When a company calls me out of the blue asking if I can facilitate their annual strategic planning retreat in a couple of weeks, I usually surprise them by saying, “No!” Then I qualify that by saying: “Yes, I can help, but you need to do some serious homework first, and it is probably going to take you a month or so. If you are prepared to do that, I’ll talk with you about meeting to facilitate your planning process.”
The reason is simple: If you want to create a strategic plan to set your company up for future success in your industry, you need to perform a thorough analysis and do some serious strategic thinking first.
That takes time.
Getting the leadership team together for a strategy session, booking a facilitator to wave their arms around in the front of the room, and expecting your people to come up with “magic” on the day, is just a recipe for mediocrity!
Helping companies to create and execute their strategic plans is my bread and butter. In my experience, the best way to create and implement a winning strategy is to harness the collective brainpower of the key individuals in your company and guide them through a structured “strategic thinking” process to capture their individual opinions first.
To do this, I use a prework survey that requires 3-4 hours of work per person (they don’t need to complete it all in one sitting). The survey is administered anonymously and each person completes it in isolation. I want people to argue for what they believe is in the best long-term interests of the company without being influenced or biased by the opinions of other team members.
The topics covered in my survey have a common core framework, with customizations to suit the client’s stage of company evolution. Over the last 2 decades I have continued to optimize and tweak the questionnaire to help people “think more strategically” and draw out their ideas.
Once participants have completed the survey, I collate the anonymized information and send the responses to the leadership team 7 days before the strategic planning session.
This allows the planning team ample time to consider the different perspectives put forward, and (hopefully) have some informal discussions and debates in the days leading up to the planning day.
My goal is to have everyone arrive at the planning day fully prepared, with a shared understanding of the key issues. Everyone is primed to debate the options and make robust strategic decisions.
Note: I have many “rules” to ensure a successful strategic planning day. Here is a sample of my rules related to strategic planning preparation:
Invite as many people as you want to participate in the prework survey, but select those who can think outside their day-to-day functional role, i.e. people who can comment on your company as a whole, and share insights about your industry. Then select fewer than 10 people to participate on the planning day. Once you get to double figures, it puts a drag on the decision-making process.
The only people in the room on the planning day should be those who “must attend”, not the “nice to haves”. Use these 2 filters to make your selection:
1. Who adds value? People who will actively contribute to the debate and decision-making process
2. Who must buy-in? People who might undermine strategy execution if they are not part of the decision-making process
“Ticket To The Game”.
The prework is your ticket to the game. If you don’t complete the survey you don’t get to participate in the planning day. I don’t want people in the room showing up and “winging it”.
I have other “rules” that I share on the planning day to optimize how we debate the options and make decisions, but I hope the concepts shared in this article help to improve your strategic planning preparation in the future.
Until next time
Stephen Lynch is the author of the award-winning book; “Business Execution for RESULTS: A practical guide for leaders of small to mid-sized firms” winner in the “Management” category of the 2014 Small Business Book Awards in the USA.
He’s also written articles on strategy and management for The Economist magazine.
Need a Strategic Plan Facilitator for your next planning session? A Business Coach to help you scale your business? Management Training to upskill your team? Contact Stephen to discuss your needs.