The previous post talked about Really Simple Strategic Planning, a way to cut through the buzzwords and create a practical strategic plan for your company. This post provides some tips about how to organize and run strategic planning sessions.
Getting people together to talk about strategy is a tricky affair. Besides having different opinions about what strategy to pursue, people often differ about what strategy is and the difference between strategy and tactics. Like facilitating productive meetings, running effective strategy sessions is an art form that requires practice. The following recommendations, organized into the Five Ws (and 1 H), will give you a head start:
WHO? – In a small company, be as inclusive as possible, at least in the beginning. Excluding someone tells them you don’t consider their input valuable. On the other hand, it’s difficult to brainstorm in groups of more than 7 or 8, so consider breaking down into smaller groups. Don’t forget to include investors, Board members, outside advisors and (gasp) customers in your strategy sessions.
WHAT? – To be effective, you need to draw some boundaries. It may not be productive to re-strategize everything about your startup from first principles. It’s ok to give people some focus to the discussions by saying “we’re not talking about that”. Show people an example strategy so people know what they’re aiming for.
WHERE? – Don’t hold offsite meetings. Strategizing where you work sends a message that strategy is not a once a year event but fully integrated into your work. That said, you might need to some special equipment such as a cell phone/Wifi jammer, lots of sticky pads, and a timeout corner…
WHEN? – Again, don’t plan strategic retreats once a year. If you’re doing this for the first time you’ll need more sessions up front but discussing strategy should be a regular event. This doesn’t mean you should question your company’s strategy every day. But quarterly checkpoints are crucial for comparing your strategy with your execution, and updating your strategy if necessary.
WHY? – This is not as obvious as it sounds. Some of your staff may think your strategy is self-evident and question why you need to pretend like it’s not. You need to convince everyone on your team (including yourself) that developing strategy as a group is partly an end in itself as it gets everyone to buy into shared goals
HOW? – The biggest challenge in running successful strategy sessions is to create an environment where people feel they can be creative. Believe me, this is more difficult than it sounds. Your intern might not want to contradict the founder/CEO and non-technical people might assume that the CTO “owns” all the technology strategy. Make sure someone is tasked with being a facilitator, i.e. someone who watches how the conversation goes, ensures everyone has a chance to speak, and gives people timeouts if necessary.
For more information on how to create an environment conducive to good ideas, watch this video about IDEO, a legendary industrial design company who have perfected the art of brainstorming (they designed the 1st mouse). Their GM has also written a number of books on innovation including The Art of Innovation. Although they talk about brainstorming, most of the concepts apply to strategic planning. In fact, if your strategic planning sessions feel less like brainstorming and more like ops meetings, you’re probably not being very strategic!
A lot of what you learn about effective strategic planning boils down to organized chaos. You need organization to make something meaningful out of the process. But you also need the chaos, i.e. the debates, passionate disagreement, kooky ideas, and dead-end discussions. If you can organize the chaos you’ll find it will be easy to create a practical strategy for your firm that people feel motivated to achieve.