By: Bob McCulloch

Fall 2018 Issue

Experienced management consultants know that there’s often only one chance for you to make a positive impression with your clients. Failure to meet their needs and expectations early on can be devastating, not only for one engagement: it can negatively impact your ability to secure future business opportunities.

For consultants who offer strategic planning support to their clients, there’s a particular urgency to get the process right the first time around, matching the level of sophistication of the process with the maturity of the client. Often the long-term viability of the client is at stake. Let’s tackle two crucial factors that affect whether strategic planning efforts will be successful: collaboration and execution. 

Building Strategy is a Collaborative Effort
Red Hat is the world’s leading provider of Linux and open-source solutions for businesses. According to former Executive Vice President for Strategy and Corporate Marketing, Jackie Yeaney, Red Hat’s “deeply entrenched and open source-inspired culture” meant that traditional strategic planning methods would not work. What would? Collaboration, or ‘open-sourcing’ the strategy. Yeaney quoted the old open source adage, “given enough eyeballs, all bugs are shallow.” Not surprisingly, Red Hat’s strategic planning model depends on tapping into the company’s collective brainpower. The surprising part is not that some organizations do this; it’s that more don’t.

Establishing ownership and purpose
When strategizing is collaborative, the result is a greater sense of ownership in the resulting strategy and sense of purpose around efforts to complete the initiatives. Rather than telling other employees what the strategy is, you are inviting them to help create it. That difference is incredibly powerful: you are able to have more voices and more minds working towards the same goal.

In setting the context for your strategy, you should be working to identify: opportunities facing your organization, risks to achieving your goals, obstacles barring you from maximizing the potential opportunities, as well as internal and external assets that will help you achieve your goals

Collectivity or individuality
From a process viewpoint, you could do this by yourself in your office and develop some effective answers to your strategic planning challenges. But would you get the answers you need?

The best answers come from considering different perspectives, from different mindsets, based on a collection of different experiences. Individually they provide some distinct and discrete threads of logic. Together they weave a rich tapestry of shared understanding. One colleague can identify a risk or challenge to which you are blind, while another has an approach for leveraging an opportunity that didn’t even enter your mind.

Extra effort can pay off… big time
As the saying goes, “You can never please all of the people all of the time.” A collaborative approach can take more time and coordination. Without effective direction, it can devolve into an effort to make everyone happy. Red Hat deals with this by “not bubbling every decision up to the senior executive level.” Despite the extra work, Yeaney confirmed that this approach has helped them generate more creativity, accountability, commitment, flexibility, and adaptability.

With a collaborative foundation for your strategic planning, the process promises to generate a plan that will be more capable of achieving your intended future than with any plan that relies on processes that begin and end at the top.

Underpinning Good Strategy Execution
Various thinkers have shaped my view of strategy over the years. I’ve gained a lot of insights recently from three in particular: Napoleon Bonaparte, 19th Century Prussian Army Field Marshall Helmuth von Moltke the Elder, and the American diplomat, educator, and author Harlan Cleveland.

Strategy as “the art of bringing one’s forces to bear on the decisive point” is commonly attributed to Napoleon Bonaparte. The first message is that it’s an art. Yes, it’s supported by plenty of science and data, but in the end it’s a judgment call. It’s got to look and feel right. Next, we need to understand the decisive point. This can be reflected in our answer to questions like, “What do we really mean by ‘success’?” and “What do we need to do really well to be successful?” and “What’s our source of sustainable advantage in the marketplace?” Then we need to figure out how best to bring all of our resources to bear on the effective execution of the strategy – talent, technology, culture, capital, and more.

For every action there’s an equal and opposite reaction. Von Moltke coined the phrase, “Strategy is good only until first contact with the enemy.” This is especially true in today’s world. The implications are that we need to ensure we have a detailed and timely feedback system to tell us how we’re doing, so we can adapt our approach to better match the evolving conditions, swiftly and surely. This also means, of course, that we need to be as clear and specific as possible with our strategic execution plans, so we can adjust them. Without a plan there’s nothing to adjust.

In Cleveland’s 1972 book, The Future Executive, he describes strategy as “[continuous] improvisation on a general sense of direction.” This takes von Moltke to the next step of thoughtfully and decisively adjusting the plans, and understanding that they too will be “conditional.”

These strategists and many others have added to and enriched my understanding of strategy. Strategy must be supported by empirical, “sound” data and also be intuitive and flexible. It must be a guide while being amenable to change and adaptation. Strategy is not a rope that binds: rather it is one that supports us in our climb.

Bob McCulloch MBA, FCMC, CEC, a strategic advisor and executive coach to senior leaders and their teams, is Co-founder and Principal of Strategic Retreats Inc. His clients represent companies across a wide array of industries as well as all levels of government and several not-for-profit organizations and associations. Connect with Bob on LinkedIn and visit him at