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How do you solve a problem like remote working?

The great experiment


A collateral consequence of COVID-19 has been the biggest experiment in remote working in human history.

The responses have been interesting. Some people have struggled with remote working and can't wait for things to return to 'normal'. That is, to return to their offices or other places of work. Others have thrived and are openly hoping they never have to.

Remote working before COVID-19


But the reality is less either/or than that.

The movement towards flexible working has been growing for some time. For example, in the UK in 2018, of the employed population:

  • 7.2% reported working mainly from home.
  • 30% reported having worked from home sometimes.

And many people working from an office or from home spent varying amounts of time travelling to and visiting client or supplier sites.

The COVID-19 remote working experience


COVID-19 has brought this growing trend into sharp relief. Many more people have been forced to work from home. And at the same time, those trips to other sites have largely been suspended.

Many have struggled to make this transition. There are a number of reasons for this.
  • The transition was sudden and unplanned. People struggled to acquire, set up and learn to use the technology required for remote work.
  • Many processes are unsuitable for remote work. In general, organisations which had invested in digitising processes found the transition easier.
  • Parents with young children struggled to make the transition to remote working on top of the already difficult transition to remote schooling.
  • Not all homes are suitable for remote work. Conducting your video calls from a well-appointed study is one thing. Doing so from a kitchen table where your children are also trying to do their homework is quite another.
  • The change comes on top of a number of other stresses. For example, people may be concerned about the health of their friends and family. On top of their work lives, their social lives have also been disrupted.
  • Newly remote workers have complained of 'Zoom* fatigue'. That is, the sense that a day spent in video-conference meetings feels more tiring than a day in physical meetings. There are many theories about what could cause this. Some of them relate to the other issues described above rather than to the nature of the meetings themselves.
(* I have used Zoom throughout this post as a shorthand for all video-conference and other remote working solutions. I've done so based on its current popularity. The same could be said of Microsoft Teams, Skype, Google Hangouts, Slack, and a host of other similar solutions.)

Some of these struggles will be temporary. Children will return to school. Other stresses will subside. People will get used to the technology. Processes will improve.

And we know from the long-term remote workers that things like Zoom fatigue are neither permanent nor unavoidable.

We're not all the same after all


An important lesson we have learned from this process is that we are not all the same. Of course, we've always known this. But we've never experienced it as far as remote working is concerned at this scale.

We don't all respond the same way to the challenges and opportunities of remote work. If we adjust for the other impacts of COVID-19 we must conclude that whilst some people perform better in an office environment, others perform better in a more remote environment.

Those that perform better in a remote environment feel more productive, less stressed and more engaged.

But in the past, we've been too focussed on assuming everyone should have the same kind of office environment. We've not made allowances for these differences.

It is tempting to make simplistic assumptions. Such as that remote work suits introverts while in-office work suits extroverts. There may be some truth to that. But humans are complex. Some extroverts seem to be able to satisfy their need for social interaction over Zoom. Other introverts find Zoom to be a poor substitute for physical proximity. More research will be required.

Either way, more choice must be a good thing. Historically, the world has been stacked in favour of those better suited to in-office work. Those who perform better in remote working situations have been forced to:
  1. Endure the personal cost of working in an in-office environment in which they were less productive,
    or
  2. Restrict themselves to the smaller number of careers and employers where remote work has been more widely accepted.
The COVID-19 remote work experiment opens up the possibility of a better world for work. One in which more people can offer their best regardless of their predisposition for in-office or remote working.

The best of both worlds


To exploit this choice we need to stop thinking of office work 'as it was' versus remote work 'as it was'. We need to build new work practices which combine and improve on the best of both.

For example, we've been able to roll out video conferencing to people working from their homes. We need to provide the same facilities for people returning to their offices at their desks. This may increase the bandwidth demands for office buildings. However, failing to do so will reinforce the historical artificial separations between in-office and remote workers.

The advantages of office environments are well understood. For example:
  • Serendipitous conversations around the proverbial water cooler.
  • Quick conversations as you pass each other in the corridor.
  • Greater awareness of peoples' dispositions. When it's OK to interrupt them and when it's better to wait.
  • The creation of social bonds with people even when you're not formally meeting with them.
  • Those shared cups of coffee or drinks after work.
  • Increased non-verbal communications through body language.
  • The role of the commute as a buffer zone between work and home life.

However, there are equally many benefits of remote working. For example:
  • Fewer interruptions.
  • Better work-life-balance as a result of less time spent commuting.
  • Less time and money wasted by travelling between meetings.
  • The ability to hire the best person for the job; not just the best person for the job who just happens to live near your office or is willing to relocate.
  • Greater opportunities for people with certain types of disabilities.
  • A reduced environmental footprint.
We should not simply trade off one set of advantages against the other. We should look for new and innovative practices which deliver different combinations of both. And we should think of remote and in-office work as existing on a continuum, rather than as alternatives.

A chance to fix some long-standing problems


In my experience, most organisation recognise that they have a 'toxic' meeting culture. That typically translates to some or all of:

  • Too many meetings.
  • Poorly structured or absent agendas.
  • Inadequate preparation.
  • Too many and/or the wrong attendees.
  • Poorly chaired meetings.
  • Meetings dominated by the most senior and/or loudest voices rather than those best able to contribute.
  • No clear outcomes.

'Board effectiveness reviews' have improved the meetings at the tops of some organisations. But these improvements have not permeated most organisations.

Simply moving existing bad meeting practices onto Zoom was doomed to failure. We need new approaches. Some interesting ideas have been put forward:


We need to explore, adopt and adapt these to the new, more flexible organisations we create.

Reframing the question


Instead of asking

  • Should we return to the office or stay at home once restrictions are lifted?
we should rather be asking
  • What have we learned about our operations and working practices during this crisis?
  • How do we move forward in more effective and resilient ways?
The answers to these questions may be different for each organisation. But they will have far-reaching consequences.

I've heard many people say "I wouldn't want to be in commercial real estate right now". Will future organisations still want as many flagship head-offices in prestigious locations? Will those that do still want them to house as many of their workers?

We can start to imagine a world in which:
  • more people work from home some or all of the time;
  • those who want or need to go to an office work from shared regional hubs closer to where they live;
  • hot-desking becomes more prevalent as location becomes more fluid;
  • businesses with high-street presences revitalise those by letting them double up as remote work locations. (I understand banks are looking at this as an option for the flagging branch networks.)
Transportation and hospitality will likewise be impacted if business travel declines. This could be because there is less need for business travel and because the current pandemic has made people more afraid to do so. And a range of other businesses, such as inner-city sandwich shops, will be impacted.

But for most organisations, the opportunities for change will far outweigh the challenges in terms of:
  • improved effectiveness,
  • improved resilience,
  • reduced costs, and
  • increased diversity.

Opportunity amidst disaster


The COVID-19 pandemic has been a human tragedy. The cost in human lives and the impact on families and frontline workers have been immense.

But the second-order disruption creates an opportunity to build a better world. For how we work as well as in other spheres of life. Let's seize that opportunity with both hands.

Should business strategists have foreseen COVID-19?

The answer is: Yes.

But the aim of this article is not to lament what we should have done. Nor is it to crow about what we did do. Instead, it is to consider what we should do going forward.

One of the roles of strategy is to help businesses to be successful into the future. And we must do so for whatever the future brings. When something like COVID-19 comes along, we can't simply excuse ourselves for not having prepared for that future.

Now, I am not suggesting that any business strategist should have predicted exactly what happened.

For example:
  • that a virus would emerge from Wuhan in late 2019/early 2020,
  • that it would evolve into a pandemic and shut large parts of the world down,
  • that it would overburden most countries healthcare systems, and
  • that government would respond by locking their populations and economies down.

What could we have foreseen?


But there are many aspects of COVID-19 which were easy to foresee. These include, for example:
  • a pandemic,
  • a global economic downturn,
  • the failure of stretched and global supply chains, and
  • remote working.

These are things we've talked about in the past at length. We've even experienced these before. Perhaps not in our own lifetimes. And of course, each time they happen they're different.

We've had pandemics in the past. (You can click on the chart to the right to see it in more detail.) This 2015 Ted Talk by Bill Gates is one of many warnings of what future pandemics might be like. And we've long been aware of emerging strains on our health care systems posed by things like:
  • population ageing and
  • antibiotic-resistant diseases.

Likewise, we've had global economic downturns in the past. Arguable, as recently as 2008. Some argue that this one will be deeper and longer than any we've encountered to date. But even so. that possibility is not hard to imagine.

We've been worried about the impact of globalisation. Be that on the distribution of wealth or on the environment. We've also worried about possible disruptions to stretched global supply chains. Even if that concern was more fueled by concerns over a trade war between the US and China than by concerns of a pandemic.

And we've been debating the pros and cons of flexible and remote working for years. Until now, the status quo has conspired against them. However, in London, for example, the Olympics (see here), as well as numerous train strikes, have offered regular glimpses of the need for greater flexibility.

Our job as strategists is not to be experts in all of these fields. But we should be aware enough of the possibilities to help our organisations to understand and prepare for the specific consequences they might bring.

What should we do?


There are three steps to be prepared:
  1. Be aware.

    The first step is to be aware. If we're not watching those Ted Talks, studying that macro-analysis or reading those risk reports then we won't know what's out there.

  2. Consider the impacts.

    Then we need to consider the impacts these things might have on our businesses. Each business is unique. And the so the impacts on each business will be different.

    Consider, for example, how different the impacts of COVID-19 have been on hotels, airlines, restaurants and the highstreet, contrasted against the impacts on firms like Amazon, Ocado and Zoom.

  3. Integrate this analysis into our planning and execution processes.

    If our planning processes amount to simple extrapolations of last year's budget into next year's budget. COVID-19 highlights the significant uncertainties we face. And this underpins the importance of integrating scenario-based analysis and planning. (See: Scenario Planning for Business Strategy).

    Once the planning is complete, the results need to be built into your execution processes. Early warning systems need to be put in place. Responses need to be rehearsed. Capacity for rapid change needs to be built.

What are the challenges?


Typical short-comings I have encountered in trying to achieve this include:
  1. Fatalism: Decision-makers conclude they can't predict or avoid crises. They call them 'black swans' and place them outside the bounds of normal logic. As a result, they can't or don't know how to prepare for them. Ultimately, they conclude that they're better off just ignoring the possibility.

    It's true that you might not be able to guarantee that the Titanic would be unsinkable. But you could make sure she carried enough life-boats.

  2. Theorism: Decision-makers engage in the analysis. But this fails to progress beyond being an "interesting exercise". Once it is complete, everyone goes back to their desks and carries on as before.

    The only thing worse than facing a crisis with your head buried in the sand is facing it with your eyes wide open and in the full knowledge that you failed to prepare.

  3. Optimism Bias: This is the expectations that whilst bad things do happen, they won't happen to me. The best time to repair your roof is when the sun is shining. But that's also the time when the need to do so seems less pressing.

    When times are good, we fail to prepare for when they are not. And by the time they are not, it is often too late. Running cash reserves and building redundancy into your processes and supply chain seems like an unnecessary waste during the boom years.

We don't know how and when the COVID-19 crisis will end. So far, most businesses have been very reactive. Just trying to survive. But sooner or later* businesses need to start looking forward and preparing to succeed in the future. Whatever that may be.

*I would strongly suggest sooner.

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

Photo by www.ccPixs.com
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

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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: