Taking the Very Long View in Strategic Planning

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How long a horizon does your company use when it develops its strategic plan?

In a recent article in the Jamaica Sunday Gleaner, I make the point the there’s tremendous value in looking at a planning horizon of 20-30 years.

Here’s the article:  Taking the Very Long View in Strategic Planning.

For more details about this approach that the firm uses with strategic planning clients, see the book written by a former employee of Framework Consulting, Amie Devero — Powered by Principle.

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As companies set up their annual strategic-planning retreats, there is a natural temptation to forget about the future, and focus on today. While the recession has driven us to examine daily cash flow, it is a mistake to think that the long-term future doesn’t matter.

 

It certainly does, and here are the reasons why I encourage my clients to consider a 25- to 30-year future.

Vision statements are fine tools for ensuring that an executive team – and an entire company – are focused on the same things; however, they are often used badly.

Before a team sits down to define the future, it is safe to assume that each person comes with two different understandings: the exact year ‘the future’ refers to; and what constitutes his/her vision for that year.

Too many companies jump right into statement building only to discover after consensus is achieved that half the team is in 2021 while the other half is in 2012. Some never discover this fact and suffer when discord breaks out as budgets, targets, and interim measures need to be defined.

Good future statements are based on specific years, like the one that our own Government has defined: Vision 2030 Jamaica.

Coming to agreement on the ‘planning year’, such as 2030, is a critical first task in any retreat.

LOOKING FAR AHEAD

When I work with top teams in their strategic planning retreats I urge them to pick planning years that are 25-30 years in the future. Their first reaction is one of shock, and there is usually resistance. Some argue that they can’t think that far ahead. Others say that business conditions change so much each year that such planning is unrealistic.

I draw an analogy to what Columbus had to endure when he committed his first voyagers to travel to lands that were ‘over the horizon’ – beyond their capacity to see.

This was no easy undertaking at a time when many believed that the Earth was flat and that one could fall off the edge by travelling too far out of sight. He was able to paint a vision of a land that he had never seen that existed ‘over the horizon’.

The fact is, it is impossible to accomplish big goals unless you are able to see that far in your mind’s eye.

Jeff Bezos of Amazon.com fame puts it well: “We are willing to plant seeds that take five to seven years to grow into reasonable things. You can’t do big, clean-sheet invention unless you are willing to invest for long periods of time.”

Another interesting thing happens when executives look far enough into the future. They stop focusing on themselves, and their personal goals. An over-the-horizon future is one that is not about them, but instead must focus on the next generation as most executives won’t be around. As they plan for a future that excludes them, they start to ask themselves what they really want for the company: its shareholders, employees, customers, and other stakeholders.

Bad news

At first they discover some bad news: they want very different things.

This is a sobering discovery as they realise that they have been working at cross-purposes for some time, pulling towards different destinations. However, once they come to a new consensus, they can work together for the first time.

What prevents these 20- and 30-year visions from turning into random fantasies is the next step: laying out the details of what happens in the planning year. Once the team completes the prior two steps, they can describe the destination in measurable details.

Revenues, profits, financial ratios, headcounts, physical locations, geographic locations, bi-lingual abilities, these are all examples of the metrics that are used to convert a far-away future into a coherent, measurable goal.

The last step is the so-called Merlin Process in which the future targets are connected to today’s actuals in a single matrix. Many adjustments take place at this step as the team ensures that there is a feasible pathway from the present to the planning year. Unfortunately, this is usually the point at which some nice-to-haves must be discarded as the true essence of the plan emerges.

For the past 10 years, I have witnessed teams take the long view and the results are usually inspiring.

A new world emerges as they lift themselves above daily pressures to craft a unified vision that is well over the horizon.

How to Change Workplace Values: Ignore Them

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I recently wrote an article for the Jamaica Gleaner on how to change workplace values.  It’s as controversial as the speech it was based on, which was given to the Rotary Club of St. Andrew.

You can hear the 22 minute recording at the following links:  http://audios.fwconsulting.com or http://2time-sys.com/fwconsulting.com/audio/Rotarynot-values.mp3

Here is the full text of the article I sent in, which wasn’t carried in the on-line version.


In organizational life, it’s sometimes better to change things by simply not talking about them. Case in point: “Corporate Values.”  Why is that?  It’s because we don’t know what we’re doing when we talk about “values,” and the resulting confusion crowds out that which is most important.

CEO’s and other executives frequently convince themselves that the cause of their staff’s unwanted behaviour is that they lack a mysterious ingredient… “Values.”  When they make these pronouncements they fail to see some important, but inescapable truths that doom their efforts to instant failure.

 Us vs. Them

Almost without fail, those who call for a change in values are older than the target group whose values must be changed.  Often, they are simply talking about the “good old days” when people behaved themselves, murder was rare and your door could be left open all night.  It was also a time (apparently) when workplace discipline was enforced, company loyalty was high and no-one complained about low wages.

However, a closer examination shows that the unluckiest Jamaicans at the time were born dark-skinned, female and to parents who were unmarried, but these historical facts are often overlooked in a rush of nostalgia.

The hard, heavy judgements being applied by those who call for value-based transformations are hidden from their sight, but are often quite obvious to the accused i.e. staff members who are supposed to be living values such as “Respect”  or “Teamwork.”  What often ends up happening is perverse.

Staff members who are presumed to “lack the values” end up learning a profound and lasting lesson in how to point fingers, be dogmatic and studiously avoid blame.  New values indeed.

The Clueless Leading the Blind

What generally amazes me is that those who call for changes in the values of others have no experience in making such changes in their own lives.  They make it sound easy… when in fact, my experience and the research on corporate culture change show that it takes place slowly and painstakingly.  The blind, unfortunate targets of such transformation efforts silently complain: “If it’s so easy to change values, why don’t YOU show us how?”

It’s too bad that that question isn’t asked more often in corporate change efforts because it would put a halt to the nonsense that executives perpetuate in the name of Corporate Values.  It would force leaders to put up or shut up, and convince them to perhaps undertake one or two personal experiments, just to see how hard it is to change a single value.

One thing they’ll realize is that there is no way to judge the presence or absence of a corporate value.  How about lying to your boss?  Well, was it done to avoid punishment, or to protect him/her from a crushing public opinion?

Because there are no hard measurements possible, we fool ourselves into believing that we have values when we don’t.   Companies do it all the time on a massive scale.  Enron…. “integrity.”  JPS… “reasonably priced service / high customer satisfaction.”

An over-focus on corporate values creates imaginary destinations at which people in the real world cannot ever arrive.

Cutting the Confusion

While corporate-value preaching is an easy and inexpensive activity to implement, it’s better to simply stop talking about values.  Instead, focus your staff on observable behaviours that everyone can agree on, anyone can measure and executives can demonstrate without suspending common sense.  For example, instead of valuing “Wellness,” get more people to burn more calories each day in exercise programs that measure “total pounds lost” or ” average body-fat percentage lowered.”

Then, use the most recent research to put reinforcements in place that encourage the change, including publicising the executive team’s fitness data on the corporate intranet, accompanied by pictures and graphs of each manager’s progress.   Or, use the principles of www.stickk.com and get people to bet on their success with live cash that gets refunded only if they meet their goals.

That’s the kind of commonsense creativity that companies require, but they might first need to officially shut up, and stop wasting time and effort making value-based complaints.

Emancipation from Workplace Slavery

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Lita Allen invited me to be here guest on NewsTalkRadio93 in August 2011.

We had a great couple of hours, and I was able to nab a copy of the recording of the show.  Tune in to learn how the power of emancipation can be applied to the Caribbean workplace today.

Start a Fight in Your Next Strategic Planning Retreat

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The latest research is clear.

When executives are allowed to openly disagree about important issues, they are likely to truly buy-in when consensus is finally reached.

I took that finding and applied it to the strategic planning process in an article in the Trinidad Newsday entitled Start a Fight at Your Next Strategic Planning Retreat.

You can find the entire text of the article here at the Guardian Life website Thanks to them for sponsoring the column.

Here is the article in full:

Start a Fight At Your Next Strategic Planning Retreat

Strategic plans are often accused of being little more than a mish-mosh of disparate ideas thrown together in a single document.  When they are disjointed  and incoherent, it makes them difficult to implement, let alone remember.  When critical opportunities pop-up in the year to implement them, they are lost.

 

The best strategic planning retreats, however, avoid this trap by encouraging confrontation and honest dialogue.  Unfortunately, most executive teams don’t have the discipline or ability to have these conversations, and for the sake of speed and “tranquility,” they avoid confrontations.  Instead, they rely on their colleagues who have that rare Anil Roberts combination of intelligence and “talky-ness” to drive the process home, leaving most others in the room as disengaged, bemused, observers.

 

The strategic planning process simply becomes an extension of day-to-day conversations… conducted instead “down the islands.”

 

A simple way to change the discourse from everyday concerns is to take the long view, and to use the planning process to define a future that is usually ignored:  one that is 30 years away.

 

Sometimes, I hear complaints.  Why should we care about a future that is that far away?

 

The fact is, an executive team is always shaping the future, whether it realizes it or not. The best teams do so consciously, while the worst only concern themselves with immediate issues.

 

Take the simple example of a company that wants to enter Latin American markets in a big way, with a goal of having 50% of its business coming from that segment.

 

The executive team realizes that it would require the creation of a bi-lingual workforce, while facing the fact that there are no Spanish-speakers on staff today,  When HR estimates that some 75% of the workforce would need to be bi-lingual to assure success, it becomes obvious that the goal won’t be achieved in a year, or even ten years.  A much longer-term plan must be crafted.

 

Something magical happens when executive teams of (usually middle-aged) professionals start to consider a long-term future.  The discussion stops being about them, and their department’s agendas, and the concern shifts to future generations, and what legacy is being left for them to manage.  They quickly realize that an executive team that crafts, for example, a bi-lingual future could be hailed for their brilliant vision in 2041.

 

By contrast, the company that suffers from a lack of new markets in 2041 will look back at prior executives with disdain, and blame them for mortgaging the future for short-term gain.

 

From our company’s work with executives around the region, we have observed that a certain kind of business altruism comes alive when they grapple with long-term futures as a team.  They come to realize that they often have very different visions of what the company will look like in 30 year’s time, and how their different points of view have led them to make different decisions.  When these decisions are in conflict, they sometimes end up working at cross-purposes, wasting time and money, but without knowing why.  In the retreat, it’s possible to get these views out on the table, and lead them to craft a single defined future.  It’s OK in this controlled setting to fight for one vision or another, with an understanding that consensus only comes when all the personal visions have been aired.

 

In one retreat I facilitated,  an executive was fully convinced that the company should become the largest in the Latin America /Caribbean region.  He fought for this vision with others in a useful way that illuminated a key reality:  they would have to move the corporation to Miami from Port of Spain to realize it.  That, they realized, was something no-one wanted.

 

Once a single picture of the future has been aligned upon, the battle isn’t finished.  After the future is translated into hard numbers like market share and profitability, these metrics must be connected back to today’s historical results in a way that makes sense.  This is normally done in a spreadsheet that shows the key turning points required to achieve the final results,

 

It’s not just a matter of filling in numbers, however.  Underlying each result and turning point are some powerful assumptions about how the company operates, and what can or can’t be done to move key indicators.  Listening to marketing, human resources, finance, IT and operations managers as they share their views, and struggle to come to consensus, is often inspiring, even when it gets heated.  They demonstrate the value of a good, fair fight for the future, and how it can lead managers to define a future that is much, much bigger than themselves.

 

 

 

A Radio Show on GLBT Employees

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Recently, on CaribHR Radio, I hosted a very challenging but satisfying show on the ways in which Human Resource Professionals can make the workplace more accepting of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender (GLBT) employees.

It was a tough one to do, as some HR professionals in the region honestly believe that GLBT’s have no place or role to play in their companies.

At the same, I was happy how this episode came out at the end, and it hit some important points that are best encountered before the fact, rather than after some damage has been done… listen in to the episode on July 5th, 2011 here, in the archives of CaribHR.Radio.

 

(If you’re an HR Professional, make sure to join the discussion list on http://caribhrforum.com to get connected with the largest regional network of HR practitioners.)

A Regular Column

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Good news — my sometime contributions in the Jamaica Gleaner newspaper are going to become a regular, bi-weekly column.

You may see some of the ideas presented in this blog being re-worked and updated, as I have the sense that I have a lot to say, and am restricted to 700 words each week!

i don’t know what day it will appear on — they’ll make a final decision once we get going.