Magical time travelling elves never deliver your strategy

Cartoon - what if we don't change at all and something magical happens
Posted on: Tuesday 30, April 2019
Category: Thought Leadership

[3 minutes reading time]

As the adage says, hope is not a strategy. This article explores why it is essential for leadership teams to invest time to work through big issues, strategic planning and envisioning the future. I argue that to do this well it needs a great process. But, failure to do this ultimately leads to the mediocracy of meh!

As the old adage says, hope is not a strategy. I propose that all senior leadership teams need to spend time on strategic planning - regardless of whether you need to resolve a complex problem or to envision the future, it is an essential leadership activity - so it's worth doing well. That means investing time out of the busyness of business to get away from the day-to-day grind for a day or two.  

It's important too that you follow a good process to help you to approach your time out with the right frame of mind that allows you as a team to consider multiple perspectives and impacts on your business.  

Here are some examples of common topics tackled by leadership teams I work with: 

  • Understand tricky problems and complex issues
  • Envision your latest future
  • Understand the changing external landscape - such as Brexit in the UK or technology disruption
  • Reach for your big goals and ambitious targets
  • Remodel parts of your business
  • Plan to sell your company shortly
  • Consider the impact of your buyers changing needs
  • How best to compete in the market place
  • Exploiting technology, social media and digitisation
  • Accommodate critical changes
  • Your company culture 

Each strategic planning scenario will vary depending on the context

What works best?

To get the most from your strategic planning away-day or off-site, it is essential that you are able to access your creative thinking abilities. However, working with many leadership teams, I have discovered that some senior people do not find this a cinch at all. We have all been conditioned to use logical analysis and scientific proof as a thinking modality. But, creative thinking comes less naturally to many. Therefore, you have to permit yourself to spark off the more intuitive side of your brain, and maybe for you, you don't feel very adept at using this modality? Hence many leaders are afraid of being 'creative' and call-it-out as being 'woolly' or 'fluffy' thinking.  As you will see nothing can be further from the truth.

However, my challenge is that when free-flowing creative thinking is deliberately encouraged into your strategic planning process, it will definitely pay-off and return you with exponential dividends. By allowing time and space for creative thinking, I guarantee that you will dramatically exceed your own expectations and you will all quickly learn that you can push through your original fears and doubts about being able to think creatively. 

In reality, though, it's important that a good process balances both structured and creative elements.  I will return to this theme again later.

Some pointers

Firstly, my advice is to find yourself a skilled and experienced facilitator who is both able to deal with creative and structured processes to help guide you. I can't over-emphasise this point enough - you will undoubtedly benefit from the right kind of experienced guidance. 

Secondly, your process should lead you to identify primary activities and practical actions required to operationalise your strategy.  These can then form into change-workstreams with some notion of time-scales, essential resources and budget pots needed to execute your strategy at a later point. Besides, it is useful to spend time to consider and plan what needs to be communicated to your people, your investors and your buyers and when.

Lastly, you will need to commit to a 'phase II' - to create a more detailed plan that will begin to operationalise your agreed actions or change-workstreams. That may include identifying appointments to manage the process, important resources and budgets required etc. I have found this is where a lot of strategic planning processes fail. Just doing a strategic planning exercise in itself will not produce your results. So, setting aside additional time for adequate high-level leadership action planning and deployment of resources etc. is fundamental. Don't try to 'muddle through' - do it properly!

Planning around these multiple contexts is complex and requires your full attention - that's part of your responsibilities as leaders.  So as I have already mentioned - get your process facilitated.  That means you as a team can be skillfully guided to work through your specific circumstances and situations and tackle your particular problems and issues.

Returning back to creative thinking again...

Everyone including you can access your creative part of your brain

Creative thinking in a team is when the real 'magic starts to happen.'

As I've alluded to already, to do this requires you to engage different parts of your brain that are more adept at thinking of new and innovative outcomes. Such thinking may make you as a team feel slightly uneasy because you are not so familiar with this ‘creative-mode’ of problem-solving - and therefore you might fear (wrongly) not being good at it. As I've mentioned already, typically most leaders are used to thinking around the objective, relevant day-to-day business matters. However, trust me when I say that you can be creative with your thoughts and this will also surprise and delight you too.

When you stretch yourselves to open up to your creative thinking circuits safely and productively, it will mean you begin to collaborate. And, collaboration is a soft skill that leads to high-performance teamwork. This feeling is highly engaging, addictive and stimulating. It will make you all feel invigorated and this collective state of mind is very beneficial at leadership levels.

Seven keys to a great strategic planning process 

I have spent a considerable amount of time helping leaders to structure their strategic planning approach, so here is a summary of what I have discovered makes an active process:

  1. It must be practical, creative and collaborative (and stretching too) - this is essential
  2. It should be enlightening, insightful and refreshing
  3. It should engage you all as a leadership team and motivate you all
  4. That you gain further clarity from what initially seemed complicated and ambiguous
  5. You are clear on your next steps
  6. That you end-up with tangible takeaways that you can continue to work on
  7. An appreciation (at least at a high level) of what's involved, the impacts and changes required to your business and your people moving forward.

'The Big Think!' - a practical process

Here's my process that I have developed and successfully delivered over many years. I hope that you might find useful too. (Honestly NOT intended as a 'plug' but, more as a guideline for what I believe good looks like).

I have adapted my process from my extensive past research and practical use of 'soft systems' philosophy.  Soft systems were developed way back in the 1970s as a method of understanding ambiguity and complexity. From this past research, I turned it into a unique practical approach to ignite leadership teams to generate new ideas, choices, options, potentials and possibilities.  The process evolves through a few stages and ends with forming pragmatic actions, manageable chunks and active work-streams. It's called: "The Big Think!" It's tried, tested and just works.

Closing thoughts

Strategic planning should not be a chore, but a process that is fascinating and inspiring. I have found that Leadership teams love getting creative as part of a structured approach.  They enjoy engaging with it and appreciate that it is practical and easy to apply.  Other consultants or facilitators may use very different processes, however, whatever the approach, the key to successful strategic planning is that it should cover the 7 pointers given above.

So to end, don't wait for something magical to happen, or those magical time travelling elves and remember that hope is not a strategy. Instead knuckle down, bite the bullet and get your big pants on and invest time as a senior team on developing a strategic plan after all the success of your business future depends on it.

See also my blog article on why daydreaming is a vital skill for leaders

Strategic planning day in action

Strategic Planning news event and testimony.


[1,000 words]

This blog has been adapted and updated from the Original blog published in March 2016.

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High Performance Teams Fact or Fantasy - Blog Post

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