Strategic conversations are more important than strategic planning

By Marcus Coetzee, 16 April 2018.

When was the last time you had a conversation about your organization’s strategy? A deep conversation about what it must do to fulfil its destiny? These conversations are priceless. Many social entrepreneurs find them more useful than conventional strategic-planning sessions.

The nature of the strategic conversation

My clients have found strategic conversations to provide clarity and encouragement while helping them to maintain strategic focus and clear out any recent mental baggage. These conversations helped them to make better decisions about the future of their social enterprise.

Strategic conversations should explore the things that are happening outside your organization. For example, you might explore the surrounding dynamics, relationships, risks and opportunities. These conversations should also touch on internal issues such as your organization’s capabilities, culture, design and financial position.

It’s very easy for these conversations to drift off topic and become preoccupied with operational details such as internal politics, policies, procedures, project workplans and budgets. It takes some practice to learn how to keep the conversation “strategic”, but once learnt it becomes like riding a bicycle.

The value of sacred cows

I enjoy asking questions about strong assumptions – the “sacred cows” that no one dares to question. These can easily form blind spots where you don’t see accidents coming. I’ve found a lot of value in unpacking these assumptions and bringing them to light. They frequently conceal an essential strategic shift that must occur.

My obsession with clarity of language

My clients and colleagues know that I’m obsessed with clarity of language when having strategic conversations. Hence the glossary of the terms I produced for social enterprises and non-profit organizations. I strongly believe that using clear terminology vaccinates against fuzzy thinking.

The future is no longer what it used to be

Too often an unexpected event occurs and changes everything. Perhaps it was an unexpected phone-call one afternoon, or one of your long-term donors deciding to withdraw from South Africa, or an opportunity to partner on a last-minute business proposal?

I’ve seen all types of unforeseen things happen to organizations. Hence the importance of having regular strategic conversations to maintain your state of strategic clarity.

So how often should your leadership team have these strategic conversations? I recommend a one- to two-hour conversation each month. This makes it easier to identify and react to these opportunities and threats.

I prefer for any notes emerging from these sessions to be short (e.g. 1 page) and easy to distribute.

Sometimes, official strategic documentation will need to be updated

You might have a conversation where you all decide that your organization’s official strategy must change. In these instances, it will be necessary to revisit this formal strategy document and update it accordingly. Nowadays, strategic documents are “living beings” that grow and evolve with the organization. It is much easier to manage your strategic documentation if it is kept light and easy to update. A limit of 10 pages for documents or 20 slides should suffice. Otherwise, people get lost in detail and these documents become a burden.

I’ve even encountered social entrepreneurs who use a 1-page business plan.

Entrepreneurs that enjoy technology often use collaborative tools such as Google Slides, Google Docs, Dropbox etc. to document their strategies. This makes them easier to update and track changes. This way the strategy is always in one place and you don’t need to send changes to participants.

Cultivating the regular habit

I’ve noticed that some people find strategy intimidating and believe that they are not qualified to have these conversations. But I’ve never noticed a correlation between having an MBA and making sensible strategic decisions. Some of the best strategists have learned their art on the streets.

I can think of many teams who were hesitant about having these conversations. Now they do it without thinking and feel much freer and more confident as a result.

Time to bring our conversation to a close.

It is a good habit to have a regular strategic conversation with your leadership team. Add it to your calendar, invite your colleagues, go somewhere nice for a cup of coffee, and start talking about the important things.

In pursuit of strategic clarity

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