Permalink to Strategic Planning – The Power of Parallel Thinking

Strategic Planning – The Power of Parallel Thinking

“The way a team plays as a whole determines its success. You may have the greatest bunch of individual stars in the world, but if they don’t play together, the club won’t be worth a dime”.  Babe Ruth


The power of Parallel Thinking

A few years ago, we were approached by a large company, to help the internal-audit unit manager develop a strategic plan. We soon discovered why we had been asked to help. The manager was a dictator. He believed that it was his job to retreat to a quiet place (his office) and emerge several weeks later with a fully formed plan for his group to implement. The problem with his plan? It only contained his thinking, which wasn’t right, and as a result nobody really cared.

Strategic planning is a collaborative effort. Experts may be consulted and offer perspectives, but there is no substitute for those working in an organization, coming together to consider options and make plans. While final authority often rests with the Executive and Board, these groups seldom have the diversity, knowledge or understanding of customer needs to comprehensively plan for the future.

“Concertina planning”

The most successful approach to strategic planning that we have seen deliberately uses different groups of people at different times. Think of a concertina – the musical instrument – as a metaphor. When the concertina is squeezed the smallest group (management and/or the Board) takes care of their piece of the planning process – most often aspects that require in-camera discussions, confidential information and areas where authority is required

Where the concertina is expanded, more people are brought to the table for specific purposes – often to tap their knowledge, explore a diversity of opinions and insights, action planning or to keep them abreast of developments.

Strategic planning is seldom accomplished in less than two months. This starts from the time that initial meetings are held, through data gathering, forming judgements, making decisions and detailing action plans. During this time the concertina may be squeezed and released several times.


Three Critical Elements for ensuring a robust but living plan:

  1. Robust Process – Plan the planning process carefully with a simple but effective build from one element to the next.
  2. Engage the right people at the right time – Harness the power of people’s brains, experiences and diversity. In doing so, you guard against group think or dictatorship.
  3. Let leaders lead – The planning approach suggested here is not democracy. Leaders must lead through the process – they must exercise clear thinking, courage and decisiveness.

Permalink to Decide how to decide

Decide how to decide

If you care about a particular decision, it matters how the decision is made as well as who makes it.  – Ellen Gottesdiener

Decide how to Decide

One of the most powerful decisions that teams can make is how they will make their decisions. They decide how they will decide. And it’s an often over-looked step.

To experience how important this is, think about an election for a public official. Would you want to participate in an election which you know is not fair? Or to put it another way, would you want to vote in an election where you were not free to make your choice?

In that example, we understand how important it is to know how the decisions will be made. In addition, we know who is making the decision. In the example above, it`s the voters by a simple majority.

In teams, there are many ways that decisions can be made. One of the barriers to good decision making in teams can be confusion about how they will decide as well as who will decide.

By “who decides” the choice could be:

  • A senior leader not on the team will decide: The team will make a recommendation that will be considered by the senior leader.
  • The team leader decides: The team will discuss the options but the leader will make the final decision.
  • The team decides by a majority vote: The team will take a simple vote and abide by the result.
  • An expert will decide: One of the team members who is an expert will decide.

By “how will they decide”, the choice could be:

  • Majority rules: They will take a vote and the majority result will prevail.
  • Consensus: The team will discuss this until they can reach a group consensus – all the group members will agree with the result.
  • Modified consensus: The group will discuss until all members either agree or can live with the result.
  • Delegation: The group delegates a decision to a particular person either in the team or outside of it and agrees to live with the decision.
  • Arbitrary: The team can live with either of two choices and so it decides based on some arbitrary rule.

So how should a team make the choice about the above options? Depends on the following factors:

  • Time: If you involve more people, i.e. the whole team, then you need more time for consideration and discussion. If it is only one person, then it takes less time.
  • The relative importance of the decision: The smaller the impact of the decision, the more it makes sense for the team to delegate the decision-making to an individual.
  • Senior buy-in. Does the team need senior management to be involved? Are there others outside the team who at least need to be consulted?

The bottom line about team decision-making is this:

The more clarity the team has early on about how it will make its decisions, the more easily it will make them. Deciding how to decide is fundamental to good team decision-making.

How do your teams decide how to decide? Do you follow any of the suggestions in this blog or have you another method that is working well? Please add your experience in the comments section.


Permalink to Strategic Planning – Ensuring a Robust, Living Strategic Plan

Strategic Planning – Ensuring a Robust, Living Strategic Plan

“One cool judgment is worth a thousand hasty counsels. The thing to do is to supply light and not heat”.  Woodrow Wilson


Robust Living Plan

Strategic Plans can be strange creatures. They contain our best and most hopeful thinking; at the same time they are a temptation to hasty action. The worst plans are hurriedly conceived and hurriedly implemented as if the war can be won in a single battle. They also can become a macho expression of the gung-ho attitude of the team creating them.

To have an effective plan, strive for balance and poise:

  1. Be sure, but not dogmatic – Dogma requires a blind adherence to a point of view. No management group should be so sure of their strategic plan that they are not open to considering new information.
  2. Be decisive, but not hasty – Having arrived at a set of conclusions through a well-constructed strategic planning process, action must be decisive. However, planners often ‘front-end load’ the actions to be taken, unnecessarily straining their organization’s ability to deliver.
  3. Be clear but not simplistic – The thinking of the planning team must be successfully reflected in the written plan. This must be clear so it can be easily communicated, but not reduced to simplistic notions and acronyms.
  4. Commit to strong strategic management – The strategic planning process must be supported by strong strategic management practices such as 90-day check-ins on progress and ‘tweaks’ to the plan based on interim plan reviews.

How have you managed to effectively implement your company’s strategic plan? What other points of advice would you add to this list? Feel free to add your thoughts in the comments section.

Permalink to Conflict or Combat?

Conflict or Combat?

Conflict is inevitable, but combat is optional –Max Lucade


Conflict or Combat

The project team was hopelessly entangled.  They were passionate about their work and were fully engaged in achieving their goals but whenever they got together they would spend a lot of time arguing and dismissing each others’ points of view. They appeared to be suspicious of each others’ motives and unable to achieve even easy decisions. They had gone from being at a stage of manageable conflict to being on the verge of combat.

I was called in to work with this team. First I observed a couple of their meetings. Here is what I saw:

  • They didn’t let each other get a word in edgewise;
  • There was one person with a louder voice who overrode even the smallest disagreement;
  • There was an equally strong person who stood up to the first person but who was no more effective than the loud voiced person;
  • There were two or three people who essentially gave up and acted quite passively;
  • As their passions rose, the listening went way down;
  • As the listening went down, the commitment to solutions dissipated;

The next thing I did was to convene a meeting with the team to talk about how they conduct their business. I shared the top tips for making team discussion and disagreement work for them. Here they are:

  • Proceed on the assumption of goodwill – remind yourselves that you are good people trying to do a good job – make sure that you keep that in mind.
  • Surface assumptions about the issue at hand – the more contention there is, the more you need to get beneath it understand each others’ assumptions – call a “Stickie” – give each person a pad of stickies and have each person generate assumptions, one assumption per stickie. Set a time limit of 5 or 10 minutes and see how many assumptions can be generated in the time period. Then put them all up on the wall, and cluster them in themes. Discuss the themes and the contradictions. Your team will be very surprised to see all the different assumptions. Many times this technique leads to breaking up logjams or diffusing conflict.
  • Don’t interrupt each other – if necessary, suggest the use of the talking stick (see next point). Agree ahead of time that any one person on the team can ask for the talking stick and everyone will cooperate.
  • When you can’t get in a word edgewise, use a talking stick – the trick is to make sure that no one person hogs the airtime – pass around a stick or a ball or a baton or some object that you will recognize and make sure that everyone airs their opinions before any one person gets a second turn.
  • Ask questions in the spirit of inquiry rather than the spirit of combat – when you truly ask for more information and delve into how another person thinks, you can often be surprised. And when you get more information, the team’s thinking and resources for decision-making are strengthened.
  • Give meeting effectiveness feedback at the end of the meeting – go around the table and have everyone say what they appreciated and what could go better next time.

This team worked very hard to get into healthy team habits.  The first meeting we had, we had nothing more on the agenda than talking about how they could improve how they worked together. I shared the healthy team tips with them and they created some ground rules for themselves. They agreed that any member of the team could make a call for Stickies or for the Talking Stick and if any one other team member agreed, they would use this technique.

The next meeting, they began with the use of the talking stick to get some order to their discussions. It was fun and kind of amusing to see the loud-voiced person biting their tongue. But with some offline coaching of this person, he was helped to see that the real benefit of not hogging the airtime was that now everyone actually listened to him and heard his point of view.

The next meeting they tackled the use of Stickies and found a really helpful technique. They diligently practiced these techniques over about three months and very rarely now do they slide back into combat.

What is your team like? Do they practice healthy team habits? How does your team resolve conflicts? What are you facing right now? We’d love to hear from you. Give us your comments below.

Permalink to Strategic Planning – The Fallacy of the Simple Answer

Strategic Planning – The Fallacy of the Simple Answer

“Doubt is not a pleasant condition, but certainty is absurd”. Voltaire

Strategic planning seems to offer a contradictory set of possibilities. On the one hand planning promises clarity and certainty – use tools such as a SWOT analysis, market research and sound prioritization, goes the argument, and all will become clear. Once our direction is set, the job is to stay on plan.

“But wait a moment,” say those who want more flexibility.

“How can we be certain in a world of turmoil and change? We need to be agile and opportunistic. We need to be able to keep our options open. We need to keep thinking”.

Strategic planning should aim to provide both certainty and a healthy dose of doubt.

Either/Or vs Both/And

Barry Johnson in his book Polarity Management makes the point that too often complex problems are treated as if they ‘Either/Or’ problems. For example companies rush from centralizing control (the problem) to decentralizing it (the solution) in the hope that they will release creative energy nearer the customer. This may happen, but soon unintended consequences start showing themselves. Decentralization of decision making, for example, can lead to a loss of efficiency that is gained from coordination. And sooner or later, the pendulum starts creeping back.

From a planning and management perspective, we should avoid the simplistic ‘flavor of the month’ answer. Instead of relying on ‘Either/Or’ thinking, we should use ‘Both/And’ reasoning. ‘Both/And’ approaches require us to recognize the positives of both our options and search for ways to plan to benefit from those benefits. So, instead of swinging wildly from centralized to decentralized control, we should look for creative and innovative ways to get the best of both worlds – maintain central purchasing of key services and good, while delegating customer related decision making as close to the client as possible. It is possible to have the best of both centralized decision making and decentralized autonomy, but only if it deliberately planned for.

A Guide, not a Straitjacket

Strategic planning is only the first step in successful strategic management. A well-crafted strategic plan is the result of careful thinking that avoids, as far as possible, the traps of binary, Either/Or thinking. Once the strategic plan is complete, of course, it is potentially obsolete, overtaken by changes in the market place or the loss of a key account to a competitor. Strategic management needs to use the plan as a firm guide to the enterprise not as an inflexible straitjacket. Plans can seldom be “locked down”. More often they provide a playbook for a period of time and give management a guideline for activities and behaviours in the business.

Permalink to My team has a mission but they are behind and in conflict about how to execute. What do I do? Look for the gold…

My team has a mission but they are behind and in conflict about how to execute. What do I do? Look for the gold…


Efforts and courage are not enough without purpose and direction – John F. Kennedy

A project team in a global manufacturing company that I worked with that was in passionate disagreement. This was a multi-disciplinary and multi-national team. They had been asked by the CEO to create a code of conduct to be used around the world.  They couldn’t agree how to approach this key project were already behind on it due to their wrangling. The team leader, Joyce, was at her wits end trying to get them to work together.

First thing to do…

When a team is in conflict, one of the first things they need to do is to re-confirm their purpose.  They need to know, and more importantly, agree on, what they are all here to accomplish.  If you ask your team members if the purpose of the team is clear to them, they may all nod their heads vigorously. But if you then ask each of them to state the purpose, you may well find that there is sufficient disagreement either about the fundamentals or in the nuances that it is holding the team back. And so, –as Kennedy said, they may be expending effort and courage and even skill and passion but that is not enough.

In conflict there is gold…

If this conflict about purpose exists in your team, don’t worry. In this conflict, there is gold. Conflict is often avoided by people because they are worried about how to deal with disagreement. But properly viewed, disagreement happens because people are being honest about how they think and feel about an issue. Left to fester, “conflict avoiders” are right to worry. But if conflict is viewed as a positive starting point then a team can mine it for the gold that is there.

What was the purpose? One version was…

We decided to convene Joyce’s team to discuss the purpose of the project.  After a lot of discussion a few insights emerged about the team’s role in the key project. Some of the team members argued that they should be creating the toughest set of standards possible to show that their organization was the most ethical in the world, or certainly in their industry. They argued that if they didn’t take the highest ground possible, their code of conduct would be useless.

Another version was…

Others argued that while having a tough set of standards might be something to ultimately aim for, the legal jurisdictions they were manufacturing in and selling to, didn’t support this ethical view. They argued that their customers and suppliers in these jurisdictions would see this kind of code as unrealistic and North American-centric. They argued that a code of conduct that was rejected by a majority of people (as they were truly a global company) was an exercise in futility.

The importance of finding a middle or common ground…

I suggested that they imagine that they had been asked to find a middle ground between these two points of view, taking into account that the code of conduct would likely evolve over time.

The solution could evolve…

Joyce also asked them to imagine that this code of conduct only had to be an initial one that would last two years and that they would learn much from its implementation and then it could be amended based on the experience in the countries where their organization operated.

The solution didn’t have to be perfect…

Recognizing that this code of conduct didn’t have to be a perfect one to last forever, the team members were freed up to be more flexible.

The result – a critical watershed…

What the team agreed to do next was to make a single recommendation about the purpose of the code of conduct with the different points of view outlined. As well, they included a recommendation of a two year trial with a phased-in rollout so that all countries could learn from the implementation experience.

What was significant was that this recommendation had no details about the actual code. But they got to an agreement on what the purpose should be. Joyce took this to the CEO and the executive team and their purpose and implementation plans were approved.

Agreeing on the purpose of the work was a critical watershed moment for this team and they were able to be effective in creating the code.

What type of conflict resolution has worked for your teams? Is there a conflict with-in your team you need help resolving? Join-in on the conversation by leaving your comments on our blog.


Permalink to Strategic Planning – Less is More

Strategic Planning – Less is More

“That’s been one of my mantras – focus and simplicity. Simple can be harder than complex: You have to work hard to get your thinking clean to make it simple. But it’s worth it in the end because once you get there, you can move mountains”.
Steve Jobs

Strategic Planning is bedeviled by ideas, models, silver bullets, pixie dust and answers to all that ails us. Most of it ends up confusing us, overloading our thinking and diverting us from what’s important. So, what are we to do? Remove stuff and trim to the essence.

Try these simple rules:

Three and No more

Three goals with three supporting objectives under each, and no more. Three goals seem to be a manageable number. Of course, each goal needs several work packages or objectives and again three seems a reasonable aspiration; each of the three objectives will require multiple action plans or projects to make it successful.

The mathematics can become daunting very quickly: three goals x three objectives = nine objectives. Each of the nine objectives may have five or more projects. Before you know it, you have 3x3x5 = 45 projects to accomplish the plan.

I know three goals and three objectives per goal seems constraining, and it’s meant to be. Overloading plans with too much activity is one of the biggest faults I see with strategic plans. It’s no wonder many plans don’t get completed.

The Simpler, the Better

If you come back to your plan two weeks later and you don’t understand every word, every acronym, every concept, it’s too complicated. Keep It Simple!

Work the Plan

Over the years we’ve seen many ‘credenza creatures’, unloved and unused, sitting quietly gathering dust. If you are going put the time and energy into creating a plan, use it and make it a vital part of managing your business or not-for-profit.

Permalink to I have a new team to manage – what should I do first?

I have a new team to manage – what should I do first?

Coming together is a beginning, staying together is progress, and working together is success. – Henry Ford.

New Team, What do I do?

One of my clients, a manager named Isaac, was to be put in charge of a new team and he asked me how I could help him to get the team up and being productive together quickly.

Isaac had been named the new manager of this sales team but it would be six weeks before he would take over.  So he had some time to plan for this.

We suggested that he ask the team a key question ahead of time and facilitated a kick-off team retreat at which they did some planning. The first question he asked was:

What information do you, the team, need to know about me?

I suggested that he ask this question and use the responses to prepare some information about himself that he would share with them. The principle was that to trust him, they had to begin to know him.

Isaac was really surprised at some of the questions the team asked him. He had expected that they would ask him about his work experience. And they did:

Had he always been in sales?

(No, he had had strong hopes as he graduated from college that he would get a technology job but while at university, he’d had a summer job in sales at the telephone company and it turned out he had a knack for it)

Had he ever experienced real disappointment in his work?

(Yes, he’d applied for a job in the technology department of the  telephone company and they had a lot of stronger candidates so he didn’t get the role.)

But they also wanted to know:

Where had he been born?

(Halifax, Nova Scotia)

Did he have siblings?


What did he do for fun outside work?

(He was a good amateur photographer and he had a small sideline taking pictures at weddings which had started when his sister had gotten married and their photographer had cancelled. From there, her friends had asked him to do it, he enjoyed it and so this sideline had just bloomed.)

Then I worked with him to create a design for the retreat where he would get some further answers. They would start with some discussion topics that they would share with each other. The day dawned for the retreat. Everyone was excited and curious about the retreat and how it would go. He  began with some opening remarks and then we got the group talking:

For each individual, what were they most proud of in any area of their life?

(This helped him get to know them as well as helping them to get to know each other better – again, this built trust.)

What had been their best experience as a team – what was the experience that they had enjoyed the most where they had been the most challenged, appreciated, trusted, or respected?

(This would help them visualize the ideal team when they came to make decisions about how they wanted to work together.)

What conditions had made that teamwork possible?

and then I asked the whole group:

Thinking about the team today, what are the strengths that are operating?

Strengths they mentioned included:

An ability to be honest with each other about challenges that the team was facing

A sense of humour

Playing together when the work was done

A shared commitment to the team’s mandate

Next, we asked the team what could work better in terms of how they had worked together in the past. We asked, Knowing what the strengths of the team were, how could they work even better together?

They identified a few of the challenges:

On a couple of occasions, when most of the team had finished their work, a couple of individuals still had work to finish but the rest of the team went out to celebrate anyway

Some team members didn’t share credit for the successes with senior management

When mistakes were made, fingers got pointed and blame was assigned

Finally, we asked them how the team would work ideally in the future. And we asked them to create a picture – one where every member of the team put markers to the paper – and to put all the details in. (The key was not for them to try to be artists but to get all the elements of great teamwork up in some way on their paper.)

Then, looking at the picture, we asked them to imagine how they got there. What were the steps the team could take to achieve the best of what was in the picture? Together they created a great set of action plans to get to where they wanted to be as a team.

They would still have to put in some work from time to time to check in on how well they were living up to this ideal. But having laid the foundation for it, they were ready to tackle their work together and Isaac’s team was well on its way to beginning to work together successfully.

Permalink to Strategic Planning – Why Plan?

Strategic Planning – Why Plan?

“It has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried”. Winston Churchill

Why Plan?

Well, this is true of strategic planning. Managing by whim or wish may sound attractive, but keeping a company or not-for-profit heading in the right direction requires more than guesswork and no better mechanism than strategic planning has been offered for trying to order the future.

Managing any kind of enterprise requires placing bets about the future. What do we believe is going to happen in the economy, with our competitors and with our customers? What should we do to build our service line? How will we focus all our people on the direction and goal we need to attain?

Strategic planning, conducted right, should answer these and many other questions.

Planning is about change

At its heart, strategic planning is about stating what needs to be changed in an organization. Generally, these changes are in response to opportunities or threats in the environment or market.

A strategic plan should contain the best thinking by the best minds in the organization and sometimes from outside the organization. It should describe the judgements those people are making about how to invest the limited and valuable resources the business has on activities that will bring the greatest return for the organization.

This is all about changing key components of the organization in some deliberate way.

Planning is about a path out of confusion

The hurly-burly of daily life can be confusing in a busy enterprise. New opportunities present themselves and leaders must decide how to react. Communication must be effective and priorities must be clear. The strategic plan provides a great vehicle for communicating what’s important. It also offers a mechanism for assessing progress.

A well-crafted and well-written plan can become the rallying cry for an organization. Like the flag carried into battle, it can be the focal point of the business’s ambitions and a mechanism for telling how well the battle is going.

Permalink to Performance – Do I train people, change them out or something else?

Performance – Do I train people, change them out or something else?

One of our clients is wrestling with a performance issue. He wants a higher level of performance from his geographically distributed sales and service managers.
He wants to train them more; we wonder if that’s going to do the trick. We think that there are several elements he should be thinking of:

Are they in the right roles?

Often people are hired or transferred into a role that simply doesn’t suit them. They have the skills but not the temperament; the flexibility but not the interpersonal skills.

The temptation to knee-jerk the person out the door is strong. The problem is that you may be wrong. What if you experimented and moved them into another role for a while and tested if they are more effective? It can be eye opening as one client found out – a ‘trouble maker’ in one situation has become a star when moved into a new role. And they were that close to firing the person.

 Do they have the right systems and tools to be effective?

All too often a performance problem is blamed on the individual. However, when you look a little deeper, you find that the person has been set up to fail – the system they were working in held them back.
One client let a senior account manager go because of the loss of a customer. The truth was that the CEO and Executive Team were just as complicit in the poor communication and client management as this manager; it didn’t suit them to look the whole picture and he took the fall.

Does training work?

If the training is supported by practical tools and accountability tracking then it can be embedded. The trouble is that training is often seen as the cure-all. It’s rather like prescribing an exercise regime to an overweight person and then not ensuring they workout every day.

To borrow from Edward Deming: Plan what you want; Do what you planned; Check on how you did; Act on what you learned and make the necessary changes.

  • What performance do you want? Be clear.
  • Agree what the performance improvement plan will be.
  • Implement the entire plan, not just the training component.
  • Provide specific feedback and assess how the person did.
  • Make changes, raise the performance bar and try again.

We think that our client should look at the entire performance picture. Train if you must, but make sure that the people have the right systems and tools to help them be successful. Then, perhaps, you won’t have to train at all.

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