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ARTICLE: How Great Leaders Steer Clear Of Unconscious Traps In Strategic Planning

source:, getty images

Most boards and senior executives engage in routine strategic planning exercises, but they tend to overstate how well they hold management’s feet to the fire on strategic plans. Too often, they err on the side of accepting the presented ideas and veracity of strategic plans and the budgets that accompany them.

How can a group of intelligent, successful people settle for less from management? First of all, we are dealing with senior leaders who are human beings. Secondly, strategy is hard, and finally, methodology is simply easier to analyze and compare prior results. The second two reasons can be helped by those willing to do the hard, sometimes ambiguous, work.

Strategy is about making choices, not just engaging in an activity existing only for its own sake. If directors or senior executives are to choose wisely, they need to do more than review; they need to think, think about their thinking, and consider what is influencing them. What affects our thinking and decision-making is information and analysis as well as social environment and our own needs and fears.

How to steer away from strategic planning traps:

  1. Be clear about what strategy is and isn’t. Strategy is about what we intend to become, not how we will get there. Strategic planning can drain the life out of strategic thinking when focusing on how, when, and who, giving little attention to what and why.

  2. Get familiar with how you and your colleagues behave when you are uncomfortable. Human beings don’t like discomfort and have an endless number of ways to avoid or reduce it. Courageous leaders can work through tensions while being honest with themselves and each other. A vibrant, courageous board or executive team can self-monitor and self-regulate, and be brave enough to routinely invite expert input and advice about how they function as a team.

  3. Call out default positions or decisions. Directors that frame conversations with correct language can help the entire board slow down long enough to recognize they are taking a default position when they should be more thoughtful.

  4. Be on the lookout for what will distract you from strategic thinking. When conversations take a turn to the tactical, then the complex, sometimes messy strategic dialog that is necessary is avoided. Likewise, a bully can derail meaningful conversations with demeaning comments like, “This is a waste of time, we all know what the answer is”. It’s best to shut this type of conversation down quickly.

  5. Engage leaders who will implement the strategy. Senior executives and directors should know top leadership well enough to be able to give advice that could make a difference—and not rely on the knowledge of the CEO alone. Leaders are able to express confidence and escape further inquiry, however, confidence is a poor measure of accuracy, and people can be very influenced by a confident leader, well beyond the point of reason.

  6. Expect a one-page statement of strategic intent with no more than five priorities. A strategy that leaders can’t easily explain is almost certainly not strategic. Alternatively, an effective strategy is clear and compelling, and the priorities and measures of success are equally so. Leaders should insist that terms are operationalized and valid measures employed to indicate progress being made.

  7. Tie budget approval to the priorities. If something shows up in a budget proposal that isn’t related to the strategy, the discussion should come to a screeching halt. What is it? Why? There might be a great reason, but it could also be a way to keep one foot on the dock while trying to launch the boat, a plan that almost surely ends up with losses.

Sometimes, in a legitimate effort to steer clear of tactics, leaders miss their opportunity to ask pertinent questions and be appropriately skeptical. However, following this guide can help boards and senior executives add the value shareholders, employees, partners, and communities expect.


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