This post is a part of Strategy Month—my 30-day LinkedIn series aimed at bringing strategy down from its lofty perch and providing the ideas, techniques, and tools to democratize strategy in your team or organization. You can follow along here.

When we (my partner Craig and I) start facilitating business strategy with a new executive team, our introductions sometimes garner head tilts. I have a Ph.D. in organizational psychology, not an MBA. Craig doesn’t have an MBA either, he’s a Ph.D. in neuropsychology (actually, cognitive neuroscience if I’m being precise). What could two psychologists bring to the table as advisors on business strategy?!?

Turns out, lots.

Psychologists are interested in how people think. Cognitive neuropsychologists are interested in how those thoughts can be distorted or biased. Organizational psychologists are interested in how those biases are affected by group dynamics (and measurement systems, and cultures, and…). I promise you that these factors matter tremendously in your strategic planning process.

If you’re about to embark on a strategic planning process, I’m not saying that you need to ditch your MBA facilitator and hire a psychologist, but I AM saying that you need to start by addressing the individual issues and team dynamics that will affect how fully, how objectively, and how effectively you evaluate and choose among the options in front of you.

People Issues in Strategic Planning

Cognitive Dearth

A dearth is a scarcity of something. In strategic planning, there’s often a dearth of many things: options, evidence, scenarios, contingencies (but sadly, no dearth of assumptions). That’s because most of us have a strong need to simplify our worlds—it’s how we cope with so much complexity and still manage to function. The problem is that your team’s tendency to over-simplify the world and to ignore information that seems irrelevant to you will bite you in the butt in setting strategy. This is how big companies get trounced by little, wily ones. The disruptors start small and insignificant and not-worth-noticing. And then they’re not.

You probably know about some of the cognitive biases that help us simplify our worlds, like confirmation bias and the availability heuristic, but there are dozens of identified cognitive biases. You can learn more about them in this amazing Codex.

Framework of cognitive biases

There’s even a Cognitive Bias Foundation—a not-for-profit aiming to expose cognitive biases in action. Maybe I’ll do a post on the most problematic cognitive biases in strategic planning and how to mitigate them. (Sheesh, I’m gonna need more days in strategy month!). Suffice to say that before you dive into strategic planning, your team needs to be more aware of the illusions those biases are creating and have a few tricks up your sleeve to counteract them.

Organizational Turf

Another significant problem in strategic planning is that the humans being asked to plot the future tend to have a strong stake in it. It’s a big ask for team members to have to recommend calls that could potentially devalue their role or their team’s role, but those types of decisions are on the table in strategic planning. Even if the future of one’s team is bright, it’s challenging to consider changing something over which you have pride of authorship. Is your team allowing your strategies to evolve or are you smothering them? What are you doing to address issues of organizational turf?

Personal Worth

Finally, your strategic planning efforts can be hampered if team members have concerns about their personal worth. Worry that one isn’t worthy can show up in different ways. First, it might cause team members to withhold contributions. That’s so demoralizing for me because each perspective is original and no one else around the table can replace it. Each person either has different knowledge, skills, experiences, or superpowers or they have different stakeholders that are counting on that person to represent them. Either way, any person’s silence reduces how strategic the process can be.

Alternatively, a team member’s anxiety about their worth might show up as incessant talking and ineffective attempts to justify their seat at the table. This neediness results in all sorts of repetition, tangential discussions, and low-value distractions, none of which your planning process can afford. What are you doing to address issues of personal worth?

Questions to Ask Yourself

If your team is doing strategic planning, ask yourself the following true or false questions. The goal is to be confident that all 10 are true:

  1. I have sought out novel and disconfirming information to add to the process.
  2. I am aware of my biases and have a plan to minimize their impact.
  3. I am thinking as a leader of the whole, rather than just as a representative of my area.
  4. I challenge and debate to strengthen the team’s ideas and plans.
  5. I shift my position based on the inputs and challenges of my teammates.
  6. I manage my contributions to take up my fair share of the conversation.
  7. I am open and candid about my concerns.
  8. I share with the team when I am struggling to look at the situation objectively.
  9. I share additional thoughts after the session directly with the person involved.
  10. I support and implement the team’s decisions once they are made.

This list represents a high bar but it’s a standard you should be aiming for if you are contributing to strategic planning on your team.  How did you score?

Strategy, in its blue suit, McKinsey, MBA form is supposed to be so sterile and objective. I’ve never seen it. Strategy is human. And that means doing strategic planning requires you to tackle cognitive dearth, organizational turf, and personal worth before digging in.

Further Reading

Running a great strategic meeting

How can I be seen as more strategic?

Dealing with the Team Historian