To look forward, don’t beat a retreat

Defining strategy is the most important work a leadership team can do. The last place they should go to do it is a retreat.

It’s January, and wherever I look online I see so many friends’ new year’s resolutions, strategies to make 2019 a little better than 2018, perhaps. And I see many wittily launch jibes about how they don’t make resolutions (“I never keep to them anyway, so why bother?”

They’ve got a point: we create resolutions at a time of forced relaxation when most of the world has shut down. The inbox is empty (or, at least, not filling up), our families surround us physically or digitally, our thoughts of work are kept at bay, still, through a fog of champagne bubbles and hangovers and bracing twilight walks. The time in which we come up with our resolutions barely resembles any other time of year. It’s no wonder that the daily cycle rides, walks or gym visits subside when the onslaught of reality begins on January 3rd.

In March a few years ago, I had been invited by a group of different schools’ Heads to a joint retreat. It was a retreat in name, at least. In reality, it was an overcharged three-day programme of administrative meetings, mutual therapy, forced fun, eating and drinking a bit too much. I was asked to walk them through an innovation process so that they could make Great Things Happen. I was given six hours during their three precious days. One of the widely-respected Heads proclaimed:

“I don’t know why we’re looking at innovation now, at this point in the year. It’s a terrible time to be thinking about doing anything in a school.”

March is indeed a hectic time in schools. Examinations for older students are looming, the last chance for some serious cramming on the horizon (by this point, many secondary schools admit that the learning is more or less suspended). Even little ones are finalising portfolios and presentations, exhibitions and performances.

But I was perturbed. As the CEOs of their organisations, strategy should be an everyday activity. Strategy is not something for which we can afford to cherrypick a slot in our calendars, something we choose to do at certain more relaxed times of the year. Strategy is definitely not something we can demote to six hours in a forced period of ‘retreat’.

Innovation is change. Change is what strategy both predicts and provokes. Strategy is where we plan.

The strategic plan itself is rendered useless fairly quickly. “Strategy’s great until you get punched in the mouth,” says Mike Tyson. “Plans are worthless, but planning is everything,” is how Dwight Eisenhower put it. Eisenhower was actually paraphrasing what a soldier had told him, and the soldier was much more precise in what kind of plans are worthless:

“Peace-time plans are of no particular value, but peace-time planning is indispensable.”

And there it is. Peaceful time plans — new year’s resolutions, strategic planning done in the quiet months of an organisation, holiday romances — are often worthless the moment the break or retreat is over. But the process of thinking things through — the planning — is vital. Why?

Peaceful time planning is vital because it lets us go through a process slowly. Think of it like training in a technique, a technique that we should be employing every day, at faster and faster speeds, so that when we’re in the thick of it in our busier ‘real’ lives we can cope with the punches coming our way.

After a deep immersive process throughout their organisation, a Design Team of students, teachers, staff and parents work through a mass of data, perceptions and stories to design simple strategy that anyone can use.

Over the past four years, my team has been involved in more strategy work with organisations than ever before. The word of mouth that drives some of the most successful organisations in the world to us for this help is invaluable, and reveals why people are seeking something different to their usual “strategic planning retreat”:

1. One, two or three days are not enough to come up with a strategic plan. Strategic planning is about the future, but to do this well you need to build on what happens today. People need some time to dive deeply into what makes their organisation tick today, and what people’s hopes and fears for the future might be. If you’re doing it properly, this deep dive immersive experience can take up to six weeks, and should involve everyone in your community contributing their perspectives. It’s a significant communications exercise to ensure everyone knows that they have the opportunity to present, share or post their perceptions of what works well, and less well, in the organisation today.

We use a strategic planning version of our NoTosh Design Thinking process to set up effective teams who can procure, encourage and manage this massive set of contributions, and then make sense of the trends that emerge from it. This kind of inclusive, immersive process is superb for providing that ‘peacetime planning’ moment for every member of the community. Even if it’s just for five minutes in the ‘war room’ or ‘project nest’, every teacher, student, parent, employee or visitor to the school can take the time to reflect, and get their memory muscle developed for planning every day. And the tools we use to synthesis all that data turn even the most ardent moan into a positive force to drive an organisation’s ambitious ideas.

2. The strategic plan itself is worthless within weeks or months. Organisations’ needs change quicker today than they did ten years ago. A five-year strategic plan might help a leadership team feel accountable, that they’ve done their job. But continuing with it headlong, without ever changing the expectations along the way, would be foolish. I don’t know any leadership team which has actually seen through every item in a five year plan, at the exclusion of all others. Most organisations with these kinds of long-term plans have massive fatigue in their teams: initiative after initiative gets introduced as sticky plaster planning for when the original plan isn’t quite working. But no-one ever dares to ditch significant projects in a five-year plan, even when, further down the road from the point of writing the plan, they’re clearly off-target.

Instead, we invest expertise in framing a leadership team’s vision as an exciting image of the future. Individually, a leader will struggle to express a vision that doesn’t make their ass clench with slight embarrassment from being a little too much or, more likely, a bit underwhelming. But with help, it’s possible to translate a team’s individual ideas for the future of their organisation into something that is compelling and which feels like a ‘goldilocks’ vision — not too hard, not too easy, just right.

3. Most strategic plans are actually just long-term plans. They’re not strategy. Strategy should look mercifully short when laid out on a postcard. Three, four or five ‘orders’ that tell the team how to play, but which don’t lay out each and every step you expect people to take. The ideas to realise the leadership’s expression of the vision need to come from and be delivered by the people who will feel the positive impact in the end.

That level of simplicity takes a lot of effort, expertise and time. We use some of the world’s best copywriters to knock strategy into shape so that the youngest member of a team or the person with English as their third or fourth language, can all understand how they’re meant to act.

4. Good strategy is only good when we know it works. So we don’t make anything final until the leadership team have tested the strategy out with their own current big projects. Ideally, there should be some that are clearly in their last breaths, ready to be ditched because they don’t help realise the vision, and they can’t be done in a way that works with the rest of the team’s strategy. Other projects will need changed to be successful — the strategy tells the leader how they need changed. And there will be some existing projects which will move front and centre — they may take on importance they didn’t have before.

Confident organisations test strategy further. In the American School of Warsaw, they’ve been testing for eight months, and are ready now to commit to most of what they set out, with some minor changes. Other organisations just know that they’ve nailed their direction, in days, often because there was little direction before, so any direction helps people have the focus they need here and now. These teams, far from being slapdash in their approach, understand deeply how strategy is something to be revisited daily.

5. Good strategy should be revisited every day. How do you know you’re doing a good job? How do you know that what you did yesterday worked, and what you’ll continue today will realise the vision you’ve got? Success metrics should not be reduced to annual or quarterly traffic lights, percentages and Board-speak management jargon. Success of projects can be measured in so many different ways, every day. Meeting about project success every week for 30 minutes allows the average organisation 48 points of change, instead of what might be achieved with eight Board meetings. For a leadership team to meet every day for 10 minutes to talk about success, accelerates the potential to tweak and amplify success to 240 points every year.

1000 points of change over five years, or a five year plan with one process at the start to get it right? Which do you prefer? That’s a lot more opportunity to plan together, to cope with the punches to your collective jaw, to kill off ideas that aren’t working (and assure yourselves that everyone knows why). You can only do this if you’re confident that your strategy is of the people in your organisation.

6. Strategy has to be true, not a trueism. Genchi Genbutsu is the Japanese term for the kind of active observation of the organisation that we undertake in that first deep dive. A leadership cannot take itself away to a five star hotel to presuppose what might be true, and develop a strategy from that point of view. A team can’t just talk about what it sees. It’s got to look. This is Genchi Genbutsu. It literally means: get out and see for yourself. Toyota are arguably the Japanese grandmasters of this technique, led by the founder of their world-famous manufacturing system, Taiichi Ohno, and it forms part of their formal five-part strategy for working:

The best practice is to go and see the location or process where the problem exists in order to solve that problem more quickly and efficiently. To grasp problems, confirm the facts and analyse root causes.
The Toyota Production System requires a high level of management presence on the factory floor, so that if a problem exists in this area it should be first of all correctly understood before being solved.

In Jeffrey Liker’s The Toyota Way we see the notion taken beyond the factory floor. Yuji Yokoya was the chief engineer for the 2004 Toyota Sienna redesign. Yokoya had never worked on a car made for the North American market, and he felt the need to practise some Genchi Genbutsu and get out to North America to gain some sense of empathy for a North American driver, and the potential purchaser of this new car. In the end, Yokoya drove a previous model Sienna throughout all 50 American states as well as all 13 provinces and territories of Canada. He got as far as the streets of Mexico.

Why was such a costly and timely roadtrip necessary? Was this the midlife crisis of a successful engineer, or a genius move to make major changes to an otherwise successful (in the Japanese market) car?

What he learned could not have been learned from any analytical data, survey or web search. Why? Because the things he observed needed observing by a Japanese Toyota engineer to make sense — they needed that empathetic, but foreign eye, to be seen afresh. For example, he discovered that roads in Canada are very different from those in the US — they have a very high central reservation designed to deal with the never-ending snowfall of winter. He learned that the winds in Mississippi are so strong at times that, if the family-sized Sienna were not designed with this in mind, it might have flipped over with the force. The most valuable lesson was perhaps to do with a tiny, non-engineering type problem: cup holders. In his native Japan people rarely eat or drink in their vehicles, while their North American counterparts were relatively settled in the habit of eating several of their daily meals within the car, on the move.

From the many design and engineering problems he spotted, Yokoya’s team developed a new Sienna for 2004, equipped with 14 cup holders and a flip tray specifically designed for your Big Mac and fries. It was their best-selling model yet.

The notion of ‘getting out there and seeing it’ might well seem like a drawback for leadership teams looking after large institutions, or entire districts, states or countries. They might feel that they can’t afford the equivalent of a 50-state road trip to get a firsthand insight. To undertake an extensive immersion, in person, ‘out there’, might not be possible for every individual leader. But it is possible when you harness your community, communicate well, form dedicated design teams to do the work with you. Toyota explain further with a reassurance for leaders:

The nature of the phrase is less about the physical act of visiting a site but more to do with a personal understanding of the full implications of any action within an environment as a whole.

The impact of changing one’s mindset, often by applying a strong sense of empathy to how others might view a situation, is powerful. Even in a workshop type situation, normally within the air-conditioned magnolia of a plush hotel or a school meeting room with no wifi (and no connection to the outside world), the mindset change put in place by considering every actor’s feelings and potential observations of the current situation is profound.

From one workshop in a business centre in Spain looking at problems in schools 500 miles away:

‘This workshop focused on people and used real examples; the process was involving.’

From a Headteacher in England:

‘The fact that everyone can take part and feels a necessity to join in means that all views, good and bad are taken into account.’

From a team in Australia looking at a perennial challenge they hadn’t (yet) overcome:

‘We loved having the time to explore ideas, good and bad, without negativity, to see things from so many perspectives.’

Just making an effort to connect with people from other perspectives transforms our thinking about what the underlying challenges we need to address might be.

This article has elements adapted from my book, How To Come Up With Great Ideas and Actually Make Them Happen, available in paperback, Kindle and iBooks, and in Spanish.