Strategy is often very hard to think about. This issue gives some ideas that may help you or your colleagues or clients.
What is a strategy?
A strategy is “big picture” plan. We need to think both broadly and long term about what we need to do as an individual or an organisation to get to the goals we value. Strategy requires constant updating as circumstances and the environment changes. We need to get into the habit of thinking strategically. This is not easy, but there are some tools that can help.
What can help people think strategically?
You have to have a clear enough vision of where you want to be in the future in order to think about how to get there. If you are an individual, talking to a friend or counsellor about your life long dreams can be very helpful. There are some tools that I describe below that can help with this process. It is more difficult and more exciting to create a shared vision with a group – perhaps the Board of Directors of a company.
A vision expresses what you want and value. A deeply help vision expresses deep values. These can be difficult to disclose to others because they are deep and express what we are or stand for. John Powell wrote a book called “Why am I afraid to tell you who I am?” The answer “Because you may not like it – and it is all that I have”. So many people find it hard to share their values because they fear others judgement or ridicule.
However, I have found a surprising thing, that when you have enough trust, so people can share what they want, their visions tend to come together. People find they want the same things. When you know what you want to achieve together, getting there is often much easier.
A sensible strategy takes account of the present situation and of our or our organisations strengths and then helps you lay out your direction to create the future you want. Finally, we work out the detailed tactics and make some phone calls (or equivalent)!
Thinking strategically takes time and is usually important rather than urgent. Unfortunately, this may mean it never happens. I read a study that said that Boards spend most of their time dealing with day to day matters. If you want to do it, then you have to decide to do it.
Practical developmental ideas
Creating the vision
When sufficient trust is in place, people do find out that they want the same things. Mistrust and painful history can make building the required trust a slow and delicate process. It helps to do lots of listening and to avoid blaming anyone. Allow people to express what they feel and be heard then they will be more positive.
A holistic vision
The vision needs to engage the whole person if it is to be powerfully motivating. The richer it is, the more people will commit to it. Thus, a vision can use pictures and words. It can appeal to the mind and the emotions. It can make financial and spiritual sense. Creating one requires logic and imagination. All the stakeholders in the business, including customers and suppliers would own a shared holistic vision. All would say “It means so much to me to be part of this venture”.
You can use these methods and others for developing groups and individuals. You can also mix elements of the methods to suit the situation and culture.
- Pairs and share
Ask people to think about how they would like things to be in their work or life. Say to them, for example, “It is two years from now and you think to yourself, this is wonderful, this is just the way I always hoped this organisation would be. What would be happening if you felt like that?”
Ask people to take turns listening to each other as they each explore this question. Then ask each person to summarise the main points of their vision to the total group. Encourage the group to listen and avoid criticism. At the end, focus on the common vision. Set up a planning process where people work together to achieve their vision.
You can use a picture of your vision to make it concrete and attractive. When you describe the picture and what it means to you, you use your imaginative and logical side. You often get surprising insights from your own and other people’s pictures. Perhaps we edit our imagination less than our logic. The pictures create the data about how an individual wants things to be. Then share the data in the group, focus it and decide what to do. Pairs and share (above) is one good method. Another is to use the “Verb/Noun” process described below.
· Focused brainstorming
Here, you ask people to list words on a flip chart that describe how, for example, they would like to see their organisation. They then stand back from the list and say what these words describe. The answer is in the form “Verb (modifiers) Noun”. This might be “Being Professional”. They would then work together to clarify what this would mean in all aspects of their work.
· Tell stories
One easy way to identify and share values is to tell positive stories from your experience. For example, everyone in a group might tell a story that describes their organisation at it’s best, as they see it. You can easily see from this what values the organisation was displaying and also what values the story teller holds dear.
I worked for ICI, a big UK based international chemical company, from 1968 to 1982. In 1974 industrial unrest was rife across the country and this led to the imposition by the Government of a three day working week. ICI had some continuous production processes that could not be stopped. The company was enormously creative, they worked with the Unions and asked for their ideas, involved everybody and were immensely imaginative and even witty. They needed to rig up emergency lighting and borrowed some from Blackpool Illuminations (Sort of funfair or carnival lights for non UK readers!) . The company was as productive in the three day week as in the normal five day week and everyone had great fun and learned a lot.
When you tell your story, even just to your computer, your energy goes up. This is so more powerful than questionnaires or psychometrics. This is another use of Appreciative Inquiry.
What stories would you tell to describe your work or organisation at it’s best?
· Risk taking and trust
There is a circular relationship between risk taking and trust. If you take a little risk and someone else responds positively, you are more inclined to take another. This also means you have to take a leap and offer some trust without certainty it will work. When it works this creates trust and leads to mutual risk taking and growth. You can help encourage the process by making it safe to take small risks and consciously observing what happens.
In one top team workshop I worked with some of the directors on the design of the event. Their trust in me encouraged me to experiment with a radical design idea. We started the workshop by asking everyone to “Draw their world”, individually, on a piece of flipchart paper. Then everyone described their “world” while the others listened respectfully. This brought the group together very powerfully, they learned things about each other they did not know before. The discussions they had about the situation and the direction of the business were then far-reaching, open, and productive.
Risk taking had led to trust and vice versa.
Understanding the present situation
· From present reality
This argues that a strategy needs to be based on a thorough understanding of the reality of the present. You can get at this by asking people to list words and phrases to describe the present situation, draw pictures or make collages and describe them or make a “map” using “Open Systems Planning“. The last can give a very rich picture as it helps you consider many of the influences on the organisation and their impacts. You may want to gather information from your present clients or customers or employees too.
This will give you a good picture of present reality “warts and all” and you will know where you are starting from. The problem with this is that the information can overwhelm you, especially if much of it is negative.
· From appreciating your strengths
The theory of appreciative inquiry says that we create reality by what we look for. So, if we look for problems we find problems and can be overwhelmed by them. We can look for strengths and achievements and be inspired by them, if we choose. So you understand your present situation by looking for what is already working well. (I give a link here on how this worked in practice.) People tell stories about their best experiences.
This increases people’s energy and commitment towards building an even better future. “We are that good already, think how much better we can be!) . Elegant methods exist, “the appreciative inquiry summit“, for bringing together large groups of people to identify current strengths and build a desired future together.
· Finding a strategic direction
Strategy is about finding and holding, flexibly, a direction that takes you from where you are now to where you want to be. The best way I know of finding this is to use the VERB/NOUN approach again (see “focused brainstorming” above)
They have become more aware of the present situation, so what phrase would they use to describe it now? Let’s say it is “Working the System”. This might be hard working people where all the slack has gone so there is no time to think or be creative.
Then you say to people, what phrase would you use to describe your vision for the future. This might be “Running a successful business by serving happy customers”.
Then you ask people to think about a phrase to describe how they might get from now to the desired future. Doing more of the same will not normally work. This phrase, and the discussion leading to it, is the strategic direction. It might be “Connecting with our Customers”.
These phrases can be very powerful. Komatsu had a classic “Encircle Caterpillar“.
· Making the strategy concrete
The next step is to workout the action implications of the strategy. You have lots of conversations with your colleagues about what the phrase means in practice and what you need to do. In the hypothetical situation, above, you might think about all the ways you presently connect with customers. Which are strong and need encouraging and spreading, which are weak and need encouraging, which could you drop? What would a good connection look like? Who would gain if we had a good connection? How could they help us?
· Run a strategy workshop
You can, if you wish, combine all these pieces into a workshop or workshops. I am not sure if this is ideal as it may mean the group or organisation loses some time to reflect. However, it is possible and is extremely efficient. You can see a design using appreciative inquiry and vision building here. Please feel free to use or modify the design if you wish. I would be glad to know how you get on.
Tools and Articles etc
I give below some links to tools and articles on my website with a brief explanation of each. These links are to articles on a new version of the site that we will launch on the www.nickheap.co.uk address shortly.
This describes a very positive and energising way to manage change that starts from what is working well to help people build their future together.
This book by Peter Senge is full of models and ideas about strategy that go beyond this note or my experience. The one I found most interesting was about Scenario work.
Open systems is a simple and powerful method for developing any system from an individual to an organisation. It can also be used for strategic planning and problem solving.
This short workshop helps people appreciate the strengths of their organisation, build an attractive shared vision and decide how to achieve it.
Use “Pictures” when an individual or a small team needs to think about where they are going and are looking for a direction in work, life or through a specific problem.
A common vision in a company releases energy for co-operation towards the achievement of a common goal. These notes give some ideas on how to create one.
The things you do and think today help create the work world you live in tomorrow. A simple mapping tool can help have your work more the way you want it.
I have no idea what I will cover in my next ezines. Please let me know what would interest you. If I can help I will. If you have come across these ezines recently, back numbers are available here listed by subject.
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