“Unfortunately, good strategy is the exception, not the rule. And the problem is
growing.” Richard Rumelt, Good Strategy, Bad Strategy

As a reformed management consultant, I’ve had more frustrating strategy
sessions than good dinners. For a Frenchman, that’s saying something.
For most executives I’ve met, strategic planning is a top/down, orderly exercise.

The sequence of actions goes from vision to strategic objectives, which then
translate into a set of operational priorities. Usually, the cycle starts at the top and progressively engages lower levels of the organization, seldom going below the third tier. Each step informs the next.

On paper it makes sense, and that’s why most executives do it this way. But when you have informal conversations with those same executives, you get a very different picture. The verdict is unequivocal: it doesn’t work.

The strategic process rarely closes the gap between strategic thinking and
operational pragmatism. Worse, it doesn’t engage with the top tiers of the
organisation at a deep and meaningful level.

Best case, it produces a lack of overall focus and effectiveness – in itself possibly worth millions. In the worse cases, it causes misalignment across the executive team and sometimes leads to deliberately competing initiatives.
Increasing market volatility and complexity only exacerbates the gap.

Until recently, I believed that the standard process made sense and that my
contribution should be to help change the context of those conversations to
make them more meaningful, more effective and more productive. And so I did
for a few years, by designing and facilitating a broad range of visioning and
strategic planning off-sites, seminars and workshops. In doing so, I created
tangible value within the current strategic planning framework.

Then destiny gave me a wake-up call. Two months ago, I was preparing for a
two-day leadership development and strategic planning off-site. The night before it started, as I always do, I isolated myself to get into the ‘zone’ for the session. Around 8 pm, the phone rang; the CEO had missed his connecting flight back. By 9 pm, we’d made the decision to cancel the offsite and as soon as his plane landed, we went back to the drawing board.

As is often the case with senior leaders, availability influences the agenda as much as any strategic stake. After a few hours playing with the various angles, we decided to piggyback on a forthcoming session with the extended leadership team.Without realising it at the time, we were creating a rare opportunity for the executive management team to prototype, and test in real time, their strategic assumptions.

Just as critically, they got to test their leadership positioning with those responsible for making the strategy happen. On the fly, with a different sequence of activities and a new engagement model, we significantly shifted the patterns of dialogue and improved the sustainability of the outcome.

Through sheer serendipity we were able to design real-time feedback mechanisms that took strategy from a theoretical exercise to something with meaning and impact for every person in that group. Some elements were changed or parked.

Messages were tested, re-formulated and finessed. The sense of building excitement was palpable. Of course, we were lucky. We had a great CEO, courageous, visionary. Any stumbles made the outcome even richer. My take on the exercise:

1. Planning and execution are the two sides of the same strategy coin.
Exploring and iterating them simultaneously is the easiest way and
cheapest way to develop sound and actionable strategy.

2. Opening the doors to traditionally exclusive conversations to a broader
audience not only ads new valuable perspectives, but it also raises the bar
for senior leaders in terms of role modelling, ownership and accountability.

3. If you find that your executive team is a bit too confortable in the
boardroom, push them in the water, they will swim.

Philippe Coullomb worked as a global management consultant for 5 years before
switching to collaboration design and facilitation for some of the world’s leading companies. He’s an innovation expert and co-founder of a transformation venture, wheretofromhere? Follow him on Twitter at @Niourk and on Google+ at Patches and Nodes.


Image: Matteo Giuseppe Pani