… but it leaves the same taste in my mouth

Why do we make so many things harder than they have to be?

If you think about it more than a nanosecond, that question applies to more aspects of our lives than just work, but I’m a consultant, not a therapist. So, I think I’ll stick to business and confront one of my least favorite subjects: setting strategy for next year.

I don’t know about you, but I’m not looking forward to my next strategy session. I can picture it: a “retreat” with other executives, wishing we were anywhere else and wondering what’s for lunch. And that doesn’t actually sound so unattractive, unless you’re the guy or gal who has to keep everyone’s attention focused on the task at hand.

So, as someone who helps others think about looking ahead, I’m going to give you a head start for your next strategic planning session. Take a couple of minutes and think about these few questions beforehand, and it will make the session more productive and less like a root canal:

  • Are you just trying to document what you’re already doing, because you think tomorrow is going to look a lot like today (because today looks a lot like yesterday), or do you want to do something different in 2018 – maybe even visionary – and need to develop a roadmap to get there?
  • Have you tried to do that before and failed? If so, do you know why? If you haven’t tried, what’s held you back?
  • Have you shared your vision with your staff and those who will execute the plan, or are you and the board trying to do this in isolation? (Hint: do the former, not the latter.)

One of my favorite CEOs has a simple policy: his company’s strategic plan has to fit on one page. No, not using 4.0 font, but by using the KISS principle. Try going into your next planning session with some simple thoughts. Yes, stupid simple, like: Where are we? Where do we want to be? In how many years? Are we racing someone else? How will we know we’re on track?

Don’t get me wrong; I’m not anti-SWOT. When you finally free up some time currently spent chasing your tail and attending meetings that could have been handled by email, take the strategic opportunity to dive into a SWOT analysis. Until then, let’s skip the drudgery and keep our strategic planning sessions more of an engaging exchange between reasonably intelligent, well-meaning people who care about where their organization is headed. Here’s my suggested guide:

  • Talk about whether the core values you tout on your company website are the same ones you demonstrate during day-to-day operations. If they are, there should have an uplifting conversation about the evidence. If not, there should be a serious discussion about how to close the gap. Make sure your values address the why the company is in business in the first place.
  • Decide on the top 3-5 priorities for 2018… 3 is better. No, really. Agree to – and stick to – a smaller number of important goals for 2018, so your employees don’t feel pulled in so many different directions. Verify that the accomplishment of those goals will put you on pace for where you want to be in 2023.
  • Stop, start, continue – same as the model we use when we give and receive effective feedback. Discuss the company’s activities that are not moving it toward the goals you just set. Identify activities you need to start doing for course corrections. Give credit for the activities that are moving the organization at a good pace in the right direction as reinforcement to keep doing them.
  • Communicate, communicate, communicate – and then demonstrate. Before, during and after. Ask, listen, tell… rinse and repeat. You can hardly over-communicate or demonstrate your core values and priorities.

That’s about all there is to it, really. We can make it harder if you want to, but is that how you want to spend the day? Wouldn’t it be much more pleasant to spend the time strengthening the relationships among the team members who are going to lead the organization to a wildly successful 2018? It certainly would be for me.

To recap, go into the session having thought about it ahead of time, keep it simple, and use the guide above. If I’m not there, let me know how it goes, will you?

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