First, we must agree on the difference between three parallel concepts and processes, namely Vision, Strategy and Business Plan. They have different goals and each of them is defined in time but are very often seen and erroneously felt to be similar and overlapping on each other in people’s minds.
A vision is long term thinking and its purpose is to forecast, or at least to dream of where the owners of a business want to see it in a certain number of years in size, performance and presence on its market. As Stephen Covey says: ‘Begin with the end in mind’. If you have this final goal in mind, you already have a vision. The final goal may today seem impossible to achieve, because you do not, right now, have the means to materialize it but it will stretch you to achieve something higher and work towards it. If in the end you fall short of your vision because of circumstances beyond your control, you will nevertheless have achieved an intermediate stage, still laudable, which you would probably not have achieved if the vision was not predetermined.
A strategy has a shorter time frame, usually three years, and it outlines the measures that must be taken in that lapse of time, for the company to progress towards its declared vision. It is a cog, defined in time, which will consolidate, modify or completely change the way in which the business was going, very often dictated by changes in its business environment or new constraints and opportunities.
It is a big name, but is just a series of measures destined to improve the business, production wise, marketing and selling wise, so that the strategy, created by thinking, planning and daring is put in action. It may mean a new way of producing, presenting, selling, giving visibility to the product (s), and communicating with the target market. It often calls for the aligning of additional financial and human resources to execute this plan, usually during the next 12-month period.
The illusion called collective strategy brainstorming
It has become common practice nowadays for companies who have financial means to assemble their senior staff and managers in a secluded place like a holiday resort for one or two days to brainstorm about and intellectually generate a strategy. In my mind, and also my experience, this leads to no concrete results as it is difficult for thirty or more persons, with different levels of skills and maturity, to give voice to their thoughts and to come to a consensus.
There is no such thing as collective business acumen. It is a business virtue of the highest rank, strictly at individual level, and which cannot be acquired collectively or even transmitted. Business acumen means seeing business opportunities at every turn, in differing circumstances and having the capacity to analyse a situation with a business perspective almost instantly, as a natural reflex, and this is a rare commodity. Business acumen means seeing an opportunity, grabbing it, and then handing it over to technicians to materialize it. The sadly common practice nowadays is to submit a business idea to a committee, and find it rejected because it represents risks. There is a famous statement which goes “If you want to kill a business idea, give it to a committee.”
Some minds are moved by concepts, some by processes, others by operations and logistics, and sadly, many, and increasingly many, by risk-aversion. They have, each of them, their own focus and priorities pertaining to their individual jobs and their minds often operate at different levels. Among these 30 persons, a majority will probably not talk, for fear of being ridiculous or for being incapable of having a holistic view of the business to venture a comment, and the rhetoric will be left to the initiative of three or four trend setters. Then, how do you reach a consensus where most participants are silent? If I wanted to be nice, I would say that silence is consent, but the people called in this meeting are supposed primarily to talk and the virtue of silence does not help.
What is the right course of action?
The most effective way to come to a strategy is to start by consultative meetings driven or chaired by the CEO, with business unit and line managers either on a one to one basis of by small groups of not more than three to four persons where interaction and dialogue are easy. Everybody has the chance to voice his feelings without being overawed by the size of the audience and dialogue is easier. One subject is discussed at a time to obtain maximum focus and avoid diversion.
Once these consultative meetings have been held with different groups of managers, the formulation of the strategy is the affair of the CEO, and only the CEO in his best judgment because he is the only one who will have to face the Board in case of failure. He will not be bailed out by any of his managers; none of them would admit that the strategy was the fruit of collective thinking. The CEO can choose to be helped in this final exercise by a restricted group of senior officials, close to him, who have experience, judgement and the ability to think global and outside the box. There is more likelihood of obtaining a consensus with this restricted group who, by virtue of their senior positions, would have acquired the required maturity to view things in their globality.
An enlarged meeting grouping all the executives can then be held for them to be apprised of the chosen strategy. Executives should be invited to give their views thereon, to challenge it and refine it. It is in the interest of the CEO to make sure that the whole team adheres to the final strategy. None of these 30 persons can then claim to have been left out of the thinking process, because they would have had the opportunity of voicing their feelings and their objections at the preliminary brainstorming and at the final enlarged meeting.
In a more practical sense, strategy is felt and lived every day in business life. The things which happen every day, like modifications in the commercial environment, changes in demand, increase in price of raw materials, change in legislation, difficulty to sell, technological advance and changes in the pattern of behavior of competitors amongst other things, should keep modulating our way of doing business. They must be addressed there and then. Besides this, they keep us thinking ahead about improvements and refinements we should bring to our business to face change.
In fact, if there is anything constant in life, it is change. If we are attentive to our business and to changes in our commercial environment, namely in demand trend and competition, the end of year exercise in strategy making will require little brain storming and should evolve naturally as a response to these changes. You cannot sit down and provoke strategic thinking. This is highly incongruous. A strategy is born and groomed in your mind as you progress, week after week, facing reality and forecasting change, rather than being forced to adapt to change. The strategies of geniuses are of a higher refinement, that of provoking change. Think of DHL express courier, digital photography, mobile phones and the legendary MINI with its ground breaking transversal engine, and you will realise that provoking change has been, for a long time, synonymous with huge success, unless it comes ahead of its time, like the supersonic Concorde commercial airliner.