Monday, September 12, 2011

Strategic Planning Analogy #411: Strategic Pep Rallies

Back when I was in high school, we used to hold a big pep rally for our football team. All of the students would leave their classes to go to the gymnasium and sit on the bleachers. The band would play peppy music.

There would be speeches about how wonderful the football team was. The team would come out on the gymnasium floor. The students would scream with excitement. It was a fun time of camaraderie filled with inspiring speeches and things designed to boost everyone’s emotions regarding the coming football season.

These pep rallies were done because it was felt that it built up fan support and made the team feel more confident about winning. All of this was to help increase the success of the football season.

High School football teams are not the only ones looking for success. Businesses want their strategies to succeed as well. So maybe companies should also hold pep rallies.

In a way, many companies do. Think about those annual strategy retreats. They’re a lot like pep rallies. People leave their offices to congregate together. There is lots of camaraderie and lots of inspiring speeches. People get more emotionally tied to the strategy. Enthusiasm to win is increased.

A lot of people complain about these types of strategy retreats. They think they are a waste of time because not a lot of serious strategic activity takes place. But consider this…you don’t see the football coaches doing serious planning activities at pep rallies. They aren’t sitting there at the pep rally developing their playbook. They are not designing their plan of attack against the next opponent.

I’m not even sure that such activities could even be possible with the band playing loudly and the students screaming in the background. Yet schools continue to hold pep rallies because they see value in the activity.

So maybe there is even value in a strategy retreat when strategy is not created at the event.

The principle here is that strategic success requires more than just a well thought out mission and viable plan of attack. At the end of the day, strategies have to be properly implemented by people in order to succeed. Ignore the people element, and even well thought out plans are usually doomed.

People are both rational and emotional beings. And for most of them, strategy work is layered on top of a full burden of day-to-day activities (with lots of pressure to get them accomplished). If you do not break through the clutter of the day-to-day and create enthusiasm for the plan at both a rational and emotional level, the strategy will lose the battle for attention against the day-to-day. Implementation will suffer.

Studies show that strategies typically fail due to weak implementation. Strategy retreats can help “rally the troops” around the strategy in a manner which increases the enthusiasm for the plan. This improves the level of commitment in the people and increases the likelihood of successful implementation.

Here are some suggestions about how to make the best use of a strategic retreat.

1) Don’t Try to Use Strategy Retreats to Create Strategy
As it turns out, strategy creation is a complex, time consuming process. Great strategies cannot be created over a weekend once a year. Besides, not everyone is great at strategy creation. It takes a different kind of thinking to be great at strategy creation. Therefore, trying to create strategy at a strategic retreat is a waste of time. Don’t even try.

Instead of trying to get people to “create” strategy, try to get them to “react” to strategy. As I’ve mentioned in a prior blog, most people are better at reacting to ideas than creating them. Therefore, use the retreat to deal with reactions. Find out:

a) Where the rational and emotional resistance lies among those required to implement it.
b) How the strategy can be improved.

By incorporating this feedback into the plan, you give the people a sense of having participated in creating the plan without actually having a creation session. This minimizes implementation resistance and increases emotional commitment in a very efficient manner. And efficiency is important if all you have is a weekend at your disposal.

Pep rallies don’t create strategies. Follow their lead.

2) Use Strategy Retreats to Break Through the Daily Clutter
It is difficult to get enthusiastic implementation from people who do not fully understand or comprehend what it is they are being asked to implement. Lack of comprehension can be one of the biggest enemies of implementation. Therefore, use the retreat to maximize comprehension and understanding of the strategy.

It often takes time for all the rationale and all of the nuances of a strategy to sink in. It cannot be done in little “sound bites.” Back at the office, where all the daily pressures take place (the “tyranny of the immediate”), about all the time the strategy can get is little sound bites—spoken when the audience is only half-listening. The real benefit of the retreat is that it pushes away the tyranny of the immediate, so that the ears have the time and the attention levels necessary to fully comprehend and embrace the strategy.

Use that time to fully explain why the strategy is so critical to future viability and success. Explain how the environment is forcing a need to change and why this is the best change to take. Explain the dire consequences of the status quo. Show how its importance truly eclipses the day to day. Show why this strategy is worth becoming a priority in their life. Make them BELIEVE in the rightness of the strategy, both rationally and emotionally.

This is more than just lecturing. Make it come alive through demonstrations and role playing. If you let them play the part of the competition who seeks to destroy the company, they will quickly see the vulnerability of not embracing the right strategy. Show them interviews with disgruntled customers. Let them experience the competitor’s products first-hand. Appeal to all the senses—seeing, hearing, touching, experiencing.

Keep the daily pressures as far away as possible. Ban electronic devices. Prevent digressions into daily problems. Don’t let them communicate with the office. That way you have the full attention of all the senses. Then you can make the strategy truly come alive and become something more than just a clever slogan. It is then something real which can be understood, believed and embraced.

3) Use Strategy Retreats to Break Down Silos
Not only does strategy implementation require people, it requires people to cooperate. Cooperation relies on three elements:

a) A willingness for people to set aside personal agendas for the greater good.
b) A willingness to trust others and work together.
c) An understanding of how your role fits within the larger picture—what you are responsible for and how that interacts with what others are responsible for.

Strategy is not a “corporate” thing. It is an “everybody” thing. If people don’t understand how they fit into the implementation plan (and make it a priority), they cannot fulfill their part of making the implementation a success. It has to get very personal at all levels.

Strategic retreats are a good time to break down those individual silos and improve cross-departmental cooperation. After all, this may be one of the rare times when these executives get to interact with each other in a neutral environment where daily pressures don’t get in the way. It is a time to build bonds of trust.

It is a time to show how all the pieces fit together…a time to for people to see how they fit into the plan and what they need to do. Never let a strategy retreat end without people seeing how their role fits into the strategy implementation. You may never get a better opportunity.

Pep rallies break down own individual concerns and get us thinking about the entire school and the entire football team. It makes us want to do whatever we can to help the TEAM win. That sounds pretty good for businesses, too.

Although strategy retreats are not great places for strategy development, that doesn’t mean they are a waste of time. Strategy retreats are a great place for improving the rational and emotional commitment of people to the strategy. And that goes a long way towards improving strategy implementation. Use them to increase understanding, get feedback and increase cooperation.

Pep rallies are not the only time students think about football. They also go to where the games are played each week. The support follows where the action goes.

The same principle should apply to businesses. The strategy cannot be isolated to a remote location once a year. It needs to come along to where the game is being played every week. Regular interaction is needed so that people are reminded of the strategic implications of their daily decisions. I think that strategists should have an audience with senior management at least once a month in order to keep the commitment to strategic implementation strong all year long.

The retreat should just be one small piece in the larger context of influence.

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