Mary Schmidt has a good post on what to look out for when you're involved in strategic planning sessions. Here's Mary's 5 Thin-Slicing Observations re Strategic Planning: (Go read Mary to figure out what thin-slicing means.)
1. Does the facilitator use words such as “dialoging” and “consensus?” (a lot) There’s nothing wrong with either in practice . But, way too many facilitators can sing the words while being totally clueless about how to write the music.
2. Do the participants look happy to be here? Or, are they more focused on the quality and quantity of the bagels in the back of the room?
3. Is somebody besides the facilitator writing? A good session should spark creativity and ideas in all participants and they should be scribbling away.
4. Is the CEO/top manager participating? Or, is he/she off in a different strategic “top level” (and “top secret”) retreat with “senior management” and/or the board?
5. Are people anxious to speak up? Are they having difficulty letting others complete their sentence? Or, is everyone meekly and quietly following the “operating rules” with the result being a lot of dead air. You can practically see the thought balloons, “Let’s just get this over with and hit the bar.” That’s most definitely not the right kind of consensus.
This, naturally, got me thinking about strategic planning in general and consensus in particular.
"Consensus" is a double edged sword, of course. You want people to get behind the strategy - we all know it won't work if people aren't on board. But sometimes in looking for consensus, you end up with faux-sensus. Everyone gives lip service because they think it's the right or expected thing to do. Or because they're annoyed that they're not going to get their way. Or because they just want to get the planning session over with. Or because, whatever the outcome, they're just going to do what they want to do anyway.
As a result you get to toll the death knell for any strategic plan: it won't get executed.
I worked in one company where we had a market strategy that was precisely articulated and reasoned. Central to the strategy was our plan to go after companies with revenues between $100M and $1B. Everyone "seemed" to agree with the strategy. The CEO would talk about it at company meetings. It's what we said about ourselves on the web site. It's how we executed our marketing campaigns.
The big problem: sales didn't really like the idea. The sales people kept getting involved in "opportunities" (actually faux-portunities) that we had about a 1% chance of winning (there was a reason why we'd come up with the mid-market strategy to begin with). But the sales guy wanted "logo" deals to companies they'd heard of. Rather than have someone put the brakes on sales going where we were seldom successful selling, everyone seemed to fall right in. The CEO would go on calls, marketing would get sucked into working on the RFP's, etc.
The end result, neither the "official" strategy, or the sub-rosa sales strategy worked. What a mess.