Strategic Planning for the Real World
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I sleep like a baby. If I didn't, I know exactly what I would do--attend the typical corporate "off-site strategic planning session."
What a colossal waste of time. While most are well-intentioned and want to contribute to a successful meeting, most sessions follow a pattern that only appears meaningful when in truth, they are anything but.
Let me count the ways...
Usually there's the mission statement discussion. This typically is a document meant to appeal to every stakeholder, which means it truly appeals to no one.
Then comes the obligatory "SWOT" exercise. It consists of four quadrants where you fill in your Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats. I have no problem with the general concept. The problem is that people think they're done when they have filled it out and nodded with furrowed brows at all the right spots. This should only be the beginning of a discussion.
There will inevitably be a brainstorming session during this off-site meeting, which isn't so bad when done right. But these sessions often are an exercise in group-think. The most popular, loud, or powerful members tend to monopolize the session, and only their ideas are scrawled on flip chart pages. Quieter people get ignored, which has the effect of shutting them down for the rest of the session. This kind of brainstorming is merely a popularity contest.
Don't get me wrong: I am a firm believer in quarterly planning sessions. I ran a multibillion-dollar organization that grew so fast that in the history of the Inc. Magazine 500 Fastest Growing Companies, only Microsoft grew faster for longer. I attribute much of this success to a disciplined and effective planning process. Here's how we conducted strategic planning sessions and how you might want to conduct yours:
Step 1: Keep the history lesson brief.
The first part of the meeting should be about an hour-long recap of the last session's goals and whether they were met, exceeded or ignored. Be honest about successes and failures in an objective, unemotional way. Don't get bogged down here or you'll bleed your team of energy for what's to come.
Step 2: Articulate the challenges.
Try to have a theme for the session. "How to make more money" and "How to surprise and delight our customers" are not tangible enough for effective planning. Find a more specific direction like "How to reinvigorate our Delta Widget line" or "How we can meet rising health-care costs and still open our Atlanta office this year."
Step 3: Brainstorm effectively.
That means having a scribe at the flip chart who can do three things well: 1. Write legibly; 2. Capture the real essence of each substantive idea; and 3. Not play favorites. Good scribes are rare, so give them praise and respect. They're the backbone of your meeting.
Step 4: Chop off tangents.
Some people love to hear themselves talk. You may even be one of them. You must have a person in the meeting who's confident enough to shut down the motor mouths politely but effectively. Create a "parking lot" flip chart page with ideas to revisit in more detail some other time, and get back to the main topic.
Step 5: Right after the brainstorming, exercise leadership.
Don't just have your assistant take all the flip charts and turn them into a document so everyone can file it away until the next meeting. Instead, pick the top one to five ideas and make them the focus of the rest of the meeting. People should be warmed up after doing the brainstorming. Now's the time to start the real work of making choices and moving down a path toward implementation.
Step 6: Don't tolerate dissent.
Seek it out. Do you merely want to go through the motions of a planning session in order to check it off your agenda and go play golf? Or do you want to make real progress? If it's the latter, then foster diversity of opinion. In group settings, people tend to keep their true feelings to themselves, if only to be agreeable or to get out of there early. Actively reinforce constructive opposition. Cynicism is useless. Well-reasoned skepticism is great, because it stress-tests ideas to see if they have legs.
Step 7: Don't sweat the "how."
Every significant breakthrough I've had in more than 40 years in business first started out as a crazy, seemingly impossible idea. At first they're fragile and easily crushed by people piling on all the reasons they wouldn't work. If you've hatched a worthwhile goal, guide it through the initial stage with a certain confidence that the "how" will appear as you go along. Make careful note of opposing viewpoints; they're much more valuable than a series of nods from the yes men.
A really good planning session should feel draining but invigorating at the same time. Similar to a good gym workout, you want strong resistance against muscles that are working toward a worthy goal.
Yes, it's work. But once you've experienced a good session, you'll never go back to the aimless busy work of the typical off-site planning session.