Strategic planning retreat or 'amen corner'
By Francis Wade
How do you prevent your annual strategic planning retreat from turning into an 'amen corner' where the utterings of a single powerful executive are accepted by all other executives without question, and without critical analysis?
Well, it requires an ability to see the problem as real and balance the power of the top executive with that of his/her colleagues.
Why is this balancing act important? More often than not, executive teams in Jamaica are dominated by a single highly skilled leader.
Usually, the Chairman, CEO or MD is bright, articulate and highly trained. A great deal of their time is spent thinking about strategic matters in keeping with the position they often hold as a major shareholder.
Without trying to do so, they dominate their teams on all strategic topics. They are the only executives with a practised understanding of the company as a whole, so they are usually 'right' about their points of view.
With the sense of being 'right' comes great power that often leads them to dominate their team's strategic planning retreat.
A solid plan engages every executive in order to gain their buy-in, and arrives at a conclusion that is owned by all. That's not the same as everyone saying 'amen'.
Here are some actions to take to balance a top executive's power in the strategic planning process.
1. Ensure impartial facilitation
Top executives who believe they are unbiased in retreats make the mistake of not seeing the full extent of their influence over their direct reports.
Those who know better don't try to facilitate these critical meetings and also, never hire facilitators who are mere extensions of themselves. Instead, they look for independent assistance so that their points of view don't simply become the plan.
2. Holding back
During the retreat, it's important that the CEO hold back at critical moments. Some will argue that there is no need, and that their team members are neither shy nor afraid to speak up.
The real point is that most executives aren't used to thinking in terms of enterprise-wide strategy.
Whereas a CEO might spend 30-50 per cent of his/her time on strategic thinking, the average executive probably spends less than 10 per cent. This means that they must process information and formulate their ideas in the retreat itself, and they need some silent space in order to do so.
3. Encourage stupidity:
In my role as a facilitator, I have found that I add great value by asking simple questions.
Oftentimes, executive teams make important assumptions, and then operate for years as if they are true without questioning them again.
One of the best times to ask a stupid question that gets the team to revisit an old assumption is during the retreat when the company is striving to separate itself from the past and its competition.
As an outsider, I not only ask these questions with impunity — as I clearly don't have any history in the company — but I also encourage whispered questions that are half-asked by executives who are unwilling to look too silly.
CEOs must tolerate these incursions into the obvious, and allow each person to challenge accepted assumptions.
4. Pay attention to diverging and converging energies
There are two primary kinds of activities that take place during the retreat. One is that of 'diverging' in which the facilitator opens up new questions in order to collect alternate points of view, fresh ideas or new information. The other, opposite energy is that of 'converging' in which executive teams drive to consensus, and all the members of the team come together on one page.
Both of these energies are important.
CEOs need to follow the flow of the group's conversation and temper their involvement so that they aren't working at counter-purposes to the facilitator.
The fact is, there is always a time-limit, and a team needs to leave the retreat with agreement on a feasible course of action.
Leaders who help the team to converge and diverge at the right times make it easy for a final product to emerge on time, with high quality.
These four actions can be used by executives to increase the odds that the plan doesn't become an 'amen' and includes every valid point of view necessary to fulfil a new uplifting vision.
Francis Wade is a consultant with Framework Consulting and author of the One Page Digest. firstname.lastname@example.org