It’s all in the Strategic Planning

Getting everyone into a room and asking them to be creative and work out ideas on how to drive the business is no easy task. You can’t force people to be creative and it’s extremely difficult to switch on your idea generator, just because a brainstorming session has been organised. In fact your strategic planning sessions need to be just that, strategic. But how?

Our biggest consumption in business nowadays is not wages, resources or even time, it is energy.

If we are going to ask the high powered executives to give their energy to a half day of strategic planning, we need to ensure that none of it is carelessly wasted. That is why a well organised and expertly facilitated strategic planning session will create fantastic business results and a justifiable return on investment.

First of all, now more than ever, technology is on our side. Brainstorming is a waste of time at the physical meeting, so get it completed before everyone meets. This is easily achieved by asking two simple questions, well before the actual meeting will take place and even better if this is completed virtually.

Do the Pre-work

We live in exciting times, where information is freely available and even easier to pass across time zones and geographies but is subtle enough not to disrupt your teams’ busy schedules. Therefore designing a well-structured pre-workshop survey is a must. This will ensure that up to eighty percent of the idea generation and energy consuming brainstorming is completed well in advance, so you can focus the session on hammering out an excellent strategy.

The two compelling questions you need to ask in the run up to the session is one analytical, of “Where are we at?” and one open, of “Where could we be?” This second aspirational question is the key to getting an excellent strategy agreed upon. This gets individual thinking going and ensures that everyone has contributed their ideas. All too often it’s the most vocal and dominant who hijack the brainstorming, when really some of the quietest people in the room, have some of the best ideas but they simply weren’t asked to contribute. So a pre-work survey means all ideas are put forward and acknowledged. There is also the added benefit that participants will come with even more ideas on the actual day because they’ve naturally been thinking about them in the run up to the meeting.

A Case in Point

Infiniti recently moved their global headquarters to Hong Kong and had reserved time with the top leaders in the company to look at strategic thinking, while they were all in the city for the huge PR launch. In the run up to the planning session, the facilitator involved contacted a few key stakeholders from the group and got their ‘read’ on the two questions mentioned before. This reframed the leader’s mind-sets into thinking how they might bring to fruition some of the ideas on where they could be, as they discussed them with the facilitator. On the actual planning day, the facilitator had lots of knowledge obtained and the leaders had lots of ideas already thought out and were fully ready to share – no brainstorming needed. The outcome was that 16 leaders, having already generated a total of up to 100 ideas could cluster and consolidate them down and down until they had five big actions at the end of the meeting, that had everyone’s buy-in and a positive belief that they could bring these big five ideas to a fruition. This included how to maximise the brand globally, how to differentiate from competitors and ultimately how to sell more product – cars.

Agree and get SMART

However once this agreement is made, teams need to go further and make sure that their goals are SMART, which is an acronym for specific, measured, attainable, relevant and time-bound. This means the action list will be accountable and more importantly, guaranteed to be completed. An example from a strategic planning session held with AXA, created an action plan for the upcoming three to five years. Again the ideas generation had been completed in advance through pre-work surveys and conference calls with key stakeholders, management and decision makers. On the strategic planning days, the ideas were presented and discussions took place to consolidate them.

Consolidation and Tools

Tools that are useful in the process of discussion include Appreciative Inquiry (AI) and World Café. Appreciative Inquiry is a process whereby an idea or a need in the organisation is presented and participants look for positive solutions. World Café is similar but the setting is like one in a coffee shop to make it more informal, participants rotate to share ideas. AI however being slightly more formal, uses a 4-D process, the first of which is called Discovery. Participants ask the question of what they do well currently regarding the current need. For example, if the need is better communication across teams, they would first inquire what they believe, they do quite well already regarding this. They might mention that they have a good system of scheduled weekly meetings with key team members to share best practice or that a culture of sharing exists. This process of discovery puts everyone in a very positive frame of mind as they begin to appreciate and realise that they are already doing a very good job. This positivity creates a lot of recognition for the participants and opens up the group, encouraging them to share more.

The next step in the 4-D process is to Dream. This requires participants to consider, if we already do all this, how it can be even better. As many ideas as possible are welcome and quite naturally this challenges the group to the move into the more open form of question, we mentioned at the beginning. These open questions require a great deal of thinking and this is where you get the most innovative, eccentric and impossible ideas, that with enough planning might actually come to fruition and revolutionise the company. I recall a strategic planning session with AXA, where some team members felt that the cubicle form in the office destroyed inter-department and also cross functional sharing. This was further frustrated by the common room or “cool zone” as they called it, where teams could go and hang our or meet informally had been reclaimed to make way for more office desks as teams expanded. It was proposed to reintroduce the cool zone and get rid of all cubicles. This seemed impossible as all available office space had been used up and a complete restructure unobtainable. However as these were the kind of ideas that were being discussed, it was pushed further into, how might this happen and this led onto the third stage of the 4-D process, which is design.

The design stage requires the team to choose some of the dreams and look at how they might become a reality. They discuss the possible critical success factors that might contribute to the realisation of the idea. Again by probing open questions such as “How might you do this?” or “What would it take to make this happen?” you start to see some real and ultimately obtainable concepts begin to present themselves. With perseverance it was revealed by some in the architectural services department that a move of some of the regional team could possibly happen in the next year. On further use of open questions “Tell me more about that?” and “How do you see things changing?” it was proposed by the participants to set up a working team to actively engage employees in finding their views on what should be included in the new office layout, in the new premises. In fact, a completely new office design did happen. At the new location there was a batch of working desks organised together, facing each other and with no cubicle barriers. At the end of each batch were placed two large sofas facing each other, where teams could hold breakout sessions, without needing to book meeting rooms or moving floors and the informal nature of the setting, made these meetings more positive, more engaging and ultimately more fruitful.

By considering the ideas generated by discovering, dreaming and designing, the final part of the 4-D process aims to consolidate all the thinking with a view to a better future and is known as Destiny. This proposes the thinking that if all the ideas discussed do indeed see fruition, then where will all this take us. In AXA’s case this destiny will ensure that communication is faster, more relevant and willingly shared across teams and indeed the entire organisation.

SMART Outcomes

These plans where then made SMART by first making them more specific. Where is the space? When does it become available? What does it need to look like? Measures are locked down. How many breakout areas? How often are they going to be used? Next is attainable, which indeed it is, as a move to a completely new building is scheduled for the following year. Are the plans relevant? Indeed they are as the need identified was better communication across teams and the new physical office structure will contribute significantly to this. Finally put a Time-Bound stamp on the plan, accelerated in this case by the real need that the move was happening regardless, making the accountability to get moving on the plans even more relevant.

It was exceptionally rewarding the following year, for the teams to see the physical office space in their new offices completely transformed and all as a result of completing a strategic planning session. Although one that was eighty percent completed before anyone got in the room.

David Simpson is the Co-Founder & Director of Team Building Asia