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Strategic Planning: Hire a Referee So You Can Be a Player

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You're going to develop a strategic plan with the help of your executive team and a few other thought-leaders and high-potentials in your company. And when you ask yourself who should direct your planning sessions, your most "obvious" answer is -- you. After all, you're the leader, right?

That's true, of course, if you're the President or CEO of the business. But we'd recommend you seriously consider another approach before you automatically "nominate" yourself to lead your own strategic planning sessions.

What's Your Goal?
First of all, we're assuming the reason you're doing this in a group setting is that you want to access the best thinking your company has to offer. You want to have open, free-wheeling sessions where people really feel they can say what they think vs. hewing to the "party line" or telling you what they think you want to hear.

If that's your objective, we'd like you to at least entertain the possibility that "running the show" yourself is usually not the best way to get there. Here are a few reasons why.

Power and Visual Politics
Consider this; There are three sources of power: formal position, knowledge and personal presence. By definition you have two of the three and may well have the third, too. You probably run your staff meetings, and when you're in the room, whether you realize it or not, your presence is a factor that's uppermost in everyone's mind.

You may doubt this. In close to 30 years of consulting, we've never met a senior executive who fully appreciated the significance or impact of a leader's presence and behavior on subordinates. But it's a fact. After all, you're "the boss."

So there's an ambient contradiction in your desire to make your deliberations candid, open and egalitarian while at the same time insisting on serving as the head "traffic cop" who just happens to have the biggest title in the room. The visual politics just don't work. And even if you did all the right things, in our experience, it would be a rare group of people who could actually "forget who you are" and behave as though you were "just another member of the team."

Juggling Content and Process
There's more. Any group interaction involves the two fundamental dimensions of content and process. Content, of course, is the matter to be discussed, e.g., what's our vision for the future? What do we consider our core values? What strategies will we pursue to achieve our goals? Process is how you go about dealing with the content: What should we do first, next, and so on? And during the session: Are we evaluating? Problem-solving? Deciding? Are we being productive? Are we being dysfunctional? And if so, what do we do about it?

How process is managed can have a significant -- even decisive -- impact on content outcomes: How are we going to make a decision on this issue? Should this discussion be allowed to continue or should we move on? Etc. In this context, you don't want someone with a vested interest in the content outcomes -- namely, you -- also to be directing the process.

The risk is simply too great that you could be perceived as managing the process -- consciously or not -- to suit your own views and agenda. And if this happens, just as with the legal process, your team may feel justified, either publicly or privately, in throwing the decisions you arrive at "out of court." Not a good outcome for your strategic plan.

Create an "Even Playing Field"
Instead, if your goal is openness, candor and true collaboration, you need to reflect that in the physical way you orchestrate your planning sessions. The best way to do this is to get a neutral third-party to lead the planning process and take yourself out of the actual management of the day-to-day deliberations.

Consultants who do this are readily available. They have lots of experience is structuring strategic planning engagements and can relieve you of the distraction of worrying about the how when you should be focused on the what.

You shouldn't see this as a loss of power; instead it's a huge gain in personal freedom. And it means two things: First, you can concentrate entirely on contributing to the content of the conversations, the area where, as leader, you should be expected to be most helpful and insightful. Second, by sitting at the table, like everyone else, you've sent a strong message -- by your actions, not just your words -- that you really want this to be an egalitarian inquiry in which it's what people say and not who they are that carries the day. Now your visual politics match your message.

In following this approach, you've done everything you can to ensure that the "weight" of your presence and knowledge will have the least possible stifling or inhibiting effect on your team and your planning sessions. And you've also maximized the likelihood that your planning team will contribute their best, most candid thinking to the effort.

When you think about it, doesn't that constitute your best shot at a solid and viable strategic plan?

Ray Gagnon is principal and Founder of Gagnon Associates, a management consulting firm with a long-standing practice in Strategic Planning, located in Metro-West Boston, Massachusetts, USA.