When you do not know where you are, even the most detailed maps will not be useful to you.
Knowing where you stand is necessary and sobering. Crafting any strategy starts with knowing where you are, and then plotting where you realistically want to go and the steps you will take to get there.
The late leadership writer, Max De Pree once said, “The first responsibility of a leader is to define reality. The last is to say thank you. In between the two, the leader must become a servant and a debtor. That sums up the progress of an artful leader.” Indeed the first step to defining reality is being clear about where you are. Sometimes reality is too fearful to look at that it is easier to choose the painless path of mediocrity, stagnation and irrelevance.
In strategy development sessions, many choose their starting point to be the popular SWOT Analysis. This model allows for the review the organisation from two fronts – internally and externally. Internally you look at the strengths and the weaknesses, while externally you examine the opportunities and the threats that the organisation faces. This is a powerful tool that has widespread uses and some limitations.
When facilitating strategy sessions, my preferred starting point is an examination of four key elements to ensure that the strategy conversations focus on real issues that are strategic and meaningful to the organisation. Strategy sessions are never about trying to impress colleagues with the latest theoretic framework, powerpoint expertise or presentation skills. There is a place for these competencies.
The best approach is to examine the key elements from the onset: the Sankofa view, elephants in the room, monkey traps, and wicked problems. This tends to bring to the fore important issues that need to be dealt with to enable the organisation to move forward and execute strategy. Time is always at a premium in a strategy workshop and it is better invested in meaningful conversations than in powerpoint beauty parades and half of the colleagues attention glued on their devices and other cyber-concerns. You cannot expect people that are disengaged in the strategy development session to be engaged in the implementation process. Instead of strategy planning as a process, you start getting strategy document developments that simply become credenza-ware.
The Sankofa view
In Ghana, they have traditional Asante symbols that are a form of language, metaphoric proverbs or wisdom symbols. These signs are called Adinkra symbols and are found in pottery, fabric and now make their way on buildings, paintings and organisational logos. One of the popular ones is the “Sankofa”, which is a mythical bird that has its head looking backwards. The meaning of “Sankofa” is “go back and get it.” What it means is that if there is something that has worked in the past, we are responsible to look back carefully, going back and getting it. The past should not be buried with its treasures. The best parts of the past should be built on.
Sometimes when looking at the past, it is easy to paint everything with black critical good-for-nothing paint and claim that nothing ever-worked and nothing could be built on. Innovation does not always mean starting new things. We have a responsibility to preserve the good learnings of the past and to build on them. Your cannot build anything significant when you are always destroying everything in the past. History should not be destroyed irreverently; it must be studied diligently and exploited fully. Look for good things that you can carry forward from the past. Good things should be built on and not destroyed.
In order to move forward, what in the past do you need to go back and retrieve? What has worked in the past that you can build on? Foundations should not be destroyed. They must be preserved with care and built on.
Elephants in the room
In any meeting, there are important issues and little nagging issues that just crowd the agenda without helping anyone to move forward. The proverbial elephant in the room refers to the big, fat and uncomfortable issues that need to be confronted. The best way for any organisation to move forward is to confront their elephants in the room. When there is an elephant in the room, the best way to deal with the elephant is to introduce the elephant so that it becomes part of the open dialogue. If the elephant is not confronted, you cannot even get to the execution elements of the strategy because nothing will happen because an elephant has a way of standing in the doorway towards progress. Most people moan that the problem with most strategies is that they are not implemented.
I think the problem is a different one. Some strategy development session are sterile processes that do not confront the elephant in the room. They then come up with elaborately written documents that skirt the real issues but address the easier, toe-the-line and convenient issues. Then people unbelievably turn around and say: the strategy was great but the implementation was poor.
Tough conversations may be uncomfortable, but without them nothing moves forward. Confronting elephants honestly allows teams to build trust, surface avoided conflict and ensure commitment to action and what matters most. Confronting elephants is not easy, this is where the value of a good facilitator comes in. A good facilitator will create collaborative relationships, plan appropriate group processes, create and sustain a participatory environment and then channel the workshop participants to appropriate and useful outcomes. Unhealthy strategy planning sessions can never result in healthy strategy outcomes or committed execution.
To trap a monkey, a trap that allows the monkey to get its hand into a hole and steal some fruit is set. Once the monkey gets hold of the fruit, it will not let go and at the same time it cannot take its hand out of the hole. This is the typical monkey trap that organisations find themselves in.
Groups need to reflect on the things that are holding them back from changing. Some of these are “escalations of commitment” where you would have invested in a project but the project keeps calling for more resources. You know that it is not working but are too committed emotionally to let go and cut your loses. Monkey traps hold back change. Not all change is an improvement, but without change there can be no improvement. Change will not take place unless you reflect on the things that are holding you back from changing. Change begins in the mind. Until you are willing to let go, you will keep sabotaging change efforts.
The role of a facilitator is to help prevent strategy workshops from being leader monologues delivered in the presence of witnesses and then christened as strategy meetings. A good facilitator will ensure that there is a fair process that allows for engagement, explanation and expectation clarity. There are better strategy conversation outcomes when there is a fair process that allows for intellectual and emotional recognition, building trust, engendering commitment and there is open and voluntary co-operation of all involved.
A wicked problem is not necessarily a diabolical problem, in the sense of being an “evil problem.” It is a complex problem that is resistant to solutions. Such problems keep recurring from strategy session to strategy session over the years. The wicked problem may be mentioned, talked about but is never resolved.
Wicked problems are usually difficult to define or articulate. They may have many interdependencies and are often generated by many causes. Some attempts to address wicked problems lead to unforeseen consequences and new complicated problems. The problems may be socially complex and at times go beyond organisational boundaries and pedestrian solutions. Some wicked problems are a result of large scale and chronic policy failures and leadership deficiencies. Wicked problems involves addressing issues at system level and changing behaviour at a large scale. Sometimes talking about solutions is easier than taking the bitter medication and the discipline required to deliver change.
Identifying and isolating wicked problems is critical in any strategy intervention. Throwing charlatans, old simple solutions and rhetoric at wicked problems is a waste of time, energy and resources. Wicked problems call for new thinking, new models and new behaviour. Doing the old and familiar will not result in any significant change except increased frustrations and widespread despair. Solving wicked problems sometimes call for going beyond organisational boundaries, collaborating with unlikely people and lobbying for policy changes. Wicked problems by their very nature are hard to resolve. However, if they are not identified as such, they may not be given the attention they deserve.
In your next strategy session or reflection meeting, try starting by identifying the sankofas, elephants in the room, monkey traps and wicked problems. You will have fresh insights that will move you forward.
Committed to your greatness.
Milton Kamwendo is a leading international transformational and motivational speaker, author, and executive coach. His life purpose is to inspire and promote greatness. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org and Twitter: @MiltonKamwendo or WhatsApp at: 0772422634. His website is: www.miltonkamwendo.com