Your last strategy session felt like a waste of time because it probably was.

We’ve all been there – we get an email announcing the next corporate or product strategy session. It’s at the local country club. There will be a nice lunch served, and possibly cocktails after. There will be flip charts and markers. We’ll get out of the office, away from the day-to-day, where we can think clearly. What could possibly go wrong?

You start out strong, maybe even do a SWOT analysis. Then a long-standing disagreement between the VP Sales and the VP Engineering erupts, and before long, you’re way down a rat-hole and running out of time. In the end, you end up either following the CEO’s lead, or you agree to “come back to it”. Everyone leaves with the slightly uneasy feeling that comes from everyone having a slightly different interpretation about what you’re doing next, and what’s changed.

Fear not, for there’s a better way. Many strategy sessions miss at least a couple of what I call the Seven Commandments of Strategy.Ā Catchy, right? They even begin with “F” for effect. I was thinking of calling them the 7 F’ing Commandments of Strategy šŸ™‚

Forward planning

I can’t tell you how many planning sessions I’ve either attended, or colleagues have attended, that are planned a week, or even a day, before. And choosing the venue and coffee break menu doesn’t count as forward planning. Strategy is a process, and the following six Fs need to be planned in advance. As a general rule of thumb, I feel it takes at least 4 hours of prep for every person hour you’re going to spend in your strategy session. The good news is, you don’t have to do that all yourself. Some of that is fact gathering, which your team will help with, and some of that is planning the process, which your facilitator can help with.

Start with the outcome in mind, and work backwards from there. More on that when we get to Focus and Framework – I’m getting ahead of myself.

Facts

So much time in strategy sessions is lost arguing about facts, like how much revenue did we make in a given segment last year? What did we spend on Project X? If you don’t have these numbers at your fingertips, you’ll either spend precious time looking for them when you should be discussing strategy, or you’ll waste even more time having emotional arguments not based on fact.

If you want to calculate the ROI of doing fact-finding before the strategy session, rather than during, take a look around the table and tally up the fully-loaded, per-minute cost of all the salaries around the table. Hopefully you’re now hyper-aware of every minute you’re wasting trying to find last year’s Asia-Pac numbers.

Facilitator

A good facilitator is worth their weight in gold – hug a facilitator today! Go on!

A facilitator is not the CEO, or even the VP Strategy. It can’t be someone who’s actively involved and emotionally invested in the business or product. Facilitation is part science, part art, and a full-timeĀ endeavor.

The role of the facilitator is to make sure the session meets the stated outcomes, the team follows a process, the session stays on track and finishes on time, that everyone who has something to say is heard, jolt thinking and break the team out of their usual patterns, inquire for deeper understanding capture the results and proceedings, and help process the outcomes. No matter how much you consider yourself a multi-tasker, you can’t be fully engaged in something as important as deciding your future, and trying to facilitate at the same time.

Focus

Too many strategy sessions try to cover too much ground. “We’ll leave here having clarified our vision for the product line, articulated a platform strategy for the 1, 3, and 5 year timeframes, carved out a go-to-market strategy, and have a detailed plan for going forward” is a typical goal statement at the beginning of a session. Best case, you’ll probably get, at most, two of those done. Pick one or two major objectives for each session, such as defining your top 3 strategic goals for next year and creating a 1 year plan. Strategy is a year-round process, and you can’t expect to clarify vision and strategy, and complete all your planning in a matter of a couple of days. Split up your strategy sessions over multiple sessions throughout the year with different themes. You’ll be more focused, more productive, and you’ll get more done.

Fun

Strategy is intense, and it should also be fun. This is your opportunity to lift yourself out of the day-to-day of running your company or product team, and explore the crazy ideas that could be a turning point for your business, or an idea for a new product line, or simply an idea that will spark other ideas. There is a ton of research that shows that people think more creatively when they are happy and having fun, and there are a number of ways to make your session more fun and productive – things like Gamestorming and Innovation Games. Strategy should be all work AND play.

Framework

Strategy has been studied so extensively, and so many interesting strategy processes created, that there’s no excuse for winging it. Using a framework helps you organize your session, know what background homework you need to do, and gets everyone’s head in the game prior to your session. There are a number of methods, depending on what you’re trying to tackle, and I’ll go into some of them in more detail in later posts. A few to explore: Blue Ocean Strategy for creating truly differentiated business, the Business Model Canvas for quickly exploring and validating new business models, and serious games like Innovation Games for brainstorming new business ideas, and shaping and prioritizing requirements.

Follow-Through

If there is one Commandment that is broken more often than not, it’s follow-through. Nothing deflates the team like inaction and ambiguity following your strategy session. Every strategy session should conclude with the following (so make sure you leave time for this – at least 2-3 hours!):

  • a plan for next steps and a summary of the key initiatives, including who is responsible for what
  • an outline of how progress will be measured and followed up on – how you will keep each other accountable
  • a check-in from everyone about what they’ve heard, and what they are personally committing to

Your planning sessions are one of the most important things your product team, or executive team, does during the year – so treat them that way. Like they always say – if you don’t know where you’re going, any road will do.