PLANNING: Shifting From a Tactical to a Strategic Mindset
A high tech start-up had reached a substantial level of success with a very tactical approach of staying close to the core customers and adapting to meet their changing needs. The success had brought the company many opportunities in terms of strategic partnerships and acquisition targets. But without a clear strategic direction, the management team was expending too many cycles investigating and considering every opportunity.
In addition, the team had spent the past year spinning on what to do about their main competitor who was becoming more of a threat to their business model. Without a clear strategic direction, they couldn't get closure on the right approach or on how much of their resources to devote to defensive moves. The endless struggle on this issue had created a lot of tension on the management team and diverted energy from longer term thinking. Many members of the team worried that the company could get blindsided if it didn't look out further into the future and start thinking more strategically about their market, which was relatively new and still taking shape.
An early attempt to hold a strategic planning offsite had left many participants frustrated with the lack of progress.
We formed a "core" planning team that included the two founders and 2 VPs as well as an "extended team" comprised of the full management team plus a cross section of middle managers representing all functions and all geographic locations. The job of the core team was to design the process, frame the strategic questions, gather data and do a first pass at interpreting the data.
The company wanted a highly customized approach, so we put together our own mix of Michael Porter, Scenario Planning and other models to help us frame the issues. I interviewed the members of both teams plus a number of individual contributors with important perspectives and several board members with a wider industry view. This data helped us build a rich picture of the company's strengths and weaknesses and a broad view of the changing dynamics of the external environment. We also identified areas where we needed more objective market data and brought in experts to conduct that research.
Over a period of several months we conducted a series of highly interactive offsites with the extended team to think through the key drivers of the business and how they might change over time. The extended team generated potential strategic options and between offsites members researched the options further and came back to the next offsite with recommendations for the whole group to hash out.
As we went through the process, the main strategic direction became obvious. The management team followed up by setting priorities on implementation tactics and assigning owners to each initiative. As a final step, the two founders and other senior executives personally visited every geographic location to present the outcomes of the planning process and engage in a dialogue about the role each group would play in implementation.
My role as the consultant was to lead the core team, keep the process moving, provide working drafts to kick start meetings, stimulate thinking, provide process and theory options, and keep the key players fully engaged.
First and foremost, the company now has a clear strategic plan that everyone understands and buys into. No one needs a crib sheet to remind them of the priorities -- they know them in their sleep. After a report out to the Board one Director said, "That is the clearest statement of your value proposition that I've ever heard!"
Implementation is moving forward rapidly. The debate over the key competitor has been resolved, allowing the company to finally take action on this critical issue. . The team now has a common language and a set of shared assumptions that make their daily interactions more efficient and productive. New opportunities are sorted through more easily and the management team is much better at quickly recognizing when an opportunity may be really exciting, but still outside their strategic focus. They've gotten clear on what to do as well as on what not to do.
A high tech CEO had been resisting pressure from the Board to do strategic planning. He said: "Our market is changing so rapidly it seems a waste of time to do strategic planning. By the time we've finished the plan, the world has changed." Nevertheless, he did see the need for some kind of action plan and a way to be more thoughtful in how the company responded to the changing market. The senior team was spending too much time spinning on market opportunities. Every proposal was met with an objection about how it would fail if certain future developments occurred. The concerns were legitimate but had left the company frozen in inaction.
I worked with the CEO and his team to develop a strategic planning process that centered on Scenario Planning. We sorted through a substantial number of external factors and were able to focus in a on key few. The process also surfaced all the unspoken assumptions people had about customer needs and technology developments. We also identified key issues that could be addressed with some focused market research. Prior to this the research agenda had been so large that no one could get their arms around it.
As we developed the Scenarios we did some role playing of customers, suppliers, partners and competitors. As we looked at the market from their perspective the team discovered some market forces they hadnt considered before. This discussion made substantial changes in their assumptions about which competitors posed the biggest threat.
This was a company with too many ideas about what to do strategically. The Scenarios were an excellent winnowing tool. At an offsite the top 2 levels of management ran each option through the "wind tunnel" of the Scenarios. It quickly became apparent that some options made no sense and that others offered substantial upside, but too much risk to pursue without serious revision.
The company has a strategic plan that looks something like a decision tree. There is a clear end goal with several realistic paths for getting there. For example, one key technology has the potential to cannibalize the current product line, but currently isnt commercially viable. Building up internal expertise in this technology would position the company to take a substantial lead over the competition, but could also tank the company if the technology doesnt develop as expected. The final strategy involved a limited investment in a start-up that was developing this technology. If certain developments occur in the market, the company has a right to purchase the start-up. They can be prepared without betting the whole company on something that is not entirely within their control.
The Scenario Planning process also helped the team develop a shared language and shorthand that they all understand. Ongoing strategy discussions are crisper, faster and more productive.
An early stage start-up had recently doubled in size and the CEO thought it was a good time for a company offsite. The company was no longer a core group of founders and there was a need to make a shift to the next stage of development. When we first met, his goals were fairly general: build team spirit, get to know each other, and feel good about the company. I was concerned that this would feel too touchy-feely for some participants and that the offsite needed to provide more concrete benefits.
After my initial meeting with the CEO where we made a first cut at clarifying the goals, I conducted one on one interviews with all offsite participants (all of the employees plus a few outside advisors). Starting with my generic interview protocol, the CEO and I developed a list of questions targeted at specific company issues. We included a question asking people for feedback on the CEO he wanted to develop an open and direct culture and knew that "going first" was the best way to do that.
The interviews proved extremely useful in discovering what was uppermost on participants minds and developing some concrete agenda items. Most participants shared the general goals of getting to know each other better and wanting to build team spirit. They also had very specific goals related to understanding company goals and priorities, understanding their roles in reaching those goals, and improving coordination among functions. These are classic issues in the leap from a group of founders to a real company with employees and separate functions.
I met with the CEO a second time to share the interview data and walk through a draft agenda. We made a number of changes to my plan so that the final result was something the CEO felt fit well with his style. We talked about the role each of us would play, how we would work together, and how we would handle deviations from the agenda. I also drafted a pre-offsite e-mail for the CEO to send out.
The offsite proved to be both fun and productive. Most of the time was spent in small groups, giving people an opportunity to get to know each other in ways that were highly relevant to working together. An exercise on differing work styles gave co-workers an opportunity to talk about and resolve friction points. The CEO shared the personal feedback he had received, talked about what he could and couldnt change, and asked the group for things he needed from them in order to make changes.
A large portion of the offsite was spent on "real" work as well. The CEO reviewed company goals and objectives, followed by time for each function to work on their own goals and objectives. An interactive exercise allowed for feedback and discussion of these objectives. Particular emphasis was placed on what each function needed from each other and what challenges needed to be addressed to be successful.
As expected, we made a number of adjustments to the agenda. Some topics raised issues that participants felt strongly about. The CEO agreed that they deserved more time. During breaks I worked with the CEO to readjust our priorities. For one unexpected issue I quickly designed a format to allowed a rich discussion without eating up too much time.
First and foremost, all participants reported that the offsite had been a valuable use of their time. We had addressed issues that really mattered to them and had come to a resolution or outcome that was productive and satisfying. Employees expressed an increase in trust and respect for the CEO for his openness in sharing his feedback and for involving them in critical planning activities. Everyone left with a clear understanding of where the company was going and what they each needed to do to help the company succeed.
The leader of a geographically distributed management team called me after a team offsite had degenerated into emotional outbursts. His immediate concern was that two key members were in conflict and had each told the leader "Its him or me".
I started with one-on-one meetings with the two key members to understand the issues and then brought them together to talk through their differences. As we worked through their issues it became clear that a lot of the competition and miscommunication between them was being driven by how they were managed and by the larger team dynamics.
In their report-out to the team leader they took responsibility for the part they each played in the problem and also gave the leader feedback on what they needed him to do differently. They also recommended some team building for the whole group. To his credit, the leader took this input without getting defensive and agreed to address the larger team issues.
Subsequent one-on-one interviews with each team member uncovered a high degree of dissatisfaction with how the team was operating. Quarterly team offsites were seen as unproductive and downright painful members felt tense and nervous during meetings and relieved if there were no blow-ups. Some members expressed a high level of distrust and anger towards other members: "I wouldnt trust her as far as I could throw her." With the leaders permission, I also asked for feedback on how his behavior impacted the team.
I then collated the interview data and met with the leader to sort through what it all meant and put together an action plan. The leader wanted to share the interview report with his team, but was nervous about that discussion turning into another blow-up. We talked through all the negative things he imagined might happen and how he could respond to each one as well as what I would do to help him. Once he felt comfortable with this, we went ahead and called the team together.
This meeting was emotional, but also highly productive. Many members were relieved to have the issues out in the open and to see that the leader was willing to own his part in the problem. The team was nervous about doing team building, but unanimously agreed that it was necessary. I presented some specific areas that I thought needed attention and the group talked through these and came to agreement on what to address first.
Given the high level of anxiety in the group, I wanted to give them as much information as possible about what to expect during team building activities. Before our first offsite I put together a binder of materials for each member that included a very practical article on how teams work and another article on how to give and receive feedback (they were most nervous about this part, but also in full agreement that it was essential). I also provided a detailed agenda for the offsite and a description of the structured exercise we would use for giving feedback and groundrules on how to make sure the feedback was supportive and constructive.
The first offsite was a turning point for the team. They were all happily surprised to discover that the feedback exercise was less painful and more helpful than they expected. We also got a lot of "real" work done. One of the main reasons the team was in disarray was that they had no clear charter and no understanding of why they needed to operate as a team no wonder previous meetings had been so unproductive! At this offsite the team identified the critical issues facing their function and decided which ones really needed a team approach. Everything else was delegated to members or to the leader. With a clear purpose, they were able to get to work on the truly strategic issues.
Subsequent quarterly meetings focused primarily on the strategic issues they had identified and also included sessions on team functioning where they clarified their roles and interdependencies and set up norms for working through disagreements.
The turn around for this team was dramatic. The original conflict between the two key players was resolved and remained resolved for years after the two were never close friends but they respected each other, were able to work together productively, and were even able to offer each other authentic support. Another member who had been seen as marginal stepped up to the feedback she had received and made rapid improvement in her performance. The team dove into a number of issues that had languished for years, developed specific action plans and followed through on implementation. One initiative was so successful that it is now used as a model for other functions to emulate.
After several facilitated meetings the team developed confidence in its ability to manage itself and "fly solo". Six years later I act as an occasional sounding board for the leader and have followed the progress of the team they still use the tools and approaches we developed in the early offsites and continue to operate as a congenial and high functioning team.
This extended case study first appeared in Management Shorts, a free monthly newsletter for senior managers. To learn more about Management Shorts click here.
At almost every management team meeting at this high tech company an argument developed over what to do about the key competitor. The CEO wanted to buy them out, while others thought this was a waste of resources and would distract the company from the effort to keep innovating ahead of the market. Typically a few members of the team geared up for a fight and the others sank in their seats trying to stay out of the line of fire. The arguments were the same every time and after more than a year the team had yet to make a decision. The argument ate up time and seemed to stymie progress on a number of related issues. The team had split into opposing camps and had started to tune out anything that the other side had to say, even on unrelated issues.
After witnessing several "rounds" of the battle I wrote up my best understanding of the two opposing views. I met with individuals to walk through the issues and make sure I fully understood what they thought and why they thought it. The "why" included all their data points conversations with customers, past experiences, news reports theyd read, market data, analogies theyd drawn with other industries, and any other assumptions they had made in reaching their conclusion.
After the one-on-one meetings, I outlined all the issues including data points, assumptions, lines of reasoning and conclusions. I identified and broke out 3 sub-issues that had been shmushed together in previous discussions. (Yes, "shmush" is a technical term that the experts use dont try this at home. Some practitioners prefer "shmurgle", but I think that clouds the issue.) The sub-issues were (1) the power of a particular competitor, (2) the business model used by a number of competitors, and (3) how much value customers put on different bundles of products and features.
Once Id fully analyzed the issues, I met for a day offsite with three of the key players. I had put each idea, data point and assumption on a separate, over-sized index card. At the offsite I mapped out all the arguments on a large "sticky wall" a piece of parachute silk coated with artists mounting spray. This format allowed us to move ideas around and identify connections as our thinking developed.
At the offsite, we started by clarifying our goal: the company had a 3-year growth target that the whole team had agreed on. They had also agreed on the product direction that was most likely to achieve that target. We then looked at each of the 3 sub-issues and talked about how they might impact the larger goals. Throughout the day, whenever the discussion got off track, I returned to the shared goals and asked how the discussion was related to these goals.
We walked through one issue at a time, one index card at a time, and focused first on understanding rather than agreement. As we surfaced the assumptions, people talked more about what had led them to these conclusions data points, assumptions, lines of reasoning. As they started to understand the different perspectives, they were able to let go of rigidly held ideas and come to agreement on a number of points. This focused the debate on a few narrow issues that could be talked out.
We also identified competing assumptions that needed to be resolved. For example: the competitor boasts that it has over 700 customers. How much does each customer buy? What features do they value? Are they large enough to buy our more expensive product? We narrowed these questions down to a few critical ones that needed answers. The next step was some focused market research and informal discussions with partners and customers to answer these questions. Once that data was gathered, the team was able to reach agreement.
The conflict was resolved. The management team was able to agree on the exact nature of the threat posed by the competitor. They identified 3 potential responses and were able to agree on the one that made the most sense and went ahead with implementation. They then turned their attention to other issues that had been ignored while they were spinning on this area of conflict.
In addition, the team now has an approach that it uses to resolve other sticky issues.
Why This Worked
There is no magic here. This case illustrates a number of principles that managers can use to resolve disagreements on their own.
Create a Setting for Open Discussion
We met on a Sunday with just a small group. Without the usual audience there was very little grand standing and people felt free to "think out loud". It was also easier for them to open up to different points of view without losing face.
Focus Everyone on a Shared Goal
We started with a shared goal that everyone agreed on. This made them partners in solving a common problem, rather than opponents in a zero sum game. The simple structure of seating everyone in a semi-circle facing the sticky wall put them mentally on the same team with the wall being the problem to solve. Rather than beating each other with competing ideas, they worked together on a single problem.
Depersonalize the Debate
Breaking everything down into units of thought on index cards served to neutralize the discussion. We could move around, combine and revise the cards. The discussion was around the ideas not which person was right or wrong (or stupid or pig-headed). In addition, once the ideas were in writing and up on the wall, the individuals stopped making repetitive speeches their ideas were legitimized and preserved. They could let down the vigilance theyd had about being heard and remembered.
Increase Listening and Understanding
As I presented all the cards and arguments, everyone heard their ideas spoken out loud by a neutral party. I was careful not to promote one idea over another. Because Id prepared with one on one interviews, Id captured all the ideas and was able to feed them back to the group. The group listened without the usual interruptions and arguments. I encouraged questions for clarity and understanding. So we started the day with everyone having the feeling of BEING HEARD AND UNDERSTOOD. This immediately increased their willingness and ability to understand and consider opposing views. In "Seven Habits of Highly Effective People" Stephen Covey says "Seek first to understand, THEN to be understood." I find the book a bit hokey and even simplistic, but this single statement is THE secret to resolving conflict.
Break the Debate Into Manageable Pieces
When I was in law school we called this "slicing and dicing the issues". On exams wed be presented with a complex set of facts and be asked to identify and resolve the multiple legal issues involved. To do that we had to separate out the relevant facts for each legal issue and develop separate lines of reasoning. You failed if you shmurgled them together.
The cards helped us break things out and then group them into the relevant issues. This also helped depersonalize the discussion. As we "see" the debate mapped out, we start to understand and "own" it. When we dont understand something, we simplify and label it usually as "Johns stupid idea".
Surface Unspoken Assumptions
As the discussion progressed we challenged each other to get clearer and clearer on why we each believed something to be true. This surfaced assumptions that had not been articulated before. Once they were made explicit we could share multiple data points that both supported and contradicted these assumptions. Unspoken assumptions cant be resolved the first and most important step is making them explicit. We also set a norm that no assumption was stupid, but also that no assumption was sacred everything was open for debate.
Explore Multiple Options
The discussion loosened up rigidly held ideas. This paved the way for considering multiple options. Research has shown that the quality of decision making rises dramatically when teams consider more than just 2 options. Multiple alternatives leads to a richer and more creative discussion.
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