Saturday, March 26, 2011

Leadership Needs to Focus in the Right Place to Build a Strategic Organization

The graphic below clarifies why traditional strategic planning methodology misses the mark in terms of leadership focus, and shows where leadership focus should be. This isn't rocket science, but for some reason it's a concept that not only many, but most, organizational leaders seem to be missing (including me until recently).

Typical strategic planning session focus areas are highlighted below. Note that the majority of the highlights fall in the right-hand column, labeled “Management/Operations,” not the left-hand column labeled “Leadership.”

The un-highlighted areas are generally left out of the process or, if discussed, only in relation to creating and implementing the plan.

Most strategic planning processes/retreats start with things like a SWOT analysis, environmental scans, etc. , to help determine the strategic choices. This is followed by creating or re-examining the vision/mission, then developing some areas of strategic focus, creating goals/objectives, and may even go so far as developing action plans.

The areas of focus for strategic leadership are found solely in the left-hand column. (Note that planning is in the right-hand column.)

It should now be clear why strategic planning methodology fails to build a strategic organization. True strategic leadership activities are either skipped or given short-shrift at best, and an inordinate amount of time is spent on management/operations activities where leadership should spend NO TIME AT ALL. Strategic planning methodology quickly shifts the focus from leadership to management.

When a leadership retreat is held, instead of shifting the focus to management/operations activities, the entire focus should remain on the leadership side, NEVER venturing into the right-hand column. Ever.

The right-hand activities are for mid-management and staff, and in nonprofit organizations, this would include committee chairs and volunteers. When building a strategic organization, the left-hand side is where leadership, the C-Suite/owners/Board of Directors, should be focused like a laser.

And executive leadership should not only stay focused on the left side, but build capacity within the rest of the organization to shift its focus to the left-hand side. That's an important piece often left out. Leaders by nature have a visionary, strategic-focused mindset and attitude, but often fail to build capacity in the rest of the organization for a strategic leadership focus.

The un-highlighted activities in the left column are the ones that build organizational capacity for strategic leadership at all levels. Ultimately, we want what we do as an organization (behavior - mission/tactics) to be aligned with who we are (mindset - vision/values/strategic focus).

Leaders need to focus on reminding us of who we are as an organization; aligned actions will follow automatically if all stakeholders have an ingrained, intuitive understanding of this.

How many times do we as leaders complain of getting bogged down in operations, losing sight of the "big picture?" We say to ourselves, wouldn't it be great if we could work on the organization, rather than in it? It stands to reason, if we're getting sucked into operations, then what about the people in our organization whose only focus is operations? If we don't take the time to build strategic leadership capacity in them, they'll never get out of an operational focus, which they must do in order to take thoughtful actions aligned with the vision.

Since we now know where our focus needs to be to provide strategic leadership, we'll take a look at how to keep it there in upcoming posts. In my next post, I'll be offering a thought that goes counter to prevailing wisdom about creating vision.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Beyond The Plan: A New Approach to Strategic Leadership - Part 1

By now it's clear I aim to kill strategic planning methodology. And, yes, there is an alternative. But I won't call it that because it's a false comparison. If you believe there could be a better way, read on.

Sometimes I wonder why I'm taking on this cause because strategic planning is a standard exercise at many, if not most, organizations. So much so that many smart people mindlessly use it as a prescription for all organizational ills.

"Having problems, eh? Do you have a strategic plan? If you do, when was the last time you looked at it?"

As if the reason why an organization is failing is because it doesn't have a strategic plan or isn't using it.

And when I say traditional strategic planning methodology places leadership's focus in the wrong place, the standard response is: "The problem isn't the plan, it's the execution."

What's the difference? Why would there be any problems implementing something truly transformative? The answer is: because strategic plans are not truly transformative. If they were, you'd encounter less resistance to them.

Platitudes are the other standard response:

"Much calculation (planning) brings triumph. Little calculation brings defeat. How much more so with no calculation." Sun Tzu

I hear this one a lot! First Place winner.

"If you fail to plan, plan to fail."

Second Place winner.

As though invoking ancient wisdom about strategy, plans and tactics should put an end to the discussion once and for all.

Such responses indicate people really don't have a cogent argument to defend strategic planning methodology; they just know strategic planning must be a good thing because sages say so. (Whether that's actually what the sages say is an argument for another day.) Or, there must be something to it because everyone does it.

Now I invoke my own platitude and blog motto: "In the beginner's mind there are many possibilities. In the expert's mind there are few." Shunryu Suzuki

So many people "drink the Kool-Aid" around strategic planning methodology that I have to request a "beginner's mind."

In the beginner's mind, everything is new. When we look at things with a beginner's mind, it means we look at them as if we've never seen them before.

If you're a veteran strategic planning consultant, forget what you know -- just for now. If after you've read what I have to say using a "beginner's mind," you still believe you're on the right path, feel free to reject my notions.

The conversation I began in my last post, will continue with this one and several following, is about a different way of approaching strategic leadership.

My initial posts won't give much meat about the "how to's" of the new way. Shifting mindset is a prerequisite. Opening the mind takes time.

So, let's get started.

Something obvious that's overlooked is people naturally execute on vision.

If you decided at some point in life "what you wanted to be when you grew up" -- and I'm not talking about the 6-year-old child ideas, but the real ones arrived at with mature clarity -- it's unlikely you drew up a detailed plan and executed on it step-by-step (I realize some may have done exactly this. But most didn't.). You simply took aligned action with your dream.

Planning may have played a role to help you focus at certain points, but overall, you intuitively knew the things you needed to do and what you didn't know, you asked others for help.

So that's the first point. Taking aligned action toward a desired outcome (vision/strategy) is innate and natural.

How do we naturally do it? We think about what actions might get us where we want to go and make some decisions. Yes, we may do some structured written planning if it helps us focus -- or we may not. We start taking actions, some planned, some not, and learn along the way what works for us and what doesn't. Sometimes we encounter and act on unexpected opportunities that bring us toward the goal. When we hit roadblocks, we may ask others for help, a "new set of eyes" if we can't figure out the next move, or just go around the roadblock. Sometimes when we're not even actively pursuing our vision, we'll hear someone say something that gives us an "a-hah" moment, even though the discussion had nothing to do with our vision.

In short, the vision is always running in the back of our mind and we take persistent, aligned action toward achieving it.

How each of us reaches our vision is different. Some of us are structured, others free-spirited. Some of us are analytical, others intuitive. Some of us innovate, others use tried-and-true best practices. But it's safe to say that you've probably met people that match each description who you would describe as "successful."

The problem arises when we place value judgments on personalities. Structured people see free-spirited people as undisiciplined and erratic. Innovators see the tried-and-truers as small minded. Analyticals think intuitive people do everything by the seat of their pants. And so on.

So what does this have to do with strategic planning methodology?

You already may be connecting the dots. It's not the natural or only approach many take to achieve vision. Although detailed point-by-point planning may be embraced by some, usually the analyticals, operations directors, project managers, engineers, military folks, etc., it's not the preferred approach by others.

And, just as you can point to successful individuals that run the gamut from structured to free-spirited, innovative to tried-and-true, you can also point to successful organizations of each "personality type."

What every successful organization has in common, whether they have a strategic plan (that they look at or don't) or no plan at all is that they take persistent actions aligned with a vision.

Forcing an organization to adopt a single approach not aligned to its personality --commonly referred to as organizational culture -- is like asking someone who doesn't like brussel sprouts to "learn to love them." Not gonna happen.

I hate to do it, but I'll throw in another platitude I heard that's true from my own experience: "Culture eats strategy for breakfast."

So the first Beginner's Mind thought exercise I'll offer you is to think about the connection between human personality types and organizational personality types (culture), and how they affect strategy execution. Recall some points from my previous posts that tactical planning is a management tool, not a leadership tool, and just one of many tactical tools that can be used in strategic execution.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Developing Intuitive Alignment

Here I’ll describe an element of strategic execution that as far as I know isn’t addressed in traditional strategic management. I call it “intuitive alignment.”

What intuitive alignment means is that a vision is internalized to the degree that a person takes aligned action intuitively. We practice it all the time, but we don’t tend to think of it as something special or an area to consider in strategic leadership/management because it’s not planned or measurable.

I gave an example of an action arising from intuitive alignment in a previous post. I described how, even though I had developed a structured plan for my career path, when an unexpected opportunity arose that I could immediately see aligned with my vision, I literally “dropped everything” and acted on the opportunity. As a result, I achieved the vision much sooner than I had written in my plan. Had I not had clarity of vision deeply internalized, I would not have been able to recognize that this was THE opportunity to realize the vision and taken the appropriate aligned actions to seize the opportunity.

In short, because I had an internalized “higher calling,” not just a plan for getting there, I was able to take aligned action that required throwing the plan aside. It meant inventing a whole new path without any past experience or reference points to go by.

This behavior – intuitively taking aligned actions – is inherent in leadership. Leaders naturally practice intuitive alignment because having an internalized vision is what makes them a leader in the first place. They know what they’re after and they act on it; they don’t need to refer to a plan or have someone tell them they should act. They just know. It’s their vision; that’s why others follow them. But those who didn’t create the vision may not inherently act with intuitive alignment.

Many times we as leaders don’t effectively communicate the vision to those who are helping us implement it. In fact, we may ask them to do things for us and they do them because they respect us and want to please, but not because they truly know why they’re doing it. And because they don’t know what we really want, they just do what they’re asked to do, not taking actions that might better serve the vision because they know the “higher purpose” we’re trying to accomplish.

Define the Higher Calling of Each Role

Even though I’m by no means a sports fanatic or a student of football, I’m going to use a football analogy only because it helps illustrate a concept. (And my apologies to any non-USA readers, whose football is a different sport. I don’t know enough about the sport the rest of the world calls football to use an analogy from it. Either way, you don’t have to understand American football to understand the analogy.)

My ultimate role as wide receiver is to clear myself of defenders, to get open so that the quarterback can throw the ball to me. Regardless of what the official play is, I know that I’ve got to get open, which may mean I’ll have to try a different running pattern if the one called doesn’t work or the defender has anticipated the play call. This is clarity of vision around my position. While I know we have a specific play planned and I intend to follow it, I also know my higher calling is to “get open” and I’ll take whatever aligned actions I need to take to make that happen.

Creating intuitive alignment in those who are responsible for just a part of the big picture requires clarifying the “higher calling” of their position. Internalizing the big vision of the organization may not be intuitively actionable for everyone, but internalizing the higher calling of their role in service to the vision is.

To continue with the football analogy, running backs know they need to find a hole to run through in the defensive line. If the offense fails to open a hole for the running back in the planned spot in the defensive line, but the running back sees another hole somewhere else, he’ll run through it. “Finding a hole” is the higher calling in his role.

When players execute on their role-based “higher calling” beyond the planned plays, the team has a much greater chance of winning the game, which is the desired outcome.

To bring the analogy back to business, if a customer service representative knows that the “higher calling” in his or her role is to “solve the customer’s problem,” then specific company procedures, while generally followed, may be ignored to serve the higher calling.

Therefore, defining the higher calling (in service to the vision) of various roles in the organization is a way for followers to internalize a role-based vision upon which they can intuitively take aligned action.

Friday, March 4, 2011

Let's Shift the Paradigm on Strategic Execution

I expected strong reactions, as well as a few snide dismissals of my recent posts, and wasn't disappointed. Attacking a paradigm is risky. Still, I’ll do my best to deconstruct the paradigm around traditional strategic planning methodology and start to describe what a new paradigm of strategic execution methodology might look like.

If strategy making is about determining desired outcomes, what is the desired outcome of developing a strategy?

To produce the desired outcome, correct?

So, if as leadership, we know that our goal in creating a strategy is to produce the desired outcome, where should we invest our time? In bringing about the desired outcome, right?

And how do leaders bring about desired outcomes? By influencing others to take actions aligned with the desired outcomes.

On a daily basis, how do effective leaders get others to take actions aligned with desired outcomes? Let’s look at a possible scenario.

  1. Ask them for their help. “Can I get your help, John?”
  2. Tell them what the desired outcome is. “We’ve got a great opportunity to make a big deal with a new client.”
  3. Explain why it should matter to them. “This could be a big turning point for the company, which would allow us expand and provide more opportunities and better benefits for you.”
  4. Let them know how important their role is. “Your role is critical to making this a success.”
  5. Explain how they influence the desired outcome. “Here is what you can do to make this a success.”
  6. Ask if they’re in. “Can you give this 100%?”
  7. Explain outcomes specific to their role. “The presentation you’re putting together needs to address the following needs identified by the customer. . . “
  8. If they are aligned, offer your support. “Is there anything I can do to help you be successful in getting this accomplished?”
  9. Provide tools, if requested. “Here’s a style guide we developed for projects like this. Also, Joanne did a project just like this last year; maybe she can give you some ideas, too.”
  10. Explain the parameters. “The presentation is next Thursday, so we’ll need to have a draft to review by noon on Monday.”
  11. Provide feedback, recognition, appreciation, etc.
Out of the two people involved in this interaction, who will be the one developing a plan of action? The follower. Who was the one focused on influencing behavior to achieve the desired outcome? The leader. At what point in this scenario was the leader engaged in developing a plan? If you say, “never,” you are correct. Followers develop action plans, leaders develop vision. Leaders tell the story.

The desired outcome in this example could just as easily be the overall organizational vision, and the two characters involved could be top leadership as a group and the stakeholders that follow them.

Tactical planning, which is what most “strategic” planning really is, wastes a leader’s time. Followers are better equipped to develop tactical plans. Instead, leaders should focus on creating the “architecture,” or support structure in which followers take aligned actions. Aligned actions are more likely to occur consistently when followers “own” the vision, not just follow a plan handed to them by leadership.

In this context, creating strategic architecture means instead of devising tactical plans, leaders focus on developing a conducive environment, an organizational culture, and an “ownership mindset” around strategic execution, which I’ll simply define as developing followers capable of intuitively taking aligned action – with or without direct leadership intervention, with or without a structured plan.

Am I saying planning is bad? No. Am I saying plans shouldn't be used as a tool in strategic execution? Absolutely not. What I'm saying is, in the realm of strategy, the focus of leadership should change from being on producing plans to producing aligned action. Can plans help produce aligned actions? Sure. But plans are a tactical tool, a management tool -- in most cases best as a personal management tool -- not a leadership tool. Creating aligned action is a leadership function.

In my next post, I'll focus on the process of creating intuitive alignment.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

I Still Say Strategic Planning is a Flawed Concept

I received some reader pushback from my previous post where I stated that strategic planning is a flawed concept. Upon further reflection, strategic planning is absolutely a flawed concept. Here's why.

Vision can be accomplished without a plan. In fact, it happens quite often. But it cannot be accomplished without aligned action.

The methodology around creating strategy lies in making choices and setting parameters. The methodology around planning lies in outlining specific actions or tactics that we believe will accomplish a strategy, goal or objective. However, a plan is not the only tactic one can use to take aligned action.

A personal example. I had a vision when I started graduate school almost twenty years ago that someday I would own my own association management company, which I have for the past 10 years. I planned an education and career path to align with that vision. However, I was suddenly offered a completely unexpected opportunity that I was able to recognize aligned with my vision.

Within 24 hours I acted on the opportunity, without a plan, and literally spent the next year or two making it up as I went along. I had no time for market research, environmental scanning or a business plan -- all the stuff business schools say you're supposed to do to be successful. The opportunity came November 25. My day job ended on December 15 and by January 1, the doors to my business were open with customers knocking (note the additional factor of the Holiday time-frame). Due to the nature of the opportunity, I had no choice but to do it this way.

In the process of running the business, I learned everything they say you're supposed to study before you start a business. Nevertheless, I don't believe I would have been any more successful with the startup had I had more time to plan. (My pre-designed career plan, incidentally, had me accomplishing my vision five years later than it actually happened.)

In short, a plan is just one tool in the tactical toolbox. Tethering strategy to a plan is like choosing to use only a hammer to build your house. There are other tactical tools, such as:

  • NO plan, just aligned action -- a tool that is particularly effective when many paths are equally viable. Just choose a path aligned with the vision and learn along the way whether you need to change course.
  • Innovation -- a tool that oddly gets short-shrift, where a structured plan may be difficult, if not impossible to construct, due to a lack of known precedent. In other words, you're blazing a new path by trial and error.
  • Appropriate response when blindsided. It happens, plan or no plan.
  • Appropriate response when not blindsided but given no time to plan (e.g., my business opportunity).
  • Market responsive in real time, based on customer feedback/collaboration, but acting within the parameters of the organizational vision/strategic focus.

Again, all that's necessary for successful strategic execution is vision and aligned action. For strategic vision to be successful, leadership should serve as the strategic steward, followers the tactical stewards. (Of note, leadership and followership doesn't necessarily relate to job position in this context; at times, top leadership must engage in tactical activities and line-level personnel must serve as strategy stewards -- they need to "own" the vision independently of top management.)

This leads me to reiterate a previous point: strategy making and tactical execution should remain separate disciplines, though supportive of one another, the first being an exercise of leadership, the second an exercise of followership.

Earlier in this article I said that strategy making revolves around making choices and setting parameters. With this in mind, in upcoming posts, I'll be focusing on the structure for making strategic choices.

And I'll introduce the alternative to strategic planning, which I'll call "Strategic Architecture." I like the Merriam Webster dictionary definition of "architecture" which I'll apply figuratively to this concept: "the art or science of building; specifically: the art or practice of designing and building structures and especially habitable ones." Strategic Architecture involves creating the habitable structure (which is a mindset, not a plan) in which aligned action can thrive.