Question: Separating signal from noise in strategy discussions

Like many companies, our management team spends time after new year in reflection and strategy discussions. It leads into project approvals and budget discussions.

In the early part of the operations reviews, one constant challenge is to balance between avoiding blind spots and keeping the discussions focussed.

What is the best way for us to get a wider view from the employees to feed into the agenda? Our goal is to spot key trends, opportunities and risks.

10 Expert Insights

As I read your situation as presented I get two distinct areas that deserve your focus.  There is the one in which you review this past year in terms of how your achievement aligned with your vision of accomplishment for the year.  Where did you exceed and where did you fall short.  In each consideration, what is the learning that you want to carry forward of both a positive and negative nature that will deepen the learning for the company in going forward.

The second area is one of taking the organization where you envision it to be going.  An important part of this is to read your crystal ball in terms of what the marketplace is going to be expecting moving forward and what are you going to need in order to be 'there' and be able to deliver the expected product or service.  In leading a team through this, it is of tremendous value that you all go to the 'dreamland' of what's possible.  This is about identifying what you could do and not about how you would do it.  That comes later as the first challenge is to explore the various ways in which the company can meet what you know is going to be demanded by the marketplace ... thus dreamland.  When you have a number of dream possibilities in front of the team you then can analyze each to determine what will be required of you to accomplish them and ultimately ... pick the best path.  I often find that the inclination of a leadership team is to rush into the 'doing' place and always find that when  you take the time to explore all that is possible, the ultimate decisions and thus the doing happens at a higher level.

Whatever your ultimate and chosen path is for 2014, this is a good time to apply the learning that you've discussed at the outset of the meeting to the future plan.  This enables you to capitalize on the positives and avoid the negatives of the previous year.

The sequence you have described - having strategy discussions that lead into project approvals and budget discussions - is a great way to prepare for the new year. One way to help maintain focus during these discussions is to center them on your customers. There can be any number of competing functional agendas once you lose focus on the customer. As far as avoiding blind spots, perhaps the key is telling the truth. There are probably very few true blind spots that absolutely nobody sees, but it's not at all uncommon that people fear sharing what they know if it is considered bad news.

It is wise to be seeking input from your employees to help set up your strategic discussions. The people in the front lines generally have the best handle on the customer experience (outside of the customers themselves, of course), and they are also often aware of the 'bad news' that can become blind spots. To get their input you'll want to let them know you want it, to show appreciation when you get it - especially if it is bad news, and to share with them what your strategic plan will be in response to your business environment that they have helped define. Many of the enterprise social media tools would seem a great way to facilitate receiving employees' input.

I try not to duplicate what's been done well by my previous colleagues, so I'll offer a couple other ideas. The first is in answer to your question:  "What is the best way for us to get a wider view from the employees to feed into the agenda?"

One of the more powerful things you can do is crowdsource that question. What I mean is, instead of you guys at the leadership level trying to find out the best way, put the very thing you're curious about right to the employees...basically ask them what the best way is to get a wider view from the employees and then comes the hard part...listen.

The benefits are that whatever method is uncovered, they're already far down the road of buying into the process since they themselves came up with the method. This builds in two layers of engagement. The first is the trust in them to pose a critical question. The second is the inclusivity experience they get by feeling like they're part of the solution.

One of the mistakes I see leadership make all the time is that they think they need to know the answers before they present something to the employees. Given that disengagement is at an all time high in the workplace (see Gallups 2013 poll) then every chance you get to have them feel included on a solution will only embed engagement even more.

Re: blind spots. It's not about trying to avoid them.  And one of the things that stage magicians and pickpockets count the phenomenon that indicates that every time you focus intently in one place you're automatically creating a blind spot in another. That's the principle of misdirection. It's more useful to employ a radar/sonar like system that gives you early warning to their presence or something akin to a highly sensitive smoke alarm.

The next element is to develop the agility within your company to respond to said alarm vs. react. If you'd like to have a further conversation on all this, let me know. Michael

You got some great advise from Mike, Jon and Michel. The only thing I want to add to this is how I did the strategic planning when I ran a company.

- I always involved two levels of management which in my case were approximately 60 people.

- I always used a facilitator to make things go smoothly in other words give anybody a chance to participate.

- We would divide the 60 people in smaller  groups (6 to 8) and each group was given the same assignment. Once they completed the work, we will paste the answers on large sheet and then group the answers. All of this was done by the people who participated in the event. It usually took two days minimum to complete the process.

- Once the strategy was agreed upon we developed the projects that would give us the opportunity to achieve the results committed to in the strategy. The projects for the first year constituted the back bone of the first year budget.

I think that you are dealing with 2 distinctly different issues:

1) Your operating review which deals with current performance

2) Trends, opportunities and risks relate to future affairs.  I suggest that you do not address these in the same meeting and with the same participants.

The operating review should be measured against milestones and performance targets established as part of the budgeting process before the start of the fiscal year. Review of operations should accompany the financial review every fiscal period.  Such targets may be subject to change if the business changes. Most important: frequent review permits operating adjustments on a current basis.

Trends, opportunities & risks are strategic planning elements. Depending upon the size and culture of the company, strategic planning may be highly structured (and should be updated at least every 6 months) or more informal via periodic planning meetings throughout the year.  Your desire to include a wide range of employees is excellent. In order to maintain some control on numbers of participants and unruly agendas at any one time, have you given any thought to a periodic (quarterly?)  questionnaire administered to all who can contribute to planning variables?  The result can help establish a meeting agenda and identify relevant  participants for each session while still maintaining control of the process.

Risk identification & risk management, in my opinion, should be left to the project team assigned to implementing agreed upon opportunities.  Risks identified too early often leads to premature concept rejection and mutes innovation.

Good luck.  Maintaining creativity throughout an organization is a real challenge.

For employees, open up lines of communication (live, email, facilitated discussions, etc.)  You'll be surprised at what you learn.
Ask three questions:
1.  What's going on in the business (field, market, operations, etc.) that you believe is significant to our success?
2.  Why is it important?
3.  What should the business do to protect, defend, fix or leverage the situation?

For your executive team, use a framework to discuss all strategic variables before making the decision.  I would recommend the Systems Thinking model by David Nadler as described in his book THE CONGRUENCE MODEL OF CHANGE.  Have a professional facilitate the discussion.

Let me test your appetite for a game-changing new way to solicit employee involvement that you desire for your management strategy discussions. Why not take the employee input process as serious as the management strategy sessions?

Over the past 10 years, my research and consulting discovered that there are well defined chain reactions & cascade effects linked and active in any organization. I identified 5 waves of ripple effects that emanate from leadership down to the trenches of any organization. Employees are the very best at identifying such organizational cascade effects since they directly witness the benefits as well as the ill effects of such organizational cascades.

I have identified and created a unique deck of 56 cards that I use with employees to assess the presence of negative organizational cascade effects. I use a different deck of 56 cards to identify the beneficial cascades that we want to further amplify. I show employees how to create a unique current-state cultural map using these cards and other tools. This map displays the positive and negative cascade effects interactions present in an organization. It is like a Cat-Scan of the invisible culture of your organization.

If you seek valuable and thoughtful employee inputs, I would propose to facilitate a 3-5 day brainstorm with a cross-section of your employees using my methods. I could help them create revealing assessments that define your organizational cascade effect risks and opportunities from their perspective. Then let these employees present their findings at your annual management meetings to demonstrate the power of structured "bottoms-up" strategic inputs.

Some thoughts...

As we don't know what type of company you are involved in it is hard to contribute specific answers.

Strategy is a long term management tool (adapted from the military world). If your business is capital intensive (like automotive and steel mills), strategic decisions may look 15 to 20 years into the future. A Bio-Tech company looks 10-15 years ahead, Hi-tech 3 to 5, while some product distributors may look a year ahead.

Service type companies are the only ones I can think of, that may need to discuss/realign strategy every year. If you are a product company it would be odd if strategies are revised yearly. Operations are reviewed to see if they meet strategies. Strategies are audited yearly for their validity and ability to reach long term growth.

This is one of my more frustrating issues, too. I find business leaders spend way too much time scratching the surface of strategic issues and not nearly enough asking really fundamental questions, like: Why does your business exist? or What risk does the business reduce for the customer and who is the customer?

In my practice, I focus my clients on the very basics of business and build from there.

* What is the asset owned and/or controlled by the business that underpins its existence?
* When this asset is used in a product/service, how does this asset help reduce the customer's risk of achieving some goal?
* Who is this customer and what is the goal?

Only after we have a clear understanding why the business exists is it possible to enter into discussions and analyses about processes and risk management, and only then how this translates into financial performance.

What gets measured gets done.  I would make employee input part of every manager's and employee's MBOs.  

Are your managers having frequent one-on-one meetings with their employees?  If so, managers should task every employee with providing their perspective on trends, risks, opportunities.  I might also suggest each manager conduct a monthly or quarterly group discussion so best practices can be gained and shared to improve everyone's ability to spot trends, identify risks, etc.  This is a great task to improve every employees ability to learn how to find elusvie information, think critically and creatively, and pose their recommendations in a professional manner.

The risk is that human nature may result in true risks and trends not bubbling up to management.  So, in addition to the strategy above, I would also include channels that bypass the direct manager.  in some cases, managers will eliminate ideas they feel threaten their perspective or approach.  We've all seen management teams that spoon feed upper management and eliminate facts that may be contrary to their current approach.  One idea would be to have management conduct small "focus groups" with employees outside their direct functional reporting.  This allows employees to feel heard and act to surface ideas to management that might otherwise be lost in the process.