Today we’ll cover an approach I’ve used for running strategy workshops. First, we must discuss what definition of “strategy” I have in view. Second, we’ll go through the 8 steps of the workshop itself.
In his book, Good Strategy/Bad Strategy, author Richard Rumelt argues that organizations tend to confuse strategy with goals. As Roger L. Martin argues in his HBR article, “The Execution Trap,” this is a mistake. Strategy is not an intellectual exercise removed from action.
Following Rumelt, strategy proper is about identifying obstacles to stated goals and coordinating action against them. Strategy is the needed layers connecting tactics to goals, feature roadmaps to objectives.
How are we to coordinate such action and create these layers? And how should we do this while keeping top of mind that the real focus is overcoming emerging obstacles? (Think “swarming.”) Here let us turn to J. C. Wylie’s classic, Military Strategy, where he highlights the difference between “cumulative” and “sequential” strategy. Project plans tend to be only the latter, ignoring some of the best thinking on strategy. As Finkelstein et al. stress in Think Again, we should move away from traditional “one-plan-at-a-time” thinking.
A nice take on this is Teresa Torres’ concept of “opportunity trees.” She grounds the model in Chip and Dan Heath’s idea of “multitracking,” from their book, Decisive. To “multitrack” is to break out of considering options in isolation. (They cite the research of Paul Nutt, who found that executive decision making is dramatically improved by getting them to compare at least three options at a time.) The Heaths nicely summarize their points with the acronym “WRAP.”
For strategic multitracking to be effective we must generate counter-narratives to break out of our current frame. This helps us switch to more of a within-subjects view of the situation, similar to scenario planning. To multitrack is to ensure each decision contains multiple alternative ideas. This can be followed with what I call “multileveraging,” which is to amplify what can be achieved with any resulting output (or proverbially, to kill as many birds with each stone as possible).
In The Art of Problem Solving, Russell Ackoff argues that by making a goal an explicit ideal to proactively approach, we increase the likelihood of combining multiple issues into an interrelated system. We make it easier to consider other options and possible unintended consequences. In other words, we make it easier to multitrack.
Now for the details. In recent work I have used a combination of the “VMOST” acronym, which stands for “vision, mission, objectives, strategy, and tactics,” and the North Star Framework, which I was introduced to by John Cutler. To build it all out I like to use techniques I learned from Christina Wodtke and Kate Rutter.
This results in a process that gels well with organizations already using MBOs or OKRs, while simultaneously shepherding them toward the use of outcome-based roadmaps. What I personally end up with isn’t so much “VMOST” but “VIMS,” standing for “vision (and possibly mission), inputs, measures, and strategy” (with tactics being below this). (Image below adapted from Pichler’s book, Strategize.)
The Strategy Workshop
Start with vision and mission. The mission statement says why the org exists. It states what business and market the organization is in. What do they do, for whom, and how? The vision, on the other hand, is future-oriented. It says where the organization aspires to go based on the mission.
If the org you’re working with has a mission they’re open to improving, focus there first. Do they still like their stated mission? Does it still resonate? How might they improve it? Capture suggestions and facilitate a conversation. Some orgs won’t have a mission statement and that’s fine. You’ll probably focus more on the vision anyway. It best embodies Ackoff’s notion of an “ideal”—the highest-level goal currently being pursued. As Roman Pichler stresses in Strategize, the vision should be big, shared, inspiring, and concise. (In the North Star Framework, the vision is synonymous with the “North Star.”)
Moving on to objectives, you will find that many orgs not only already have them, but have far too many of them. As Andy Grove stresses in High Output Management, you shouldn’t want more than several (3 or 4) objectives with no more than 3 measures tied to each. If using the North Star Framework (shown above right), these can then be the “inputs” to the vision statement (which may itself also have 3 measures tied directly to it). To build all this out, try the following sequence of exercises.
1. Freelist Objectives
Start by gathering existing objectives. If there are different groups or verticals within the organization, then they may each have their own objectives. Capture them all, writing one per sticky note (or virtual sticky). Have the group review them, then have them freelist objectives they feel are missing, focusing on quantity not quality.
If this is a virtual workshop, then it might be better to assign this exercise as prework via email. When completed, don’t be surprised if you have 100 objectives or goals. Place each on its own virtual sticky of the same color and size. (You’ll create these based on the responses to the emailed homework.) If the org doesn’t have objectives already, then follow a discussion of their vision with freelisting what objectives they feel are most important for making progress toward it.
1. Affinitize Objectives
The next step is for participants to “affinitize” or cluster like objectives. If you are doing this virtually and participants cannot drag and drop the shapes (virtual stickies) themselves, you can always just use PowerPoint, share your screen, and have participants state which objectives they feel go together. Debate about which objectives belong in the same category and why is good, but most other conversation at this point is a distraction.
3. Identify Buckets
Each cluster is a “bucket” of like objectives. What do the objectives in each bucket have in common? What is their overarching theme? It’s helpful to switch colors here. If the objectives are yellow squares, then perhaps use blue rectangles to label each bucket…and voilà! You just had the group perform a magic trick of sorts. You had them zoom out past early opinions, fill perceived gaps, and surface the higher-level objectives they were really going after. That’s right—the blue labels are now the objectives.
4. Select Inputs
This may have cut the number of objectives from about 100 to about 8…but that’s still too many. Consider, if there will be up to 3 measures per, and if there are 8 objectives, that could still be 24 measures! In this step you will facilitate the group selecting 3 or 4 of the buckets as the inputs to the vision statement (getting the total number of measures down to 9 to 12).
You can use discussion and stack ranking, dot voting, or whatever technique you prefer. Which inputs are the most aligned with the agreed vision or North Star? Which will create the most value for customers and the company? Which are most directly tied to customer needs and expectations? Which should be the org’s strategic priorities? This achieves a couple important things.
First, as Michael Boricki of Firms Consulting states, the main objective of any strategy workshop is to force participants to reduce scope. This can be like a junk removal service coming to a hoarder’s house, only it’s a hodgepodge of old goals being cleaned up and organized. Second, even if the org only had 20 objectives to start with, you didn’t just reduce the scope, you also tapped the group’s collective knowledge to surface what they really think they should prioritize after first aligning on a crisp vision statement.
5. Distill Measures
Now that you have an agreed vision statement and 3 or 4 objectives (or inputs, goals, or buckets—pick your fav term), what measures would be the best needles to move? The group can now revisit the yellow squares and surface the most important ideas to convert into metrics. They may even create new and improved ones based on the clarity gained from the preceding exercises (which might be preferable). You can also have groups tie the 3 most important measures to the vision statement itself, making it more concrete and actionable. The overall flow for Steps 1 through 5 can be visualized thus:
6. Freelist Outcomes
In this step you’ll probably need to discuss a couple terms. Here is what I mean by them: What our work directly creates is “output,” not outcomes. “Outcomes” are the real-world consequences of the output created. Thus, whatever the output, whether a policy change, redesigned workflow, or new software, how is the world meaningfully different as a result? If it’s not, then moving on to the next thing turns what could have been valuable learning into waste.
Charles Chandler gives a nice example. Say you want to increase water availability in part of Africa. Your output is the creation of new pumps. You have the pumps built and, unbeknownst to you, the water tastes so bad that no one uses them. So, was the outcome achieved? Of course not. Remember Rumelt’s point: Orgs tend to focus on goals and tactics and eschew strategy. Having strategic objectives is not the same thing as strategy, which is more about coordinating action against emerging obstacles.
This requires breaking objectives (which are essentially just bigger, longer-term goals) down into smaller, nearer-term goals and exploring multiple ways objectives can be advanced. Here, have participants take one of the objectives and freelist or ideate ways the world would need to be different in order for that objective to be achieved, in order for the measures tied to that objective to be significantly impacted. This will help surface obstacles to the larger objective.
This will require some facilitation. People will tend to dive into solutioning here, into tactics. That’s not what this step is about. If someone says they need to build some dashboard, how would the existence of that dashboard hopefully change the world? Perhaps it is meant to do away with the need to prep for and hold a meeting that regularly gets called. If so, then that is the outcome, not the dashboard itself. Calling this out will allow folks to probe for the underlying causes for the meeting and explore alternative ways of addressing them. (Multitracking, remember?)
(By the way, it bears mentioning that none of these are new concepts. The output-outcome distinction and multitracking are highly similar, for example, to the work of Edward de Bono in the 60s, as well as to the value analysis techniques that Lawrence Delos Miles developed during WWII. There the focus is identifying the intended function of a thing and exploring what else might be more available that could also accomplish this underlying function.)
7. Dots and Checks
This optional exercise can be helpful when participants have a lot of outcomes to consider. Here, everyone gets 3 dots and 3 checkmarks as votes. This can be sent as homework with the outcomes written out and the dots and checkmarks included off to the side of the slide. Participants then dot-vote and check-vote by dragging and dropping the icons. For the dots, participants are voting on the outcomes they think will create the most value if achieved. For checkmarks, they’re voting on how likely they think it is the outcome in question will be achieved.
This isn’t done to automatically prioritize what to go after but to better sort and make sense of what can otherwise be a daunting jumble of ideas. After tallying the dots and checks, you can then map the outcomes on a graph with value shown on the Y axis and uncertainty on the X. Most of the outcomes will likely land on the lower half of the graph, with a small minority clearly separated from the rest in terms of value. You can then think of the graph as a 2 x 2 matrix:
The few outcomes that emerge at the top left of the graph are the ones the group collectively sees as both high value and low uncertainty. These are good candidates for prioritization. Conversely, the ones at the bottom right are viewed as low value and high uncertainty. Pass on those. Top right is high value viewed as harder to pull off. It might be worth doing some research there, digging into what made people think the uncertainty was so high.
The bottom left is interesting. These may have been viewed as relatively low value in the grand scheme of things, but some of them could be quick wins with high value relative to the size of the undertaking. It can help to think here in terms of two questions. For this quadrant, “Is this low-hanging fruit?” and “Are there bigger fish to fry?” We don’t want to go after something just because it’s low-hanging fruit, after all. Ideally, we’re looking for those elusive “low-hanging big fish,” or, to paraphrase Joshua Arnold, the “tiny big wins.”
8. Map It Out
Here is the last step. Congrats. By now your group or organization has an agreed vision statement with several prioritized inputs, each with several measures associated with them. They also now have a list of prioritized outcomes aimed at moving the needles on those measures. Mapping this out doesn’t need to be complicated. Just pick a format you like. Here is one I’ve used before:
Here is another format I like, which I believe I got from Mike Burrows:
And…here is one from John Cutler:
Any of these can be mapped out by groups or teams in the organization. Showing them all together then can make for an “org obeya.”
Putting everything together here, the organization would have something akin to what is shown below. The vision statement, or “North Star,” is something to navigate by, even if not ever really achieved. Sailors, after all, don’t actually arrive at the North Star!
The vision helps with goal setting. Big goals, the objectives or inputs, are how the org decides to move toward the vision. The measures are the needles they think will show progress toward getting there.
The outcomes are nearer-term goals that should focus on 1) the obstacles perceived in the way of moving the needles tied to prioritized objectives and 2) what behavior needs to change (and how) in order to remove those obstacles.
For whatever reason, the outcomes are usually the most difficult part of all of this. Perhaps that’s to be expected. After all, if Rumelt is correct and goals and tactics are what we’re used to focusing on, then perhaps it makes sense that people will want to focus on what they’re used to.
Here you might need to gently remind people that big, audacious objectives are great—but they’re goals, not strategy. And great big solutions that tend to get all the funding are really big bets—they’re tactics, not strategy. Again, strategy proper is about the layers connecting the two. It’s both bottom-up and top-down. It’s the simultaneous identification of obstacles that emerge as we see what’s happening and the ongoing coordination of tactics against them, in real time.
This point makes clear that tactics cannot all be planned out in advance. As Sun Tzu argues in The Art of War, orders should not be given ignorant of emerging ground conditions. Traditional project planning oddly ignores this. It’s like trying to plan out all the moves in a game of chess in the opening game!
And so, if people don’t like the term “outcomes,” then call them “challenges” or “targets” or “plorps” (doesn’t matter!)…but don’t throw the concept out. This layer is the main value of the exercise. If you cave and let participants skip this part, then they are largely just focusing on goals and tactics gain. There is still value, of course, in aligning an org on a crisp vision, cleaning up its goals and prioritizing a small, clean set of objectives and measures, but there is even more value in moving the org to an outcome-based roadmap. Hold their feet to the fire!
If you have questions, feel free to message me.