Three Secrets for an Effective Planning Session
Ten years ago, David Collis and Michael Rukstad’s article “Can You Say What Your Strategy Is?” was published in the Harvard Business Review.
“It’s a dirty little secret,” they wrote. “Most executives cannot articulate the objective, scope and advantage of their business in a simple statement. If they can’t, neither can anyone else.”
I’ve borrowed this idea and regularly ask executives to state their company’s strategy in a couple of sentences. The executives look at me like I’m a fool for asking. But after stumbling around, they realize my question has illuminated a pretty basic problem.
Earlier this year I asked an executive to tell me what business he was in after his firm won lots of different types of work that placed the organization in a precarious position. Answering the question prompted the executive to refocus his company’s sales strategy.
About 30 days ago, I was privileged to be seated at a table of senior executives at a very successful company, and the CEO started the meeting by asking his colleagues to articulate the company’s strategy. There was a long pause. Finally, one of the execs spoke up and took a swing at the question. Strike one. Another executive asked the CEO for clarification, which seemed like a stalling tactic. Strike two. A third executive stepped up to the plate and got closer than his colleagues of articulating what differentiated the company and how this differentiation was leveraged to win business.
“In all affairs,” said British philosopher Bertrand Russell, “it’s a healthy thing now and then to hang a question mark on the things you have long taken for granted.”
This is actually the third secret to an effective planning session: Ask your senior leaders to articulate the organization’s strategy. You’d like to think they will be able to do so. I’ve watched the dirty little secret play out time and time again as most executives provide fuzzy or conflicting versions of an organization’s strategy.
Be sure you’re clear on the answer before asking your colleagues.
The First and Second Secrets
With strategic planning season now upon us, the first secret of an effective planning session is to be very clear about the desired outcome you expect from your planning session. See “When Is a Little Too Much: The Leaning Tower of Pisa Offers Clues for Your Upcoming Planning Session.”
Ask yourself the obvious question of what—specifically—you want your planning session to accomplish so that when the session is completed, you’re satisfied the investment was worthwhile.
The second secret is making certain you have the right people in the room.
Wilfred Bion, a British psychoanalyst who wrote extensively about group dynamics and is considered by some the greatest psychoanalytic thinker after Freud, wrote, “The single most important decision you make is whom you hire. Every other decision is a secondary decision. All problems and all possibilities walk in the door on two feet.”
So the question becomes Who should attend our planning session?
Your choice of attendees is driven by what you want your planning session to accomplish. Your decision of whom to invite determines what is discussed, what is decided, and the level of commitment required to help your company improve. The question you’re really answering is Who gives us the best chance of winning?
Here’s who should be in the room:
- Everyone who reports directly to the CEO or business unit president.
- All senior decision-makers with P&L responsibility.
- Partners, if that’s how your organization is structured.
- People in your company whose industry or company knowledge makes their attendance worthwhile.
- Rising stars whose thinking you value and to whom an invitation will indicate their future with your organization is bright.
At a minimum, your planning session must deliver three outcomes:
- A written plan for which a budget will later be developed.
- Alignment around the plan and commitment to its execution.
- An “A-ha”—new ideas to make or save money, fresh perspectives to improve processes and programs, and insights about whether your leaders are all in, playing along, or out of their depth.
Bion believed great leaders use anxiety to build strength. Anyone can be part of a team when things are going well. You need a great team when things become difficult.
“Reality,” said Bion, “always wins. Your only job is to get in touch with it.”
Whatever is coming your way is coming your way. You can face it. You can spin it. You can deny it. You can ignore it. You can minimize it. You can do anything you want to with it. It has nothing to do with the fact that it’s coming.
The right people in the room at your planning session are those who are willing to confront reality.