Sunday, August 5, 2007

Strategy Without Powerpoint

I know of a college where the student newspaper would not put out a regular issue on April Fools Day. Instead, they would put out a phony paper making a satire of the regular paper.

One year, the lead story in the satirical April Fool’s edition focused on a supposed plan to tear down one of the newest and most prestigious buildings on campus (something they would never consider in reality). Next to the article was a large photo with the caption: ARTIST’S CONCEPTION OF WHAT THE CAMPUS WOULD LOOK LIKE WITHOUT THE BUILDING.

So what did the photo look like? It was a photo of the campus just as it always was. The building in question was still there, as prominent as ever, in the center of the photo. The only difference was that the “artist” had drawn a big “X” over the building. That “X” was supposed to help me visualize a campus without that building.

Businesses use a lot of presentations. Some are beautiful Powerpoint presentations, full of eye-catching photos and slick looking charts. They are often a real work of art. This can be particularly true at strategic planning meetings. In fact, I’ve been at strategic planning meetings where almost the entire meeting is a series of slick Powerpoint presentations.

The problem with these works of art is that you are at the mercy of the artist who made them. As in the story above, if the artist is bad, you get no real insight into what is going on. The “artist’s conception” of your strategy may not provide any more of a clue of what is going on than putting an “X” on a building shows you how the campus will do without the building.

Worse yet, if the artist has something to hide, he or she can use presentations to distort the truth.

The principle here is the idea of making strategic planning a dialogue rather than a monologue. If the strategic planning meeting is primarily just a presentation, then you have a monologue. The presenter (usually the head of the division whose plan you are evaluating) has nearly complete control over how the meeting goes. Almost everything is one directional—information from the presenter to the audience.

Monologues have a small, but useful purpose in strategic planning, particularly at either end of the process. However, if they constitute the majority of the process, then one could be asking for trouble.

In the very beginning, a presentation on issues relevant to strategy can be useful. This would include a compilation of the internal and external environment in which the division/brand/company competes. It becomes an efficient way to do a “data-dump” of all the information that could impact strategy formulation, concerning issues like:

a) What is the competition up to?
b) What are the key consumer trends one needs to be aware of?
c) What is expected to occur regarding industry issues, government regulation, new technology, or whatever else in the environment that could impact strategy?
d) What is going on within the company which could help or hinder particular strategic options? Where are the strengths and weaknesses?

In addition, at the end, after the strategy has been determined, presentations can be an efficient way to get all of the employees focused on the strategic task which lies ahead of them. It serves as a rallying point…a way to motivate.

However, in the middle of the process, slick presentations can be detrimental to the task at hand. There are many stakeholders in a strategy—the corporation, the division, the people who must execute or finance the vision, the strategy professionals, and so on. All need a voice in the process. This is best done through dialogue.

Think of strategy formulation as being similar to interviewing someone for a job. What would you think of an executive who brought someone in for an interview and just sat back while the prospective job applicant presented a Powerpoint of why you should hire him or her? You probably wouldn’t think much of that executive.

In job interviews, one usually doesn’t just allow the applicant to have a monologue and control the meeting. You don’t just take them at face value. Instead, you ask a lot of tough questions of the applicant to see what their made of. You build a dialogue to learn about the character of the applicant. You challenge them to see just how capable they are.

That’s how good strategy is formulated. You ask tough questions to determine if the strategy truly can stand up to the realities of the harsh marketplace. You examine the character of the ones who will have to execute the strategy, to see if they have what it takes to pull it off.

As mentioned in prior blogs, good strategic dialogue will help you create the proper position for your firm within the environment. It will help find the best way to pursue the strategy for maximum impact. And it will help you discover the tricks to optimize the productivity along the way.

There’s give and take; the throwing out of good ideas and bad. There’s the devil’s advocate. There’s the dreaming of “what ifs” and the scrutiny to see if the “ifs” can become realities.

This cannot be done via slick Powerpoint presentations. Last week, I suggested trying strategy without numbers (see “Strategy Without Numbers”). This week I’m suggesting trying to hold a strategy session where presentations are outlawed and see what happens.

Great strategies typically come out of great dialogue. Dialogue is stifled if all you have is an environment of well-rehearsed presentations. Charts and graphs and numbers have their place, but at the heart of strategy are creative ideas. These ideas are creating a new reality which does not yet exist—in reality, in graphs, or in numbers. It is a future waiting to be built. To make sure you have sound ideas, one needs the rigor which comes from the pressure-testing of active dialogue. Strategic planning professionals are useful in helping make the dialogue as productive as possible.

They say a picture is worth a thousand words. Sometimes I think we shortchange ourselves if we avoid pondering and discussing those “thousand words.” Taking the shortcut by substituting a picture may be faster, but perhaps not as useful.

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