Many high-tech firms experience an interesting phenomenon: Executives go to meetings to make a point. They don’t come together to explore a subject so much as to try to gratify their egos. People often end up spouting off rather than exchanging ideas.
But crafting a market expansion plan, a rebranding effort, or any other major strategic plan requires more than spouting off about what one already knows. Building a really strong strategy means defining a common, clear vision of how things are, then creating alternative scenarios of how things could be so that an effective plan of defensive moves and offensive pushes can be developed.
In short, a major strategy session must have three overriding goals: enlightenment, truth, and creation.
Development of a clear understanding through logic or inspiration is the key to enlightenment. In a business context, enlightenment has to be about setting aside the ego and getting clear about facts and figures.
When the ego is at play in business, people often think in a closed manner. This may involve putting others down, demonstrating how clever one is, or simply not letting others participate in the conversation. If you feel yourself holding forth on a topic and notice people’s eyes glazing over, maybe you’re guilty of at least one of these counts. So make sure group discussions really involve the team, not just the “genius” of one individual.
Because enlightenment means getting people to see the facts, meeting participants need to withhold judgment and look closely at all aspects of the situation. This is particularly difficult in a business setting; we’re trained to solve problems in a limited amount of time. It’s all too easy to skip assessment and jump ahead to the solution. But if you do, you’ll inevitably miss key facts.
A commitment to honesty and clarity helps you see what is true. This experience plays an important role in most personal relationships, but it is also a key component in companies. Companies that can get a clear picture of the ultimate truth can create a great deal of alignment.
And to be clear, truth is more than just facts and figures. It is also our feelings and hunches, our options, our risk assessments, our values and desires. It is, in essence, the fullest range of “what is.”
Most leadership teams don’t allow for our impressions without the need for justifications. And we often don’t look directly at risks, dangers, and difficulties. To seek truth is to make sure you are looking at and making visible many things, again without judgment.
In this context, “creation” is the sense of having produced something new and original and, in so doing, to have made a lasting contribution. This often comes out in creative thinking that goes beyond “what is” to “what can be.”
In business, we build new options using a design process. Some people start this part of a meeting or workshop by saying that “all ideas are good ideas.” Yet we seldom manage to this concept. When we tie our self-definition to our ability to assess or perform critical thinking, we often close our eyes to new ideas. An example is the person involved in a team brainstorming session who says, “Yes, but…” to whatever others put on the table. It happens when the focus is on the 15% of an idea that might not work, not on the 85% of the idea that is excellent.
Creation is about building on that 85%, turning it around to keep improving it. Most people can’t see the intrinsic benefit in a new or unusual idea: Instead they focus on how it doesn’t fit. To counter this tendency, look for good ideas in virtually anything around you: someone talking in the supermarket line, a book you see on Amazon.com, even a cartoon or a street sign. Strategy creation develops best when your mind opens up to use all the raw material around it, not just what has been done before. Find the value and benefit that are not obvious. That’s a rare skill and well worth building.
The funny thing about major strategy sessions is this: The answers are never obvious. If they were, you wouldn’t have a problem. So when it comes to crafting something big like a defense strategy or a three-year plan, it’s important to leave our natural tendencies (egos, confusion, critical thinking) at the door. Brilliant ideas can’t get started until someone shares and others listen, until the truth of a situation is fully visible without judgment, and until we nurture an idea from conception into a significant contribution.
Nilofer Merchant is CEO of Rubicon Consulting, a strategic marketing firm based in Los Gatos, CA.
Also by Nilofer Merchant: