Nilofer Merchant

These eight secrets will help any midlevel manager in this tough job move ahead and formulate the best possible strategy:

1. Use A Process
Every strategy must follow a repeatable pattern -- a process. These steps are the building blocks of strategy creation. They're linked, but not rigidly sequential. When you use a process, it means you don't have to reinvent the wheel. Take advantage of past learning and the experience your team has gained in the market -- start your strategy off on the right foot by creating a process that you can use over and over again.

2. Be Prepared To Get Messy
Strategy isn't neat and tidy -- there is no bow wrapping it all up at the end and much that is unknown. Conversations will lead you into places you never thought you'd go. There are lots of ideas, and many of those will have to be killed off. And sometimes strategy creation is mind-boggling and disorienting. Take a compass with you -- a North Star so you know where you are. But know it's a journey that often involves the new. It's a little like making sausage -- the middle steps are often glossed over so no one knows the actual recipe.

3. Follow The Leader(s)
In any group, there's a leader. In strategy formation, the operational leader makes sure the right conversation takes place. He or she determines which key conversations must occur, in what sequence, and with whom. This all moves the team toward development of the best ideas, the best single solution. The leader shepherds the process and insists that ideas are well vetted and considered. The leader also makes sure everyone in the group is participating. The operational leader makes the call. That's the decision-maker. Without that sage wisdom, strategy development can stall. Keep in mind that members of a group may share leadership at various points in the strategy development.

4. Questions
Strategy without questions is like a car without gas. Questions that work for strategy development focus on the overall marketplace topography, capabilities, and weak points of the company, and the impact on current and new customers. If a team were strategizing ways to defend against a competitor, typical questions would include:

  • What have we tried already?
  • What happened when we did it?
  • How did the market get to where it is today?
  • What is our competitor good at?
  • What are we good at?
  • Where are our weaknesses?

5. Interviewing
If you approach them right, interviews will glean important quantitative and qualitative information used in strategy formation. Great fact-gathering tools for data, interviews can also provide knowledge and insight. Perform interviews in person wherever possible. Read the look on the interviewee's face. Notice which topics cause a flinch or a frown -- dig deeper. You'll find questions popping up in the middle of the session that you had no idea you'd be asking. Go with the impulse to ask "off the wall" questions -- they can be the pathway that takes the interview to a new place or reveals something new and useful.

6. Selecting Interviewees
Organizations that hire my company typically will hand me a list of people they want us to speak with. Typically, the lists are limited in scope. We ask who else could be included because we want an extended range of data and issues. Hearing dissenting voices is important. We find people who may object, people who may be contrarian. Who you ask shapes what you learn. As information moves farther from its source, it is distilled, distorted, and the nuances are removed. Talk to people who are familiar with the basics of day-to-day operations. Go into the mailroom or the security back office for a viewpoint entirely different from that of the executive VP.

7. Organize Facts In A Framework
Interviews give you facts, but to get the meaning you've got to organize the facts in a framework. Use four categories: What you regard as confirmed, what you believe but don't have enough facts to confirm, what you doubt, and what the relevant outliers are. Items that are confirmed may include hard numbers from validated sources. If you don't have enough facts for a confirmation, you may be looking at something you know or sense from your experience -- it could also be something you've heard several others say they believe. Things you doubt might include research that originates from an unreliable source. Outliers would be defined as information only a few people hold or a topic with a surface that's barely been researched.

8. Developing Criteria
Now generate and sort ideas. In this phase, it's important to know what matters most to the organization -- and this is a huge strength for most middle managers. Choose the best idea from among the many. Ask yourself the following questions:

  • Where do we want to be?
  • How will we know when we're winning?
  • What does success look like?

Imagine what the change will look like when it's successfully implemented. Use concrete language to describe it. "We will be aligned and operating to hit our stretch goal of $132M for fiscal 2010." Create a detailed picture of exactly what type of success is most desired and what, specifically, it will look like.

Middle managers are the hub of any business. They hold the power to make or break the success of the organization. Add these strategy development skills to their already-tremendous knowledge and you'll reap the benefits.

Nilofer Merchant, CEO of Rubicon Consulting, is a global high-tech industry thought leader and trusted strategic adviser for companies such as Adobe, Symantec, and VMware. She publishes and speaks frequently on strategy, innovation, and leadership.