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10 tips for how to do business strategy when you're remote

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When you start talking about strategy, many people immediately think of strategy offsites. Indeed, the strategy offsite is one of the cornerstones of many strategy processes. I've written about them before at 14 tips for running a strategy day that works. (You should consider everything in this post as being in addition to the tips in that post.)

But what do you do when you can't get everyone together? How do you do strategy when you're remote?

Here are some handy suggestions for remote strategy workshops and other ways of doing strategy remotely.

1. Use video, not just audio


Audio is fine for shorter and more transactional meetings. But for longer meetings and more complex, nuanced subjects, use video.

Video adds:
  1. Non-verbal communications from body language and facial expressions.
  2. Clearer cues as to who would like to speak and when they are finished. This helps to reduce people talking over each other. This is a common problem in audio-only conferences.
  3. More engagement.

2. Get familiar with your meeting software


There are lots of choices. The current darling is Zoom. But there are also:
Decide which one you're going to use and make sure you're familiar with the procedures for:
  1. inviting people to your meetings, and
  2. running your meetings
Anticipate that not everyone will be familiar with whatever solution you've chosen. Issue clear instructions. As the convenor, understand your ability to do things like:
  1. muting participants when they are not meant to be speaking,
  2. taking (back control) of screen sharing privileges, etc.

3. Adapt your hosting style


There are many techniques for controlling a meeting when you're physically present. The easiest and most well known of these is simply for the presenter to stand up whilst everyone else is sitting down. You can use sound cues, like a bell, to signal the end of breakout conversations in larger groups.

These techniques don't work in online meetings.

The technology may provide some alternative aids:
  • Allowing the facilitator to mute other participants while one is speaking.
  • Allowing participants to type questions using the conference tool chat facility, etc.
But you will also need to change your style of meeting chairing. Be clear upfront about how you will handle questions and participation. Offer clear breaks where you clearly welcome and actively manage comments and questions.

4. Adapt your presentation materials


A virtual meeting still needs quality inputs. These could include analysis, plans or progress updates.

In a physical environment, you might have a speaker talking to some visual aids. The audience can see both the speaker and the visual aids at the same time.

In most virtual environments, can see either the speaker or the visual aids at any one time.

So, it is important that the visual aids or even more engaging than normal. And that the speaker uses tone of voice, inflection and timing even more dynamically.

You can make visual aids more engaging using animation and videos. Animation helps to ensure that slides are not too packed with information and overwhelming. They also help to pace the delivery more effectively.

Powerpoint is probably the most common tool for visual aids. It has a number of features for animation built into it. But perhaps this is the time to switch to something even more engaging, like Prezi. See also: Five presentation apps to replace PowerPoint.

5. Get interactive


In a physical workshop, you might use a flip-chart or whiteboard to keep things interactive. You can use these to record key ideas and next steps, etc. But you won't have ready access to these in a remote environment.

Fortunately, though, presentation materials no longer need to be passive.

For example, you can build feedback loops directly into your presentations using tools like Poll Everywhere or ParticiPoll. There are many more alternatives if Powerpoint integration does not matter to you.

These allow you to
  • present a question to your audience
  • display the results live in your presentation (all without leaving Powerpoint)
  • download the results after the meeting for further analysis.
You can use interactive presentation materials in conjunction with collaboration tools (see below).

6. Adapt your workshop process


Zoom allows you to break your meeting out into working groups. This is very similar to having breakout rooms in a physical meeting. The working groups can then have separate meetings with a meeting. These smaller groups can be more engaging and ensure everyone has a chance to contribute. This is particularly important as your overall group gets larger. The results can then be collated before everyone rejoins the main meeting in plenary.

You can do this without special the functionality in Zoom, though. This may be more complex. You may have to ask your participants to dial in and out of a number of different meetings.

All of this requires more preparation (see below). Are you clear on:
  • who will be in which groups,
  • how you will get them there, and
  • how you will get them back.
It might make sense to ensure you have a well-briefed facilitator in each breakout room.

7. Consider shorter sessions


Getting everyone physically together in the same place can be expensive. So it makes sense to pack in a full day of activities when you do. Sometimes it makes sense to pack in a few days of activities.

It also makes it tempting to include other topics not directly related to your strategy process.

But when you're meeting remotely, this cost impact is different.

Do you really need a whole day? Or would you be better off splitting the meeting into different sections and running those on different days?

Holding people's attention for an extended period of time is even more difficult in an online environment than it is when you're physically present. Its harder to eliminate distractions when everyone is in their own remote environment.

Perhaps that creates an opportunity for shorter sessions, allowing people to do additional work and reflect on progress in between them. In fact, you might find that most of the real work happens outside of your meetings. The meetings then serve as punctuation marks. They ensure everyone is working at the same pace and on the same page.

We recommend remote strategy sessions of about 2 hours.

If your audience is in different time-zones, consider:
  • What times of day they are all available at the same time.
  • What times of day are most productive for your participants.

8. Make use of remote working tools


There is seemingly no end of remote working tools. You can use them:
  • within a remote workshop (synchronously), or
  • outside of the workshop setting (either synchronously or asynchronously) for preparation and processing of outputs.
If using them within a workshop, I advise:
  • Consider having one person to facilitate the workshop and another person to operate the tool. It can be difficult to do both at the same time.
  • Ensure the tool operator is very familiar with the tool.
  • Consider whether you invite your participants to work with the tool themselves, or just watch the tool operator capturing the conversation. This may depend on how technical adept your participants are.
We can divide these tools into three categories:
  1. document-based
  2. whiteboard-based
  3. purpose-build collaborative strategy tools.

Document-based collaboration tools


Google Docs paved the way with live multi-user document editing.

Microsoft Word followed suit with similar capabilities. However, you can only use them in conjunction with Microsoft Sharepoint. Powerpoint has similar features.

General-purpose collaboration whiteboards


Collaboration 'whiteboards' like Miro try to reproduce a more free-flowing whiteboard/post-it note session style online.

They're very flexible. But like document-based tools, they require you to come up with your own meeting process and output structure.

Purpose-built collaborative strategy tools


Then there are purpose-built collaborative strategy tools like StratNavApp.com. StratNavApp.com brings strategy development and execution best practice online. And its collaboration features make it ideal for remote work. Its post-it note style interface makes it simple and engaging to use.

(Disclosure: The author is the founder of StratNavApp.com.)

9. Increase preparation


Doing strategy remotely requires more preparation from the facilitator.
  • We generally have less experience of doing it.
  • We have to allow for all the additional complexities as outlined above.
But we should also demand more preparation from participants. It's even more important that participants should have pre-read and digested all materials before the meeting. Offer them an opportunity to ask clarifying questions about any pre-reading. It is much more difficult to discern if your participants are confused about the materials when you're working remotely. So try and sort out any confusion before the meeting starts.

10. Use a skilled facilitator


It's important enough to use a skilled facilitator for traditional face-to-face meetings. It's even more important when you're working remotely.


I suspect that doing strategy remotely is relatively new for all of us. I did some research on the web and found that very little has been written on the subject. I'd love to hear your experiences, suggestions and questions in the comments or by social media. And if you need some help, please don't hesitate to contact me.

Tactical versus strategic responses to Coronavirus

Photo by Polina Tankilevitch from Pexels
How we respond to Coronavirus/COVID-19 is vital. People are dying. It does not get more vital than that.

But most of our responses:

  1. treatments,
  2. quarantines and
  3. lockdowns
are tactical.

Most of the advice to businesses is also tactical. See for example: Seven key actions business can take to mitigate the effects of COVID-19

They respond to the threat as it is now.

But what are the more strategic responses to Coronavirus? And is this the right time to be considering them?

To understand the strategic implications, we need to understand:
  1. How might Coronavirus be indicative of a change in the nature of pandemics and the way they:
    • spread?
    • impact our world?
  2. How is society changing? And what impact does that have on the questions above?

The nature of pandemics


I've seen several people argue that futurists failed to predict the pandemic. That this proves that that trying to understand the future is pointless. But this is not true.

Pandemics are not new. We are all familiar with:
  1. The plague
  2. The Spanish 'flu
  3. Ebola
  4. SARS and MERS, etc.
Bill Gates talks very coherently about the dangers of epidemics in this 2015 Ted Talk. In fact, the narrative around epidemics is so well established that it has even penetrated popular culture. The 2011 film Contagion is probably the best-known example of this.

What we should be asking is:

  • Are they becoming more or less frequent?
  • More or less severe?
  • Are we getting better at detecting and neutralising them?
  • Are we more or less susceptible to their impact?
These are the things we need to understand to respond strategically.

The infographic to the right (History of Pandemics) might provide some clues to the answer to those questions.

(You can click on the infographic to zoom in.)

Within a changing society


Urbanisation brings more people into closer proximity with each other. Increases in travel diversify that contact more rapidly. Population ageing means we have larger numbers of vulnerable people.

Technology makes it easier to detect and track outbreaks.

What will be the long-term impacts on society, communities and business?

Might we see a slowing or even reversal of urbanisation?

Strategic responses


Armed with the answers to these questions:
  1. How can we make our organisations and supply changes more resilient?
  2. How can we better protect not just our workers, but also our customers and suppliers?
  3. Do we need to fundamentally assess our business models? For example, a conference organiser may be wholly reliant on bringing large numbers of people from many locations into a confined space. Should they consider diversifying into less fragile lines of business?
  4. What are the other macro-trends that will make these things more or less difficult to do?

Supply Chain Management


Supply chain management is the first strategic issue which comes to mind for most when thinking about pandemics. Perhaps more so than ever because the Coronavirus originated in China, which supplies so many of our manufacturing inputs.

And so organisations should be asking:
  1. Do we understand our whole supply chain?
  2. Have we included both suppliers of components and suppliers of computer systems and other capabilities?
  3. Do we have/need duplicate suppliers at every link in that chain?
  4. Are those duplications resilient? Or if one is impacted is the other likely to be impacted in the same way?
  5. Do we have good sense and respond systems? This will enable us to detect problems early and take appropriate actions quickly.

Remote working


One of the topics that have received quite a lot of publicity is remote working.

One of the many tactical responses to Coronavirus has been to send more workers to work from home.

This provides a good model for considering our tactical and strategic responses.

Tactically, we should ask how we can work remotely more effectively. See for example: Effective remote working tips for your business and Switching To Remote Work: 6 Things You MUST Get Right.

Strategically, many have begun to ask whether this will lead to a longer-term sustained increase in remote work. Once we've experienced the benefits of remote work, will we go back to the way things were before? Or, as Seth Godin writes, is this an opportunity for a more fundamental shift in the way we communicate?

Or perhaps once the crisis is over more powerful forces will push things back to how they were.
  • Some employees pay a premium to live closer to work. Will they pressure their colleagues to resume their arduous commutes?
  • Employers are heavily invested in office real estate. Will the continue to cram ever more people into ever smaller spaces?
  • Event organisers make their money by gathering large numbers of people together. Can they afford to stop?
  • People forced into remote work without adequate preparation may deliver poor results. Will this cause a backlash against remote work?
  • Is this outburst of enthusiasm for remote work a cry for help from the introverts among us? Will we revert to what some refer to as "the tyranny of the extroverts"?
If things don't revert to how they were before:
  • Can the providers of remote working technology keep up with the demand?
  • What will happen to all those people who support commuters? We will need to redeploy the train drivers, the staff canteen workers, and office cleaners.

B2B Marketing


B2B marketing has traditionally relied on tradeshows, conferences and site visits. These have all but dried up.

B2B companies are now turning to digital marketing in an attempt to compensate for this loss. But they are finding that they are far behind their B2C counterparts in this knowledge and capability.

Will they catch up? Will this be a boon for digital marketing agencies? What will be the long-term impact on the tradeshow and conference market be? Or will they struggle on for a while, reverting to business as usual as soon as they can?

Polution


Another topic which has received a lot of attention is the impact on pollution from economic shutdowns in China and Italy.

For example, this article in Forbes speculates that the shutdown in China saved more lives from pollution than it did from the virus.

Will this force a more fundamental rethink? Will it increase pressure for more environmentally friendly industry?

Economics versus humanity


I have seen a significant change in how people talk about economics versus humanity. In the past, people have tended towards polarised views. Either:

  1. It's all about maximising shareholder value.
    OR
  2. We should put people first.
The current crisis has taught us that these are not alternatives. We don't get to choose one or the other. They are intertwined.

Government policy is forced to find a balance between wildly diverse priorities such as:
  • the capacity for critical care within hospitals,
  • the capacity for people to self-isolate,
  • a wide range of side effects from isolation, including:
    • businesses forced to shut down and possible going bankrupt
    • job losses
    • the longer-term physical and mental health consequences of being cooped up at home for long periods of time
  • who bears all of the costs of the above, who gets compensation, how, and what are the longer-term economic implications of and on all of the above.
Our understanding of these issues has become suddenly more holistic. As has our understanding of how intractable some of the answers are in our increasingly complex and interconnected world. Critically, we are becoming increasingly aware that too much intervention too soon can be as bad as too little intervention too late.

This is throwing the social contract between government, private enterprise and individuals into stark relief. And it is changing the way people are talking about it. What will be the long-term impacts?


Preparing for the next crisis


In a period of crisis it is right that the focus is on the tactical response. But, sooner or later, we will also have to move beyond the tactical analysis into the strategic analysis. It is important that we prepare to do so. Otherwise, we risk being no better prepared if and when the next crisis arises.

I'd love to hear your thoughts in the comments below or on social media.

See also


What is strategy development and execution?

People argue about which is more important: strategy or execution. This is a false dichotomy. Both are important. In fact, each is worthless without the other.

In strategy, development and execution are opposite sides of the same coin.

What is strategy development and execution?


Strategy development is the process of deciding and agreeing what an organisation will do, when, for whom, how, and why.

Strategy execution is the process of allocating resources, changing and aligning the organisation to deliver that strategy.

The problem with strategy development without execution


The problem with strategy development without execution is fairly obvious. Without execution, your strategy will never be more than an aspiration. Nothing will change.

Unfortunately, this is exactly what happens with many strategies. The leadership develops a new strategy and announces it to the rest of the organisation and then... not much happens.

A popular remedy for this problem is to try and involve more people in developing the strategy in the first place. Whilst this can help, it is usually not enough. Sometimes, it can make matter worse. People, be they staff, customers, suppliers or others, can be great sources of insight. But someone still has to process that insight. Strategy is about making choices and tradeoffs. It should not be an attempt to give everyone what they want.

Instead, strategy execution requires rigour and discipline:
  • Communicate clearly and unequivocally. It should include not only what the strategy is, but why it is that. It is important to distinguish between when you are asking people for their input, and when you are communicating a new strategy.
  • Establish accountabilities, track and report against carefully thought out milestones, scorecards and KPIs.
  • Allocate resources. More often than not, this means re-allocating from what is now relatively less important to what is now relatively more important. Change structures and reporting lines accordingly. Terminate or redirect programmes which no longer fit.
All of this can be very uncomfortable. Strategy involves change. Many people resist change - especially where it challenges their existing power base.

The problem with strategy execution without development


The problem with strategy execution without development is more subtle.

If you haven't developed a strategy, what will you execute? Unfortunately, this does not seem to stop many organisations. The result is 'busy work'. People pursue their pet projects just because they can. Or they deploy resources to do things just because they worry that those resources will be taken away from them if they're not seen to use them.

Even more subtle is the problem of strategies which are not executable.

Some so-called strategies are little more than grand slogans, woolly ambitions or jargon-packed corporate double-speak.

When asked to execute them, staff don't know what they're actually supposed to do. What should change?

And so they play it safe. They carry on doing what they were doing before. Or they use the opportunity to pursue their pet projects.

If they are smart they will rebadge their existing work or pet projects as being central to the execution of the strategy. And because no-one can say for sure what the strategy dictates instead, it can be hard to contradict them.

To overcome these problems:

  • Make sure that your strategy articulates clear choices. It is as important to say what the strategy is not as to say what it is. You haven't really done strategy until you've decided not to do something.

  • Avoid unqualified comparative statements. As a general rule, avoid words like "best", "leading" and "world-class".

    For example, a company might say it wants to be "the worlds best widget manufacturer". That is a fine ambition. But what does it mean? What, specifically, constitutes best? How will this be achieved?

  • Describe as vividly as you can how the organisation will be different after executing the strategy than it was before.

    Focus on tangibles - changes to processes, resources, products and services - rather than intangibles. Focus on what you will do differently, rather than on what you will become by doing it. (What you will become is also important. But you won't become it unless you do something. So focus on that.)

    For example, a company might say its strategy is "to become the most trusted widget manufacturer". Again, that is a fine ambition. But what will the company do to achieve that?

  • Avoid sitting on the fence or delegating your strategy.

    For example, a company might say its strategy is to be customer-centric or to listen to its customers and what they need. Those are both noble ambitions, but they are not strategy. Strategy describes the choices you make after having listened to your customers, understood their needs, and decided what you will and won't do about them.

    The same goes for equivalent statements like "putting staff at the heart of our business".
Strategy development and execution are equally important parts of a holistic process. It is as important to develop strategies that are executable as it is to ensure that what is executed is the strategy.

14 tips for running a strategy day that works

Image by rawpixel from Pixabay
The Strategy Day has a bad reputation. But done well, it can make a valuable contribution to a broader process for developing and executing business strategy.

The Strategy Away-day, Strategy Offsite or just Strategy Day. These remain a cornerstone of many business strategy development and execution processes.

They also have a terrible reputation for being a waste of time. For indulging out-of-touch executives in their ivory towers. For producing strategies that just sit on the shelf. Until next year's strategy day comes up with the next one.

Here are 14 tips for running a strategy day that actually delivers results.

1. Don't expect to build a strategy in a day


Rome wasn't built in a day. Neither will your strategy be. But that doesn't mean you can't do meaningful work in a day.

Strategy is a process, a conversation, a way of thinking, planning and executing.

It's not an event or a deliverable. It's not annual strategy day.

But a strategy away day can be a valuable part of that conversation. Just don't assume its enough on its own.

Be clear on what you will and won't achieve on your strategy day. And be clear about how you will achieve everything else you need to achieve to develop and execute a strategy successfully.

2. Remember that it's still a meeting


A strategy day is a particular kind of meeting. But it is still a meeting. So all of the usual good practice for meetings applies.
  • Set clear objectives.
  • Set a clear agenda.
  • Communicate both up front.
  • Distribute any pre-reading, allowing plenty of time for people to actually read it.
  • Make sure the pre-reading is relevant, concise and of a very high standard.
  • Make any expectations of what you want done in advance clear with plenty of warning.
  • Think about who you actually need there. There is a perceived status attached to attending strategy away days. But who do you really need there? And who will really add value?
  • Keep to time. But be flexible if you need to be. You can't rush strategy.

3. Choose the right venue


Choosing the right venue is an important first step.

There are two objectives:
  1. Minimise distractions.

    Encourage people to turn off their mobile phones, tablets and laptops. Discourage them from 'checking into with the office' or 'popping back to their desks' during breaks. Each interruption breaks their flow. Takes them out of 'strategic thinking' mode and back to day-to-day fire-fighting mode.
  2. Allow space to think.

    Getting people to carve out a whole day to think about strategy is a good starting point. But it is difficult to think strategically when you're crammed into a stuffy windowless room. Find a venue which provides plenty of space to move around. Find a new environment that encourages creativity. Find an environment that doesn't remind them of the immediate day-to-day problems which will still be waiting for them tomorrow.
For both of these reasons, it is often best to leave the office for an offsite venue.

4. Bring people into the room

Many people aren't naturally strategic thinkers. Even those that are often live there lives in a much more tactical fire-fighting mode. So the first thing you need to do is to set them up to spend a day thinking differently.

The right venue will help (see above).

But the first agenda item is critical for setting the scene and for setting up the participants. This could be:
  1. An inspiring introductory talk.

    This could be delivered by an external speaker or by one of the participants. It should be on a topic or topics of particular relevance to the organisation at that point in time. But it should be forward-looking and expansive. It should focus on 'the art of the possible', and not on the challenges of the past. It should focus beyond the organisation - beyond the industry even - rather than on the organisation itself. It should throw up questions more than answers.
  2. An inclusive question.

    An inclusive question is a question that everyone in the room can answer, and for which there are no right or wrong answers. It should be phrased so that the answers are positive and connect people. The aim is to get people out of day-to-day problem-solving mode, and primed for thinking strategically. A good example is: What is the one thing that makes you most proud to be associated with this organisation?
  3. Set expectations.

    A more conventional opening is to ask each attendee to state their expectations of the meeting. Ask them to complete the sentence: "
    I'd be happy if by the end of today we'd ...". Record their answers on a flip chart.
  4. Name the elephant in the room.

    Whilst it is best to start the day on a positive note, sometimes you can't avoid the fact that there are one more shadows hanging over it. Perhaps the organisation has just posted a particularly poor set of results, lost a large contract, or is facing a hostile takeover. In that case, there is no point in trying to sweep them under the carpet. Allow participants to name them. To get them off their chest. Write them down on a flip chart. They are more likely to be able to move past an issue if everyone is clear that it is out in the open.

5. Understand when to be divergent and when to be convergent


Developing and executing strategy requires a combination of divergent and convergent processes.

Divergent processes involve gathering data and generating ideas. Casting the net as wide as possible. Using macro scanning and brainstorming. Imagining. Asking 'what if?' Thinking about benefits. In divergent processes, there is no such thing as a bad idea. No stone that should be left unturned.

Convergent processes involve analysis and making choices. Narrowing things down. Focusing and prioritising. Choosing what you will do as well as what you won't do. Planning. Considering feasibility and costs.

But as much as developing and executing strategy requires you to alternate between the two, it is important never to mix them.

We've probably all heard that you should never evaluate the ideas generated during a brainstorming session. This is because brainstorming is a divergent process, and evaluating is a convergent process.

So decide if the purpose of your strategy day is divergence or convergence, and design the day accordingly. If you must do both on the same day, aim for divergence before lunch and convergence after lunch.

See also: Alternating between divergent and convergent processes.

6. Work on the business, not in the business


Your strategy day is an opportunity to talk about the bigger picture. About the shape of the business. Which markets should it be in? How should it compete in those markets? What should it look like in 10 years time?

It is not an opportunity to dive into the operational minutae of your existing business. To identify and fight fires.

Those things are important, of course. But indulging in them on your strategy away day will take people out of strategic thinking mode and into operational mode. And more often, those issues are better delegated to other people.

7. Make visible notes as you go


Obviously, you want to remember all the good stuff that people talked about.

But if people see the notes, it makes it easier for them to feel heard and then to progress to the next thought without worrying that their great insight will be lost.

There are a number of different ways of achieving this:

  • Flip charts,
  • PostIt notes on a board,
  • On-screen capture.
Remember that the note-taker wields enormous power in the room. How you capture the notes makes a big difference. Who's words do you use? What do you leave out? What do you include? So choose that person wisely. I've seen many a session all but destroyed because note-taking was delegated to a junior person who did not really understand the nuances of what was being discussed.

Sometimes it makes sense to let delegates take then pen and draw what they're describing for themselves. That should be encouraged. Not just because it allows people to share their thoughts more clearly. But also because it creates a sense of movement and energy in the room.

On-screen capture has the advantage of making it easy to distribute exactly what was captured immediately after the event. There will be plenty of opportunities to refine and develop the output later. It's usually hugely valuable to get out an accurate record of what was actually discussed as soon as possible.

8. Be clear on the actions


You don't want your strategy day to be nothing more than a talking shop. So make sure you draw out clear actions. Actions don't need to be strategic decisions themselves. An action can be to:
  • gather more data,
  • consult with more people, or
  • work up some options,
  • to stop doing something, etc.

Use (simple) templates to send everyone out of the room to continue working but in alignment. And be clear how and when you will follow up.


9. Plan a post-event communication



If you take any number of senior decision-makers out of your business for a day, people will notice.

And they will start to speculate. And talk. Especially if the company is facing difficulties or uncertainties. If not handled well, that can further erode trust and alignment.

These days, it is quite common to share diaries. Either generally, or with subordinates or support staff. So it is worth thinking about how your strategy day appears in peoples diaries. This is part of the communication.

Then, plan a general communication with a few days of the meeting. You may not be able to talk about exactly what was discussed. But there is always an opportunity to say something positive.

10. Where is the data?


Strategy should be an evidence-based process. All-day workshops don't always lend themselves to that.

Consider what data you need before the workshop. Do you want to distribute it ahead of time? Or do you want someone to present it on the day?

Record actions to gather and distribute data after the workshop. Make sure they are assigned to the right people. One technique is to do a round at the end of the workshop. Ask everyone what, after the day, they most wish they knew now.

Predistributed data is better for convergent processes. Divergent processes tend to generate data needs after the workshop.

See also: Using online research to build an evidence base | StrategicCoffee

11. Use a facilitator


There are a number of reasons to get an external facilitator:

  1. Participation: Using a facilitator means that everyone else gets to participate fully. Let the facilitator worry about process, time-keeping, etc.
  2. Objectivity: Using an external facilitator ensures they are objective, and have no vested interests.
  3. Skills: An experienced facilitator should have the right skills. These include facilitation skills, strategic thinking, and possibly even industry knowledge. But make sure they are a generalist so that they are not bringing any bias into the process.
  4. Cost: Hiring a facilitator may be a little bit more expensive. But it is worth it to ensure you get the most value out of taking a number of expensive senior resources out of the office for a day.

12. Don't confuse strategy with team-building


Team-building is another great reason for having an away day. A strategy away day may have some team-building benefits. But don't confuse the day.

A strategy day is all about the business. A team-building day is all about the people and the inter-personal dynamic.

Think back to the difference between working on the business, and not in the business, above. Also, you will need a different kind of facilitator with different skills for a team-building day.

13. Don't mix other issues into it


Resist the temptation to tackle other issues 'while we've got everyone in the room'.

Your strategy day is designed to get everyone thinking strategically.

Every time you do something other than strategy, it draws people back into their day to day firefighting mode and out of strategic thinking mode.

For the same reason, you should avoid letting people step in and out of the meeting. When they do, they then miss part of the conversation and thread of logic. But as importantly, their thinking pattern changes.

But be pragmatic. If disaster strikes during the day you will have to adjust. There is no point in having the perfect strategy if the business was destroyed while you were designing it!

14. Get people to move


Strategy days can be quite intense. The session immediately after lunch can be particularly challenging for many people. It isn't called the graveyard shift for nothing.

A little bit of movement reinvigorates the brain.

Sometimes it's enough just to ask people to change seats. Some people believe that simply changing seats is enough to change people's perspectives.

Another technique is to play a little game for a few minutes. A little bit of fun can enhance creativity. But try to make it a game connected to the strategy or the strategy process. Remember this is not a team-building day.

The strategy day has a bad reputation. But done well, it can make a valuable contribution to a broader process for developing and executing business strategy. And now, you know how.

It's time we stopped idolising failure in innovation

Failure, it seems, is in vogue.

We're told to "fail forward fast", "celebrate failure", give our teams "permission to fail", etc.

But have we gone too far? Have we inadvertently started idolising failure?

It is true that failure is inevitable in innovation. Just as risk is inevitable in earning investment returns.

But we should not lose sight of the fact that our ultimate objective is success rather than failure; returns rather than risk. Failure and risk are means to an end, not ends in themselves.

I recently heard of an organisation who set a KPI target that "at least 90% of innovations must fail". I think I know what they were trying to achieve. They wanted their staff to be bolder. Less incremental. And that would mean tolerating higher levels of failure.

But to actually encourage - mandate even - more failure is perverse. The obvious unintended consequence is that staff will be encouraged to sabotage perfectly good innovations!

Catchy phrases lauding failure had a purpose. That purpose was to break the mindset that failure was unacceptable. To reintroduce failure as an acceptable cost of innovation. But now I fear they have taken on a life of their own. And it is not good for business. Or for innovation.

To quote Frederic Etiemble, "a good idea doesn't have to become a dogma". (Source)

The original intent of those catchy phrases was to enable learning by doing. Its time we focused our attention back on that original purpose.

Innovation does not require failure. Innovation requires you to run experiments. Experiments don't succeed or fail. They produce results from which you can learn.

What we really want, is a more scientific approach to innovation.

In science, experiments don't fail. They either prove or disprove an hypothesis. Or they're inconclusive. Either way, we learn something.

Scientists don't just throw random chemicals into test tubes and hope something interesting happens. Research programmes are carefully planned and structured.

So how should we go about innovating in a more scientific way?
  1. Be very clear on your goals.
  2. Break those goals down into the smallest testable experiments.
  3. Start with the experiments where the greatest uncertainty exists with the greatest impact first.
  4. For each experiment set a clear hypothesis. Know (1) what data you're going to collect and (2) how you're going to collect it to confirm or disconfirm the hypothesis before you start.
  5. Make sure you have a control group. You need to know if the hypothesis was confirmed or disconfirmed because of the experiment and not because of some other factor.
  6. Experiments are not commitments. Make sure you can stop the experiment any time you want.
Words matter. Our focus on failure will lead to failure. Let's change the language. Let's focus on success. Let's focus on learning. Let's focus on a scientific approach to innovation.

We need to move the narrative from:

  • "we tried a, b and c and failed - awesome job everyone!"
    to
  • "we tried a, b, and c, and learned x, y and z." 

The successful innovators already get this. It is the unsuccessful ones, the not-yet-successful ones, who will be misled by lazy, populist slogans.

See also:

Using online research to build an evidence base

Business strategy must be evidence-based or it is just wishful thinking. (Tweet this)

But how exactly do you build an evidence base?

1. Get good at Google


You'd be amazed at how much quality data is available on the Internet. And Google is there to help you find (almost) all of it.

But using Google can be a bit like trying to drink from a fire hose. There is just too much information. And most of it is not very good. The bad an irrelevant information drowns out the useful information.

So you need to get good at using Google to sift through the dross to find those nuggets.

There are lots of good resources to help you use Google more effectively. It is definitely worth familiarising yourself with these. (Note: Not all search tips are equally useful for strategy. But I think that will be obvious enough.)

Some of the more useful tips I have found are:
  • Use quotes to specify precise words in a specific order. This can be helpful when searching for a specific quote, a proper name, or a specific report where you know the title.  
  • Put a minus sign in front of words to exclude them. For example, if you're looking for smartphone technology other than the iPhone, you could search for "smartphone -iphone".
  • Use the tabs. Click the "news" tab if you're looking for recent news stories. Click the "images" tab if you are looking for charts. This is particularly helpful as the better quality research sites will often use charts to represent their data and analysis.

Remember that most of the time you're trying to improve your search criteria to eliminate that which is not useful.

The other challenge can be to tap into the specific jargon which people use when writing about the industry you are interested in. If you've worked in that industry for a long time that's usually not a problem. But if you're an outsider or consultant, you should make a priority to master the language used.

It can be a bit hit and miss. Especially when you're starting with a new topic, line of enquiry or industry. So you have to keep trying it from different angles until you get it right.

2. Get good at scanning the results


No matter how good you get with Google, you're still going to need to process a lot of material to get the evidence you're looking for.

The first trick is to learn to recognise the reputable sources of information in the industry you're researching. Which are the quality edited journals? Which are the quality research companies? You can usually spot their URLs in the Google search results before you even click through to the page.

Then you look into the text itself. Which pages are spouting un-substantiated opinion? Which are written by lazy journalists trying to fill column inches or be the first to break a story without really understanding it? And which are providing high-quality, in-depth analysis backed by evidence and data?
"If we have data, let’s look at data. If all we have are opinions, let’s go with mine.”
- Jim Barksdale (tweet this)
Where there is data, is it of a high quality. Is it clearly described and defined? What is the sample size? Are the conclusions statistically significant?

What is the quality of the analysis? Is it clearly and logically reasoned? Does it make basic mistakes like confusing correlation and causality?

You have to kiss a lot of frogs to find a prince. When you're doing research you will have to scan and discard a lot of information. A lot of it is poor quality, repetitive, or not quite relevant to the topic you're researching. It takes time.

3. Focus on the contradictions and inconsistencies


Don't get lazy and only look for data which easily supports your views. Look for as wide a range of evidence as possible.

Data sources which contradict each other or contradict the opinions of experienced people within your business are often the most interesting.

Assuming the data sources are credible, and the experience people are indeed knowledgeable, these contradictions often lead to the best insights.

Instead of assuming that one or the other must be "wrong", dig deeper. Look for some explanation under which both can be right.

Have you found an exception to a rule? Something which is true under one set of circumstances, but not under another? Have you uncovered an implicit assumption or bias in thinking? Have you found something that used to be true but no longer is? If so, what has changed?

Such seeming contradictions and inconsistencies provide the starting point for more considered analysis, insight, and sometimes strategic breakthroughs.

4. Make excellent notes


Once you've found the evidence you're looking for, it is important to keep good notes. You need to be able to recall what you've found easily, whether its because you've got a report to produce, or because you're in a meeting and someone is asking you to back up what you're saying.

You can use a general-purpose note-taking tool, like Evernote. But general-purpose tools don't know what your notes mean. Nor do they know how they should be organised. So often, you end up searching through your notes just like how you were searching for them through Google in the first place.

Alternatively, you can use a special-purpose tool like StratNavApp.com. StratNavApp.com is specifically designed for organising evidence for business strategy. It will organise your notes for you using familiar strategy analysis models. Evidence gathered in this way typically supports PESTEL analysis, Porter's 5 Forces analysis, and the Threats and Opportunities in a SWOT. StratNavApp.com will help you to connect the evidence you gathered directly to these analyses. It will also maintain the links back to the original sources of the information.

Not only will it make it easier for you to find them again, but it will help you develop your strategy analysis as you collect your evidence.

StratNavApp.com supports this with a convenient 'clipping' tool. Once you've found a web-page of interest, simply highlight the relevant text and click the button. StratNavApp.com will pull it through into the app, categorise it and link it into your existing analysis. Follow these instructions to install the clipping tool in your browser.

StratNavApp.com also integrates with Grammarly.com. Grammarly.com will help you to ensure that your notes are clearly and accurately written.

Conclusion


Evidence is the bedrock of good strategy. Get good at finding and interpreting it. (Tweet this)

What are your top tips for researching evidence? I'd love to hear your thoughts or questions in the comments.

See also:

7 top tips for strategy analysis

Strategy analysis is the bedrock of good strategy. In this post, we look at 7 top tips for doing it well.

1. Know your tools


You can't be a mechanic without the right tools. Nor can you be a strategist without the right tools, frameworks and methodologies.

Using the right tools is the most basic requirement of strategy analysis.

You will need a wide range of tools at your disposal. You will need to know both how and when to use each one.

Remember that not all tools are useful in all circumstances. And that not all analysis yields results. Much of it will end up on the cutting room floor.

See: Essential tools for Strategy Analysis

2. Take an external perspective


Avoid being too introspective.

Companies have a tendency to tell themselves stories. Particularly about what they're good at. It's natural. They've invested time and energy into creating what they got. They want to believe they're good at it. They want to take pride in what they've done.

And if they tell themselves the same stories often enough, they start to believe they are true.

Strategy analysis requires you to look beyond those stories.

One way to do this is to take an external perspective. How do your stakeholders see your business and your market?

Your list of stakeholders should include your customers, distributors and suppliers. Anyone the business relies on to succeed. Consider existing stakeholders and target stakeholders.

Ask what your customers would see as your strengths and weaknesses - relative to your competitors. Ask how industry trends might affect your suppliers and distributors.

Read industry reports. Attend conferences. Join online forums. Get out there and talk to people.

If appropriate, get an external review of your analysis.

3. For insight, present data, facts and interpretation


Opinions are a dime a dozen.

As Jim Barksdale said:
“If we have data, let’s look at data. If all we have are opinions, let’s go with mine.” (tweet this)
Strategy analysis relies on data. Facts. Evidence.

You can ask people for their opinions. But then use those opinions to work out what data you need. Does the data confirm or disconfirm the opinions? What does that mean?

Data can come from lots of different sources. Internal sources include operational and financial reports. External sources include industry reports and primary research.

You can present data in lots of different ways. There is an art to presenting data in the manner which best reveals its meaning.

Annotate your data with insights, conclusions and interpretation. Draw the story out of it. But be careful of inferring causality when all the data shows is a correlation.

4. Embrace the ambiguity


No matter how good your data, things are seldom conclusive.

If you've asked lots of different people and drawn on lots of different data sources, it's unlikely they will be.

Expect to find contradictions and gaps.

One way to deal with ambiguity is to use scenario planning.

Even then, strategy analysis is uncertain. Part of being in business is taking risks. Sometimes you just have to take a chance. But make it an informed decision.

5. Keep repeating


Once you've completed your analysis, don't expect people to get it the first time.

Remember, you've been working on this for some time. You're familiar with the material. But your audience probably isn't. They're probably distracted by other things.

So keep repeating it. Keeping trying different ways to get your message across. Learn what works and what doesn't work. Keep repeating what works.

Don't make the mistake of moving to the next stages - articulation, planning and execution - assuming that everyone will remember the analysis. People forget - sometimes quite quickly. And then the strategy starts to drift away from the analysis. It usually reverts back to 'the way we've always done things around here.'

6. Never stop analysing


Strategy development and execution is not a linear process.

As Helmuth von Moltke the Elder said:
"No plan survives first contact with the enemy." (tweet this)
As soon as you start executing your strategy things start to change. Things don't work out quite the way you planned. Stakeholders don't respond as you'd expected. Competitors fight back.

So strategic analysis is an ongoing process. In fact, strategy is best thought of as a loop. Analysis, articulation, planning, execution and back to analysis.

See: the Strategic Learning Methodology

7. Use intuition to help you know where to start


But, where do you start? There is so much data out there it can be daunting.

That's where intuition comes in. It can be your own intuition if you have experience in this area. Or you can talk to other people with experience and ask them for their intuitions.

Use intuition to help you form hypotheses. What do you think is happening. Then start looking for data to confirm or disconfirm those hypotheses. It is important to look for both confirmation and disconfirmation. Otherwise, you could fall victim to confirmation bias. This is where you see only evidence that supports your assumptions, and don't see evidence which contradicts them.