Ever since Peter Drucker’s excellent writing, management has been often called upon to spend more time on strategic planning, regularly reviewing and “tweaking” the strategy of the organization, division or department which they lead.

One of the reasons why it does not happen as often as it should: not knowing how to go about running a strategy session, soliciting high quality input and asking the right questions. I have witnessed first hand less than successful efforts to “get strategic”, which put off the instigator from trying again any time soon. “Good intentions…” he grumbles and promptly sinks into the habitual day-to-day routine.

I thought it would be useful to offer a dozen pointers to enable you to develop a viable strategy and keep on top of it. This is merely scratching the surface, but a good start nonetheless.

1. Strategy is the answer to “What?”; tactics – to “How?”
Discussing the distinction with the participants before the strategy session greatly improves the quality of input and helps to move the discussion in the right direction. Strategy should be seen as the framework within which tactical decisions (such as project selection, hiring, vendor management, etc) are made. Take a look at this strategy primer article .

2. Set the priorities straight. I have been to more than one strategic session where participants arrived having not done their homework, read distributed documents or prepared themselves mentally.  In all instances, the “crazy day/week/month” at the office was to blame. This won’t do. The onus is on the leader to instill the understanding that nothing is as important as this work and all daily chores must be put aside or delegated. State your expectations explicitly.

3. Despite their wide use, “brainstorming sessions” tend to produce shallow ideas. One of the most inefficient uses of people’s time are those meetings where a bunch of people are brought together and asked to contribute opinions on a subject, with no preparation whatsoever. Research has shown that, while commonly employed, such approach produces weak ideas. 

A much better approach is to pose the key questions and allow participants to explore them on their own prior to bringing the group together. For example, you can ask each participant to suggest three prospective product lines, propose a new market niche or recommend a change to corporate vision.

4. Use visual aids, charts, whiteboards

Visual aids are useful in getting the attention of the participants, explaining high-level concepts and framing. I like double-axis charts, you can use whatever works well for you.  Capturing the conversation on paper or whiteboard is critical. Everyone has his or her own technique and I like to always identify action items clearly and keep a “parking lot” space for everything that needs to be dealt with but is not immediately relevant.

5. Select participants carefully. It is popular to be inclusive but you don’t need any deadweight in the room. A few years ago, I facilitated a strategy session for a large medical laboratory. Despite the highly animated discussion, the production manager fell asleep in the boardroom. She was brought in at the insistence of an executive and did not say as much as a word in the three hours that she spent there.

I also suggest avoiding groups that consist of people too removed vertically on the corporate ladder. It is common for subordinates to withhold their opinions, while those higher up in the hierarchy tend to monopolize the airwaves.  If the input at all levels is necessary, conduct several sessions so that participants of any given group are from no more than two levels of the org chart.

6. External facilitators are very useful but not absolutely necessary.  Here is why an external strategist is worth his or her fees:
    a. Has done it many times and will be able to arrive to a better result faster
    b. Will be able to contribute his or her ideas
    c. Brings in best practices from the outside
    d. Can ask provocative questions without the fear of fallout
    e. Can offer frank opinions without the fear of retribution
    f. Frees up time of the internal champion

7. Creating from scratch is difficult – seed discussion with ideas. Creating a corporate vision or a department strategy from scratch is often intimidating and can lead to deafening silence in the room. Offer starting points that can be critiqued and built on instead of starting with a blank sheet of paper.

8. The most common problem is the fixation on tactical issues. I can pretty safely guarantee with 100 per cent certainty that you will see purely tactical and often trivial issues brought up. If one of the strategic imperatives discussed is customer retention, you are bound to hear opinions on point cards, special promotions and system requirements to handle them, all reasonable points that have no place in a strategy session.

Here is how to deal with it: promptly capture valid points on a separate sheet of paper or a section of the whiteboard (if you don’t do that, people will stop talking) and move the discussion along, calling to concentrate on the “what?”, not the “how?”

9. Most difficult settings: interest groups comprised of volunteers, joint ventures, committees in highly political environments (public sector, healthcare, education).

Interest groups and joint ventures seldom have the same level of accountability that can be easily established in a corporate setting. Joint ventures are often tentative with the participants unwilling to invest more time and effort than their counterparts. In highly political environments, participants are careful not to expose their true point of view so not to endanger their long-term position.

I have done strategy work in these settings and it can be done; however this content is beyond the scope of this little article.

10. Dispel self-censorship. Groups of individuals often exhibit deficient thinking and decision making known as groupthink. There are several attributes to it, which I will write on soon, but for the sake of this discussion, let’s talk about one – self-censorship. You may have observed in the past how often you are likely to see an idea shot down in a meeting. Forget it, it won’t work here! They won’t allow us! We’ll never get this funded! And, piece de resistance… We’ve never done it this way!

Watch out for such behavior as it kills all innovation and new thinking dead. Disabuse the team from the notion that today’s constraints should be used to censor ideas for the future.

11. Demonstrate traction and usefulness of strategy work. Nothing kills the impetus to think strategically faster than a strategy setting that leads nowhere. Commit to and implement the strategy you developed, hence exemplifying accountability.

12. Re-examine regularly. The world is not standing still and every strategy needs to be tested and assessed regularly to ensure that it is still valid. It is not a set-it-and-forget-it kind of an undertaking and I recommend building a habit for you and your people to work on strategic content a couple of hours every week.