It’s been 15 years and I still vividly remember the moment when one of our very first clients killed off a multi-million-dollar idea. They were a leading global logistics company, getting excited about the opportunity to operate shipping ports. The conversation heated up, the possibilities … the brilliance … the potential!
Then the boardroom quieted as the “boss,” who had been fairly quiet until then, was about to speak. He said, “The idea won’t work because the government will never outsource port operations to a private company.” His logic was sound, his authority absolute. No one challenged him. The idea died.
Two months later we learned a different logistics firm had won the rights to do exactly what this client had in mind.
How effectively you run strategic conversations in your company has profound implications that you can measure in dollars, implications that determine your future. When strategic conversations take a wrong turn, this is not just unfortunate, it destroys value. It robs employees of better careers, customers of superior experiences, and investors of potential returns.
We’ve been facilitating strategic conversations for more than a decade now, across a variety of industries (from technology to manufacturing) and sizes (from start-ups to Fortune 500) and in our experience, most companies allow strategy-making to go wrong. This view is supported by recent research of ours which shows that 50% of companies are unsatisfied with their strategy-making efforts.
Here are the five key places that the conversations about your strategy are likely to take a wrong turn.
1. Failing to imagine
Most strategic conversations begin with an assessment of issues or “what is wrong.” You begin with some kind of root-cause analysis or a “what is working what is not” assessment. While these analyses are logical and important inputs into any strategy, if you do not ALSO ground your strategic conversation at the very beginning, exploring the question, “Where do we want to be in the future?” you will necessarily develop a tactical plan rather than a strategic plan.
The key difference between novice chess players and experts is that experts think 10 moves ahead and work backward from the future. Most strategic conversations sound like the thinking of novices asking, “How do I move away from the present?” (pushing my pawns toward the opponent’s side of the board) rather than, “How do I move to the future?” (making the strategic move that will position me for check-mate). Great athletes envision victory. Great militaries clearly define the mission. Architects start with a design before they lay a foundation.
One of our clients – a leading optical retailer – holds as its purpose to “eradicate preventable blindness.” Another client – a leading consumer products company – is driven by ensuring children have breakfast. The difference is subtle but profound. If you build your strategy from the past rather than the future, you are highly unlikely to land on a truly strategic plan. If you hear your team moving to solutions before they have discussed the future (e.g., your long-term vision/purpose/values/reason for being), stop them and ask them to imagine.
2. Focusing on the obvious places
Many strategic conversations fail to find truly breakthrough ideas because they only explore the obvious places. Give a problem to a room full of finance people and you will probably end up with a financial solution, while operations people will give you an operational solution and marketing people a marketing one. We all naturally first look for the solution in our domain of expertise.
When your team starts exploring solutions, don’t look just at the ideas they come up with, but look underneath what they say to assess “Where are they looking?” Ask a question like, “Could we solve this problem by changing our pricing structure?” or “How could we change our physical experience?” to redirect the conversation into unturned fields more rich with opportunity.
3. Repeating the same playbook
After you direct your team to consider less obvious spaces, you want to look at the mechanics with which they conceive of solutions. Research shows that humans conceive of strategies by telling themselves stories – which we call “strategic narratives.” Any strategic concept, from Porter’s Five Forces to the BCG Matrix, is a representation of one such narrative.
We believe there are at least 36 fundamental narratives, and many strategic efforts fail because they only allow a few such narratives to enter the dialogue. When one strategy has worked in the past, your team and company will tend to repeat it. Apple, for example, has succeeded repeatedly through the narrative we call “to catch something, first let it go”: you let a market start to develop (MP3 players, smart-phones, tablets) and when the time is right, you learn from the mistakes of the early pioneers and then leap-frog them. Listen to the underlying narratives inherent in the ideas your people come up with, then introduce new narratives to lead them to less common solutions.
4. Discomfort sitting with “impossible” ideas
This is where most strategic conversations fail to produce truly big, disruptive ideas. Truly disruptive ideas are, by definition, inconsistent with some logic, belief, dogma, or norm that you and your competitors hold.
“Regulators will never allow a ride-sharing app” was proven wrong not by car rental firms or taxi companies but by Uber. “The tablet segment is small and slow-growing” was proven wrong by Apple. When your strategic conversation rushes through the uncomfortable step of considering an idea that you and your team “feel” is somehow flawed, you kill off the possibility of doing something truly different.
Leave at least 20% of your strategizing time to sitting with seemingly crazy ideas. Have your team lay out precisely why an idea seems impossible, then brainstorm if and how you could make it possible. When you hear your team say, “Regulations won’t allow this” or “Customers won’t buy it” or “Technically it is not feasible” or “We cannot afford it,” stop them, acknowledge they may be right, but ask them to consider if and how you could overcome what appears to be a hurdle.
5. Seeing politics as a barrier rather than a game
Finally, you arrive at a strategy you think will work and what will pop up is a conversation that often sounds like, “They will never approve this” or “We don’t get support for this.” The key difference between successful innovators and the rest is that successful ones view the political challenge of building support for their ideas simply as part of the creative problem-solving process. The rest view it as a barrier that should not exist or as evidence of an organizational flaw.
When you hear this phase of the conversation pop up, you can reframe it by saying something like, “Who would we need to have on board for approval?” Then work through a stakeholder analysis, identify who influences whom, who is a natural supporter or opponent, and apply your strategic thinking skills to the organizational challenge of getting your idea adopted.