Facilitation Friday #25: Five Keys to Strategy Discussions

When was the last time you were in a session intended to produce good strategy that actually did so?  Exactly.  Too often strategy conversations are anything but strategic.  While the debate rages on about whether or not strategic planning as a process is alive, dead, or on life support (see here, here, and here), organizations must still craft strategy.

Simply put, strategy is "the practice of figuring out the best way to get from here to there" (Mike Arauz).  In his book Good Strategy/Bad Strategy, Richard Rumelt adds a bit more detail to the definition, offering the three-prong framework that certainly reflects my beliefs and approach.

In designing and facilitating strategy development, here are five (there are many more) of the core considerations I find helpful to draw upon.  The list is not meant to be inclusive; instead it offers some considerations that too often I see underutilized by others.

Clarify participants' expectations and experiences.
Participants bring their past experiences and present expectations to the strategy effort.  Making those public can help clarify what contributions individuals can make to the effort, some of the filters through which they will view the work, and reveal whether or not a common set of expectations for the effort exist.  In addition, it is important to view any strategy conversation in the larger context of the organization's culture, the effectiveness of past planning efforts, and how the output will be infused into the organization's future work.

Another critical expectation to manage is the level of "stretch" that individuals see as strategic and appropriate.  In other words, how big and bold should the desired end results be?  Some individuals may advocate for incremental change while others believe exponential improvement is required.  Harvard Business School faculty held an online discussion about stretch that might help inform your own thinking.  Rob Sheehan, a friend and colleague, has done several recent blog posts about the topic as well.

Establish terms and timeframes.
Wait, it that a goal or an objective?  A tactic or a strategy?  Are you sure it's not a Key Result Area?  Participants possess different vocabularies and time horizons for strategic planning.  Establishing common ones for your effort is critical to ensure people's thinking is aligned.

People are used to planning processes with a designated end goal in mind: "We're planning for the next three years."  In most cases, that mindset isn't particularly helpful.  Instead, we should facilitate discussion around this question: "Given the business challenge you've identified and your desired results, what is the timeframe in which you can reasonably expect to fully achieve them and what are some shorter time increments and results milestones you can use to assess progress along the way?"

Leverage the power of pre-work.
It's not very realistic to expect only one specific conversation to produce great strategy, be that a two-hour meeting in the office or a one-day weekend planning session with volunteers.  Much more work needs to be done in advance, including:  framing the business challenge and identifying the core questions associated with it; researching past and present efforts and capturing lessons learned; looking for "analogues" in other industries or professions that may have overcome similar challenges; stimulating fresh thinking with disruptive hypotheses; and surveying relevant stakeholders who can provide ideas and insights.

What's the necessary amount of pre-work?  Whatever is required to enable participants to come to a strategy conversation prepared to deliberate options and decide direction versus simply share information and discuss its meaning. Technologies such as IdeaScale enable us to more easily crowdsource such input and manage advance discussions and obtain feedback as suggested next.

Create iterative feedback loops.
One of the significant constraints of traditional strategic planning is the restrictive linear nature of the process.  We survey members.  A planning committee discusses results and develops a plan.  The plan is released.  People accept it, question it, or ignore it.  Repeat again.  It no longer has to be that way given how easy it is to create real-time feedback loops and opportunities for others to react.

Think you've got the business challenge(s) framed appropriately?  Share it with stakeholders and let them react prior to your strategy conversations.  Gathered data that will inform the planning considerations?  Pass on that info and let others tell you their takeaways.  Wondering what others will make of the guiding policy and coordinating actions you're about to adopt?  Tweet them out and get some real-time feedback.  Just as innovators use rapid prototyping to put out a draft, get feedback, and rapidly offer an improved next iteration, so can we do the same with the strategy generation we help facilitate.

Review next steps with particular attention to timeframes, accountability, ans communications.
Well duh, right?  But you'd be surprised how many strategy discussions allow insufficient time to appropriately document the actions to be taken, who will be taking them, and the timeframes in which they will unfold.  Few things are more disheartening than spending lots of time to craft the right strategic approach, but too little time developing the implementation to ensure it actually happens.  I suggest facilitators allocate 20% of a conversations overall length exclusively to addressing next steps.

And one of those steps simply must be identify the output from the strategy conversation that needs to be communicated, how and when that will occur, and who is responsible for that sharing.  It is natural that immediately after any strategy discussion, someone will ask a participant, "So what do you decide?"  The answer to that question needs to reflect a coordinated communication approach, not individual session participants' preferences.

What else would you suggest is a critical consideration for strategy facilitation?

Every Friday in 2012, I post information and insights about effective facilitation, sharing some of the content and thinking I provide in the one-day and half-day facilitation workshops that groups often engage me to present.  You can find previous posts by searching for the tag: facilitationfriday.

I'll be leading an open registration full-day course on The Art of Facilitation: How to Maximize Individuals' Contributions and Commitments on Tuesday, August 21, in Washington, DC, for the American Society of Association Executives.  Learn more/register here. 

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