In Pursuit of Senior Management Team Cohesion

Graphic displaying terms relevant to high performance managementThis series at Management Excellence is intended to prompt ideas and promote healthy discussion around the big topic of strengthening the development and performance of senior management teams.

In the most recent post in this series, I emphasized the importance of carefully cultivating senior management team chemistry …particularly when it comes to neutralizing the impact of toxic participants. However, even with the positive situation of a ph-neutral group of senior leaders (including the CEO) at the management team roundtable, there’s still no guarantee of high performance.

It’s just not that simple.

As we shift away from the issue of toxicity (a deal-killer for team performance) and move towards cultivating high performance at the senior management group level, the ideas of team cohesion and team attraction come into play.

The Research View on the Ideas of Senior Team Cohesion and Attraction:

In my own (non-exhaustive) review of the somewhat limited research on the topic of top management team performance and cohesion, researchers serve up guidance that is difficult to describe, more difficult to measure and even more challenging to connect in a causal way to firm performance. Nonetheless, the few studies that tackle this topic suggest a positive correlation (but not causation) between senior management team cohesion and a firm’s performance.

Before tackling the practical implications of cultivating cohesion and attraction, let’s look at some of the terms (drawn from the study, Top Management Team Attraction as a Strategic Asset).

The classic definition of cohesion (Fetzinger) describes it as the “resultant of all forces acting on members to remain in the group. These forces include a range of factors such as member attraction, shared goals, network benefits and social identification”

The dimension of team member attraction references “the degree to which top management team members desire to identify with and be accepted members of the team.” And perhaps, the most telling statement on this dimension of cohesion reads, “top team member attraction is a socially complex phenomenon reflecting the unique personalities of team members.”

Like team cohesion, attraction is squishy and not easily manipulated, fostered or replicated in practice. However, the idea of attraction and the broader category of cohesion do provide us with some clues to work with in our pursuit of the high performance management team.

At Least 5 Ideas to Promote Team Cohesion and Attraction:

There’s some well-worn but worthwhile advice in the sources on team development that many of us read and talk about. Lencioni is perhaps the most practical with his 5 Dysfunctions, however, we need to flip those around and turn them into 5 high performance functions.

There’s ample research on team development (teams in general, project teams specifically), and in aggregate, the material offers content to build a framework for team success, but little in the way of practical, actionable ideas for strengthening senior management team performance. There are test instruments to help us assess team dynamics and no shortage of options to climb with, hike with or catch our colleagues in trust-falls. Nonetheless, for the typical team and CEO wondering where to go next, guidance is in short supply.

I’m a fan of starting simple with well-intended actions versus over-baking the complexity of this already complex issue. Here’s one reminder and a few thoughts for you to try on for size. Use them in great senior team health!

1. You Must Create the Fundamental Condition—A Neutral Team PH

This theme of my prior post in this series bears repeating. Nothing (good) happens on a team when a member is not trusted over questions of character, values or ethics. Just don’t confuse passion and commitment to debate vociferously with toxicity. This isn’t a “why can’t we all agree” issue, it’s a fundamental concern over the integrity of a team member. If the other team members don’t trust someone, cohesion won’t occur and attraction is diminished.

2. The Purpose Must Be Big and Personal! Note: Growth is Not Big and Personal.

Every college student learns in the first course on management that one of the core conditions for positive team performance is a clear and compelling purpose. And for much of their subsequent professional careers, they find themselves attached to teams where the purpose is neither clear nor compelling. That’s on us as managers.

At the top of organizations, senior managers have their own vacuum-of-purpose problem. As individuals, they have functional purpose and accountability, but at the roundtable of peers plus the CEO, they tend to act more like megaphones for their various areas instead of team members united around a common set of galvanizing goals.

I love Guy Kawasaki’s short clip from Stanford, entitled, Make Meaning. Kawasaki suggests (and I agree) that the pursuit of making money isn’t enough…and yet most top management groups focus on the chase for growth. Instead, he suggests three key focal points to make meaning…increase the quality of life of some audience, right a wrong in the world or prevent the end of something good. While Kawasaki is referencing the “make meaning” theme in the context of entrepreneurs, the theme holds in the senior management environment. Without a meaning or purpose beyond the numbers, cohesion won’t develop and attraction will be transactional.

This idea of making meaning begs bringing mission to life and focusing a vision around something bigger than today and galvanizing for not only the senior managers but for all employees. One of the drivers for senior leadership teams must be helping to ensure that employees feel that same sense of being part of something bigger than themselves or their functions. Building team cohesion starts with re-examining and clarifying the meaning for everyone and for the firm.

3. Change the Meeting Environment: Try Living Together for a Few Days!

The typical company or hotel conference room is an energy sink. There’s nothing stimulating about sitting in the same room with the same furniture and the same artwork meeting after meeting. The table is a barrier that we sit behind…and we’ve all long been conditioned to act and function with reserve in this setting. Instead, find an environment where the table doesn’t separate people and there’s freedom to move and engage comfortably and loudly for extended periods.

One senior management team I know moves its meetings a few times per year to a couple of luxury homes at a mountain resort 70 miles from headquarters. While this might shout boondoggle, it’s far from it. The rental cost off-season or during the week is less than the typical hotel room per person. The team divides into two homes (everyone has their own room) and each house takes turns preparing meals in an ad hoc competition around one of the great human bonding experiences…eating together for a few days. And yes, the house that cooks the meal also handles the cleaning!

The big common rooms of the homes are ideal meeting places that promote movement and engagement, and the dirty little secret of these settings is that living with co-workers for a few days promotes relationship development and a lot of long hours of business talk that would never take place in the death march meeting inside a conference room.

4. Divvy Up Work Assignments in Pairs…and Not By Functions.

The work of the senior management team should not be functional in nature. This team owns ensuring that the fundamentals for broad success are in place…a clear sense of organizational purpose; the right talent in the right seats; broad involvement and engagement in strategy and assuring the strategy execution systems are in place. If you have functional assignments for one or more of your executives, take this off-line from the senior management team environment.

Use the senior team meeting setting to identify the big topics that will enable the organization to better execute on strategy and work towards vision, and then assign the individuals best suited for the initiative to work together. While you will sometimes end up with counter-intuitive teaming arrangements…imagine, sales and engineering or marketing and IT working together, the approach supports both relationship development and creativity in pursuit of the tasks. A great deal of subsequent good can emerge from a relationship built on having tackled and succeeded with a tough topic that helped the organization move forward.

5. Victories and Defeats are Equally Valuable…Don’t Squander Them

Good senior management teams celebrate victories…with employees and as a group. Great senior leadership teams link arms around defeats and do the work necessary to come away stronger and smarter. The CEO who smiles when life is good and the tide is rising and then flails and rails when something goes wrong is a CEO who won’t create a high performance team. Same goes for the team members when one of the group comes up short. As long as there is no attempt at obfuscation or deflection, the point of the team is to be stronger than any one individual. Great teams pull together to make each other better. The “better” comes from hard times and failures, not the easy victories. Recognize that the next “Oh sh!t” situation is the next opportunity to improve team cohesion.

The Bottom-Line for Now:

I respect the notion that this big topic of promoting high performance with senior management teams is not adequately addressed in a single post or even a series of these posts. It’s a journey here just like it’s a journey in your organization. At the end of the day, we’re trying to foster an environment where smart, successful subject matter experts learn (or remember) how to work in a team setting. The answers are both simple and complex. The only failure here is for you to not try. I believe to my core that a high performance top management team is a strategic asset not easily replicated by competitors. Sounds like a source of competitive advantage to me!

Don’t miss the next Leadership Caffeine-Newsletter! Register herebook cover: shows title Leadership Caffeine-Ideas to Energize Your Professional Development by Art Petty. Includes image of a coffee cup.

For more ideas on professional development-one sound bite at a time, check out Art’s latest book: Leadership Caffeine-Ideas to Energize Your Professional Development

New to leading or responsible for first time leaders on your team? Subscribe to Art’s New Leader’s e-News.

An ideal book for anyone starting out in leadership: Practical Lessons in Leadership by Art Petty and Rich Petro.

The Sticky Topics of Senior Management Team Chemistry & Performance

Graphic displaying terms relevant to high performance managementThis series at Management Excellence is intended to prompt ideas and promote healthy discussion around the big topic of strengthening the development and performance of senior management teams.

The use of the word “team” to reference the collection of a firm’s senior leaders is generous at best and fallacious in many cases. Senior managers don’t necessarily gel as a team and perhaps a more accurate description of them in the context of a group might be that they are a collection of intelligent, successful functional leaders who occasionally come together and tolerate each other for a few hours of collegial discussion.

While my view may sound slightly or very cynical, I’m comfortable that it is closer to reality than the view that these groups naturally function as effective teams. Sad, but true for a variety of reasons, and this lack of cohesion and lack of commitment to working and functioning as a team leaves performance and potential on the table and CEOs everywhere wondering what to do to get more from the people they depend upon to run their businesses.

The list of reasons for the failure of most senior leadership groups to gel as a high performance team is long and many sounding and acting a great deal like Lencioni’s 5 Dysfunctions. In Part 1 and Part 2 of this series, I focused on a variety of these failure to gel causes, with emphasis on the critical lack of meeting the fundamental conditions of a team and a related lack of identity and purpose as a group.

There’s a certain not surprising reality that collections of highly successful, intelligent individuals who have long careers as functional leaders and experts won’t easily or immediately walk in a room and let down their guards and trust their peers or CEO enough to perform as a team. The operative words here are “easily” or “immediately.”

It’s difficult, but doable to help these groups develop as teams. However, it takes hard, deliberate work on the part of the CEO and it requires an eyes-wide-open view to a variety of issues, including the important and somewhat squishy topic of the chemistry between the team members.

The chemistry of any group of individuals is a compound comprised of a number of ingredients. From my frequently referenced compelling purpose to the ever-present issue of trust to different personality types and working/communicating/decision styles to the biases of each individual’s values and experiences, the senior group chemistry is less a recipe than a bubbling cauldron of issues and differences. The differences between team members make it challenging to align yet those differences are ultimately strengths that can make the group more effective as a team. At least two key areas that critically impact team chemistry, include team membership and the presence of toxicity.

Who’s On the Team?

Too often, CEOs err on the side of broadening inclusion in an attempt to stimulate performance at the senior leadership level, while ignoring the real team-forming issues of purpose, shared accountability and a limited agenda of actions (direction, strategy and strategy execution coordination). The broader inclusion seems like a good tool to develop new leaders and to stimulate communication and working activities, however, it masks the reality that the team does not have a clear reason for being. Instead of a team emerging, a bigger committee emerges with all of the attendant complexities of larger and unwieldy groups.

One approach is to consider the opposite of expansion and shrink the team to the core people accountable for strategy definition and execution coordination. Another is to split senior leaders into two different groups…an executive committee armed with a crystal clear charter with visible accountability for a limited set of issues around guiding and governing and a senior leadership group responsible for managing and monitoring and ensuring the operating cadence and daily health of the organization. This latter group also requires a crystal clear charter and a visible list of items they are accountable for delivering.

And Then There’s Toxicity:

We all know toxicity when we see it in action. From blatant political plays (turf protection, bigger budgets without purpose, deflecting responsibility) to the more subtle passive-aggressive behavior that has some individuals nodding their head in agreement in a group setting and ignoring or even countermanding the “agreed upon” direction in private, the presence of toxicity is a serious problem for the CEO and senior management group. And 100% of the time, the presence of toxicity indicates that the CEO has dropped the ball on a critical issue around team development and coaching that only they can own in the senior leadership setting. It’s up to the CEO to neutralize or extract the toxicity.

5 Ideas to Help Get the Toxicity Out and Performance Up:

1. Clarifying what it means to be a member of the team helps underscore expectations for performance and accountability as individuals and as a group.  Membership on the senior management team is an earned privilege not an inalienable right of someone with a title. Make the criteria clear and spell out the expectations for shared and individual  responsibilities.

2. Narrowing the agenda will focus energy and increase accountability. The lack of clear and compelling purpose for senior leaders as a team is a huge detractor to performance and an invitation to all forms of aberrant behaviors. The best senior leadership teams operate with a laser focus on setting direction, identifying core strategies and coordinating strategy execution. Beware of going much further than those key issues at this level.

3. Strengthening accountability for outcomes takes away the opportunity for the political animals or passive-aggressive types to hide in plain sight. Too often senior management gatherings are debating societies where issues are talked about but accountable actions nowhere to be found. There must be accountability for forward progress on the key issues from meeting to meeting. A simple follow-up list indicating the issue, ownership and timing can work wonders here.

4. Shared activities strengthen relationships and further reduce the opportunity for destructive behaviors. The meeting is simply a prelude to the value creating work of solving, fixing or innovating that must take place between meetings. Find natural groupings of senior leaders to attack key issues together and make their work visible.

5. Exorcising toxic or unproductive team members allows the healthy team to flourish. Again, membership is an earned privilege and not a right. When the CEO upholds this principle and removes unproductive or destructive participants, she is reinforcing the spirit of accountability so critical to team performance. In every instance where I’ve observed toxic member(s) being booted off the island, team dynamics and performance improved almost immediately. Everyone knows the toxicity is there, but only the CEO can excise it.

The Bottom-Line for Now:

Humans are challenging creatures and those who have climbed high in their professions are particularly resistant to being herded, even if the one doing the herding is the CEO. When it comes to promoting performance of senior professionals in a team setting, there’s no substitute for a crystal clear charter with a laser focus on the right issues. Beyond the clear reason for being and clear identification of tasks, it’s all about getting the right people in the seats and the wrong people out of the room and maybe out of the business. The laser focus on a limited set of tasks and clear, shared accountability for the right outcomes go a long way towards promoting good team chemistry and supporting the emergence of high performance.

Don’t miss the next Leadership Caffeine-Newsletter! Register herebook cover: shows title Leadership Caffeine-Ideas to Energize Your Professional Development by Art Petty. Includes image of a coffee cup.

For more ideas on professional development-one sound bite at a time, check out Art’s latest book: Leadership Caffeine-Ideas to Energize Your Professional Development

New to leading or responsible for first time leaders on your team? Subscribe to Art’s New Leader’s e-News.

An ideal book for anyone starting out in leadership: Practical Lessons in Leadership by Art Petty and Rich Petro.

Art of Managing—Moving Beyond A Failure to Execute

Graphic with the words of Art of Managing and other management termsThe Art of Managing series is dedicated to exploring the critical issues we face in guiding our firms and teams to success in today’s volatile world.

Ram Charan writing in his article, Conquering a Culture of Indecision (found in the HBR 10 Must Reads on Making Smart Decisions collection), offers, The single greatest cause of corporate under-performance is the failure to execute.”

While there’s a Thanks, Captain Obvious, feeling inherent in Charan’s statement, it’s his explanation that should give most corporate managers a cause to pause and even squirm just a bit.

I paraphrase: Such failures (to execute) usually result from misfires in personal interactions…and it’s these poor personal interactions that perpetuate a culture of indecisiveness.

Charan goes on in this very useful article to focus on the issue of building a culture to promote the right type of honest, robust dialog that leads to decisions.

There’s little doubt in my mind that decisions are the fuel that creates locomotive power in organizations and that high quality dialog leads to better decision-processes. The absence of timely and unified decisions on direction and priorities, not only sustains the status quo, it creates a corporate trap where people act like their feet are encased in cement blocks. Movement slows and when it occurs, it’s disjointed and short-lived.

The lack of healthy dialog manifests itself in a variety of symptoms in an organization, however, there are three key contributors to a failure to execute that jump out at me over and over again in my travels:

1. A wholesale failure of senior leadership…from providing clarity on direction and strategy to actively working on building and reinforcing an environment that promotes accountability for execution, learning and continuous improvement.

2. The absence of an empowered and unified middle-layer of management. While senior leadership is again at fault here, the layer of mangers in the middle controls the work that gets done in a firm and often has more power than it understands or uses in pursuit of execution.

3. The lack of creative or productive tension or dissatisfaction on the part of the entire workforce that good isn’t good enough, AND the belief that they are charged with the task of doing something about it.

While it’s easy and appropriate to indict senior management for all three of these contributors to poor performance, the issues tend to be more sins of omission than commission.

Most senior leaders care about their firms, their teams and their results and spend their time working hard in the business. And most middle managers work extraordinarily hard to keep things moving, often while coping with being under-staffed and operating in a state of uncertainty over the bigger picture of the firm and its strategies.

Resolving the failure to execute problem is much more like a long-term fitness program than a quick weight-loss diet. It involves changing the thinking about what’s most important for organizational health and success and doing the hard work of developing new habits that support continuous improvement.

It’s the hardest work senior leaders and managers will ever do.

7 New Habits to Help You Move Beyond a Failure to Execute:

1. Start and sustain a company-wide dialog over direction. Everyone who walks through the door in the morning must know where the firm is headed and why. The lack of context for direction and specifically for how team and functional priorities connect to corporate priorities is a guarantee of poor execution. Fixing this starts with the right, regular conversations.

2. Work hard to link functional and individual goals to the corporate goals. While this sounds like some advice from our friend, Captain Obvious, it’s more the norm that I find firms where corporate goals are vague and there’s little cohesion between individual and functional goals and corporate direction. The failure to align here guarantees failure.

3. Move faster and smarter. Redefine the operating cadence to reinforce communication on performance and to encourage learning and improvement. Consider applying Agile approaches to your operations meetings, where reinforcement and focus on priorities occurs constantly and the emphasis is on identifying and solving problems. Frequency, speed and focused built upon a foundation of accountability…priceless. End the debating society culture that pervades most operating meetings and focus on talking about what it takes for the firm to win…one decision at a time.

4. If you are the CEO, rethink your role. Seriously. If you signed on for the job…all of this is on you. You control the corporate agenda, you are a major contributor to forming and framing the working environment and you own bringing clarity and direction to confusion. If you’re not the CEO help him/her succeed with these important tasks.

5. Give the customer a chair in every meeting. Literally. A nameplate at the table, a stuffed animal or a cardboard cutout…I don’t care how you remind yourself that the customer is present, just do it. If the focus is on new markets and future strategies, these new…even blank-faced customers must be present as a reminder that no strategy works and no execution plan is worthwhile unless it aims to do something for someone who can pay you for it.

6. Invigorate mid-level management. Help them recognize their critical role in execution success and ensure that senior leaders, give them support to improve instead of giving them hell when things don’t go right. If this layer of talent is weak, top-grade the talent to build strong management here. These are your future senior leaders.

7. Get the whole company involved in the wins and the lessons learned. Build the excitement and creative tension to improve by celebrating and sharing the small and big victories. The workforce at large has to buy into the idea that execution and continuous improvement are their responsibility. Management must bring this to life by ensuring that the heroic efforts, great victories and even challenging lessons are made visible as part of the daily culture of the firm.

The Bottom-Line for Now:

There are no silver bullets or simple solutions for business execution challenges. It’s a journey that starts with senior leadership and all of management focusing on what counts…giving clarity to direction and goals and working non-stop to support the people working hard every day who help you move closer to your goals. It’s good, old-fashioned, grind-it-out hard work. But once it starts to take root in your culture, the habits of winning take over and the work doesn’t seem so hard. Just exhilarating.

Don’t miss the next Leadership Caffeine-Newsletter! Register herebook cover: shows title Leadership Caffeine-Ideas to Energize Your Professional Development by Art Petty. Includes image of a coffee cup.

For more ideas on professional development-one sound bite at a time, check out: Leadership Caffeine-Ideas to Energize Your Professional Development

New to leading or responsible for first time leaders on your team? Subscribe to Art’s New Leader’s e-News.

An ideal book for anyone starting out in leadership: Practical Lessons in Leadership by Art Petty and Rich Petro.

 

Art of Managing—Don’t Set Artificial Limits on Employee Involvement

Graphic with the words of Art of Managing and other management termsThe Art of Managing series is dedicated to exploring the critical issues we face in guiding our firms and teams to success in today’s volatile world.

A firm’s senior leaders and managers are supposed to feel the weight of responsibility for the health of their organization. It comes with the job. However, no one suggested they bear the weight of the worries or the burden of finding the solutions in silence and without ample support from the broader employee population.

Too often, groups of well-intended senior leaders and managers spend the lion’s share of their collective energy in discussion, debating and frankly, worrying over issues of direction and performance without drawing upon the considerable gray matter found somewhere outside the conference room doors.

Of course, failing to involve the employees in the business of your business is the mistake that keeps on giving…just in the wrong way. Instead of feeling involved and (here comes that pop management word) “engaged,” individuals are effectively placed on the outside looking in at the corporate walls and wondering what’s going on in there.

In my experience, people do their best work when they have context for “why it matters” and ample input into suggesting and implementing improvements. The “closed door” approach of self-proclaimed “open door” managers is a formula for failure. 

Sins of Omission or Commission? And Don’t Forget to Ask:

Oddly, when questioning a firm’s senior managers about my observation of the citadel like approach to working on a business, I frequently walk away concluding that involvement limitations are more sins of omission than commission. (Although, there are exceptions!)

In some instances, there’s a deep regard for how hard the employee base is working in the business and a hesitancy to ask for more. That’s noble, but short-sighted.

In other instances, I’ve found senior managers who are almost embarrassed to be asking for help on topics that they perceive are core to their jobs. Sounds like hubris getting in the way of common sense.

And for a few senior managers, my highly clinical observation is that it never occurred to them to involve more people to work on the business. Cue Homer Simpson and a loud, “Duh.”

If you are interested in increasing the flow of ideas, improving overall performance and having your employees treat their jobs like they are part owners of your business, it’s critical to get them involved in helping you work on the business. However, getting started can be awkward. Here are some ideas to help you pry open the citadel doors and let in some fresh air and fresh ideas.

6 Ideas to Jump-Start Improved Employee Involvement:

1. Share the targets and the results. The once per year vague recap, usually couched in percentages, doesn’t cut it. Share key revenue, profitability and efficiency targets AND results and explain what they mean to the firm’s situation. Get creative with this. I’ll still never forget the Town Hall Meeting where the CFO played guitar and sang the results. By the way, this is really working when the employees are active in setting the targets and pushing themselves harder to meet the targets than you ever would have.

2. Teach your employees about your business. Take a lesson from Jack Stack in The Great Game of Business. Don’t assume that employees understand terms like EBIT or the various financial metrics you use to report performance. Take the time to teach them what these numbers mean and importantly, how their work impacts the numbers.

3. Share (and ask about) market and competitor dynamics. While it might be tempting to roll out your strategy plan as a first step in getting employees more deeply involved in your business, a better place to start is to help everyone understand more about the markets that you are competing in and moving towards. Use tools like Porter’s Forces or a simple P.E.S.T.E.L. (political, economic, social, technology, environmental, legal) framework to get everyone on the same page. Do this iteratively by sharing the high level view and ask for input at the departmental or team level and roll it back up and make it the company’s view of the external environment.

4. Give your customers a voice. One of the most “engaging” activities you can do is ask for input from all customer-facing groups on what’s really happening in their businesses and with your offerings. Better yet, after asking your employees, bring some customers into the process (interviews, company visits, advisory boards). Ensure that everyone from the front door to the factory floor has access to the customer insights.

5. Begin involving the employee base in strategy. The above items…sharing targets and results, assessing the external environment and cultivating a fresh view from the perspective of the customer are fairly straightforward. Getting a broader employee base involved in strategy is a journey not an event. Explain the present view and then ask for questions and begin to solicit ideas. Involve all of your managers in understanding the firm’s strategy in detail and then work with them to define a mechanism for teaching and challenging assumptions, asking questions and suggesting ideas. I don’t mean to simplify this step…it’s challenging and requires on-going, deliberate work in creating and executing strategy. As needed, ask for outside help to build the right processes and programs to make this meaningful and actionable.

6. Leverage the collateral ideas. Often times, one of the benefits of driving a process with the actions above is a flood of new ideas…many operational and efficiency oriented. Ensure that people and teams have a means for implementing the ideas and then measuring and reporting on their impact over time.

The Bottom-Line for Now:

This isn’t a program of the month, it’s a deliberate and on-going process to gain ideas and input, and importantly to capture more of the creativity, energy and overall gray matter of a team that in the right circumstances, wants to give more. But remember, if you fail to sustain or to leverage the good input you’ll simply exacerbate the problem you set out to solve.

Don’t miss the next Leadership Caffeine-Newsletter! Register herebook cover: shows title Leadership Caffeine-Ideas to Energize Your Professional Development by Art Petty. Includes image of a coffee cup.

For more ideas on professional development-one sound bite at a time, check out: Leadership Caffeine-Ideas to Energize Your Professional Development

New to leading or responsible for first time leaders on your team? Subscribe to Art’s New Leader’s e-News.

An ideal book for anyone starting out in leadership: Practical Lessons in Leadership by Art Petty and Rich Petro.

 

Art of Managing—Beware the Lure of Strategy in a Box Approaches

image of a box with new and improved on the labelThe Art of Managing series is dedicated to exploring the critical issues we face in guiding our firms and teams to success in today’s volatile world.

Strategy is one of those difficult topics that dog most management teams and most firms.

The real work of strategy is challenging, time consuming and filled with hard-to-answer questions. It requires a simultaneous out-of-corporate body experience to objectively understand market, industry and competitive forces, along with an invasive and sometimes painful self-examination around internal capabilities.

Few managers come to strategy work with a common understanding or agreement on what strategy is, much less what an effective process looks and feels like. Selecting a strategy and building out the execution program includes the painful process of choosing what not to do, something that often dies on the field of political battles or lack of decision-making discipline.

Last and not least, the groups working on strategy often have little experience working together much less deciding together. In larger organizations participants are often handicapped by lack familiarity with their colleague’s businesses or offerings. Mix in  political dynamics with the lack of familiarity and experience teaming, and you shoot any realistic near-term opportunity to cultivate high performance right in the corporate rear-end.

Given the challenges of managing an effective, on-going strategy process, it’s no surprise “Strategy in a Box” approaches are often adopted by management teams looking to add a check mark to the strategy task on their annual goals.

Recognizing “Strategy in a Box” Approaches:

While there are several variations, the process typically involves bringing a group of senior managers and functional or technical experts together with an outside facilitator for a multi-day offsite retreat.

The “process in a box” invariably starts at the top of the intellectual heap…setting vision to guide future direction. A painful (think root canal with no Novocain …but even more painful) round of group wordsmithing on a so-called vision invariably results in a gobbledygook of words that no one likes but everyone momentarily settles for just to end the pain.

After vision, there’s typically a S.W.O.T. (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, threats) exercise…a discussion that is best described as a bias-filled cesspool of incremental and wild ass thinking on external opportunities and a superficial analysis of internal issues and capabilities. The internal assessment is often either a glossing over of capabilities or a political battle with functional or technical experts taking shots in an effort to distance themselves from criticism and gain leverage in the expected future resource battles. There’s often little preparation or external analysis, and objectivity for internal realities is horribly lacking.

Graphic with the words of Art of Managing and other management termsNext out of the box is a round of goal setting, where the goals become the strategies. The goals are invariably around numbers and the bigger the numbers, the better. It’s not uncommon to hear the adult version of the playground “triple dog dare,” pushing numbers higher and higher:

“C’mon, if development hits the timing window at the right cost and feature set, we can do twice that with our hands tied behind our back.”

“I think you’re sandbagging. We can do your number and then some with the right execution and management.” (Note the thinly veiled jab.)

Big numeric goals become the perceived strategy: “100 million in three years,” or, 100,000 customers or number one or two in our market.

The last tool out of the box is the action plan, where some high-level actions and responsibilities are assigned, with the middle-layer of management in the room inevitably taking on the most critical work.

After a final shake of the box, the follow-up date is set and people adjourn with smiles and handshakes, all internally secure in the knowledge that little of any value was achieved and all wondering how the heck they can avoid any accountability here.

The Alternative…Deliberate Focus on the Right Issues and the Hard Questions:

I wish I were exaggerating on the above description, but I’m not. Some form or variation of this superficial approach is what too many management teams experience when it comes to strategy work. 

The right alternative is to focus on and attack core issues. Rumelt advises us in Good Strategy/Bad Strategy to focus on the kernel of a strategy. Carefully diagnose the situation (an exercise not to be taken lightly) and then decide what to do about it at a high level. Back the diagnosis and guiding philosophy with a set of integrated actions and build from there. Much like a medical problem, the diagnosis frames and defines the follow-on regimen and measurement.

Geoffrey Moore’s framework of frameworks in Escape Velocity forces a view to the portfolio of opportunities and demands answers to the hard questions for today’s and tomorrow’s businesses from an investor’s perspective. He also appropriately segregates discussion into time horizons and cautions us to treat today’s businesses and tomorrow’s businesses very differently.

Others, including Welch’s famous 5 slides (approximately 20 questions) create a laser-like focus on the issues of strategy and opportunities and competitors and actions.

In my own experience leading strategy inside corporations and externally as a consultant, the hardest part of the process is building the discipline and teamwork to objectively tackle the right issues and hard questions. While the components included in the “Strategy in a Box” have merit…vision, assessment, goals and actions, it’s the poor process and then attempting to pass them off as the complete strategy work that I object to strenuously.

The Bottom-Line for Now:

In truth, the work of strategy is hard work, however, the actual key questions to be answered are finite and very visible. The focus must be on finding or creating strength to use against weakness or to exploit opportunities. The work is much about assessing your firm’s true situation in the context of change (tastes, industries, macro forces, competitors, substitutes, technologies) and selecting a set of intelligent experiments to test hypotheses. The work demands the development of a team committed to high performance, supported by the organization and accountable for objective assessment and selection of options.

Don’t be lulled into sacrificing the rigor of the work and the accountability to key questions to a simple sounding but canned approach that doesn’t get at the right issues at the right depth. There are no shortcuts to strategy.

Don’t miss the next Leadership Caffeine-Newsletter! Register herebook cover: shows title Leadership Caffeine-Ideas to Energize Your Professional Development by Art Petty. Includes image of a coffee cup.

For more ideas on professional development-one sound bite at a time, check out: Leadership Caffeine-Ideas to Energize Your Professional Development

New to leading or responsible for first time leaders on your team? Subscribe to Art’s New Leader’s e-News.

An ideal book for anyone starting out in leadership: Practical Lessons in Leadership by Art Petty and Rich Petro.