By Roger Martin
At some point in the formulation of a strategy, its creator must review his or her work with the leader, either by choice or by procedure.
If the strategist is a CEO, the reviewer is the board (or a committee thereof). If the strategist is a business unit head, the reviewer is the CEO, and so on down the organization. Regardless of the specific players, the process looks much the same; typically, we wait, and wait, and wait until the strategy feels iron tight. Once it is ready, we go in to the meeting with a perfect slide deck and lots of points in defense of our view.
The goal is to get a big gold star for having produced a wonderful, perfect strategy. Anything less is a disappointment. The creator and the reviewer both know that this is the desired outcome — and they know that the other knows it too. Hence, the creator presents as if everything in the strategy is obviously and unassailably true. And the reviewer most of the time provides the gold star or offers minimal and easily incorporated feedback on small aspects of the strategy. He or she knows that if any criticism is levied or shortcoming pointed out, the creator will be dismayed, if not entirely disillusioned.
This approach to strategy review has the unfortunate effect of rendering the leader in the review position almost useless. If they give the gold star, they have added absolutely nothing of substance to the strategy. And, even if they offer reservations and feedback, the timing of the conversations renders those all but useless too. As W. Edwards Deming taught the production world, inspecting outputs at the end of the production line is the most ineffective way to improve quality.
If these leaders are in their positions legitimately (and if they are not you have a much bigger problem), then strategists should want to use the leader’s judgment and experience to the maximum to improve the strategy. That means going to the leader early and often. Don’t want until your strategy is so polished that you don’t want anything more than a pat on the back. Instead, construct a more productive series of interactions on strategy:
- Go early with the framing of the strategy challenge that you want to tackle. Ask your leader whether there is a different way he or she would frame the challenge that you should be working on.
- Go back with the possibilities you generate. Ask your leader whether there might be different possibilities he or she would consider or ones on your list that he/she sees as unacceptable on their face.
- Return a third time when you have reverse-engineered the possibilities to determine what you believe would have to be true and have identified which of those things that you feel are least likely to hold true. Ask the leader whether there are additional conditions that would have to hold true and about which are they most skeptical.
If you do these things, three great things will happen:
- You will get insights along the way that will shape and improve the way you are thinking about the problem at hand;
- You won’t be sent back for time-consuming and expensive rework at the end of the process;
- You will have a leader who is enthusiastic about the outcome because he or she genuinely helped to shape it.