About Facilitating Strategy

Strategy is not a mystery but it is complex and it requires specific skills

Strategy seems so simple when done right but because it’s a complex integration of process, ideas, mitigations, strengths, personalities and pasts, many companies find it mystifying. Other times how to implement the strategy or why the strategy wasn’t implemented is the mystery.

Many times companies allocate the responsibility for facilitating the strategy session to one of their team members. This seems logical but the approach can prove ineffective if the team member is not an experienced facilitator. Soft and/or unspoken, disagreeing voices may not be heard and the “facilitator’s” own preference and perspective often dominates. In these cases buy in to the way forward is not accepted by all parties and it only becomes apparent some time into implementation thereof; your strategy may even fall apart if the participants who did not buy in are critical to its success. The approach often becomes simply an exercise in co-ordinating information or a master presentation from the other team members, an intro and an ice-breaker without appropriate models or frameworks that will guide the conversation towards an agreed and doable strategy. It is also very difficult for an in-house facilitator to contribute meaningfully and apply themselves appropriately whilst trying to do a good facilitation job and produce an output that is useful and practical to implement. As such many companies find it beneficial to have an independent, unbiased facilitator.

Given that most companies derive some sort of strategy at least once a year and that executives are expected to operate strategically (at least when it comes to strategy formulation) some executives consider it a shortcoming to bring in an external party to assist with their strategy sessions. This is unfair; it’s extremely difficult, if not impossible, to be a good facilitator and participant in one role. That’s because facilitation is a skill that involves neutrality and integration whilst as a participant it’s crucial that your perspective is put forward to produce a complete strategy. On paper it may sound easy enough to fulfil both roles but it’s a different picture in practice. The participants on your strategy team should each bring insight to a specific area of your business or function, not one should be ignored or eliminated. The law of facilitation says that the one guiding the meeting (the facilitator) is followed. This makes it difficult, as an internal facilitator, to share your perspective and to ensure that your team do not simply follow you without applying their own minds adequately. If the facilitator happens to be “the boss” this following is profoundly increased and if you are facilitating your boss it is often awkward not to take his/ her lead. The option of agreeing that “the boss” will simply observe without participating is absurd; he/she is accountable for the entire business and has a strategic integration role which MUST form part of formulating a strategy.

An external facilitator’s value lies in their skill to elicit discussion, confront difficult topics and guide the creation of a workable strategy (using applicable tools and techniques) that the team is enthused by, whilst maintaining neutrality that enables contribution and commitment from team members.

It’s an oversimplification to see vision, mission and values as your strategy, although they are strategic imperatives

Strategies that work drive your company towards your vision within the boundaries of your mission and according to your values, and they align with your corporate strategy if you are a division of a larger organisation. These three elements are the foundations for your strategy but should not be confused with being a strategy on their own.

Your vision inspires your future by defining why you exist and what you aspire to, at a fundamental, idealistic and inspiring level. Your mission defines how you will pursue your vision by reflecting what you set out to achieve and how. And your values are your promise of the way you will work and conduct your business, underpinning the behaviours that are your culture and which you expect your employees to embody.

Operational actions alone do not constitute a strategy, but enabling sustainable competitive advantage does?

Because the participants of a strategy session are often the people accountable for doing the actual work, strategy session can land up being more of an operational improvement discussion. Although operational improvement is very necessary, on its own it isn’t a strategy. Most likely, operational efficiency is on all of your competitors’ agenda. The race to do things better, quicker, faster, at less cost etc. drives you all down the same road that often than not ends up in cost cutting that compromises your brand and strategic position in the market, even if you employ a low cost strategy.

A rich strategy either defines or implies the activities that your business will strive to do well in, and thus those that it will NOT be involved in. Cases for the damage and downfall of businesses that tried to provide “all things to all customers” are numerous, as are cases for the positive effect of designing all aspects of your business around a specific strategic position. The overwhelming reason being the integration of all aspects of your business that is required to occupy a single position and the contradictory nature of the conflict that occurs internally and externally when your business becomes generic. This integration is where your sustainable competitive advantage sits. That’s because any operational improvement can easily be emulated by your competitors but cross function/ role reinforcement, beliefs and culture that drive your strategy are near impossible to backward engineer and copy.

Strategy to achieve sustainable competitive advantage is about identifying your business unusual requirements; in other words beyond “more of the same”. This is valid at business and a functional strategy levels.

Practicality is the first step to successful implementation

Closing off the strategy formulation processes end once strategic themes have been identified and defined is premature. This stop short of developing one of the most important outcomes of a good strategy, the practical plan (what, why, how, when & who) that puts your strategy into action and enables monitoring of your implementation. Companies that I have worked with have valued this step as it quashes the all too common occurrence of a “rah-rah” strategy break-away followed by little to no implementation of the agreed strategy as daily activities (and adversities) take priority.

The formulation part is the quick part of the strategy process, and possibly the least stressful. Implementing a strategy is much more difficult as it involves much more people and often a significant amount of change. A high level strategic plan translates the strategy into sets of activities that will deliver the strategy, practically.

What is involved in having your business strategy facilitated…???

The full process described below is modular; certain steps can be expanded or contracted and they can be done at agreed dates/ periods and with varying degrees of involvement. The process is applicable for business level strategy and functional strategy.

1. Briefing to understand the background and purpose of the strategy session, and the corporate strategy if applicable.
2. 1-on-1 interviews with participants to glean insights and inform the structure of the strategy session.
3. Preparation for the strategy workshop, according to needs identified in the briefing and 1-on-1 interviews.
4. Strategy workshop.
5. Post workshop summary of outcomes.

I’d really like to chat to you about how you could get the most out of your strategy session and implementation thereof.