Developing a great strategy that uses your strengths and capitalizes on a market opportunity to give you a competitive advantage requires a particular team dynamic. That dynamic includes a certain feel in the room (something I’ve heard referred to lately as a mindset and a moodset). It also requires a specific set of behaviors to unleash expansive thinking and then transition to decisiveness over a series of conversations. This team dynamic is essential, and it’s rare.
What’s the Best Team Dynamic for Developing Strategy?
#1 Openness to Possibility
Sometimes my diagnosis of a team is that the members just can’t believe anymore. Are you still able to believe in a bright future for your team or organization? If not, you definitely shouldn’t be in a strategy session and probably should be looking for employment elsewhere. You deserve to believe in the company you work for.
How to Get Your Team More Excited About Possibility
If you’re worried that your team can’t dream anymore, try sharing a great underdog strategy story. There are many great strategy stories that could inspire even the surliest stick-in-the-mud.
#2 Energy and Enthusiasm
Strategy should be a generative process, and if everyone in the room looks like a deflated balloon, you’re not going to have the forward momentum needed to fuel a process that can be long, arduous, and full of dead ends.
How to Boost the Energy and Enthusiasm in the Room
The first place to start is by picking the right room. I remember trying to do a strategy session in a room with a 7-foot ceiling and approximately six inches of free space around the outside of the chairs. The thinking was as constrained as the floor space. Pick a room with light, room to move, fresh air, and a few signs that something impressive is likely to happen inside.
Beyond the room setup, use an engaging opening exercise, a controversial presentation, or a visit from a customer who believes in you to get people fired up. Then use breaks to infuse energy when you notice a lag (but don’t have pre-determined break times that might fall right in the middle of a burst of energy). I’m also a fan of a fun and playful treat at midafternoon. For example, there was ice cream in the session I facilitated in Austin last week!
#3 Withholding Judgment
Judgmental people suck the oxygen out of a strategic planning discussion. As soon as someone starts evaluating the quality ideas (and, by proxy, evaluating the value or intelligence of the person who offered the idea), the psychological safety is gone—poof!
How to Reduce Judgment and Dismissiveness
At the outset, set your ground rules and include a standard about refraining from judging ideas. Then, if someone chooses to criticize or shoot down an idea, say, “We agreed not to evaluate ideas at this stage,” and add on one of the following redirects:
- What WOULD make it a viable idea?
- What would have to be true for it to work?
- Even if it wouldn’t work, what can we learn from the idea?
- What assumptions are we making about the idea?
Ideally, you want to extinguish the judgmental behavior, so you might need to have a private conversation with anyone who persists. But, in the moment, don’t let their dismissiveness kill your team’s mojo. Instead, deflect it with a question that opens things back up.
One of the most painful scenarios in strategic planning is when everyone keeps agreeing with each other. In You First, I described this toxic scenario as a “BobbleHead Team.” It’s harmful because it exposes your organization to considerable risk. A great dynamic for strategic planning has lots of tension. The key thing is that the tension comes in the form of “and” not “but.” This is true, AND this completely different thing is true, too.
How to Get People to Disagree
To boost the amount of productive conflict in your strategy sessions, discuss the importance of diverse thinking in your ground rule conversation. Then use a variety of different prompts to spur disagreement. For example, you can change the time horizon (How would that be different if we were talking ten years instead of two?), the stakeholders (What would European customers say about that opportunity?), the lens (How would thinking about a service versus product lead to a different answer?) You need the start of your strategic planning process to encourage people to disagree, diverge, and dissent.
#5 Managing Egos
Another critical dynamic to manage if you want to get the most from strategic planning is the delicate balance of self-esteem. The participants with too little self-esteem and the associated fragile ego can be disruptive in strange and varied ways. The least disruptive is that they stay silent (and fail to add what is uniquely theirs to contribute), but other, more overt signs of their struggle show up in defensiveness and even tantrums. On the other end of the spectrum, those with an overdose of confidence might be dismissive of others’ contributions and too quick to jump to solutions.
How to Deal with Egos
If you’re in charge of a strategic planning process, you’ll want to diffuse any ego timebombs before the sessions begin. First, invest in doing an exercise to articulate the unique contributions of each member of the team. (Here’s a link to the article I wrote about it for HBR.) This will be indispensable if self-esteem issues arise. You can use it to encourage input from someone hesitant. Try saying, “Julian, you’re the only person in the room who works with our suppliers. What trends are they noticing?” You can also use the outputs of the exercise to temper an over-exuberant contributor. “Thanks for sharing that, Ava. Before you go any further, I’d love to hear from others who are customer-facing.” This exercise ties people’s contributions to their roles and helps you balance contributions diplomatically.
You might need to bolster the unique value exercise with individual conversations about how you’re hoping people will show up. For the person who feels like an imposter at the table, share your take on what they can bring and ask for their commitment to adding that value. For the over-confident person, ask for their help to ask the best questions or elicit contributions from others around the table. Follow these conversations up with check-ins between sessions.
#6 Listening, Validation, and Building
Another sure sign that a team is openly engaging in novel thinking is listening to one another, deliberately validating one another’s contributions, and building on their teammate’s ideas rather than tearing them down.
How to Improve Listening
I’ve dedicated considerable space to exercises and techniques to help improve the quality of your listening and validation among team members. I highly recommend that you share this article on what I call “Level III Listening.” It will be an eye-opener when you realize all that’s going on in your head that distracts you from listening effectively.
And if you have tried to inspire your team to be better listeners with the Level III article and they’re not getting any better, you can find the instructions for my remedial listening drill here.
I probably shouldn’t end this article without mentioning that good strategy processes don’t just keep the options open forever; they converge to the point that you choose a course of action and throw your resources behind it. I’m usually so busy trying to hold off convergence that it seems funny even to mention the possibility that your team gets stuck in an endless tangent, but I guess it’s possible.
How to Get Your Team to Converge
This is where you need to shift from open-ended to closed questions. Which of these is more likely to work? Should we do this first, or this? If we can only do one of these in this fiscal year, which would it be? If those questions meet resistance, take one step backward. What would we need to know to make that choice? Which risks do we still need to consider? Don’t stay in this mode too long. At some point, you’ll need to make a call and ask everyone to get on board.
I usually love facilitating strategic planning. I get energized by learning about the trends unfolding in the world, and I relish the puzzle of finding a novel path through the minefield. But sometimes, I’m the only one in the room who’s ready to open things up. In those cases, I’m using all of these approaches to give the team a fair shot at coming up with a great strategy. I hope they’re useful in your next strategic planning process.