When goals get in the way of good strategy

Sounds great doesn’t it – Let’s have a bright shiny strategic goal.

An eye catching challenge, A mountain top to climb. Something to rally the troops around.

Many of the strategy projects I work on start like this;  The leadership team has a sense of unity around the destination, they have something exciting that can be communicated to the workforce and yet there is a sense of unease…

I often get a call from teams to come in and facilitate a strategy event or away day because fresh thinking is needed.

Let’s be clear, I don’t approach this from the point of view that I have all the answers and am riding to the rescue.  Quite the reverse.  You, collectively have all the answers. My role is to help you marshal your thinking and gain clarity about the way forward.

So how is it done?

Stimulating debate about the current situation is a good start.

Think about the old story of a couple driving through the countryside.  They realise they are lost and after further driving they stop to ask the way to their destination from someone who looks local. “Well…”, says the local,”…if you want to get to there, I wouldn’t start from here if I were you”

Ok, maybe not one of the best jokes in the world, but it does illustrate an important point.  Quite often the source of unease is caused by a certain reluctance to confront the discomfort of the situation that presents itself right now.  The elephant in the room, if you like.

Unpacking this unease can be done either in the preparation phase, when planning the event, or facilitating the early sessions.  If it doesn’t occur naturally, I’ll gently create a debate to surface any hidden issues.

When this happens, I often have to redesign the event on the fly.  The attention can shift from the mountain top goal to a rather large trap in the path to to foothills of the destination.

You’ll want some examples:

  • A goal of  $200M profits by 20XX developed into a recognition of bankruptcy within 4 years if the board did not address the current problems.
  • A goal of 10% EBITDA within two years revealed a problem with initiative-itis.  Meaning the board could not implement the main strategic intent because there were so many other initiatives competing for management attention.

In both of the above cases we went on to create plans that addressed the problems.

I could go on with more examples from over 10 years of doing this stuff, but you’ll get the idea.

Problems are at the root of this, more specifically a reluctance in modern management culture to talk about problems.  Everyone in the team knows they exist, people running organisations are not fools, quite the contrary, nearly all the people I work with are intelligent capable individuals.

The problem with problems is that often we are afraid of talking about them and being seen as negative.  The power of positive thinking is a pervasive idea that we all recognise and can be a strength.  However, like all strengths, when it is overdone it becomes dysfunctional.

A critical mass of opinion is created by each person self-censoring.  The way this works is that each person assumes everyone else knows the problem (which they often do).  Each person further assumes that they must present an optimistic outlook and present a facade of confidence otherwise the entire edifice of the leadership team will collapse under negative thinking.

This creates powerful peer pressure.  I’ve worked in organisations where a lone voice advocating a realistic view is put down with skilful phrases such as “Ah, here comes Dr No” or “doom merchant”

This dynamic is why teams of really intelligent individuals can do collectively stupid things, and they clothe this behaviour in shiny, but ultimately dysfunctional strategic goals.

An external facilitator can help, simply by being – external.  We can ask the dumb questions that would crucify an insider.  The outsider can hold the mirror up to the collective to allow each individual to see the fatal effects of their self-censorship.

And a good facilitator does all this without humiliating the audience.  And at the end, when the leadership team say “Well that was obvious wasn’t it?” the facilitator withdraws gently with a smile and the knowledge of a job well done.   Must go, I’ve received the next call…

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