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Having facilitated strategy workshops for clients for over 25 years, a number of core principles and a common approach has emerged. It has become clear to me that there are three core components for a successful strategy workshop. They are

  1. Quality of conversation (including the understanding of diverse views and beliefs)
  2. Quality of data, analysis and thinking,
  3. Quality of decision-making, including the commitment as a team

If you get these three things right when facilitating the strategy workshop, the quality of the strategy, its implementation and how it will be managed going forward, will be dramatically improved.

In this article I want to explain the overall approach I use to dramatically improve the three core components of a successful strategy workshop. Central to the approach is using structured interviews before the strategy workshop, and how this affects the way the subsequent strategy workshop is facilitated and runs.

Then collating this material so it includes the breadth of thinking of the team: both where they agree, and where they disagree. The facilitation of the strategy workshop is then around the input and material they have already provided, built upon in the workshop. Having their material already on the wall when people walk in to the room, dramatically improves the conversation, and ultimately the quality of the strategy that emerges.

The two extremes of facilitating strategy workshops

There are broadly two ways to approach the facilitation of strategy workshops

  1. The team turn up for the day with an agenda and they spend the day presenting material to each other and discussing topics. They know the issues and set out to discuss them, through the agenda, in the time available.
  2. People are interviewed beforehand, using a structured interview guide to explore their individual view of the strategic issues and themes.  The material and ideas are pulled together in structured themes, before the workshop.  The team walk in with all their ideas and material already on the walls ready for the strategy exploration. 

Yes, I know I am exagerating the first point, but I have seen people try to do this (and ask me to facilitate such events). I have also seen them fail to come to any real conclusions (apart from the ones pre-ordained by the originator).

As you will read, genuine commitment to a strategy comes from dissent, good arguments, and exploring diverse views. After all strategy is a hypothesis. Managing startegy in uncertain times is emergent and a learning process. A good startegy management process relies on appreciating the underlying beliefs and models that we think our strategy is based on, and test them in the real world, rigourously and systematically learning from the feedback we get, to refine or adjust that strategy. Strategy is a learning process.

How much time is there for conversation, exploring dissent and decision?

The time limited former approach (no pre-interviews), typically has a fixed agenda, little preparation, little opportunity to explore diverse views and even have an argument. In a team of eight, and an eight hour day, each person gets to speak on the day for one hour at most.  Also, those who speak first tend to strongly influence the way any conversation develops.  The focus tends to be looking for early consensus.  

Whilst consensus seems good, moving to consensus too quickly, is not helpful to a team who genuinely want to explore the deeper issus and have doubts or or uncertinties about their direction and approach.

In general, whilst this looks like time well spent, there is usually much more real strategy discussoin needed to resiolve issues, or the strategy decisions subsequently becomes untaken and undone.

Strategy facilitation when preceded by structured interviews

In the approach with pre-interviews, each person has already provided, two or more hours of material to the workshop. Often these comments are more candid that one might get in the workshop itself.  Seeing all the comments structured allows people to see where they agree (which is not often discussed) as well as where they disagree. 

Exploring dissesnt, and open disagreement ultimately makes for better decisions. Decisions the team as a whole will get behind. More importantly, the extent of disagreement and underlying reasons can be more exhaustively explored.  This improves the level of conversation, understanding, trust and ultimately quality decision making and strategy implementation in the team.

Obviously, doing pre-interviews takes more time and consultancy input.  However, the feedback I have from doing this for over 25 years it that clients say it dramatically improves their experience of the workshop, the quality of consensus and the quality of their output. 

Structured interviews provide material for the tools of strategic analysis and discussion

When facilitating a strategy workshop I use a set of tools and techniques to present the information, and illuminate the strategy from a variety of directions. Examples include Tangible Futures, Context Diagrams, Competitive and market positioning tools, Strategy Maps and a variety of others depending on the client needs and circumstances.

The structured interviews provide the input for these models so they are populated, at least in draft form, before the workshop starts.

Material on the wall when you enter: the clients’ thoughts and research

The workshops I run already have material on the wall when people enter.  This is sourced from both research and structured interviews with the participants.  These structured interviews are often two to three hours long.  This means that each participant has already provided several hours of thoughts before the workshop starts.  Eight participants can have generated 24 hours of material, which is there to be quickly assessed, and its availability dramatically speeds up and enriches the quality of discussion in the workshop.

The structured interviews that create this material, are designed to tease out the known issues and provide open questions for the interviewees to expand on the topic.  This often brings out wider issues beyond those anticipated.  The time available also allows for a deeper dive into the underlying causes and drivers of topics, challenges and opportunities.  

The Structured interviews provide rich material for the discussion of the strategy in all its dimensions.

The structured interview material is sorted into themes, so that all the ideas around each theme are presented together.  It is fascinating to see a team exploring a range of thoughts around a theme that they have not discussed or explored before, but they all have in common.

With one client, the topic was “How we meet as a team”. About 45 minutes into the initial “Big issues” material and discussion, one Director turned to me and said, “We never discuss this, but we should have”. The Managing Director, responded, “Yes we should have, and we need to – this is vitally important – its about us and how we work”.

An important aspect of how the material is presented in the subsequent workshop is that the material is anonymous and unattributed. This way the focus on an idea, whether smart or contentious, becomes the topic, not the person who said suggested it. People can always own up later if they want. Having the quotes and ideas on the wall, has the effect of depersonalising the statement, separating the content from who said it.

Structured interviews improves the quality of conversation and decision making in the room

Conducting these structured interviews, with all the team involved, has several advantages:

  1. Improving the quality of conversation: Having the rich interview content on the walls of the workshop, means that when people enter the room, there are already 2-3 hours of everybody’s thoughts for all to see.  This moves the conversation from giving ideas to noticing where people agree and disagree, thus accelerating the quality of conversation.
  2. Time to vent and explore: The interviews allow people to explore ideas individually and even “vent” on topics.  This helps to get out deeper issues and the time of the interview allows for a deeper exploration of the underlying thinking behind these thoughts. 
  3. Variety of thoughts – consolidated: It also provides a wide view of the variety of people’s thoughts on a topic, consolidated together.  This may be a view of the future of the organisation, a perspective on technology changes or the competition, or the core capabilities that the organisation needs to learn and grow to develop and deliver its strategy.

The structure I use follows a relatively generic process, adjusted for each client’s particular needs.  There are plenty of open questions that allow the team to expand on topics.  Sometimes this leads to them gathering, or developing useful extra information (homework) to bring to the workshops.

Strategy facilitation should surface disagreements and uncertainties, not bury them

Important: This is not about forcing consensus. This is about having a conversation where disagreements, or rather different understanding or interpretation of a situaton, can be aired. The trick is to help to bring people to a common understanding, or a common understanding of where they differ, and why.

Where people disagree, it should not be buried, but surfaced. It is important to understand the underlying reasons, beliefs, evidence, uncertainties, that each person has: the resaons for their differing perspectives. Disagreement, scepticism, and challenge leads to better decisions, and ultimately better action.

Seeing where we agree, and where we disagree:

When I started facilitating strategy workshops, one thing clients often said to me, surprised me, but also delighted me. They said,

“It is not often we talk about where we agree. We normally only talk about where we disagree.”

Ironically, some other clients saidf almost exactly the opposite.

“We tend to discuss where we agree, not where we disagree”

Seeing where we agree, moves the conversation forward.

An example of how this occurs is illustrated very well by Tangible futures. Tangible Futures are compiled from people’s view of the future and contains where people agree and where they disagree.  Some teams often only discuss where they disagree.  Some teams avoid disagreement. By placing teh various views on a single sheet of paper, it allows a team to see both where they agree and where they disagree, bridging these two team dynamics. 

This has two advantages: We can quickly step over where we agree, whilst acknowledging as a team that these are not seen as contentious issues. Then we can spend more productive time exploring the underlying reasons and beliefs for any disagreement, and what may be required to reconcile them. 

The consequences of NOT exploring why people believe different views of things

If you do not do this sort of digging into the underlying issues and beliefs about why people see things differently, several things can occur:

  • Decisions become undone
  • Malicious compliance
  • Creation of an undiscussable

Decisions become ‘undone’

Decisions being undone: I am sure you have seen when a decision appears to be taken, and people leave the room on that basis. Then, later the decision gets questioned, not followed through or other actions are taken in a completely different direction. In effect teh decsiion is being “undone or un-taken. Why? Most often because, in the first place, there was not exploration of the nature of te problkem (Decision framing), the decision information was not fully available (a failure of Decision Making), there was not real consensus to the decision and commitment (Decision taking).

Malicious Compliance

A client gave me the phrase “Malicious compliance”. The process of sitting in a room, nodding their head, seeming to agree, but not saying anything (or giving up on arguing) and then walking out of the room going “Well that is a wate or time!”

If anything is guaranteed to undermine strategy consensus and implementation it is that. (For more on how to tackle this, see my articles about manging culture change in organisations in the Culture and behavioural Change Zone)

Undiscussables: their existance, creatioon and effect

The existance, or creation, of an ‘undiscussable’ is a real nasty one.

How do undiscussables arise? At some point some time agom an argument or decision was taken or event occurred. It lead to a severe problem, bad consequences or or bad feeling. It was so bad, that no one talks about it now. In fact, it is worse than that. It is so bad, that no one even talks about, that they do not talk about it. It has become an undiscussable subject.

Undiscussables are quite nasty. They are not like elephants in the room. Elephants in the room sit in corners. Undiscussables are right in the centre of the table, but everyone dances around them. In fact no one can move into that space, so it appears everyone is avoiding a subject that should be discusssed.

In all of these cases, decisions becoming undone, malicious compliance or the existanve of undiscussables, will lead to the strategy work being undone outside the meeting.

Strategy facilitation is about everyone leaving the room telling the same story

So this is an environment where issues are raised, we make sure sure people talk with one another, and explore each other’s thinking, look for evidence and facts, or other peoples’ expereinces, (the whys of their beliefs) and even have arguments (nicely).

With this context, I often joke my role is to help a management team all leave the room believing and telling the same story.  And if they do not, at least everyone knows where those issues are ang how to resolve them.

Overall, this approach dramatically improves the quality of conversation and thinking around the various aspects of the strategy. It is this quality of thinking, analysis and conversation that helps a team come to a robust strategy: one where all the team end up leaving the room, all telling the same story.

Systematic techniques to analyse the situation from a variety of perspectives  

A key approach I use is to look at the situation from various perspectives using a variety of tools and techniques.  Each one shines a different light onto the subject.   Each allows one perspective to be contrasted with another.  Working through the day, the set of approaches helps to build up an overall picture illuminating the fuller perspective on what might happen.  The breadth and set of techniques summarised in appendix B illustrates this.

The expertise in the room

Subject Matter Expert input and research

For many workshops, it makes sense to obtain research on the various future themes and topics that might suggest the direction these may take.  I assume you have internal expertise and access to external research and have already done a significant amount of thinking in these areas.   It will be sensible to bring in Subject Matter Experts (SMEs) beyond the immediate Board and Executive team to inform the discussions.

Good facilitation has to follow the energy in the room

Often clients look at the agenda timing and worry they will run out of time.  This is because I deliberately run workshops that follow the energy of a group. If there are difficult subjects that need addressing, we spend more time on them.  At other times, a topic can be more easily agreed and resolved. If there is a sticky subject it can need time. If necessary, we can park it for later discussion and resolution. 

We always finish a workshop, in a position where the team know what they have achieved, what may also need resolving, and having a clear view of how they should now proceed.

Quicker, and more effective strategy facilitation

Having used this approach with one client, the Chief Executive thanked me at the end of the two days. His summary.

“We achieved more in two days with Phil, facilitating us on his own, than we did previously with two facilitators over five days . That was a far more effective and useful startegy workshop.”

Strategy workshop facilitation for robust discussions and effective strategy

If you are serious about having an effective strategy workshop: one where your team have a robust and effective conversation, and leave the room all telling the same story, then get in touch either using the contact form below, or the Contact us page.