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.