Want a Truly Useful Strategy? Skip the Offsite and Plan an Expedition


Have you ever fallen victim to the MBA Kool Aid?

As a young strategist, it led me to believe that with the right preparation, a great pre-read and a superb facilitation job, I could lay the foundation for a solid innovation strategy with one good offsite session.  After the session was complete, we’d then spend weeks of internal diplomacy negotiating to get the new strategy adopted, during which time it would get watered down and ultimately ground down and absorbed into the culture.

Well, 22 countries, a million miles and a dozen unique business models later, my view has shifted.  Under the “I wish I knew then what I know now category,” is this: while I still do offsites, I no longer suggest them as a standalone – especially when the stakes are high.

The “normal” pathway to generate a concept, followed by the internal sell, is inefficient at best. It’s also an extremely shameful waste of time, energy, and resources.

Instead, I coach my clients to use what I have come to call the “Power of Three” strategy process.  This is a solution that emphasizes:

  • the strength of a firm’s internal insight and competencies
  • the richness of select external viewpoints and
  • the uniqueness that develops when putting them in a crucible together.

What I have found is that the “one pass” process works when you are on a strategic development arc and you need a catalytic event to pull it all together. In that case, a well-planned offsite will get everyone on the same page and serve as a nice level set and kick off.

But when you first need to find that arc, more is demanded than can be completed in one session. What is needed instead, is a multi-step path that allows for the layered work that is needed to generate and choose from the paths available to you.  Experience has shown me that rather than an event, you need  an efficient, agile and organic process to get you there. Experientially, I have found that the shortest and most efficient path has three specific steps. Hence, the “Power of Three.”

Power of Three

What I mean by the Power of Three is this: three cycles of strategic work, each cycle of which culminates in a set of choices to be made by the senior team.  By varying the content the group works on in each cycle, but holding the team constant, you make some remarkable progress – even in very turbulent environments.

Cycle One

The process begins in a conventional manner with a pre-read and some mind expanding content.  We then dig into a PESTLE analysis and expand it to include product and service insights as well.  The output of Cycle One is not a single strategy, but a list of specific domains of interest.  In short, these are well-defined spaces where we want to shine a very bright light and really challenge ourselves.

Cycle Two

This is where it gets interesting.  We take the output from the decision meeting that closes out Cycle One (a short list of domains) short list of domains and develop a curated list of subject matter experts to provide their take – in writing.  We ask for brief essays built around carefully crafted questions from true subject matter experts.  Of course, these views are wildly disparate, and that’s what powers the richness of the next cycle.

Once the essays are in, the team reviews them and develops line item questions before sending them back out to the group.  This full set of notes becomes the “data book” for round three.

Cycle Three

These essays are provided to the internal team, and a session is held to go deep on each domain using the traditional SWOT framework.  The core question is this: how do we get the firm’s greatest strengths applied to the market’s richest opportunities?

These sessions are like the usual offsites – on steroids.  Strong opinions are shared, hard decisions are made and a very strong platform emerges.

When a Plan Comes Together

The extra dissonance and entropy of getting the outside viewpoints drives up the level of the discussion immensely.  By having some “lighthouse” viewpoints, the team no longer breathes its own exhaust fumes and is instead forced into embracing cold clear reality in its strategic choices.  Keeping the team together is key so that each member experiences the journey and transformation.

The upside, is that when it’s time to put the plan in place, much of the usual socialization work is already done.  When the team has fought like family and had the hard dialogues, the implementation, sourcing and budgeting discussions have a much more collegial tone than usual.  By taking some time upfront, my experience is that the implementation time is much shorter.

What About the Extra Time?

Yes, at the outset it seems to be a whole lot more time, as you need to spread the work over three phases, take time to do all the middle viewpoint work, and prepare to attend multiple meetings.  In truth, what really happens, is that the usual long, and iterative cycle of working for consensus in the firm after the offsite, is moved forward to become part of the strategy development process.  In addition, it provides us with a really efficient way to organize the work, minimize the impact on busy business unit leaders, while achieving the integration of new external views.

Finally, the benefit of having a true set of viewpoints that are custom to the firm, agreed upon, and stack ranked in priority, is something that most firms never quite achieve.

You’ve probably gathered that there are a large number of process details, decision making methodology and facilitation know-how that go into doing this well.  If you’d like to have a deeper dive on how this all works, give me a call at 847-651-1014, or click here, and set up a no strings attached, 20-minute phone call.

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