By: Rich Horwath
A near-death experience (NDE) is characterized by multiple possible sensations including detachment from the body, feelings of levitation, extreme fear, total serenity, absolute dissolution and the presence of light.
A poorly run strategic planning session creates the same sensations.
How often have you sat in a strategic planning session and felt the sensations of a near-strategy experience (NSE):
1. Detachment from reality: In many organizations, there's an 800 lb. gorilla of an issue that people refuse to bring up for a host of reasons ranging from sensitivity to internal politics to simple refusal to acknowledge the problem. It might be the continued slide to commoditization of offerings, obsolete technology, out-dated tactics, or a lack of strategic direction. Either way, it's business-as-usual which means business-in-trouble.
2. Feelings of levitation: Research has shown that when groups forecast their futures, they tend to be overly optimistic. In my experience, much more time is spent discussing the strengths and opportunities than addressing weaknesses and minimizing threats. Good facilitation moves through a range of frameworks to generate new insights around all four areas of the business: market, customers, competitors and company--uncovering the good, the bad and the ugly.
3. Extreme fear: If the strategic planning session has been poorly planned and weakly facilitated, participants begin to realize the group has no direction, no competitive advantage and no solutions for moving forward. Enter extreme fear: fear for the company's future, fear for their jobs and fear for their family's financial well-being.
4. Total serenity: Another off-shoot of a poor strategic planning session is a lack of different opinions, healthy debate and the willingness to challenge why and how the group is doing things. The group then enters a kind of strategic fairyland where everything about the business sparkles with pixie dust. A faux serenity falls over the group when the key challenges are brushed away in favor of the "everything's fine" mentality.
5. Absolute dissolution: Dissolution is the breaking up of something. In today's harsh economic environment where multi-billion dollar organizations are continuing to file for bankruptcy, a lack of strategic thinking and planning pave the path to dissolution. Research shows that the number one cause of bankruptcy is bad strategy. Bad strategy comes from a lack of strategic thinking, which leads to bad strategic planning. Make no mistake, your organization's future is not guaranteed.
6. Bright light: Groups that muddle through strategic planning without any real strategic thinking to generate new insights reach a point where it's too late. Suddenly, a bright light shines on their problems; problems that were caused because they never thought ahead, never took new paths, and were always in a reactive mode.
The good news is that near-death experiences are just that: near death. The corpse comes back to life. With the proper knowledge, skills and process, you can turn a near-strategy experience into viable strategies that drive the business to new heights of success.
There are three steps you can take to avoid an NSE:
1. Prepare. Four weeks prior to the strategic planning session, you should conduct a strategic thinking assessment to understand how strategic the team really is. Attaining a baseline of strategy knowledge and skills is important so that the key strategy concepts and terms are crystal clear to all participants. Great strategy sessions are a hybrid of training, development, thinking and planning. It's also important for team members to do a thorough deep dive on their business before the session. I have team members complete the Strategy Survey, which focuses their thinking on key questions relative to the market, customers, competitors and the company. In this way you are "priming the pump" and managers have already begun thinking about the key issues before they've entered the meeting.
2. Facilitate. Nothing can derail a strategic planning session faster than poor facilitation. Save the "blue skying" for flying kites with your kids. Great facilitation means the proper selection of the questions, tools and frameworks that will generate strategic dialogue, insights and action. There are roughly 50 different strategic thinking tools to choose from, so you'll want to ensure you've selected the 6-8 that are most relevant to your group. The facilitator should have expertise using these tools and be flexible enough to make changes based on the needs of the group as the session evolves. Having a leader within the group facilitate the initial strategy session is a mistake. There is too much room for internal politics, functional bias and current relationships to cloud an objective outcome, even if it's based on perception and not reality. Select someone from outside the group.
3. Act. Once the strategy session has been completed, there is a clear set of actions that must take place within the next four weeks to ensure that strategy doesn't just become an annual two-day event.
Here are the steps I recommend for the groups I work with on their strategic planning process:
-Compile the work on the strategic thinking tools into electronic format.
-Communicate an overview to the rest of the organization on the intent of the session.
-Send the completed electronic templates back out to the team for review and modification.
-Select a smaller team to lead the process through the year.
-Determine the strategic thinking tools that will be used quarterly as part of the Strategy Tune-up.
-Finalize the StrategyPrint or whatever tool you've selected as your strategic action plan.
-Schedule the quarterly Strategy Tune-up sessions.
-Have functional leaders complete the same tools with their teams.
-Establish a communication channel for all employees to continually contribute insights.
If to this point your strategic planning has produced the same sensations as a near-death experience, worry not. There's still time to revive the victim. But time is of the essence. There's only so long a corpse can remain a corpse without being dead. Really dead. See that bright light just ahead?
A Wall Street Journal study on leadership revealed the top five executive skills sought by organizations:
1. Strategic thinking
2. Ability to work across functions
3. Ability to drive results
4. General leadership
5. Core financial understanding
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