Special Edition: Strategic Planning

Keys to a Successful Strategy

For many organizations, arrival of the fourth quarter means its time to review, update, or develop strategic plans. Unfortunately, many companies are not pleased with their planning process and do not feel that it's worth the time and energy invested. As a result, the process ends up being perceived as a necessary evil. This doesn't have to be the case. Here's three tips that can help make your process energizing and well worth the effort.

Use a Condensed, Focused Process

With the right planning and design, the best tools, and expert facilitation, a comprehensive and innovative strategy can be developed in a much shorter time then typically expected.

Strategy work can be expensive and time consuming. To make sure there is a return on this investment, the time spent in strategic discussions should be fast-paced, inclusive, and consensus building. The design of the process and the techniques used to lead critical interactions must be spot-on.

Strategy is a human, "wet-ware" based problem solving and decision making process. As any experienced facilitator knows, the secret to effective planning sessions is comprehensive preparation and design. Expert facilitation is key but even a top-notch facilitator will struggle to overcome a flawed design for an intensive strategy process. A third party facilitator is the best option since company employees cannot maintain the objectivity required and often lack the required process skills. (See Art and Science below)

Strategy work takes time, but the time should be measured in days not months. Proper facilitation can reduce the time required for top-notch planning and decision making by as much as 30% to 50%.

Involve More Than the Senior Team

A study of innovation by IBM Global Services in 2006 showed that outperforming, high revenue growth companies' most significant source of innovative ideas were (in order) employees, business partners, customers, consultants, and competitors. (Internal R&D and sales were further down the list.) This is reinforced by research which has shown that team diversity has an exponential impact on the quality of group output.

The key for strategy work? — include input from a diverse range of sources, particularly those not normally involved in business decisions. One CEO from the IBM study was quoted as saying, "If you think you have all the answers internally, you are wrong." This input can be gathered in a variety of ways and is an important part of the design consideration for any strategy work.

Both high potential and high professional (deep market and deep technical knowledge) employees can make a significant contribution to strategy development. Their involvement will not only improve the output but will contribute to building the commitment needed to deploy the strategy effectively.

Use a Comprehensive Deployment Process

For effective execution, the strategy and value drivers must be obvious to all key stakeholders. The best examples of this in action are in companies committed to Lean Manufacturing/Six Sigma. The Strategy Deployment techniques utilized by these firms assure a clear linkage from strategy to annual business plans to department/process objectives down to individual employee performance plans (What Toyota called the "catch ball" process). Key process and performance measures are prominent in all communications tools including company and process dashboards. Even the agendas for regular business review meetings are built around components of the strategy.

The key is the creation of a comprehensive deployment plan as apart of the strategic plan, using project and change management principles, with clear milestones, linkages, and accountabilities. Again, this does not need to take forever to create. Milestones should be short term to assure immediate application of the strategy and to demonstrate progress. The deployment plans should be regularly reviewed at the executive level and adjusted based on the performance measures. Strategy work should be viewed as an on going process, not a once a year event.

Find additional suggestions on how to improve your strategic planning process on my website.

Click here for more information.

Return to Top

The Art and Science of Facilitation

I hate to think about it but the first time I formally facilitated a business meeting was in 1978. Over the intervening years, I facilitated hundreds of sessions of all types - joint union-management productivity teams, problem-solving teams, executive team retreats, merger/acquisition planning, major project debriefs, disaster planning response, annual business planning and strategic planning — for groups of all sizes — from one hour small group sessions to multi-day events involving hundreds of people.

From all those experiences, I learned that effective facilitation is both an art and a science. It's an art in that it takes capabilities, intuition and insight that are difficult to learn. It's a science in that there are some basic laws about group interaction that are important to know and follow.

However, if I was asked to identify the top two things I learned about strategic planning facilitation, they would be: 1) Successful facilitation is 80% in the design and 20% in the actual live facilitation, and, 2) A successful facilitator stays out of the content and pays attention to the process.

Successful facilitation is 80% in the design. Most of the success in strategic planning facilitation is determined before the session starts. Very little in the process can be is cookie cutter. A facilitator can't just show up and expect to create a meaningful result. Background information needs to be gathered from a variety stakeholders to fully understand the context, purpose, objectives, and expected results expected. From the background data, the facilitator can develop a design that should be tested with the meeting owner. The design might also influence who needs to be in the session, what background information participants need, and what artifacts need to be available in the session.

Focus on the Process. An effective facilitator pays attention to the group process and does not contribute to the content of the discussion. They must be a neutral observer. If they have an opinion, it should only be expressed with the permission of the group and with the full understanding that they are stepping out of their role as facilitator. This is why it is very difficult if not impossible for a member of the Strategy Team (or worse yet, the CEO or Executive Director) to facilitate strategic planning. An expert facilitator is not an expert in your business. A good facilitator will learn the context they need during the design process. They will then manage the process based on the design.

Take it from my 32 years as a facilitator. Use a third-party facilitator for strategic planning and make sure they spend lots of time on the process design.

Return to Top

How to Run Effective Strategy Retreats
Stuart Cross
Morgan Cross Consulting, UK

Spending time identifying how your organisation can grow and thrive is a vital role of any top team. Yet few activities are able to generate as much heat and as little light as a strategy retreat or 'away day'.

An agenda that is unfocused, the wrong group of people asking the wrong questions and unrealistic expectations can all contribute to a sense of lost opportunity. But effective strategy retreats are neither difficult to create or deliver as long as you follow a few simple rules.

  1. Get the right people in the room. You do not need a cast of thousands to create an effective strategy. The only people you want around the table are those who will have ultimate accountability for its delivery. By all means, seek ideas and insights from others ahead of the session, but avoid broader involvement in the session, as it will dilute your decision-making ability.
  2. Avoid distractions. Just because you've finally been able to get the full team together avoid the temptation to add other issues to the agenda. They only serve to eat up time and divert attention away from the real work required.
  3. Remember that a plan is not a strategy. Many executives believe a plan and a strategy are synonymous - they are not. A strategy is a framework to guide the decisions and actions that will help you succeed; a plan co-ordinates the use of resources over a particular time frame. A plan will not help you create a breakthrough strategy. Focus on building the strategy and the plan will follow.
  4. Start with opinions - and only then use facts. Many retreats I have attended start by going through a fact book, covering past performance, future projections and likely competitor activity. The only impact they have on the discussion is to dampen energy and enthusiasm. Effective retreats use your team's judgments and opinions as a starting point - call them hypotheses if you wish - which can subsequently be tested with specific analyses.
  5. Establish a clear sequence. It is highly unlikely that you will cover everything in a single session. Any strategy process worth its salt is likely to throw up some tough issues and choices. You will need time to reflect and consider options about the best way forward. The elapsed timescale will vary depending on the complexity of your issues and the capability of your teams, but you should be able to create a coherent, integrated strategy that enables you to start taking action within 2-3 months.

The move to implementation will require ongoing sessions - at least every quarter - to ensure progress is being made, issues are being resolved and that your strategy remains valid.

The bottom line

By taking the time to create a structured process, you can transform your strategy retreats from a talking shop that has no long-term impact to a dynamic, focused series of meetings that shape the direction and performance of your organisation.

Stuart Cross
Morgan Cross Consulting


Stuart Cross helps some of the world's top companies to:

  • Develop creative solutions to challenging strategic issues
  • Transform hazy ideas into high-performing initiatives
  • Dramatically accelerate profit growth

Tel: +44(0)1636-526111
Morgan Cross Limited, registered in England and Wales No. 5886141
Registered Office is 12 Bridgford Road, Nottingham, NG2 6AB

Return to Top