Grow your payoff by investing more in the highest leverage leadership activity.

Posted by on Sep 19, 2011

What is the highest leverage leadership activity?

Since we began consulting on strategic planning in 1989, we’ve been strong advocates of advance preparation for planning sessions.  When client teams short-change advance preparation, it takes longer to create plans.  Perhaps worse, the resulting plans tend to focus on short term and operational issues.  In short, lack of preparation means your plans aren’t likely to have the desired positive impact on your organization’s future. We can’t think of a better way to increase your organization’s effectiveness than by making great strategies using all the talent and imagination your team can muster.  And that makes preparation for strategy sessions mandatory.

Our commitment to preparation was reinforced in 1994 when we read The Rise and Fall of Strategic Planning, McGill Professor Henry Mintzberg’s book based on a multi-year review of real-world strategic planning practices and academic literature.  Mintzberg’s study involving scores of Canadian, US and European firms found that strategic thinking occurs more or less continuously in most organizations.  But in a stunning paradox, there is one time when it consistently comes to a halt – during strategic planning sessions!

Mintzberg’s observation confirms what we’ve seen in more than 600 consulting assignments: new ideas are seldom created during strategic planning sessions.  The process for creating implementable strategic plans must be logical, evaluative and quantitative.  Unfortunately, these characteristics are, to put it mildly, not conducive to creative thinking.  In most cases, analysis, evaluation and manipulation of numbers kills creative strategic thinking dead.

OK, then what good is strategic planning?

If strategic planning isn’t about creating new ideas, what good is it?  To answer that question, we need to examine what actually happens in strategy sessions.

We have seen many “new” strategy ideas introduced at planning sessions.  But in the vast majority of cases, the new ideas were actually conceived prior to the session.  When a participant brings a “new” idea to the table for discussion, it is examined, tested, improved, and if it passes muster, finally adopted.  In most cases, constructive dissent increases the depth and practicality of the idea.  By the time they are accepted, most new ideas have become richer, deeper and more powerful than the core idea that was initially suggested.

But the kernels at the heart of these strategies almost always originated in the kind of pre-session (and often year-round) strategic thinking which Mintzberg found goes on most of the time in most organizations.

Time pressure – the enemy of strategic thinking

As the world gets inexorably busier, senior managers and directors struggle to find time on their calendars for strategy.  They look for ways to perform required tasks in less and less time.

While I applaud this drive for efficiency, if it hurts effectiveness it is not only wasted – it’s actually counter-productive.  Cutting time from your strategy preparation may save you a few hours, and cutting a day from your strategy session obviously “saves” a day. But at what cost?

We believe time spent preparing for and making strategic decisions as a team is the highest leverage activity in which senior managers can engage, bar none.  This is the wrong place to economize. We have an alternative that may save time, and will almost certainly pay dividends in the form of greater organizational effectiveness.

We believe every leadership team should strive for a team culture of preparation and attention to your strategy.  Make it unacceptable for your colleagues to attend planning and plan review sessions unprepared.  The consequences of unprepared participants range from a lack of contribution from each unprepared member (at best) to unprepared participants who waste everyone else’s time with questions they should have answered for themselves during their preparation.  It means longer strategy sessions and usually less effective strategies.  And that’s neither efficient nor effective.

© Knowlan Consulting Group Inc. 2011