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One of the difficulties with strategic away days and strategic planning days is in their name: they are only a day.  Last week I had a day and a half with a team: A team that hardly new each other as they were A management team working during an Excitant training sessioncoming from four different countries and different operating companies within the  same group.  That meant that we had to create a lot of interaction, find out what everybody knew, tackle some of the big strategic problems, yet also make sure we did it thoroughly and not superficially.

Prior to the strategic planning part of their time they each presented a state of the nation on where they were as an Operating Company.  We also had an independent review of each operating company which gave us some of the bigger issues that they were facing as a group.  This was invaluable because it stops the strategic group-think that occasionally goes on in these days.

Start by ensuring we all understand what strategy is, and is not

Fortunately I had some techniques up my sleeve.  We started with a short lively presentation on what strategy is and what strategy is not.   Getting rid of ideas of simplistic strategy, for instance, A plan is not a strategy; An objective is not a strategy;  A vision is not a strategy.   All are insufficient on their own.  Then we explored what strategy is: Having a  clear problem that you are trying to solve, diagnosing the deeper underlying reasons for that problem, making choices about how you will address those deeper problems, and then implementing a coherent set of actions that will address the  problem.  So strategy only exists when you have all of these elements.  But it also required that you continuously learn and review your strategy.  Strategy is about learning.

Get alligator and elephant problems into the middle of the room

We seeded the workshop with some of the bigger alligator problems that the group were facing and this helped them to get their teeth into the problems.  Working in teams, I pushed them hard to think through the underlying reasons for the  problems, and avoid the superficial diagnosis that short strategy workshops often come up with.  For instance “Its a communication problem” is no diagnosis whatsoever.  You do not know who is failing to communicate what to whom and neither do you know why that communication is failing.  Is this an isolated example or an exemplar of a wider pattern of behaviour?  Fortunately the teams got into the swing of things and with encouragement and facilitation, they were soon getting at the deeper reasons, diagnosing the problems and thinking through strategies that might address the problems, focus energy and  tell a consistent story about how things would change.

So, what has been your strategy?

Then there was my favourite challenge to any management team: If strategy is a persistent and successful pattern of behaviour in a market, or for an organisation, then what has been your persistent pattern of behaviour over the past few years?

Through some other exercises the teams were encouraged to commit to changes themselves.  One problem with short strategic  planning days is that there is little time for silent reflection.  Several said that simply having some time to sit quietly, was the most valuable piece of the time together. Having time to reflect on all they had done and think through what it meant personally for them.  Introducing some other contrasting exercises where you looked how you could help others and also ask for help from others in the  group, served to increase the bonding amongst the team and also cement the actions that they were committed to.

In my mind this team have only started on a journey of strategic thinking and planning.  They have ideas and some plans.  More importantly they have tools for thinking about strategy and its effective implementation.   They have a diagnosis of the problems they all share and how those problems could be addressed.  We got as far as we could in a day.

Giving the team tools that they can take away and use for themselves

One member of the team said he had been through quite a few strategic thinking and planning days yet this was the most effective and productive he had seen.  Another said that they had found it really valuable to be be  encouraged to think through the problem for the underlying issues.  Another appreciated the time to reflect as well as the times spent in interaction and discussions.   Another realised how important it was to think about the enablers of strategy as well as the strategy.   I was particularly pleased when one said that the workshop had helped him realise that, though he thought he was thinking outside the box, he realised that he was still in the  box.

This client was actually in the Oil and Gas industry, but the approach is the same in other sectors and industries.   For me it was a successful intervention.  Doing productive thinking as well as working on the strategy.  Also giving the team tools that they could take away and continue to use to develop their strategy further.  Teaching them to fish for their own strategies.

If you want your team to think hard about your strategy during your strategic planning day, then give me a call.