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Why your strategy isn’t like a cheeseburger

Simply describing company strategy as a "cheeseburger" without providing clarity will leave your employees wondering if they're the sauce or the bun, writes Art Petty.

7 min read



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In many organizations, strategy work is still a slow, clinical exercise by a limited number of people — typically senior executives, that is imposed on the organization. Today’s world demands a more agile, broader involvement process with fast cycles of ideation, execution, learning and refresh. Yet, in all settings, there’s still a significant risk of what I’ve named the Cheeseburger Phenomenon — a state of confusion over the strategy and what it means for everyone in the organization.

art petty

In this article, I share one CEO’s attempt at clarifying strategy that backfired horribly and ideas to help all leaders tap into the creative power of their organizations as they navigate strategy work.

The Incident: “Our Strategy is Like a Cheeseburger”

I once worked for a creative, unconventional CEO who, with the best of intentions, dumbed down our strategy to a level that absolutely no one understood. We had worked for months, engaged consultants, clients and business partners and attempted to be open and inclusive about the strategy work. Yet, the strategy was an abstract concept for most of the firm’s 400 employees working hard at their day jobs. It was made more so by what happened next.

When this kind, thoughtful CEO at a quarterly town hall meeting who hated lengthy, confusing slide decks pronounced, “Our strategy is like a cheeseburger.” He even used a big image of a cheeseburger for all to see. People were genuinely confused, and members of the strategy teams were dumbfounded. Employee reactions included: “Are we the lettuce or the tomato?” “I bet we’re the bun.” “We’re the special sauce,” and a few other less polite comments. The debate was on.  Ultimately consensus suggested we were the cheese, but no one could define what that meant in terms of our investment priorities or market moves.

I’m always hesitant to share this story because this (late) individual was a friend with a creative streak that knew no boundaries. His attempt was noble, just not well thought out in this case. He was a servant leader, and sometimes his combination of creativity and desire to serve collided and created a mess. His example is one we can learn from.

Three big ideas to ensure your strategy isn’t a cheeseburger

  1. Help everyone understand the idea of strategy

There are two words in the business lexicon that, if you asked a dozen top executives to define, would generate wildly different and sometimes conflicting viewpoints: leadership and strategy. We’ll leave the leadership one alone for a moment and focus on strategy.

In a nod to my former CEO, I like creative examples that help clarify complex topics. When introducing the idea of strategy to an organization for the first time, I suggest everyone think about that game that has ruined more family holiday gatherings than discussions of politics or religion. I am, of course, referencing the game of Monopoly. (I’ve used different games based and sports examples based on the culture of the individuals involved.)

For everyone who has encountered this game at some point, they know the goal is to bankrupt the other players. When I ask them what their strategy is for achieving this goal, I hear some creative, experience-based answers:

“Buy Boardwalk and Park Place of course, and build hotels as fast as possible.”

“Do anything you can to own the railroads. People land on them all the time.”

“I do everything I can to corner the orange and red properties and then collect money.”

“Buy the cheap properties, build on them and nickel and dime everyone else to death.”

“It’s the yellows for me. They’re an incredible value, and everyone lands on them.”

Those are just a few responses I’ve heard when asking this question. In a fun exchange and some interesting opinions about approaches. People suddenly understand the idea of using limited resources to make decisions in pursuit of a desired outcome, which is the essence of strategy.

Sharing the idea of strategy with something we can all relate to is a great approach to jump-starting thinking. My CEO described above attempted to do just that, yet the strategy inherent in a cheeseburger isn’t immediately or ever apparent.

  1. Treat strategy work as a full-contact organizational activity

When working with clients, I help them build an Inform/Ask/Input loop. This is where the core strategy team members are accountable for engaging their teams, informing them of the process and progress and, importantly, asking for input.

What starts as mostly a briefing process quickly gains steam as individuals across the organization share insights and ideas. In some of the most successful examples I’ve observed, subgroups across functions formed to take on discrete tasks such as analyzing competitors, exploring new business models, identifying potentially relevant technologies, etc.

If the work of strategy is cloistered in a conference room, don’t expect people to understand it when you unveil the outcome, and don’t expect them to be able to add value quickly. While the strategy approach defined in that closed room might be viable, it’s a cheeseburger to the rest of the organization.

  1. Embrace: minds follow hearts

I see this point, “Minds Follow Hearts,” ignored most often in strategy work. To many involved directly in strategy work, it’s clinical, critical thinking, blended with some creativity and a lot of data. And, while the resultant approach to the organization’s situation might be spot-on and brilliant, top leaders discount the need for individuals to internalize the ideas and, importantly, grow passionate about bringing a strategy to life. Because everyone knows a new strategy means new approaches and, likely, a lot of change, people are reticent to embrace something just on logic alone.

I’ve listened as CEOs and other top executives expressed frustration over the lack of enthusiasm for a new strategy. “Why don’t they get it?” one intoned. “We’ve kept them in the loop, asked their input and been transparent the whole time,” they added.

My quick response is, “Thank goodness you did all of those things to inform and involve them, or you would be in a real mess now.” The more important question I ask is, “What have you done to appeal to them on a personal level and have them excited about the work of bringing a new strategy to life?” This is, of course, the missing part.

Too many expect the logic of the strategy to generate excitement. In reality, the ability to contribute and connect with the work of strategy at their level is the important and missing issue keeping them from committing their hearts and minds.

One solution to this is to draw upon the military concept of the Commander’s Intent. The target or mission is clearly defined, the roles of each group outlined, parameters established and then people are empowered to execute on their part. While you can change the name and avoid the military tie-ins if you desire, the concept is brilliant for moving from ideas into actions.

Leaders must create clarity and gain involvement for strategy to succeed

In my experience, those close to the customers, business partners and competitors have the best views of what’s needed in a winning strategy. It’s wrong that they’re often the last to learn a new strategy. Work unceasingly to fix this problem. Help them develop clarity on the simple concept of strategy and find ways to let them define how to get there. Or, you can wonder whether, in your strategy, what part of the cheeseburger you are and what it means.


Art Petty is an executive and emerging-leader coach, author, speaker and workshop presenter with experience guiding multiple software firms to positions of market leadership. Visit Petty’s Management Excellence blog and Leadership Caffeine articles.

Opinions expressed by SmartBrief contributors are their own.


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