Hosting a Strategic Party!

Joel Sauer is the principal of Sauer Consulting, a firm that works in partnership with OLG to offer a host of results-driven business services.
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These are just too much fun to call planning!

The last couple months I’ve had the pleasure of leading two good old fashioned strategic planning processes. You talk about energizing! These really get the creative juices flowing. In fact, it was so much fun I just can’t call it “planning”. From here on out, it’s a Strategic Party!

The two companies couldn’t have been more diverse, each in a completely different industry. However, the process and outcomes were the same — with benefits beyond just the resulting killer plans. For starters, you pull your leadership away from the day-to-day grind where it’s often easy to lose the forest for the trees. In a more relaxed environment – devoid of cell phones, email and other distractions – true creativity can burst forth.    Recommendation 1: Don’t hold strategic parties in your normal work environment; go somewhere neutral and comfortable.

We use the term “think outside the box” so often it’s become cliché, but in a world of such dramatic change, we need dramatic thinking. This won’t happen in an hour long session with 35 interruptions. To get meaningful results you’re going to have to devote meaningful time to the process . . I mean party. My personal recommendation is to start with at least a half-day (4 hours) retreat somewhere offsite and comfortable. This extended format provides your team some decompression time; perhaps the first half hour just chatting, getting comfortable and feeling safe with the process. You need this last attribute from your leadership – the security to be honest – so you get worthwhile information. There’s also time to lay out specific real-life data, relative to the market, competition, financial condition, etc. Recommendation 2: Devote meaningful time to the party.

If you’re making an investment like removing your leadership team from “work” for a significant period of time, you want to guarantee tangible results at the end. You want this opening party to be free flowing and open, so audacious (my new favorite word) ideas can burst forth. At the same time, it has to have some structure and discipline. To get this, you might consider following the SWOT format: identify Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats. This structure is a little dated and, in my mind, has some inherent redundancies, but with slight modification can pull out lots of valuable data. Without some organization the party ends and you find everyone had a grand ol’ time, but there’s nothing of substance anywhere to be found. Recommendation 3: Have some structure around the party.
To further avoid a great party with no results, I heartily recommend having an experienced third-party moderator to lead the process (shameless plug #1). As an outsider, the moderator can ask tough questions – even of the CEO – that colleagues may not be comfortable risking.    Further, he/she can cut off unproductive conversations (sometimes rants) and push the dialogue back on course. This isn’t as easy as it sounds and often doesn’t happen at all when colleagues, who still have to work together when the party ends, don’t want to offend one another. Recommendation 4: Bring in an experienced third party for moderation.

After this original gathering, come back together a week later for a shorter (say two hours) session and spend some time polishing the output. In the week between, send the raw notes from the original event to your team so they can gestate on the data and come prepared to drill it down to something concise and valuable. Unlike the longer first session above, this shorter party has to be much more focused. This is where an outside moderator (shameless plug #2) will earn his/her money, to come prepared and organized to hone conversations to a concise and simple (more below) draft strategic plan.

As a last step, send the draft plan above around to your leadership and get any final feedback. Give them about a week for this. Once received, it’s up to you, the CEO/owner, to make any final changes and then issue. If you did the right thing and hired a third party (shameless plug #3), this last step can be done together, probably in an hour or less. Recommendation 5:    Don’t try to complete your plan in one party; use multiple meetings with ample time between for reflection.

I mentioned keeping it simple above. There’s nothing that makes me more crazy than these beautiful, 50-page, bound and tabbed strategic plans. Why? No one ever reads them! And even if they do, they won’t remember them, which kind of defeats the purpose. It pains me to say it, but it’s people like me (third party consultants – who I previously recommended you hire!) who are often the biggest offenders.    In an effort to both impress and justify, bigger wins out over useful. I like bullet lists; 3 – 5 strategic initiatives that guide your companies decisions over the next 12 – 36 months. If you must have more content, add narrative at the bottom – just don’t get rid of the concise bullets!

If done right, I should be able to ask any (and I mean any) employee in your organization to tell me the strategic plan and, with 90 percent accuracy, they can do it. Otherwise, it must be too complicated. Recommendation 6: Keep it simple.

There you have it. In summary and in keeping with above, here are tips for hosting a killer strategic party:

  • Don’t stay at your normal work place; find some place offsite and comfortable
  • Devote ample time
  • Have structure to keep things moving in the right direction
  • Utilize an experienced outside moderator
  • Hold more than one party, with ample time between for reflection
  • Keep it simple

Now go throw a party!!