We have been busy facilitating strategic plans and every time we do one I come away with a new appreciation of what it really takes (and how hard it is) to create a realistic and executable plan. Last week we were meeting with an Arts organization about their upcoming plan and the co-founder of the organization talked about how he finds it easier to be creative if he is given a set of constraints or boundaries to work within. This resonated with me because I also come up with better solutions or strategies when I understand the parameters I have to work within. The constraints actually jumpstart my creativity and ground my decisions in something practical. This is why most of the (nonprofit) strategic plans we do start with a clear understanding and discussion of the constraints imposed by the organization’s current reality. No magic wands available or magical thinking allowed. For many nonprofit organizations the obvious constraints are either financial (having enough funding) and/or capacity (having enough staff or time). Most organizations’ plans are also constrained (or should be) by their stated mission and core competencies - which dictate what types of services and programs they can and should offer.
It turns out that the wise and creative Arts organization Director was stating something that has been well researched in the arts – constraints do improve creativity. As this article by Matthew May points out, research proves that “tough obstacles can prompt people to open their minds, look at the "big picture," and make connections between things that are not obviously connected. This is an ability called "global processing," which is the hallmark of creativity.” May indicates that this finding applies equally to the business world and says, “An intelligent obstacle or constraint is one laden with creative tension, whether stated in the form of a well-defined problem ("How might we simultaneously decrease both inventory and backorders?") or a challenging goal … “
Constraints are not just catalysts for creativity but also shape planning and focus problem solving. Readers of my past articles on strategy know that I believe strongly in focusing in on the important few and deciding what to leave behind or stop doing. In his article May summed it up with, “An intelligent constraint informs creative action by outlining the "sandbox" within which people can play and guides that action not just by pointing out what to pursue but perhaps more importantly what to ignore.”
Others agree, from The Sound of One Hand Creating: Making the most of constraints, “Constraint isn’t just a tool for experimentation, however. It is frequently a necessity, the mother of focus.” And Yahoo’s Marissa Mayer writing for Businessweek in 2006 said: "Constraints shape and focus problems, and provide clear challenges to overcome as well as inspiration. But constraints must be balanced with a healthy disregard for the impossible. Too many curbs can lead to pessimism and despair.”
As always, we need to balance optimism and realism.
Fear of conflict and politeness don’t achieve results
Another aspect of strategic planning that we frequently encounter, especially when facilitating a Board driven plan - is the avoidance of engaging in debate because people fear conflict. Conflict and debate are inherent in planning, and group strength can be found in differing viewpoints, visions, goals, tactics, and problem solving styles. When I facilitate teambuilding with a group we focus on the strength of having different styles, behaviors and personalities around the table. I talk about how this diversity of styles will lead to better decision making. Here is what research shows and that I repeat each time:
“Groups with high similarity among the individual styles will reach quicker decisions, but are more likely to make errors due to inadequate representation of all perspectives. Groups with many different styles will reach decisions more slowly (and painfully because of conflict) but will reach better decisions because more perspectives are covered.”
Recent articles make the case about why arguing, debating, and dissent are actually key to making better decisions. From How Smart People Collaborate for Success,“What good is working with a bunch of smart people if they won't be honest and sharing? People need to be willing to open themselves and be challenged. Creative conflict is powerful and productive. Find innovative, fun ways to stimulate passionate debate. Reward openness and authenticity with admiration. Real groundbreaking
ideas only surface when people go all in and get vulnerable.”
From Professor Aneel Karnani in an article Strategic Controversy - Welcome the Dissent: "The 'let's all be team players' and 'let's pull together,' thinking can be a trap," Karnani says. "A vision isn't strategy. Neither is a mission statement. Strategy comes from internal debate, even dissent. Then you resolve the debate, make a decision, and take action. The best companies do that."
Karnani goes on to say, ”Of course, controversy has to be managed. The debates end at some point and a strategy is agreed upon. After that, teamwork comes into play. Other things to keep in mind when encouraging debate:
One last plug for healthy conflict producing better results, in what is accepted as the seminal book on teambuilding author Patrick Lencioni makes the case that a team without trust fears conflict. And when you fear conflict you don’t engage in unfiltered ideological debate about ideas and decisions. When debate is stifled and people don’t feel comfortable providing input, they can’t buy-in or commit to decisions. Without buy-in or commitment then no one feels accountable, or won't hold others accountable (to lame decisions). Without accountability, results are rarely achieved.
In summary: when creating a strategy you need to start by gathering the necessary data and analysis to identify your constraints. Use these constraints to shape and focus the challenges that you want the strategy and goals to solve. Then gather a group of passionate and smart people to openly explore and debate the best possible strategies, goals, and tactics. Gain commitment to the plan and have all team members hold each other accountable for results. Wish I could promise this is easy, it's not – but I guarantee it will be effective in producing a stronger strategic plan.
P.S. The day after I published this blog, this article appeared in Inc.: Making a Big Decision? Don't Wait for Everyone to Agree. Key thought, "the concept of consensus is often defined as 100-percent agreement-- unless ever.yone agrees, we don't have an actionable decision. Not only does this not need to be so (even the dictionary definition of consensus doesn't demand it), trying to obtain 100 percent agreement to every decision will bring your business's growth to a grinding halt."