for not using bullet points to communicate your strategy:

1. They are, by their nature, too generic.

Bullet points fail to focus on the specifics required to make a strategy work.  Look at the following examples:

  • Reduce high delivery costs
  • Determine the new HR recruitment process
  • Refine the unit cost management system
  • Accelerate product development times

These are typical of examples seem in strategy documents within businesses, but are so generic they could almost come from any business in any sector.  Now, the managers who created the plan probably know the detail behind these statements, so to them they all make sense.  But to those not involved in the three day ‘wet towel wrapped around the head’ strategy workshop they are almost meaningless.  Which is a shame because they are the people who invariably need to put the strategy into action…

2. Bullet points leave critical relationships undefined or unspecified.

Lists can only communicate three things:

  • They can identify members of a set (eg list of parts to build a printer)
  • They can show a sequence (start here and follow the list to the end) or
  • They can show priority (usually top down in importance).

What they can’t show are critical relationships between elements within the list.  Sometimes, this can be a good thing as the ambiguity might help to make the list palatable to an audience with widely varying views – but that isn’t a good thing when trying to outline a clear strategy.  The reality is, lists only create an illusion of clarity because the reader is left to make their own assumptions about any relationships within it.  This then leads to the third point.

3. Bullets leave critical assumptions unstated

Let’s say that part of our plan states that we’re going to:

  • Increase market share by 20%
  • Increase profits by 15%
  • Increase new product introductions to 5 a year

The list in no way identifies or explains how these objectives tie together or sequence.

  • Is our increased market share going to increase profits so that we can speed up product introduction?
  • Or are we going to increase our product line so that we can get more market share and then increase profits?
  • Or are we going to raise prices so that increased profits can speed up product development which will, in turn, increase our market share?

Without being clear as to which model we plan to use the executers of the strategy are no better off in understanding what we need to do to make it a success.

I said there are three key things wrong with using bullet points but actually, there are four. And the fourth one is perhaps the most critical. 

Using bullet points allows the author to not think too deeply about what they are writing

Writing is thinking; using bullet points rather than writing something out in full allows people to skip much of the thinking really required to make the strategy work properly; it allows us to trick ourselves that we’ve really thought things through when, in fact, we haven’t.

So, what’s the alternative?

Tell a story about what your strategy is.  Telling a story requires thought, and it requires structure and logical sequence.  Properly told it easy to follow, cuts out ambiguity, explains relationships and also becomes something strong, powerful and memorable for people to take forward.

Done properly it has different phases, starting with a scene-setting.  This is where the present-day situation is described – where we are, what is happening in the market, why we need to change etc.  This is usually familiar to most of the audience but also provides a common start point and background for those not in the know.

Then there is the dramatic conflict stage.  This is where it is explained what will happen if change doesn’t occur or a solution isn’t found.  What are the obstacles to success?

Finally, there is the resolution phase where the storyteller explains how the conflicts are going to be resolved and how the obstacles are going to be overcome. 

To bring it all together coherently means that the storyteller must think clearly, precisely and logically about how each part of the story comes together, it highlights critical elements needed for success and it stops the audience making their own assumptions about how the plan will work.

It also provides a richer, and more personal picture of the strategy that people can engage with and feel part of.

So, when deciding how to communicate your next strategy – avoid the PowerPoint and do some storytelling instead.

(And before anyone point it out, yes, I am aware that I’ve used a lot of bullet points in this article – but those bullets aren’t telling the story!)


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