Engaging the System for More Effective Strategic Planning

Jan 24, 2019

By Marie Peeler

Many leaders, believing that they have devoted generous resources to a process that essentially takes people away from the real work that needs to be done, are chronically disappointed with the lackluster results that come from their strategic planning efforts.

With the same buzz-word laden goals surfacing each year, and certain “unmentionables” not discussed at all, the strategic planning process can take on the aura of a dog and pony show rather than a meaningful springboard for the forward momentum of the organization.

Contributing to the show-like quality of the process is the episodic nature of strategic planning in many organizations.  Frequently the process, anticipated--or dreaded--well in advance, erupts with a quick, but intense, frenzy of activity.  Then, just as quickly, the process concludes and the resulting plan document takes its place on the shelf along with previous plans while everyday life in the organization resumes as before.

The problem is that these discrete strategic planning events that take place separately from the daily work of the organization seldom evoke the honest reflection, candid conversation, or innovative thinking that are fundamentally necessary to create a blueprint for meaningful action. 

The success of an organization’s strategic plan depends upon the ability to talk about those issues that really matter.  Every organization has sacred cows that have outlived their usefulness, habitual elephants in the room that seem painful to address, and new and ever-changing realities that initially seem unthinkable.  But holding up the mirror, frankly assessing past performance, engaging in meaningful dialogue, and knocking down barriers to no-holds-barred brainstorming won’t come naturally if these activities are not already a part of the organizational culture. 

Organizational culture permeates everything that a team does but nowhere does it enable or inhibit progress more than around the strategy table.  Organizational culture determines who will speak up and who will remain silent, whether all facts will be brought to the table, and whether the team engages in dialogue or advocacy.  Organizational culture can make sure that certain taboo topics never see the light of day until they potentially sabotage the plan.
So how can a leader help ensure an organizational culture that is ultimately conducive to strong and meaningful strategic planning? 

Make Your Organization a Safe Place to Think
Often leaders unknowingly thwart the thinking of others by shooting down ideas that don’t fit their mental models or preconceived notions. Other leaders appear to listen, but really do not allow the team members to have any real input. Ultimately, this leaves others with a sense of “Why bother?”
Leaders must be prepared to hear information and opinions without being defensive, even when it points to weaknesses in their organization.  Otherwise, they will miss valuable information because everyone will be too afraid of being on the receiving end of the leader’s reaction.

Take a Risk
Promoting creativity means promoting ideas. Not all ideas will be good ones. Some ideas will seem good, but ultimately will fail. This seems like a risky proposition for a leader. It can also be a risky proposition for the employee if the organization is known to punish failures.

To stimulate innovative thinking and the free offering of ideas, accept the risk and lead a culture where failures are learning opportunities. It is the only way to create a safe place for team members to think.

Make Learning a Priority

People who are actively engaged in learning, regardless of whether that learning directly supports their job function, tend to gain personal resourcefulness, confidence, and excitement. New learning stimulates them to stretch, and to think and reflect on new ideas.

Promote learning in your organization first by setting the example and being a personal learner yourself. Then promote learning and growth in those around you. Remember that there are many forms of both formal and informal learning that have the power to stimulate the mind and one’s creativity. Whether it’s formal in-house training programs, the support of degree-seekers, or internal mentoring or external coaching programs, investing in the training of your management can provide substantial return on investment.

Take Team Members Out of Their Silos

To promote creative thinking, encourage team members to regularly work on problems and challenges outside of their functional areas.  Even the most senior team members lose sight of the big picture when they are exclusively enmeshed in the issues and priorities of their own areas. 

Send manufacturing managers to meet with clients and hear firsthand about their challenges.  Have sales and marketing leaders brainstorm operational challenges.  Involve finance executives in a product development project.  Help each see the interconnectivity of their departments while reaping the added benefit of breaking down barriers and facilitating communication and cooperation.

Ask Learning Questions and Teach Others to Do the Same

Albert Einstein is reputed to have said, “Curiosity is more important than knowledge.” Leaders need to stay curious and exercise their curiosity through learning questions. Learning questions are those questions that leaders ask because they genuinely don’t know the answer--or they believe they know the answer but are willing to suspend their beliefs in order to honestly learn what others think.  

• Does anything make you want to just shake your head?
• Why do you think a customer should use the widget we make instead of one made by our competitors?
• What is the single biggest obstacle to you doing your best work?

Make Strategy an Ongoing Process
Leaders must stop treating strategic planning as a separate project to be “managed” once a year.  Instead, we must design an ongoing process of reflection and dialogue.

The episodic nature of strategic planning comes very naturally out of the fact that most organizations have a deadline, by which time the plan document must be deemed complete.  This deadline is not inherently bad.  The deadline ensures that, at some definitive point, the organization’s leaders put a decisive stake into the ground and commit to a vision and a course of action.

But the completion of a necessary document is but one small part of the overall process--just the icing on the cake.  The real meat of the process--the analysis, reflection, learning, and conversation that feed the document--should be an ongoing process.

Whether carried out in the office or at an offsite location, formal opportunities to discuss strategy should be conducted on a regular basis; monthly is optimal, quarterly is minimal.  Such sessions provide the opportunity to discuss progress on previously identified strategies and serve as an incubation center for new and innovative ideas.  Don’t be tempted to rush these meetings or fill them with tactical agenda items and updates.  Make sure everyone knows the topic of discussion ahead of time and is accountable for coming to the meeting prepared to have a meaningful discussion.

Once leaders begin to approach the building of an open, curious, reflective culture with intentionality and provide more opportunities for team members to tackle the real strategic issues of the organization, the annual strategic planning process will become both more rewarding and, at the same time, far less necessary, because team members won’t wait for an annual process to talk about the strategic issues that matter most.

About the Author(s)

Marie Peeler is a principal of Peeler Associates, a Pembroke, MA—based organization that helps leaders clarify objectives, find engagement, improve interpersonal effectiveness, and attain their goals through services that include career planning, executive coaching, team development, custom workshops and seminars, leadership assessment, business retreats, and keynote, conference and meeting presentations.  As an executive coach and leadership development consultant, Peeler has worked with both individuals and organizations to increase their business effectiveness through true and lasting transformation. For more information, visit www.peelerassociates.com