Strategic Graffiti

In his book ‘The Execution Shortcut’ Jeroen De Flander introduces the notion of Strategic Graffiti. This is when a strategic message is passed from one level to another (or even sideways) and the message is either embellished or condensed or changed in some way that it no longer reflects the original concept. Flanders provides a very strong and well known example to illustrate this phenomenon. There were a string of commands issued from the US Army 1st Air Cavalry Division during the Vietnam War in 1967 as follows:

Divisional headquarters communicated to the brigade: “On no occasion must hamlets be burned down”

The brigade radioed to the battalion: “Do not burn down any hamlets unless you are absolutely convinced the Viet Cong are in them”

The battalion radioed the infantry company at the scene: “If you think there are any Viet Cong in a hamlet, burn it down”

The company commander ordered his troops to: “Burn down that hamlet”

There is little doubt that at every point in the communication, the person relaying the message thought they understood and had communicated the command correctly. However, the tragic result was the opposite of the key message of the original communication.

It should come as no surprise to us that when communicating our strategy, the key messages will get distorted. If it can happen in a highly structured environment like the US Army, it can happen everywhere. People, at all levels of a business or in organisations have a vested interest in the strategy and so it is only human nature to interpret in a way that suits them. Bits will be added, parts will be taken out, and the order will be changed. We have to accept that this will happen.

What we cannot accept, though, is if the key message or what Flander refers to as the “core of our big idea’ gets lost or distorted. This has to be protected at all times.

Typically, the key message or core tends to be the company Vision. This in itself is not enough though, the strategic altitude is too high. The company Vision, for practical purposes, can usually be broken down to three (or a maximum of four) Strategic Themes. One way to ensure the Strategic Themes are communicated to all levels without change (and therefore maintain the key messages) is to embed them in a Strategy Map and publish this across the entire organisation.
On a Strategy Map, the Mission, Vision and Strategic Themes are held sacrosanct, they cannot be changed at any level. Strategic Objectives might change, Metrics will almost certainly change and Initiatives/Actions will be peculiar to specific parts of the organisation. Using this structure, you have a much better chance of maintaining the core of your big idea.

Read the Intrafocus Insight article Strategic Themes for more information on this subject.