Around the world, strategy workshops—also known as retreats or breakaways—are a favourite way to plan and review business strategies. Run them well, and they can play an extremely positive role in your firm’s success. Do it badly, and they’re a waste of time and money.
Having facilitated hundreds of them over the past 30 years, I’ve learned some valuable lessons in how to make workshops work. Here are some guidelines:
1. Be clear about why you need a workshop at all. Why do you need to to discuss your strategy? What specific challenge (opportunity or problem) must you deal with? What should the outcomes of your deliberations be? Some executives have thought these questions through and can provide a useful brief to whoever will facilitate the discussion. But a surprising number are astonishingly vague, and even C-suite colleagues differ in their expectations. Many CEOs routinely jot “Strategy breakaway” into their diaries at the start of each year, and then scratch for a way to justify spending time and money on taking their top team away from the office for a couple of days. Their agenda typically centres on a review their existing strategy, how they’re progressing towards it, and what they need to do next, and no brief is complete without emphasis on “blue-sky thinking” or “disruption.” And, hey, there has to be room for “team building” and “motivation.”
But this generic template is no guarantee of success. In fact, without careful thought and preparation, and expert design, it may lead to boring and aimless conversations which in no way improve a firm’s competitiveness. And even if a good time is had by all, many people are likely to leave feeling, “What the hell was that all about?”
So what, exactly, should it be about? That’s Decision #1.
2. Get the right people into the room. Since strategy informs everything a company does and the way it does everything, and since it’s widely seen as a top-management function, I t’s not surprising that only top teams get invited to most workshops. But this can be a costly mistake.
When CEOs ask me, “Who should we include?” I almost always say, “Everyone.” And I’m not kidding. Firstly, because you never know who’ll offer the most valuable insights or the best ideas. Second, because I think it’s important to have everyone hear the same message at the same time, as communicating it later is always a hassle and poor communication is a major cause of strategy failures. And third, because being invited sends a powerful message that “You matter. You’re important. We need to hear your opinions and ideas.” (While not being invited sends an equally powerful message: “You don’t matter. You’re not important. Your opinions and ideas aren’t worth anything.”)
Obviously, you won’t always be able to invite everyone. There will be times when you do need to confine sensitive discussions to just a few people. Or there might be logistical issues. Or it might be impractical to take everyone away from their jobs. Or doing it might be unaffordable.
But remember: the first—and biggest—challenge in implementing your strategy is to take your people with you. Without their support, the wheels will spin and performance will be disappointing. Fat strategy documents and detailed strategy maps will be of little help. Yet while it’s an article of faith for senior executives to say, “People are our most important asset,” it’s a fact that more often than not, when it comes to strategy, they’re an afterthought.
3. Recognise that people have different views of strategy, and confusion can kill a strategic conversation. Ask almost any group of even the most seasoned managers to define strategy and how to “do it,” and you’ll get an array of views. They walk into the room not only with different mindsets and different views of why they’re there, but also with different opinions on what strategy is all about and how to craft it. One person thinks competitors are the problem, while another says it’s a lack of R&D; one believes they should rewrite the mission statement, while another argues for developing some scenarios; one likes the idea of Porter’s “five forces,” and another votes for a debate about “blue oceans.” They zig-zag between visions and missions, from strengths to weaknesses, from threats to opportunities. Not surprisingly, this leads to poorly-informed and haphazard conversations that end with ambiguous intentions rather than firm decisions,
4. Keep it simple. Keep it brief. This should be the guiding principle in every company. Strategy is partly a matter of analysis, choices, and decisions—and largely a social process. It’s easy to complicate, so you can easily make it impractical and unworkable. And although you might be tempted to chuck everything into your strategy, don’t fall into that trap. Simple language makes the right actions much likelier than wads of complex verbiage. A few clear ideas beat a laundry list of to-do’s every time.
START WELL TO END WELL
If your organization is to be a winner, you have to tap into the imagination and spirit of your people and they must all pull in the same direction. So they need a shared understanding of your strategy, and they must know what’s expected of them personally, and by when.
Getting their support starts from the moment you begin crafting your strategy. And it’s most likely when:
- Your company has one strategy toolkit with just a few tools in it.
- Your people speak a common strategy language.
- They own the strategy.
For these reasons, I believe in starting a workshop with two building blocks:
- A short “Making sense of strategy” presentation—to suggest the tools and provide the language. It clarifies what strategy is about, what can be expected of it, and how it’s best created and implemented.
- A “Strategy snapshot”—which captures the essence of the firm’s situation, options, and strategic priorities. It gets conversation going, and since the workshop delegates provide much of the information on which it’s based, they’re involved from the very start.
THE “STRATEGY SNAPSHOT”
To prepare for a workshop, I need to be thoroughly briefed—at least by the CEO, and perhaps by other senior people, too—and see whatever strategy documents you might have. I may also see various parts of an organization, talk to industry experts, customers, and suppliers, and spend time on desk research. And I reply heavily on questionnaires which are sent to everyone who’ll attend the strategy workshop—and maybe to wider audience who won’t be there. This not only brings many voices into the process, but also gives people a sense of involvement and meaning. It also gives me a deep understanding of why a firm is where it is, what issues really affect its performance, and where the strategic conversation needs to go.
Then, looking at your business through the lens of my knowledge and experience, I develop a “strategy snapshot” from what I’ve learned and what it all seems to imply. This usually takes much longer than the workshop itself, but it always pays.
There’s no beating about the bush. My conclusions, comments, questions, and advice during a workshop are often provocative, and maybe uncomfortable. They untangle complex issues, make people face reality, and assist them in reframing the way they see things. They also enable us to cut straight to the chase and deal with what matters, instead of wasting workshop time trying to surface issues and figure out how to begin.
Your most urgent need may be to get back to basics and fix them. Or perhaps to counter a competitive threat or cut costs. Or maybe you should review your supplier network, rethink your “difference,” intensify your innovation efforts, redesign your business model—or even radically reinvent your business.
The “strategy snapshot” points to where the focus should be. In just a few slides, I sum up your firm’s current situation and its challenges—and suggest possibilities for action.
This guides our debate, gets you and your team talking about the right stuff as quickly as possible, and leads to a simple, sound, and practical “strategy story.”
(Of course, you could argue that all consultants do this—hence the old joke that a consultant is someone who steals your watch and then tells you the time! But if you want someone who can cut to the chase, challenge your assumptions, push back against easy answers, and ensure a rich and robust strategic conversation, we should talk.)
BALANCING FIXES, CAPACITY-BUILDING, AND BLUE-SKY THINKING
Every business has to attend to countless short-term issues, while at the same time preparing for the future. You have to manage the present and the future concurrently—not sequentially. So improvement and innovation are both imperatives. How you balance your time between each depends on your circumstances.
The priority for some companies should be to “get back to basics”—they need to urgently fix what’s broken or not working optimally, drive down costs, ramp up productivity, or hire more sales people. Others should make tomorrow’s customers, investments, technologies, and value the focus of their strategy discussions. Mostly, though, it’s a bit of both.
Striking the right balance makes all the difference between success and failure.
I’ll help you find it.
TAKE-AWAY SLIDES FOR FAST EXECUTION
Companies love strategy documents. By now, though, there’s plenty of evidence that they’re almost always a waste of time and paper. Writing them takes longer than a workshop, and things change so fast that they’re out of date before they’re done. They get in the way of reality and destroy agility. They mostly wind up on a shelf or in a bin.
I’ve written plenty of them, but I now I hardly ever do. Instead, I capture all key decisions on a handful of PowerPoint slides, and give you a set immediately. That way, you can start executing your strategy right away. And you can keep adjusting your story quickly and easily to suit new circumstances.
FLEXIBILITY, NOT A FORMULA
I look at every consulting assignment through fresh eyes. Unlike many consultants, I never try to “force-fit” concepts or activities that are just plain wrong for you.
The process described here is not cast in stone. I’m not stuck on a single method or tied to one concept, and I won’t drag you through a prescribed set of steps. Strategy is too dynamic for that. Your needs are different to those of other firms; what you need to focus on today is not the same as yesterday. So I make sure that we do only what’s most appropriate to get you the best possible strategy. From start to finish, there’s a sensible mix of structure and flexibility.