Strategic Thinking versus the “Facilitation Fluff” of Strategic Planning

Picture of marshmellow fluff

Too often, companies hire professional facilitators to support their strategic planning meetings but get nothing more than fluff. Many of these facilitators (under the claim of being a certified and master facilitator) have only a superficial understanding of strategy. They help the meeting produce something – but that something is definitely not strategy. Instead they help expensive executives and managers facilitate the production of fluff statements.

This article is not an attack on the idea of facilitation of meetings. Indeed, many meetings are wasteful and frustrating; and to be clear, a facilitator can be helpful.  However, experience shows that many facilitators push their technique at the expense of strategic thinking.

Mission, Vision, and Values: Is This Simply “Polishing the Doorknobs?”

Statements of mission, vision, and values are important; especially to small businesses. It is a good idea to have written something on paper about mission, vision, and values.  JUST DON”T TELL YOURSELF THAT YOU ARE PRODUCING STRATEGY!

  • A mission tells the organization its purpose
  • A vision establishes a verifiable future
  • A statement of values expresses those aspirations thought to be important.

If you already have a reasonably good statement, don’t let a facilitator waste your time on refreshing or rewriting them. It’s just an exercise in wordsmithing.  This activity is “doorknob polishing;” the doorknob is functional (the statement has been written), but there is not need to make it gleam and impress others.

And, while we’re at it…..

Strategic Plans are Documents – Let’s Hope that We Can Find a Strategy

In the last 3 weeks, I have reviewed three statements of strategy.  Only 1 of the 3 documents actually had something that I would recognize as a strategy.  The other two were just statements of goals and aspirations.  The one good strategy document clearly showed the nature of the business situation and constructed a focused set of guiding actions that would address the business situation. The good strategy was the result of insights that came from thinking strategically.e

Interestingly, the “strategic plan” that was produced by a professional facilitator looked great. However, I could find no strategy. It was attractive and concise, but an exemplar of fluff.  It probably worked fine to for internal alignment, but INTERNAL ALIGNMENT DOES NOT MAKE A DOCUMENT A STRATEGY!

How do I know? If I gave this document to a competitor of the company they would just yawn. If it were truly a good strategy, the reaction would be to mount a counter-response to avoid loss of advantage.  One of the acid tests of a good strategy is simply this: would your competitors be worried if they saw your strategy?

Facilitators and the Myth of High-Energy Meetings

Granted (again) that meetings are frustrating, boring, and wasteful; most of us would prefer entertainment and energy – even fun.  A facilitator that knows lots of good facilitation techniques can create the illusion of progress.  But it is really a dulling of the pain.

Your goal should NOT be to have a high-energy strategic planning meeting. It should be to design a good strategy….one that provides the organizational focus, leverage, investment guidance, and policy guidance.  As I wrote in a prior article, any written statements might be as straightforward as describing the objectives, scope, and advantages.

If you are really interested in creating a strategy that provides your organization a competitive advantage, you need to do the hard work of strategic thinking.

Hard Work – Nice Guys Finish Last

The truth is that strategy (in general) strategic thinking (in particular) is hard work.  Strategic thinking produces insights. This insight generation can be creatively fulfilling and powerful.  In my experience, this requires these essentials:

  • Quiet and undistracted time for individual reflection
  • Facts and data, not just gut feeling and aspirations
  • Listening to others, even if we have to patiently work with those who “think out loud”
  • A tolerance of ambiguity
  • A framework for taking strategic insights and putting them into a strategy

My own experience in facilitating strategy is this: you have to be clear in your own mind what good strategy looks like, and be able to discern it from doorknob polishing fluff.  You have to help your client find insights and knit those insights into a coherent set of activities that positions the organization’s resources in a logical way to meet serious and proximate competitive challenges.

There are thousands of charismatic facilitators who have a confused understanding of strategy as mission, visions, values, goals and the like. Facilitation fluff is common.

Do you agree that facilitation fluff is common and a problem? How have you seen it in practice? Do you agree that strategic thinking and insights needs a subtle and nuanced approach to finding insights and applying them?

Alertness for Strategic Opportunities: Hold These Three Attitudes

opportunities are everywhere

All though it is true that strategy involves some sort of premeditation, any experienced general knows that the plan will change with the first shots of battle. Opportunities will open up in unexpected places; so, strategic thinkers want to be alert – watchful, vigilant, and perceptive – for opportunities.

Passive and Active Opportunity Recognition

An opportunity is an event, observation, or option that has the potential to be favorable to someone. The word opportunity in Latin is a contraction of the words “ob” and “portus,” meaning facing in the direction of harbor.  Picture yourself as a Roman seaman, sailing in from the treacherous sea, with the wind blowing you naturally into the harbor. This is passive opportunity recognition: sometimes opportunities happen on their own. Luck is a good thing! Accept the gift and move on.

Entrepreneurs develop a sense of discovering, pursuing, and capitalizing on opportunities that lead to principled success. They are active in their thinking. Again, picture yourself as a Roman seaman entering a port filled with people who want to trade with you.  Your short-term opportunity is to buy and sell. Your long-term opportunity is the recognition of patterns and development of business relationships.

There are three attitudes that can help you be more alert to opportunities.

Attitude 1: Expect to be Surprised

Status quo situations are stable, predictable, and understandable. Although future can be these things, it can also be the opposite. You will be more likely to recognize opportunity if you assume your situation is characterized with these terms: dynamic, ill-structured, ambiguous, and unpredictable.

Evidence is all around us that some industries are undergoing profound and disruptive change. The winners are not those who have the grandest aspirations and goals and most polished processes; they are the ones who can recognize the change early enough and adapt with agility. You will increase your chances for success if you,

Assume the situation is chaotic, and then ask yourself: where are the opportunities?Strategic Thinking Definition

Attitude 2: Have a Mentality of Abundance

Here we choose an assumption that we are blessed an abundance of creativity, talent, connections, ideas, technology, karma, and so forth. Admittedly it is optimistic, but holding an attitude of abundance doesn’t need to be seen as unrealistic.

Here is a personal example: I don’t particularly like to prospect for new clients. However, I find that when I assume (imagine, visualize)  that people will say, “I’m really glad you contacted me,” I find that I am more motivated to make the contacts.  Sometimes the prospecting pays off handsomely!

I see the opposite attitude frequently: the attitude of scarcity. The attitude of scarcity appears when a person assumes that there is finite and limited time, money, people, or resources.  Here is one example of how it manifests itself. In my seminars, I often have an icebreaker game that involves designing a structure out of pipe cleaners where teams have to design and construct it in 10 minutes.  When we debrief afterwards, participants typically note that the time limit restricted the quality of their design. My response to them is, “I would have given you more time if you would have asked for it. I also have more materials available and I would have given you more if you would have asked.”  Their faces show amazement as they realize their scarcity assumption about time and resources has foreclosed on an opportunity.

You will be more alert to opportunity if you hold an attitude of abundance.

Attitude 3: The Criterion is Plausibility, Not Perfection

When opportunities emerge, they are usually messy and incomplete. These imperfections are discouraging if not downright unattractive. Sometimes and it seems little use in building a business case. This observation from venture capitalist Don Rainey shows the value of looking past imperfections,

Your ability to see the imperfection shouldn’t blind you to the larger possibilities. In my venture capital firm, when we hire new, (typically younger people), into the business, we are accustomed to the newcomers hating every deal. They are smart enough to see the imperfection but not yet experienced enough to be confident accepting that the imperfection doesn’t define the opportunity. Endeavor to see the opportunity in spite of the imperfection of the current presentation.

I suggest that you consciously use the word “plausible” as you evaluate the worthiness of an opportunity.  This helps you make a nice conceptual fit with the 4Ps futures that I discussed in this article.

Calm and Relaxed

As with any kind of strategic thinking, you will get better results if you are in a relaxed and playful state of mind.

The right attitudes and mindset towards opportunity will make you a better strategic thinker. In addition to these three attitudes, what mindsets will help you?

How Strategists Produce Strategic Insights

how strategist produce strategic insightsStrategic thinking produces inputs to be used in the strategic planning/management process. Put simply,

The purpose of strategic thinking is to produce insights

 Insight is,

A person’s realization of “the true nature of a thing” and/or its relationship to some contextual factor.

 Examples of Strategic Insights

The discovery and application of  insights is central to strategyThe process of thinking strategically is purposeful in that the strategist intends to create advantage in the future. A few examples of strategic business insights are:

  • A marketeer’s realization that a customer need is not being met adequately by existing products or functions
  • An employee’s realization that an impending piece of regulation or legislation will fundamentally alter the industry.
  • An auditor’s realization that a pattern of transactions show fraud
  • An engineer’s realization that they have created a novel invention

Strategic insights are those insights that are useful for developing organizational strategy.

Three Kinds of Insights Needed for Business Strategy

In the context of organizational strategy, the strategist is searching for three kinds of insight. They are:

  • Insights about the current situation. What are the problems and opportunities?  What are stakeholder aspirations and motivations?
  • Insights about the future. What will be different, and what is preferred? Since choice of customers tends to be one of the most strategic decisions, what customers might be best to serve?
  • Insights about how to bridge the gap between present and future. These insights involve problem solving: taking into account a full range of constraints: competitive response, political will, resources, and organization.

Insights are a Neurological Flash

Research into the functions of the brain reveal  the right hemisphere a region (more specifically in the right hippocampus) is the location responsible for  insights involving verbal information. As neuroscientists continue mapping the brain, we are sure to get a better understanding of those mechanisms responsible for the practice of thinking strategically.

How to Generate Insights: Balance Thinking Hard with Detachment

Individuals have their own style of doing things. Research has not shown one best practice for generating insights. Rather than give you a cookbook, let me encourage you to apply some energy to each of these five activities.  Be patient, and insights will emerge!

  • Preparation – identifying issues, collecting and categorizing information, assembling resources
  • Strategic Thinking DefinitionAnalysis – actively looking for relationships and patterns in data. Continually asking questions and reframing to find new perspectives. Searching for what is interesting. Validation and hypothesis testing.
  • Detachment – Getting away from the issues and allowing the subconscious to work on the issues.
  • Articulation – Explaining the crux of the situation to others. Trial and error solutions.
  • Refinement and iteration – Returning to earlier activities.

Strategic Insights Are Those That Are Relevant and Meaningful

Earlier in this article, I defined insight as  A person’s realization of “the true nature of a thing” and/or its relationship to some contextual factor.   I close out this article with exploring the final part of the definition, the “relationship to some contextual factor.”

When people hear the word “insight” they typically assume that it must be a brilliant new observation: an epiphany.  However, I find that kind of “aha” to be rare. Instead of brilliance, I keep it simple by testing it with this criteria of relevance and meaningfulness. Here’s a useful question:

Is the insight relevant and meaningful?

A relevant insight is one that is connected to current situation, future, and the bridge between the two (these were mentioned earlier in this article). Ideally, this creates some sense of alignment.

A meaningful insight is one that makes sense in a narrative. Here, I imagine myself in the future explaining how I created a successful strategy. If find that as I grapple with expressing the insight, I get a better sense of its worth and its motivational power.

Finally, a “contextual factor” is something that is external to the organization.  Examples include technological change, the economy, a social trend, etc. For example, Absolute Vodka had data that its products were purchased for drinking at home parties. But, why? It turns out that many people buy a particular brand of spirits because that they connect it to a personal anecdote; telling that anecdote to others is a way to be humorous or to relate an adventure. This insight gives the company a foundation for creating marketing and product development strategies.

Implications for Organizational Process

Because organizations do not share a single brain, strategic thinking can only be a capability of individuals. This has important implications for the process of strategy. Most importantly, a good strategy development processes should allow time for individual research, analysis, and reflection. Individuals acquire insights through conscious analysis mixed with unconscious (intuitive) cognition.

It is has been said that genius is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration. Doesn’t it make sense that the perspiration is the act of thinking strategically to produce the insights?

Tip: Strategic Thinkers Look for “What’s Interesting”

I realized (while writing the prior article, Could Strategy Be as Simple as This?) that the factor of “advantage” was the most interesting of the three strategy components (objective and scope being the other two). Advantage refers to position or potential versus another.

What makes advantage interesting as a factor of strategy? First, my experience is that many strategists seldom think about advantage. Too often, strategists assume that their job is done when they establish goals and objectives. However, a competitive reaction will always occur. Second, the idea of competitive rivalry creates the tension that makes for a good story; and stories are enormously powerful leadership tools. Third, creative and innovative ideas gain much of their power and impact simply because they address unrecognized issues. They are pleasant surprises.

This leads to a powerful question that provokes strategic thinking: Who do you want as a future competitorAs you answer the question, you imagine the evolution of your strengths and weaknesses versus a new set of competitors.

As an example of thinking about future competitors, I was part of a business development team that was leading our venture into an entirely new market, where we would no longer be competing against “mom and pop” enterprises, but would be facing well-funded and professionally-managed corporations. We constantly reminded ourselves that we would need processes and intellectual assets to be able to prevail against them – even though the competitive face-off was at least a year away.

An Aside: Why is being interesting so interesting?

The key word in this stream of thought is interesting. Strategic thinkers know that people will want to engage with someone whose ideas are eye-opening in some way. The further exploration of those ideas provides camaraderie, mental stimulation, and open up the opportunity for economic benefit.

Here is an interesting point that I learned from the management guru, Tom Peters: If you want to innovate, look to your most interesting customers. Interesting customers are typically NOT your biggest customers. Your interesting customers are trying to solve novel problems. As Eric Von Hipple – the guru of lead user research – suggests, develop and provide tool kits and search out those users who invent solutions to problems.

How to make scope interesting

The scope of strategy to determine what is “in” and “out” of consideration. I think the interesting question is where the organization chooses not to venture. Note what Chris Peters of Microsoft (Microsoft Secrets, Page 210) has to say about excluding items from the scope:

“There can be good and bad vision statements. A good statement tells you what’s not in the product; a bad vision statement implies everything is in the product. In order to give you guidance on what’s in and out, you have to kind of explain what the thing isn’t. And too often marketing will decide that it’s best if everything’s in… The hard part is figuring out what not to do. We cut two-thirds of the features we want to do in every release off the list. If we could actually write down everything we wanted to do, it would be a fifteen-hundred-page document. So the vision statement helps you in the chopping mechanism, not in the creation mechanism.”

How to create an interesting objective

An interesting objective is one that is counterintuitive.  It might possibly be of the type where one “loses the battle in order to win the war.”

Here is an example of a counterintuitive action.  In the 1940s, a group of 17 forest fire fighters were dropped into Mann Gulch in Idaho to battle a blaze. The blaze unexpectedly reversed course on the group and started running up the mountain towards them.  The leader of the group -Wagner Dodge – recognized that they could not outrun the blaze, so he built a small escape fire  to consume nearby fuel (fuel, heat, and oxygen being three necessary ingredients in fire), resulting in a protective zone.  This objective was not standard fire-fighting procedure. He survived, but those who tried to outrun the fire perished. (Gary Klien covers this incident in his book Seeing What Others Don’t. He calls this process of insight development creative desperation.)

Strategic Thinkers are Curious

The question about “interestingness” is one that a curious person would ask. Because they are curious, strategic thinkers add value to the strategic planning process. Instead of approaching strategy with a checklist mentality of completing each prescribed step and moving on to the next one, they stay alert for opportunities.

Do you agree that curiosity is an important characteristic of the strategic thinker?

How to Improve Strategic Planning with Strategic Thinking (and vice versa)

Strategic thinking v planningStrategic thinking is an individual activity that is a style of thinking. It is not an organizational process or activity for the basic reason that people do not share the same brain.

Many writers use the phrase strategic planning to describe the organizational process of setting strategy. One style of strategic planning is adaptive, starting with scanning the external environment. For example, a firm may notice a trend in its customers or in government policy that opens new market opportunities.  The strategic planning process then moves into developing responses, and those responses often constitute the “strategy.”

Another style of strategic planning is a straight-forward planning exercise to achieve a pre-determined goal. Here the emphasis is more on the word plan, with the adjective “strategic” suggesting that it is an “important plan.”

Strategic thinking and strategic planning are similar in that:

  • Both deal with strategic intent and strategy
  • Both involve collecting and logically-processing information

Strategic planning receives much criticism. In many organizations, strategic planning has become highly structured; a groan-inducing set of templates that yield an artifact called the “strategic plan.” Often the reason for that is that strategy becomes tied to budgeting, and the words that comprise the “strategy”  becomes the documented rationale for the proposed budget. In too many organizations, strategic planning exists solely as an annually-repeating bureaucratic process of creating artifacts, discussing them, and filing things away.

This bureaucratic approach is further magnified by use of pre-structured templates. A common response to the templates is that practitioners skip the analysis by writing down the first thing that comes to their mind. Analysis is mentally exhausting and they are busy, and no one really notices what they write.

Yet, strategic planning is also supported and lauded. It certainly receives important resources.

Strategic planning can be done well or it can be done poorly.  Strategic thinking can be done well or it can be done poorly.  We don’t need to replace strategic planning with strategic thinking, we need to focus on the unique value adds of each.

I have a modest proposal: mix the advantages of strategic thinking
with the advantages of strategic planning to maximize the contributions of both.

~~~

How Strategic Thinking Improves Strategic Planning

Strategic thinking is the source of insights.  Insights are important design elements in strategy formulation. Consider how these insights are generated and applied:

  • Strategic thinkers imagine the “what ifs” and the future state. They contrast  the desired future with the current state. This information can is often captured (recorded) in strategic artifacts as situational analysis and vision statements.
  • Strategic thinkers often generate imaginative and creative problem solutions. The solutions would probably be recorded in the documents as strategies, or guiding policies.
  • Strategic thinking is opportunistic, and SWOT-type analysis includes capturing and recording opportunities.

How Strategic Planning Improves Strategic Thinking

Experience with strategic planning can foster an individual’s competence in strategic thinking. Participation in the process of strategic planning processes forces individuals out of their comfort zone into their learning zone. Here are a few of the benefits:

  • They learn to recognize and tolerate ambiguity and abstraction
  • They learn that while processes reduce ambiguity, processes the status quo; this anchoring on the status quo can cause the organization to be slow to respond to threats or opportunities
  • They learn that there is seldom one right practice or vision
  • The learn to ask better questions
  • They learn some of the specialized jargon, and can better communicate with others about concepts associated with strategy

I saw the value when I worked with volunteer leaders of a Project Management Institute (PMI) component group. PMI Headquarters required strategic plans and measures. These volunteer leaders were primarily trained in science or engineering and were accustomed to being provided a “scope” to which the would develop execution plans. They thought of planning as an exercise create documents that answered explicit questions.

Strategy is ambiguous and working with ambiguity put the people out of their comfort zone. They struggled (and complained) but they learned.

In the post-activity lessons learned, the participants felt that they had matured some as strategic thinkers. Here are a few representative comments:

  • “I learned to look for data, and not make assumptions when I had little data to support my hunch”
  • “I started to ask some of the same questions about my own organization’s strategic position”
  • “I became much more focused on our customers, and how we create value for them; If we can’t develop a good value proposition, we won’t succeed”
  • “I feel much more comfortable with the ambiguity that characterizes strategic situations”

Manage the Interface Between Strategic Thinking and Strategic Planning

Because organizations are social entities that must act collectively, individuals often (and should) share their information and insights with others. Here are some suggestions:

  • Encourage individuals to reflect and think strategically, with the purpose of developing relevant and meaningful insights.  Allocate time and encourage people to work individually, at least for a while. Strategic thinking is a somewhat solitary and reflective activity.
  • Discourage the sole reliance on formal written documents and templates.
  • Encourage people to have conversations where they share insights with each other.
  • Encourage people at all levels of the organization to participate in contributing to strategy.

Do you agree that strategic thinking and strategic planning are complementary?