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Leadership Excellence | Strategy is an Ongoing Conversation

Trium CEO, Andrew Blum is featured in September’s Leadership Excellence Magazine and shares his tips on how to create clarity and align teams around a strategy. Hint: strategy is an ongoing conversation.

Access the full article here -> LE September 2012

I work with clients to help develop, clarify, execute and communicate their strategy. We often arrive on scene to find that several attempts at addressing strategy have been made and much work conducted. Sometimes, a fully baked strategy is in place. Yet rarely is the strategy clear—and this lack of clarity is a persistent complaint.

With so much strategy work being done and so many people focused on strategic issues, why do so few leaders say that their strategy is clear and well understood by all?

It begins with how the strategy gets developed. The strategy process is less about finding an answer and communicating it outwards, and more about discussing options, collaborating on approaches, and reaching a solution that has shared meaning backed by emotional  commitment.

For example, I recently met with a head of corporate strategy. The line leaders were all developing separate strategies, though he had already put a plan forward and these sub plans were often in direct conflict with the direction he had given. When I asked him why, he said, “I don’t think they agree with the strategy I developed.”

“Exactly!” I replied (I see this often).

“What do you mean exactly?”

I told him: line leaders never agree with a strategy that they don’t have a hand in developing. The fix wasn’t in changing his strategy but in making the development of it an interactive, collaborative dialogue: “Until you include your line leaders in defining questions, boundaries, tensions and tradeoffs, they’ll never see it as their own, or agree with it. In fact, they’ll reject it.”

“So, what should I do now?” he asked.

With that, I offered this coaching:

Strategy is an ongoing dialogue, not an annual deliverable. The best strategy work is an ongoing dialogue. While a team can work towards alignment on some basic parameters, goals and execution priorities, a strategy changes as circumstances and realities change around it. So, strategy development work is ongoing—leaders must talk about strategy all the time, use it to set the frame for their decisions, talk about what is working, what is not—and make incremental revisions to it as leaders reach new conclusions together. Strategy can no longer be developed at the start of the year and stay in place until next year’s cycle (things move too fast, and change too often). You might even hold a quarterly strategy development and review. This is often less cumbersome than a comprehensive annual strategy and planning process that people ignore within weeks of completion.

Dialogue does not mean democracy. When I suggested to my client that he meet with his line managers several times a year to revisit their strategy, he recoiled: “You can’t imagine how much debate we had in drafting this version. I don’t have the energy to do this quarterly.”

One challenge of developing strategy together through dialogue is that these discussions can evolve into debates that seemingly can only be resolved when everyone sees things the same way. The good news is that agreement doesn’t need to happen. Businesses are not democracies. The point of a strategy development process is to be exclusive and conclusive, and if the right level of debate occurs where both reasonable and unreasonable options are considered, the leader’s job is to declare an answer and demand aligned execution.

What I’m suggesting is very different from declaring the answer and demanding alignment at the onset. This is about creating a dialogue that includes conversation and exploration of options, and concludes once the various viewpoints are discussed. There’ll always be some disagreement on strategy, which is why alignment and not agreement is the goal.

With my client, we conducted a strategy reset meeting that included all leaders who needed to align around the strategy. After all viewpoints were presented, we then crystallized them into four options and synthesized those into an integrated strategy. All leaders saw where their ideas were supported and saw the realities and tradeoffs that needed to be addressed. They aligned around the strategy and, for once, agreed that they had a unified strategy that they could execute together.



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