Democratizing Strategy

The strategy process is being democratized. More and more management teams are opening the strategy process for broader organizational involvement and input.

It’s a positive trend that alleviates real deficiencies in the old top-down paradigm. First, you increase the odds of getting insights about customers, competitors and the inner workings of your company that are normally filtered out through the command chain. Second, being part of the strategy process creates a more meaningful and engaging workplace for employees. Third, the coordination and alignment that arises out of a well-orchestrated process creates a strong foundation for strategy execution. Finally, it’s a smart way of weaving a capability for strategic thinking and problem solving deeper into the company fabric.

But of course it’s not the-end-all-be-all solution. Here are three traps you should consider and steer clear of on your next strategy journey.

Trap #1: Not setting realistic expectations

Opening up the strategy process for broader involvement can convey a subtle sense of harmony and equality. Being heard beats being ignored, but it doesn’t mean that everyone gets a say in making the final choices. Reality is that good strategy is centrally imposed order upon a system. This is necessary because although the strategic danger may be clear and present, no one voluntarily puts themselves out of power or out of a job. Without centralized authority to impose direction, structure and priorities, we end up optimizing locally and short-term instead of globally and long-term.

Therefore, set the appropriate expectations from the get-go. Otherwise, even a great process may end up disappointing your organization.

Trap #2: Loosing the signal in the noise

Involving more voices in the strategy process will hopefully uncover new insights, but it inevitably reduces the signal-to-noise ratio. Opening up the process and tending to the resulting hunger for meetings and workshops, feedback and updates can rob management of time to…you guessed it…work on strategy. And in the process of satisfying the expectations of your organization, the very data points, new ideas and contrarian opinions you were looking for to test the consensus view may end up drowning in the noise.

Therefore, design your strategy process to capture the maximum variety of input with the minimum number of sources and engagement points. Trust us, even so there will be more involvement than ever.

Trap #3: Turning strategy into theater

If you ignored the first two traps there is a high risk that you’ll end up in the third: strategy theater. What’s strategy theater? Quick definition: a strategy process that is more concerned with creating a good employee experience than with engaging in the difficult work of finding and committing to a way forward. Here are five tell-tale signs of a strategy process turning into theater: (1) A lack of a clear and overriding diagnosis that outlines what we are solving for. (2) Broad but skin deep employee involvement through “yellow sticker workshops” without a clear purpose beyond involvement. (3) Group harmony and anecdotal evidence taking precedence over critical thinking and analysis. (4) Surface level trade-offs symbolizing strategy choices, but actually avoiding them. (5) Too much time spent crafting seductive narratives or 200 page PowerPoints to numb the critical faculties of the board.

Steer clear of these three traps and your odds of crafting a good strategy improves a lot.