Getting strategic change right: how to win support, re-organise well and be a great transformational leader!

Success today requires organisations to be strategically-flexible and effective at change.  Successful change often requires re-organisation, sometimes major transformation, and always sensitive management of people.  On these issues, three recent publications in the leadership field caught my eye.

The first is a recently published book: ‘Stragility:  Excelling at Strategic Changes’  by academics/consultants Professor Ellen Auster and Lisa Hillenbrand.  Although it lacks a full or original model on the subject, the book has attracted attention – not least, I suspect, because of its clever, one-word title – and it does contain some wise nuggets.  Its central argument is that too many leaders:  fail to update their strategies regularly enough in response to external change;  they don’t manage strategy and change in an integrated way;  they don’t manage change enough as a people-centred process;  and they tend to see change as top-management pushing action ‘down’ the organisation.

The authors urge leaders to develop four “critical” skills.  Firstly, rather than see business strategy as fixed and set for years at a time, leaders should instead follow a continual ‘sense and shift’ approach that focuses on closely monitoring what’s happening in the external world and then update/refine their organisation’s strategy in response.  Not exactly a novel view on strategy, but a welcome reminder.

Secondly, leaders should face up to, rather than ignore, the politics that inevitably exist in any change programme by building support proactively across stakeholder groups.  The authors suggest a five step process:  i) map the ‘political’ landscape;  ii) identify the key ‘influencers’ within each stakeholder group;  iii) assess influencers’ receptiveness to the planned change;  iv) mobilise influential ‘sponsors’ and ‘promoters’;  and v) engage influential ‘positive’ and ‘negative’ sceptics.  This is the best and most original part of the book (but a better explanation of these ideas was given in a previous article by Auster a few years ago – see my blog post of August 2013 here on Stratminder reviewing that article).

The third skill that leaders should develop is ‘inspire and engage’ rather than the more usual ‘tell and sell’ approach to change.  This means taking time at the start of a change project to communicate with people who are going to be affected by the change and, in particular, explaining ‘why‘ the change is needed and exciting people about a future vision based on appealing to their emotions, not just presenting facts.  It also means leaders helping people to understand, asking for their ideas and input (to develop a feeling of ownership of the change) and working through their concerns.  Where change requires a move from a current state which is settled but not stable or viable long-term, leaders need to persuade people by presenting fresh facts about the current state to show how continuing with the status quo is not acceptable/desirable.

The final skill is creating ‘change fitness’ – helping people to cope with the almost continual level of change seen in organisations nowadays by using efficient project management practices.   Tactics the authors prescribe include:  reduce the total number of change projects happening at any one time by bundling related projects together;  prioritising projects well;  and using limited-life task-forces rather than open-ended projects.  Other tactics suggested include:  make extensive use of pilots and prototypes before rolling out initiatives; ensure projects have contingency back-up plans;  ensure project plans have some early quick-wins and have frequent milestones;  and take time to look back at completed projects and learn what went well or not so well.  All good stuff, even if not new thinking.

The next, recent publication I liked on change dealt with the subject of re-organisations:  it was entitled ‘Restructure or Reconfigure?’ by strategy professors Stephanie Girod and Samina Karim in the March/April issue of HBR.  Based on research and experience looking at re-organisations over the last couple of decades, the authors propose some very useful and clear guidance on how to re-organise well.

Their starting point, though, is to distinguish between two different types of re-organisation (or ‘re-org’).  A ‘re-structuring’ involves changing the core structure around which resources and activities are grouped and co-ordinated:  companies commonly organise around function, product line, customer segment, technology platform, distribution channel, geography or perhaps a matrix combination of these.   In contrast, a ‘re-configuration’ involves adding, splitting, transferring, combining or dissolving organisational or business units without modifying an organisation’s core structure.

The goals for both types of re-org are often basically the same:  to improve operating performance, customer satisfaction or innovation.  Furthermore, the authors urge that companies need to use both types, rather than choose one or the other.  But the key is to use each at the right time, depending on the specific circumstances facing the company.

More specifically, if a company is operating in a fast-moving, quite open or turbulent marketplace, it’s best to go for regular re-configurations – involving reasonably quick, easy-to-implement, small-scale changes which can put the organisation in a better position to seize ad-hoc opportunities:  a re-structuring in this situation would be too slow and cumbersome.

However, if your market is facing a big disruption and a big shift in strategy is called for, piecemeal re-configurations are not sufficient and re-structuring should be used.  If your industry is generally quite stable and predictable, re-structuring is also more appropriate.  But don’t use restructurings too often, though, as they can cause a lot of turmoil and tension and – importantly – they usually need at least three to four years to bear fruit.  The general, overall rule should be: re-structure sparingly but be ready to re-configure more often in between restructurings (but not so often that chaos or change fatigue set in).

Both restructurings and reconfigurations work best when they are explicitly designed to build on an organisation’s competitive strengths or increase differentiation against competitors.  It’s also important to remember, of course, that with either type of re-org, when activities are re-organised, the resources needed to support them must follow.  But with a restructuring, additionally, many other aspects of the overall organisation should be changed too – and quickly – to avoid dysfunction:  these include management processes, IT systems, culture, leadership styles and people incentives/rewards.

The final, recent publication that caught my eye was an article in the HBR May 2017 issue entitled ‘What the Best Transformational Leaders Do’, written by two strategy writers/consultants S. Anthony and E. Schwartz.  They did a study of S & P and Global 500 companies and found that the leaders who achieved the most successful transformations – those involving creating new product/service offerings and business models to push into new growth markets – shared some revealing, common characteristics and a similar approach in how they led their transformation.

Such studies, of course, always need to be taken with a good pinch of salt because they involve wide, qualitative judgements, but I noted in this case the assessment was done by a combination of desk analysis of companies’ performance and then using a panel of ‘expert’ judges including luminaries like former CEO of Procter & Gamble, A.G. Lafley.  Their ‘top 10’ transforming companies included a cross-sector mix, ranging from stars like Amazon, Netflix and Microsoft to less obvious names like Danone and ThyssenKrupp.

But more interesting than such details are the general, five recommended principles and practices that the authors propose arising from the study:

The first principle is that the most successful transformational leaders tend to be individuals who are what the authors term “insider-outsiders” – that is leaders who have both some relevant, transferable experience from another sector or field as well as some knowledge/experience in their current organisation or its sector.  Furthermore, these leaders maintain an outsider/external perspective throughout the transformation journey they manage.  That perspective helps them see and explore paths to growth or improved success without being constrained by yesterday’s success formula.

The second principle is that successful transformation requires a “dual process” of two separate but simultaneous journeys:  one is developing and repositioning an organisation’s existing, core business, whilst the second involves actively investing in and nurturing the new growth business.  The classic exemplar here is Apple:  all those years ago Steve Jobbs launched a radically new type of consumer product cum content eco-system involving iPod and iTunes, but at the same time, whilst he nurtured that new growth engine, he reinvigorated the core Mackintosh business by injecting a new sense of thinking and design for what computers could be used for in the age of the internet.

The next principle is that successful transformational leaders actively use culture and values to help drive engagement amongst employees and create the best, supportive environment to favour the desired change.  For example, at Microsoft, in the first four years with Satya Nadella in charge as CEO, he converted a traditionally cautious, insular culture that involved large teams working for years on a major new version of a program into a new culture where dozens of new features and improvements were introduced every month (and no one would fully know ahead of time what they were).

Another principle is that leaders should develop and communicate a powerful story / narrative about the future.  The leader needs to present a stark but realistic assessment of why the status quo cannot continue and then build a picture of a fresh, exciting new vision of a better future and explain the path of how to get there.  Leaders should tell the story repeatedly, consistently, and persistently, telling different aspects of the same story to suit the different groups of people affected by the change.

The fifth and final principle recommended by Anthony and Schwartz is that transformational leaders should note that transformations typically need several years before their full aims are realized, so leaders should develop a long-term road-map for handling the journey and get started as soon as possible on the journey.  In this way, when likely difficulties or disruption do occur down the line, leaders will be more prepared and in a stronger position because they will have pushed forward more of the planned changes by that time and their planning well-ahead will help them deal with and move on from the disruption when they see it.

Altogether, I think the book and the two articles outlined here present a practical and valuable pot of good ideas and recommended practices to help with the leadership of strategic change.  They don’t give an exhaustive list of good practices, but they do show, in particular, that change is a complex, multi-faceted challenge that demands proactive and thoughtful management of both ‘hard ‘ aspects of change (e.g. structure) and ‘soft’ aspects e.g. people and communication.

As always, if I can be of assistance with change in your organisation, do get in touch.

Mike Owen

E:         T:  01886 881092

Copyright of Owen Morris Partnership

May 2017

Posted in Change & change management | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

What does it mean to be a good ‘strategic thinker’? And how can leaders best encourage more strategic thinking across their organisations?

How good are you at strategic thinking?  Certainly, it’s a skill referred to in most job descriptions for senior execs.  But whilst much has been written about how to do strategic planning, I am always surprised by how there is relatively little guidance (books, courses etc.) on how to ‘be strategic’.  This is despite the fact that strategic planning typically happens only once or twice a year in organisations, whilst a true strategic leader needs to act strategically almost everyday.  So, what does it mean to be strategic and what can be done to foster more strategic thinking across an organisation?

The critical need for strategic skills has been highlighted by several research studies over recent years.  For example, in 2013 the Management Research Group completed a large-scale global survey amongst 60,000 managers in 140 countries regarding their views of effective leadership and it found that a ‘strategic’ approach to leadership was considered on average 10 times more important than any other behaviours (e.g. communication).  In 2015 a study by PWC of 6,000 senior executives similarly enquired about leadership practices and attitudes and revealed that only 8% – yes 8% – of the executives could be considered as ‘strategic leaders’ or capable of leading a transformation at their company.

It seems, then, that many organisations have leaders whose primary skills are focused just on running things operationally and essentially maintaining the status quo.  But, of course, in today’s turbulent and uncertain world organisations need leaders who have the know-how, experience and confidence to tackle ‘big’ and difficult strategic challenges.

Strategic thinking is one of the key ‘executive’ skills needed today by senior leaders and, actually, in my view, it is the primary, driving skill behind all the others (thinking drives choices, which drive actions, which lead to outcomes!).  Leadership studies suggest that those other skills include several that deal with getting things done through other people, viz:  setting a vision and direction;  leadership/strategy execution;  communication and influencing skills;  team/relationship/collaborative skills;  and change management.

Two other skills are technical skills:  firstly, there is ability/knowledge in one (or ideally several) functions of business e.g. finance, marketing;  and, secondly, knowledge/skills relating to technology/IT/digital/social media.  Another skill category includes general cognitive skills (e.g. computational ability, ability to deal with ambiguity) and key personal traits (e.g. integrity, level of drive/energy, courage, ability to handle stress, ability to prioritise).  A final category – which I think is more vital than ever – is a wider, multi-sector/external outlook based on experience beyond just an executive’s current organisation (including, ideally, some international/cross-cultural experience).

Strategic thinking itself is often simply taken to mean stopping to think about an issue (or situation) carefully or perhaps with a longer-term perspective.  But actually there’s more to it:  strategic thinking means viewing an issue with a multi-perspective mindset  i.e. from a range of different angles and reaching a decision or conclusion by following a considered, systematic approach.  It’s half perspective, half process.  More specifically, but briefly, the main component skills involved in strategic thinking include:

Analytical thinking:  breaking down the issue in greater detail to see things in greater depth and discern patterns and connections between the different aspects.               –Holistic thinking:  looking at a situation with a broad lens – not narrowly – to see things ‘in the round’ and identify the whole/big picture.                                                                           –Contextual thinking:  looking at the ‘edges’ of the situation, seeking to see how it connects with related or adjoining issues/people/factors.                                         –Future/longer-term thinking:  predicting future trends / considering how the issue today may look from a future perspective, not just how it looks here and now.                     –Creative thinking:  devising novel ways to view or develop the current issue or situation.  –Intuitive thinking:  perceiving a situation by drawing on insight, experience or feelings from inside oneself.                                                                                                                     –Multi-lateral thinking:  considering how other specific groups of people (stakeholders)may view the issue.                                                                                                                     –Ethical thinking:  considering what ought to be the case – from a moral, legal or regulatory case, for example.                                                                                                                  –Evaluative thinking:  interpreting everything gathered about the issue and judging/assessing overall what are the appropriate implications/conclusions to be drawn

Of course, not all these different types of thinking need to be called upon each time – which is a relief! – but they form a ‘menu’ for a leader to choose from depending on how much time is available and how important/complex the issue is.  Use of more thinking types will result in a richer canvass of perspectives and increase the chances of a more original or appropriate decision.  However, no executive is blessed with all these skills or all possible perspectives, so often strategic thinking is best done by a group.  Many tools and techniques exist to help each area of thinking and an external facilitator can be useful too.

Often strategic thinking is linked to making a decision and this is where adopting a  systematic approach comes in.  We all know what such a thing involves, but an example of a suitable process could be the following steps:   define the issue clearly;  identify the key background goals;  define some criteria for making a decision;  develop a range of options;  collect data for each option;  analyse and appraise;  select preferred option;  get approval/buy-in; and implement.  The above types of thinking particularly kick in for defining the focal issue, developing options and analysing/appraising those options.

Being systematic with strategic thinking also particularly means trying to prevent, or at least limit, the influence of a range of potential human cognitive biases that can (quite naturally) skew and distort a person’s approach to a situation or problem – very often without the person being aware of such influence.  Examples of major biases which you’ll know of include:  confirmation bias (the tendency to interpret information in a way that does not upset existing beliefs);  ‘groupthink‘ – where everyone in a group aligns their opinions with the perceived majority view to avoid being seen as the misfit;  framing bias – assembling a number of unconnected elements falsely in order to present an appealing but false narrative;  availability bias – creating a picture of the world by paying attention only to things that most easily come to mind;  and information bias – the delusion that more information always guarantees better decisions!

Several personal traits and behaviours are very helpful for good strategic thinking.  These include, for example:  a sense of curiosity; an ability to be open-minded;  an ability to cope with partial information and uncertainty;  an ability to deal with ambiguity;  flexibility;  patience; a positive and ambitious outlook;  an ability to be sometime playful/childlike in terms of experimenting with ideas;  a readiness to be bold and challenging;  and a concern for keep broadening and developing one’s own knowledge and experiences.

It’s important to see strategic thinking as a skill-set and approach that everyone in an organisation – not just senior managers – can practice and apply to help how they do their job and improve the decisions and choices they need to make.  Being strategic is not just about business or organisational-level strategy – making high-level choices about how to compete or major operating decisions – despite what the mountains of published books on ‘strategy’ might suggest!  Leaders of organisations need middle and junior managers to be strategically-minded just as much as themselves – in order to achieve high levels of collective performance.

So, what can leaders do to foster widespread strategic thinking in their organisations?  Here is a quick list of several measures I would suggest, for example:

Communicate and promote your organisation’s vision, mission and goals strongly across the organisation:-  Individuals and departments need to understand the broader organisational strategy in order to have a context for their own plans and actions.  –Distribute responsibility down and across your organisation:-  Senior leaders should push power downward, across the organisation, empowering people at all levels to make decisions.  Doing this gives managers the opportunity – and increased confidence – to develop their strategic skills and take risks.                                                                                  –Be generous and open in distributing information across the organisation:-  One of the major prerequisites of strategic leadership is having relevant and broad business information that helps managers elevate their thinking beyond the day-to-day.  So, not only should leaders keep staff informed of what is happening internally but they need also to provide regular news and information on external things like markets, regulations, competitors, new technologies etc.                                                                                        –Provide multiple paths and opportunities in the organisation for staff to raise and test ideas (rather than insisting on a person’s line-manager’s first approve!):  For example, a  suggestions board on the staff intranet and a monthly ideas incentive scheme for staff.     –Provide extensive opportunities for managers to meet each other – to share/discuss ideas and work together on cross-functional task-groups that look at company-level issues  –Encourage managers to plan regular time slots for reflecting and local strategic thinking with their teams.  Allow meetings sometimes away from the office:  thinking is helped by having fresh surroundings.

Promote a culture that values strategic thinking –  refer to in staff job descriptions, train people how to think strategically and recognise /reward people for evidence of good thinking (rather than just reacting to events).                                                                                  –Promote a culture that values learning, performance and innovation:- this includes a well-defined and motivational ‘performance management’ system for all staff.  Ensure the culture ‘allows’ people to make mistakes.                                                                                       –Ensure Board meetings include dedicated time to discuss strategic issues and opportunities – and invite senior and middle managers to join often to contribute ideas and solutions.                                                                                                                                   –Rotate managers at intervals around different departments and functions.                 -Ensure all directors and senior/middle managers meet regularly with customers and other stakeholders  – either external visits or at open-invite meetings at the company        –Keep your organisation’s operational systems and processes flexible and agile as much as possible – if not, managers will soon lose interest in thinking of new ideas!             –Connect (high potential) managers with a ‘strategic’ mentor/coach and encourage them to mix with peers in other organisations.  Encourage perhaps some to become a trustee of a charity.

Overall, strategic thinking is not a simple skill/process and that, of course, goes a long way to explain why it is in short supply in most organisations!   Sadly, too often organisational politics, culture, poor top-leadership or inappropriate policies get in the way and serious strategic thinking and change do not happen until either there is a crisis or an outsider CEO is appointed.  Short of such a radical situation, though, of course, an external consultant/facilitator can often play a vital role in helping the organisation to gain fresh thinking and change.  At the end of the day, however, organisations need themselves to cultivate internally amongst their own ranks more strategic thinkers.

I wish you well with strategic thinking in your organisation.  If I can help, do let me know.

Mike Owen    (E:    T:  01886 881092)

Copyright of Owen Morris Strategic Partnership.  January 2017

Posted in Strategic thinking | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

How to create value for customers? A new model gives useful pointers and adds to existing insights about customer value marketing

To survive, the idea of ensuring ‘customer value’ is important for every organisation – whether you are a business or a non-profit.  Amongst many existing views and approaches on the topic, a new model caught my eye in a recent issue of HBR (Sep 2016).  Two of my clients also immediately liked it when I mentioned it last week.  It’s called the “Elements of Value” model, developed by consultants at Bain & Co (E. Almquist, J. Senior & N.Bloch).

Briefly, first, though, it’s useful to check what is meant by ‘value‘ and the related phrase ‘value proposition’, as the words often seem to be bandied about inconsistently.  In my view, ‘value’ refers to the range of potential benefits customers appreciate about a type of product/service (less costs incurred in obtaining that product).  And a ‘value proposition’ is the particular set of benefits designed by a specific provider aimed at a defined target market and presented with a distinctive appeal or approach (using appropriate branding and pricing).  In today’s competitive world, life is about designing attractive value propositions and then delivering via a suitable, cost-effective business model.

The new Bain model offers a framework to guide the search for customer value.  Based on research looking at 10,000 US consumers’ perceptions of 50 well-known US companies and then assessing the recent trading performance of those companies, the model breaks down customer value into 30 fundamental, generic parts, which it calls “elements“.  Inspired by the classic Abraham Maslow’s ‘hierarchy’ of human needs, the authors arranged these elements in a pyramid of increasing levels of impact on customers.  At the bottom are “functional” elements, such as quality and saves time;  above that are “emotional” elements like well-being and fun;  and then two further ‘higher-order’ categories.  Here’s the full list of the thirty elements:

i)Functional benefits:   reduces effort, avoids hassles, reduces cost, quality, variety, sensory appeal, informs, saves time, simplifies, makes money, reduces risk, organises, integrates, connects

ii)Emotional benefits:  wellness, therapeutic value, fun/entertainment, attractiveness, provides access, reduces anxiety, rewards me, nostalgia, design/aesthetics, badge value

iii) Life-changing:  motivation, investment for the future, affiliation/belonging, provides hope, self-actualization

iv) Social impact:  self-transcendence

The study found that companies that appeal to more elements tended to perform better (in terms of higher customer loyalty and faster revenue growth).  But they also found that the most powerful forms of value are the emotional, life-changing and social impact elements, with companies that appeal more on those types of element (particularly emotional benefits) doing better than those companies which appeal strongly just on functional benefits alone.  Furthermore, companies need to first satisfy on functional elements before they can win appeal on the other, ‘higher impact’ value categories.

Interestingly, of all the thirty, individual value elements, perceived quality was consistently found to be the top-ranking factor influencing customer satisfaction and loyalty.  Products and services must attain a certain minimum level on this front and no other elements can make up for a significant shortfall on that issue.  After quality, the most critical elements were found to depend on the industry sector.

The authors believe their model can help organisations to identify and explore better the true, underlying benefits of their products/services rather than just accept the immediate ‘on the surface’ descriptions customers might use.  For example, when someone says his bank is “convenient”, more precisely, this is likely to mean that value comes from a combination of the functional elements saves time, avoids hassle, simplifies and reduces effort.  For a professional association, the value of “networking” might be better understood as a combination of the elements connects, fun/entertainment, provides access, and affiliation/belonging.

The model can play a valuable role in helping companies to identify and explore which value elements are the most and least important for their industry and, from there, to identify how they stack up on those elements relative to competitors.  In terms of innovation, the model can guide companies in their thinking of new ways to develop, improve or differentiate their value propositions more strongly.  In particular, it prompts companies to consider opportunities to add new sources of value to offer to customers.

I like this model because it is simple and practical.  But, actually, it is just one of several approaches or perspectives that have been proposed over recent years on the topic of customer value.  To mention just a few noteable examples, briefly:

i)‘”Jobs to be done” approach:  Developed in the early 2000’s (Harvard’s C.M. Christensen et al), this urges companies to understand what customers want not (as was often the case traditionally) in terms of simply looking at their socio-demographic characteristics and direct purchase behaviour but, instead, by examining their surrounding context and, in particular, uncovering their ‘below the surface’ wider goals or ‘jobs to be achieved’.  The focus is on trying to understand what are the core, driving, benefits the customer is trying to gain or what pains/problems he/she is seeking to avoid.

ii)”Transient” competitive advantages:  Popularised by Columbia Business School Professor Rita McGrath in her book ‘The End of Competitive Advantage’, this approach argues that, given the pace of change in today’s world, traditional ‘long-term’ competitive advantages are no longer sustainable.  Instead, companies must develop the ability to rapidly and continuously address new, ad-hoc opportunities as they come across them and seek only “transient” (i.e. short-term) advantages.

iii)”Long tail” value marketing:  Originated by IT writer, Chris Anderson, this now well-known concept says that, given the extremely low marginal costs of selling on the internet, companies can profitability offer products/services which have value appeal to only tiny-volume, niche customer bases rather than only consider products which are going to be big-volume ‘hits’.

iv) “Freemium” products:  Also based on the same cost features offered by the internet, this approach from the last decade says that companies can afford to provide completely free – or for a very small charge – an initial ‘layer’ of benefits in the expectation that some customers will be attracted to go on to demand chargeable (very profitable) ‘higher value’ benefits separately available in the overall product/service offer.

v)”Minimum Viable Product”/Lean Development:   Based on the “Lean Start-Up” approach developed by Eric Ries, the idea here is to avoid the normally high degree of uncertainty, risk and slack that comes from developing a fully-formed and finished new product at first launch by, instead, launching and testing initially only a ‘basic feature’ product version and from there developing and testing progressive iterations of the product based on learning from direct customer feedback after each version.  It’s close to a concept called “design thinking” and definitely is part of the current wave of what’s called “agile” approaches to innovation and management.

vi) Service and brand experience:   This perspective argues that it is the intangible features/benefits that are most significant for any product/service offer nowadays, as opposed to any physical properties.  For service-based organisations, in particular, the stress should be on designing customer-centred service processes that run day-to-day with seamless and consistent quality across multiple touchpoints.  Equally, a company should promote a brand image based on emotional-type ideas and benefits to customers to counter the fact that physical product dimensions can be easier to copy by rivals and it can be hard to maintain a performance edge based just on periodic product innovation.

vii) Socially-based value:  This approach from the last eight years or so (e.g. “Shared value”, an article by Harvard Prof Michael Porter in the HBR Jan/Feb 2011 – see my post on this blog of May 2012 entitled ‘Think Purpose to drive your organisation forward’) urges companies to put benefits in their products/services which are useful to their wider communities and stakeholders, not just to satisfy their immediate customers and their own direct, financial interests.

There are several other perspectives too  – for example, the ‘customer big-data’ approach which stresses finding value propositions through deep analysis of customer data;  the notion of ‘social-media based value’ whereby customers show a great deal of concern about the social communities attached to a brand and what messages/ideas interactions between brand followers are revealing;  and the idea of ‘value co-creation’ where companies work closely in partnership with particular customers and/or even competitors to design and/or deliver value together.

And just one more, to finish – as, in my view, it is probably one of the biggest ‘game-changers’ in business over the next few years.  It’s how value creation will be crucially influenced by and will need to work with the ‘internet of things’ and the spread of ‘smart, connected products’.  An arresting fact, for instance, will be how companies will be able to change the functional performance or suitability of an existing product/service already provided to a customer via direct, web-based ‘re-programming’ of that same product based on direct feedback up to then from the product itself, rather than having to re-sell a whole, new product to that customer.

Altogether, then, I hope you’ll agree that, whilst the new “elements of value” model I have outlined above is a welcome, very helpful framework, it is but one of the many concepts and approaches around that touch on the subject of how to create and develop customer value.  Which reflects the key point, of course – which I make regularly in my posts – that strategy is not an exact science and much more a matter of original thinking and applied judgement!   I wish you well with strategic value creation in your own organisation!

As ever, if I can be of assistance, please do get in touch!

Mike Owen

Copyright of Owen Morris Strategic Partnership.

November 2016

Posted in strategic marketing | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Looking for a strategic planning facilitator? The key qualities and skills to look for and the benefits of an external facilitator

A skilled, external facilitator can provide heaps of value and support to an organisation’s strategic planning process.  More and more Boards and CEOs now use one.  But what benefits does such a facilitator provide and what are the key skills and characteristics that make a good strategic facilitator?

Firstly, a few pointers as to what role a strategy facilitator can serve.

At the very start, a strategic facilitator can provide expert guidance on the overall strategy process (approach, steps, timings etc.) and range of methods and techniques to use:  strategy is much more than just a single Board workshop!  He/she can help a CEO/leadership team identify and seek out the appropriate range of data, clarify particular issues that need to be dealt with, and confirm what outcomes need to be achieved.  He/she can also assist in planning how the right people will be involved/consulted (both internal and external people) and how their necessary commitment can be secured.

Most people, of course, see the value of a facilitator during strategy discussions once the process is underway.  Key benefits include making sure that everyone has an open and fair opportunity to give their views, that discussions flow and progress well, that connections or gaps between different views are raised, that a measure is reached of the strength or popularity of certain opinions, and that there are regular review and decision points that ensure the overall agenda is achieved.  After a discussion/workshop, of course, the facilitator can bring all the strands together and prepare an overall, factual write-up.

But, a strategy facilitator’s value shouldn’t end there.  Crucially, he/she should be able to work with, guide and assist the executive team in drawing out and translating outputs from strategy sessions into firmer options, evaluating possible courses of action, and then developing and defining particular strategies and plans.

Other examples of a potentially wider contribution include:  conducting consultation meetings with certain stakeholder groups or organisations;  helping individual executives or task-groups look at delegated topics in between the main strategy group meetings;  acting as ‘project manager’ for some or all of the overall strategy process;  briefing and co-ordinating other third-party professional experts needed along the process e.g. accountants, HR advisers;  facilitating supportive sessions of the executive team to help with its own effectiveness or development; and perhaps providing confidential 1:1 advice to the CEO or Board chair on delicate re-organisational issues.

So, what are the key characteristics and skills of a good strategic facilitator?  I would highlight the following:

a) Strong general management experience/qualifications: –  avoid using just a generalist HR consultant/trainer, a person who has a very narrow functional background (e.g. financial accountant or IT developer), or someone who only runs general workshops:  a strategic facilitator needs a much wider knowledge of organisations, business functions and general management/leadership.  This is because the process of strategy itself is cross-functional and broad.  Furthermore, it’s best to go for a facilitator who has worked in a range of different sectors and types/sizes of organisation, as he/she will bring a much wider perspective and be able to suggest helpful ideas and good practice from wider afield.

b) Deep knowledge of strategy and associated tools/techniques, plus the ability to advise you on the right approach to suit your organisation:-  of course, you need a facilitator who knows all about the process and tools involved in strategic management (from market appraisal to change planning) but avoid a person who only offers you a ‘fixed template’ solution or who thinks strategy can be done simply in a single half-day workshop or such like!   Every organisation is unique – not least the range of issues it faces and the type of people and culture it has – so the strategy process must be tailored to match too.  So, be sure your potential facilitator takes the time and effort to get to know you and understand your organisation and then proposes a process that feels appropriate.

c) Deep knowledge and experience in a wide range of thinking and discussion styles/tools/methods:-  A good strategy facilitator needs to have expertise in a host of different approaches and methods for handling thinking, deliberation and evaluation by groups.  In particular, he/she needs a detailed grasp of a core range of different divergent and convergent thinking methods and tools and when it is appropriate to use which.

d) Deep knowledge of personality/group theory and group decision-making:-  A good strategy facilitator needs a sound understanding of relevant areas of individual and group psychology, so that he/she can manage well the dynamics and deliberations of groups that are typically involved in a strategy process.  Such knowledge will enable the facilitator to know, for example, how to avoid and manage any conflict between group members and mitigate for major types of group cognitive bias that inevitably afflict group work (e.g. groupthink, confirmation bias, authority bias).  Equally important is knowing how to lead groups effectively to reach consensus, decisions, and alignment, and how to ensure commitment and plan actions effectively.

e) Superb skills in listening, reflecting back and asking questions:-  Strategy facilitation requires hearing a lot of ideas, comment and opinions and strong skills are needed in drawing out what people are thinking, active listening, reflecting back what is said, and rapid connecting and building on different points to make conversations progress well.

f) Confident, assured manner but also friendly, relaxed and very sensitive/tactful:-  A facilitator must be able to look, sound and act as a credible and capable professional who is ‘accepted’ by participants with the ‘right’ to ask them questions and challenge them on some points as may be needed.  To help achieve this, a facilitator must have an amicable and open style and also be very sensitive to picking up signals (from non-verbal cues, not just what is said!) from people and addressing their points in a tactful/respectful way.

g) Neutral, independent, transparent and fair/honest:-  It is absolutely crucial that a facilitator stays objective and detached whilst managing discussions and decision-making involved in a strategy process:  he/she is there to focus on guiding and managing the overall process and not to influence or steer the content of participants’ views or decisions (unless the client specifically asks for his/her direct advice).  Beyond this, he/she must, of course, treat everyone fairly and equally throughout and do as much as possible to prevent any obvious bias or private agendas distorting proceedings.

h) Strong integrative and ‘helicopter’ ability:-  This refers to two related skills:  firstly, the ability to rapidly see and make connections and links between different points/ideas/issues and, secondly, the ability to move easily and quickly between seeing the ‘big picture’ in a situation and drilling down to the finer detail of the same situation.

i) Structured, systematic and focused:-  A strategy facilitator must be a clear thinker who naturally structures and organises well (from ideas to processes).  Equally, having defined structure in a situation, he/she must be able to be disciplined and focused to keep people always on he right agenda topic and seeking to achieve the overall aim set.

j) Some supportive ability/experience in consulting and coaching:-  Some skills in the related activities of consulting (diagnosing issues and giving appropriate advice) and coaching (assisting others to learn/self-develop) are very good for a strategic facilitator to have because they very often fit in very well to strengthen and support certain parts of the strategy process (e.g. identifying early-on with the client what strategic issues need to be tackled).  But beware of a facilitator who looks too ready to be a consultant rather than mainly a facilitator, as he/she will strongly risk losing the vital quality of appearing neutral and objective in the eyes of people involved in the strategy process.

k) A range of supporting character traits and behaviours:-  There are several other very useful personal traits that make a skilled facilitator:  nobody can be expected to be blessed with all of them, but I would suggest, in particular:   a natural sense of curiosity and interest in the views of others;  an ability to think easily in abstract, conceptual terms but to convert thoughts quickly into simpler terms;  an ability to hold several thoughts in his/her mind at the same time;  an ability to be flexible and adaptable e.g. shift ideas when new information suggests the need to do so;  an ability to deal with partial information and ambiguity;  an ability to think positively of others;  and the ability not to take negative or critical comments personally.

Finally, it is important to appreciate why an external facilitator is so much better than an internal facilitator for Board/organisational-level strategic work.  There are at least four key reasons:

Firstly – and most crucially – an external facilitator brings a fresh, external ‘outside-in’, wide-eyed lens and external perspective, together with experience and knowledge of other sectors and organisational contexts.  He/she does not come with the inevitable pre-conceived views and internal ‘baggage’ that internal individuals would suffer from!

Secondly, he/she comes with the ‘permission’ and inclination to challenge company executives – in terms of their assumptions, beliefs and attitudes.  He/she can ask searching and awkward questions, pose fresh ideas and options, and play ‘devil’s advocate’ – without worrying about internal company politics or damaging their job promotion prospects!

Thirdly, his/her position as a neutral, detached ‘change agent’ means the CEO or chairman can have a trusted, independent ‘confidant’ to share and discuss sensitive change issues with and bounce ideas off confidentially, rather than having to risk favouring a senior colleague or have nobody at all to do this with.

Fourthly, an outside facilitator typically provides additional expertise and resource to carry out a vital short-term project – a round of fresh strategic planning – for which an organisation often does not have adequately qualified or available senior staff to carry out internally.  With senior executives being so busy with their ‘day job’ it can be very sensible to delegate a lot of a strategic planning project to an external facilitator – provided, though, there is a senior executive who acts an internal ‘sponsor/lead contact’ for the project and there is a wider planning ‘project steering ‘team (including the CEO) working with the facilitator.

Altogether, an external strategic facilitator can play a hugely valuable role for any organisation.  But it needs the right (and rare) type of person who has a very wide and distinctive set of skills and characteristics.  So, choose your facilitator well!


/Written by Mike Owen,

Copyright of Owen Morris Strategic Partnership

October 2016

Posted in Strategic facilitation & dialogue | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Coping with Brexit-like change: how to plan and steer an organisation in response to uncertainty

The UK’s unexpected recent vote in favour of ‘Brexit’ was a strong example of how unexpected events can occur and how the world can be a volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous place (the US Army coined the acronym VUCA).  So, the obvious question arises, how can organisations today best cope and deal with such an environment – and indeed not just survive but flourish and grow?

I was interested to see what recent management literature advised on the subject, so checked out, amongst others, a few HBR articles from this year (see footnote below).  Added to my own experience, here are a dozen or so pointers that I then put together:

The traditional approach taken by organisations to deal with uncertainty and volatility is to try to improve their market analysis and forecasting and shape a more carefully considered vision, market positioning and detailed plan.  But, of course, in times of rapid change, forecasts and detailed plans become obsolete almost immediately.  Relying on analysis – including traditional ‘risk register’ analysis – has also been criticised in recent years for focusing too much on events and trends that are predictable – and ignoring exceptional, huge-impact but hard-to-predict events (so-called ‘black swan’ events).

Extreme opposite approaches to dealing with uncertainty are to abandon analysis altogether and base strategic decisions on essentially gut instinct OR to focus on creating an organisation which has maximum ‘agility’ and simply responds to market signals as they happen.  But relying on gut instinct is highly risky and seeking perfect agility and flexibility is likely to be very costly and hugely difficult to achieve.  Instead, what’s needed is a more balanced set of measures.

The starting strategic approach in the face of uncertainty is to think about what are the ‘key success factors’ and key external assumptions (e.g. economic growth rate, level of price inflation) on which your organisation depends and then collate and analyse as much ‘hard’ data as you can assemble about those factors – including historic data, current data, and, crucially, any decent future forecasts.  Use both internal sources (e.g. sales records, customer surveys) and relevant/expert external sources (e.g. trade associations, professional advisers, government agencies).  Obviously, the more data you have to guide you what is likely to happen in the future, the stronger basis you have for shaping future strategies for your organisation.

However, of course, most organisations nowadays will face some significant factors about which they cannot make a confident future prediction.  Sometimes the uncertainty may be mostly around the detail of a change rather than doubt about the change itself happening e.g. exact exclusions to apply in a new regulation.  Other times, the uncertainty may be more general e.g. the multi-faceted uncertainty around entering a new market overseas.

In these circumstances, accepted wisdom is to do some ‘scenario thinking’: in other words, define a range of alternative, distinct perspectives of the future (based around your most important key success factors or external assumptions) and see how well alternative future strategies for your organisation’s future ‘hold up’ against each of the scenarios.  It’s best to limit the number of scenarios to about half a dozen which collectively cover the most probable range of futures and also include some variables in scenarios that can be quantified to some extent to help overall comparative assessment.

This process, however – which is mostly practiced today just by larger organisations – is altogether an art rather than a science and can be unwieldy and is mostly best suited just to periodic, major strategic reviews (say, every couple of years).  Instead, the preference nowadays, given the sheer pace of external change nowadays, is to use a wider set of more dynamic and organisationally-centred measures, with a more active/continuous process of strategic monitoring and change – and flexibility and responsiveness as key watch-words.

So, what other approaches or measures did those recent articles I looked at suggest?  Firstly, I noted a set of pointers about how managers can go about identifying and responding to changes:

Identify and capture ‘weak signals’:-  The idea behind this practice is that, whilst we cannot precisely predict the future, we can watch out for and monitor early-warning signals and detect patterns of change and then use them to deduce likely or possible important changes that may follow.  Organisations can then take action to prepare in good time to exploit desirable signals or minimise/avoid undesirable ones.  It is particularly wise to monitor the periphery of an industry, as it is there that change often comes.

Question current assumptions and challenge how things are done today:-  Like scenario-thinking, this approach is about taking a more proactive and creative approach to identifying possible future changes.  It involves applying critical and creative thinking to how an organisation currently operates (including what products/services it offers) and how the wider industry/sector operates, with the aim of stimulating ideas for innovative change for the future.  It can be particularly effective to use cross-functional teams together with wide involvement of customers and other external stakeholders.  Also, using a skilled external facilitator to run workshops is wise.

Run low-cost, low-risk experiments:-  The simple idea here is that an organisation should periodically select and work up some of its creative ideas to development stage and then actually trial some of them as experiments to see how they perform in reality.  However, ideas taken forward should, as far as possible, be relatively low-risk, low-cost, so that the organisation does not excessively divert its attention or resources from current mainstream activities.

Secure strategic options and take pre-emptive measures: –  This classic and often vital approach involves seeking ways to help protect your competitive position by the advance securing of some major favourable rights/options or the proactive taking of specific actions which will help obviate future threats.  Buying/reserving the future rights to a newly discovered drug or gaining a unique right to be a potential distributor for a new product would be examples of a strategic option:  you might not actually take up the rights but you gain the strategic flexibility to do so.  Bringing forward a planned marketing campaign in the face of a major move expected by a rival would be an example of a pre-emptive strategic measure.

Enter into low-risk joint ventures or make small acquisitions:-  This is a particular variant of the latter two measures and involves an organisation seeking out collaborative or merger opportunities with the aim of proactively strengthening its competitive position (e.g. accessing new skills or widening its service offer) or pre-empting wider threats.

Alongside these measures, here’s a list of another half-a-dozen, suggested measures that deal more with appropriate features to develop for your organisation itself, based too on my own management and consulting experience:

-Ensure your organisation has strong feedback, learning and adaptive systems:-  The essential idea here is that you have effective intelligence tools/systems for monitoring what’s going on in and outside your organisation (e.g. regular surveys of customers and close tracking of emerging technologies in your sector),  good processes for ensuring staff continually learn and improve their knowledge and skills,  and effective processes whereby the organisation adapts and responds quickly and smoothly to fresh changes it faces.

-Maintain a high degree of organisational diversity (heterogeneity):-  Viewed in biological terms, organisations can be seen very much as ‘complex adaptive systems’, so they need to have adequate variety in terms of their characteristics to match and respond to the degree of external variety and change they face.  In particular, you should make sure your organisation maintains diversity in terms of people (e.g. personality types, backgrounds, working styles), thinking, ideas, how things are done, and innovations.

-Have an organisation which has a high degree of ‘modularity’:-  This means deliberately maintaining some barriers and loose connections between the different parts of your organisation, which will help to impede the spread of shocks from one part to the next and thus making the overall organisation more robust.

-Maintain a degree of duplication and slack resources in your organisation:-  The idea is that having some duplication and level of redundancy in your resources and processes creates a vital buffering capacity and makes it easier to cope when there is a problem in one particular part of the organisation or extra capacity/flexibility is needed quickly to respond to changes.  It has to be balanced, of course, against the traditional emphasis in business on maximising short-term efficiency.

Temporary organisations / factories / facilities: –  This idea is about setting up short-term, dedicated organisational units or operations to pursue specific new, short-term or uncertain opportunities rather than diverting or disrupting an organisation’s current mainstream activities and people.

Foster a culture of trust and co-operation: –  When individuals prioritise too much their own self interests in an organisation, the system overall becomes weaker, and everyone suffers.  So, this means that organisations should take deliberate steps to create adequate feelings of connectedness, co-operation, trust and mutual support between all employees.  Obvious tactics range from wide staff involvement in company strategy development to a good staff newsletter/intranet.   It is, to an extent, the opposite aim of a modular organisation, so there’s a need to strike a suitable balance between the two measures.

Whilst all the above is not meant to be an exhaustive list of ways of how to deal with  uncertainty, I would especially add another approach which I think is vital to support all the suggestions made.   This is the notion that organisations should avoid treating strategic/business planning as something they do only at a fixed point once a year and that strategy is a fixed, laid-down plan.  Instead, strategy should be treated as a medium-term flexible directional framework, not a fixed master-plan (see my dedicated post on this blog of April 2016 on this subject).  In other words, let organisations evolve through the pattern of separate, short-term tactical decisions/projects/experiments they implement in response to ad-hoc opportunities/changes in their environment, BUT ensure there is a driving framework to give an overall shape and cohesion to those decisions.

Such an approach to strategic planning matches the flexible, ongoing ‘sense, learn, and adapt’ stance that is behind most of the above pointers.  Together they reflect how coping with uncertainty needs a holistic combination of different types of measure – particularly involving organisational measures, not just planning approaches.  Also, they indicate how the future and change do not occur at a far-off point but happen continually – every day. Dealing with uncertainty very much needs a continual process of measures, not one-off, ad-hoc measures!

Written by Mike Owen, Managing Partner at Owen Morris Strategic Partnership

If you have any comments or thoughts on the above topic, do share them.

If you’d like to discuss with Mike how he might be of assistance to your organisation, please do get in touch.   E:  or telephone the Owen Morris Partnership office on  01886 881092.


* Three HBR articles referred to:  i) How to hedge your strategic bets.  G.Stalk & A Iyer of Boston Consulting Gr (BCG).  May 2016.;   ii) Planned Opportunism.  Prof V. Govindarajan, Tuck School of Business & Harvard Business School.  May 2016;   and       iii) The Biology of Corporate Survival.  M. Reeves, S. Levin, D. Ueda. BCG & Princeton Uni.  Jan/Feb 2016.

Copyright of Owen Morris Partnership.  August 2016.

Posted in Uncertainty and risk | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Positioning a charity / non-profit Board for effective strategic leadership: 9 essentials to get right

Strategic leadership needs to be a concern for any board, but in charities and other non-profits it can sometimes be quite a weakness.  It doesn’t help, of course, that in very many  charities trustees often have limited knowledge of and training in governance and strategy and typically trustees (who are usually unpaid volunteers, of course) meet together infrequently for just a few hours each time.  Nor does it help that a typical charity’s staff have very limited time to think about the niceties of board governance.  But for a non-profit to succeed, it must not only have a board that is passionately committed to its mission but one that is well organised and skilled for strategic leadership.

So, what are some of the key problems that can hold back a non-profit’s strategic leadership effectiveness – and what are some appropriate measures trustee boards can take?  Here are nine factors I suggest for a start – based not least on my own experience as a board trustee/non-exec, CEO and professional strategic consultant-facilitator with several non-profits/charities over recent years:

  1. Failure to see strategy as the board’s primary governance responsibility:-  Sometimes non-profit boards assume that it’s the job of their CEO and employed managers to look after strategy.  Actually, while a board should rightly expect executive staff to be strategic in their thinking, it is the board that has legal liability and responsibility for overall strategic leadership and so can’t abdicate this.  The right approach is for board members and senior staff to work together collaboratively to review/discuss/shape overall strategy, let the executive team develop and propose more detailed options and proposals, then the board settles what is to happen, and from there monitors/oversees ongoing implementation by the staff.  Critically, at the end of the day, it is the board’s role to decide what are to be the organisation’s goals and initiatives and to challenge executives to re-work proposals it considers inadequate.

2.   Not having the right composition or structure of people on the board:-  Like for any leadership team, a non-profit board needs to have the right balance and diversity of people to form it.  Most directors/trustees should have a decent level of knowledge of or affinity with the sector/profession in which the organisation is operating, but it is wise to have a few directors who also have much broader, external knowledge/experience beyond the immediate sector, so that the board has a rounder perspective and avoids becoming insular in its thinking (this can be a big problem, for example – often not recognised – with membership bodies).  It is often a good idea for one or two members to be representatives from key stakeholder groups – for example, a disability charity’s board should certainly include some individuals who have the disability in question.  Crucially, at the same time, though, there should be an appropriate mix of people in terms of demographics – particularly gender and age – and relevant professional and cognitive skills.  With a suitably composed board in place, there is then a need to align the board’s structure with its decision-making responsibilities:  there need to be core/standing committees covering familiar areas like finance but also look at setting up other committees/task groups to give focused attention to strategic priorities or projects for the coming year.

3. Board meetings that focus on too much micro-management:-  Boards must leave the daily management of the organisation to their CEO/executive director and avoid any tendency to micro-manage.  Instead, beyond ensuring that management is running things dilligently, board members must focus on the ‘bigger picture’ issues.  This doesn’t mean the board dealing with strategic things just at the usual, once-a-year strategy ‘away-day’, but rather making sure every board meeting includes some consideration of strategic issues.  Examples of some good practices to consider:  design board meeting agendas to focus attention on governance and strategic topics rather than on routine topics; time-plan all of a board meeting’s agenda with set limits for each topic which the chair should enforce; avoid executives giving every board paper/report an oral summary at the meeting; and regard each board paper as automatically approved unless, by exception, a board member raises a specific question.

4. The board lacking a concise performance reporting/scorecard system:-  Some CEOs forget that their board members are usually busy people and will have difficulty finding time to read a lot of material in between board meetings.  So, it’s important that information shared with the board is focused on key issues, concise and well summarised, as well as timely and clear.  In particular, performance reporting to board members should focus on overviewing a limited  but balanced set of ‘key performance indicators’ together with short updates on key projects/initiatives set out in the organisation’s strategic/business plan.  Without such a summary ‘scorecard’ (dashboard), board members will find it harder to monitor and manage the organisation strategically.

5.  Poor team spirit or deficient team leadership by chair:- Despite meeting infrequently, a board needs to feel and work as a team as much as possible to help it fulfil its leadership role.  Like for any group, team spirit and cohesiveness are fostered by a set of key measures, including:  spending adequate time together informally to get to know each other personally; developing and committing to a vision together;  developing respect and trust for each other;  being able to accept and handle differences of opinion between each other;  treating everyone equally and fairly;  and avoiding letting individuals’ personal egos or narrow-thinking get in the way of what is right for the organisation.  Of course, a non-profit board’s chair has a major responsibility for ensuring such measures, but recruiting the right person to do this role can be a major challenge for a non-profit – especially finding a leader who is able and willing to make the extra time commitment needed usually with no payment.

6.  Too much hanging on to the past or avoidance of risk-taking:-  To respond to today’s pressures and challenges, non-profits need to be ready to be innovative and creative and this means their boards must be willing to take chances, to try new things, and to take risks.  Unfortunately, this does not come easily to many boards, as it is naturally easier for a mixed group of people to prefer and stick with the status quo.  But, of course, sticking with the status quo can sometimes be a greater risk than trying something new.  For many non-profit boards it can be a challenge, for example, thinking/acting commercially or collaborating or merging with other non-profits (for fear of their own charity closing).

7. Board members not keeping in touch enough with external changes or changing needs of customers and other stakeholders:-  To help them fulfil their strategic role, board members need to keep in touch with and think about ongoing changes in their organisation’s environment.  However, without the organisation helping them, the board can easily fail in this area of responsibility.  So, examples of helpful measures are:  include with regular board papers a news update on the latest external developments;  schedule time during board meetings for discussion about selected external changes;  periodically send board members copies of media articles that cover relevant issues/trends; and invite expert individuals from external organisations to speak at a board meeting on a topical issue.  Specifically to help board members keep in touch with stakeholders’ views, two obvious examples of helpful measures are:  directors going out to visit and meet individual, key customers/stakeholders and arranging regular ‘open/consultation  forums’ around the country for directors to meet different people.

8.  The chair / board members not promoting the organisation’s vision or strategy enough:-  An organisation’s vision and strategy mean nothing if they’re kept on the shelf as words, so directors should actively refer to them, explain them, and reinforce them in their various conversations and meetings with different people associated with the organisation – from staff to service users to external partners, the community and even the media.  In dealing with emerging issues and challenges that come up, the board’s chair must particularly ensure the vision and strategy are used as a reference frame to guide and steer appropriate action planning and responses by the organisation.  Supporting its vision statement a non-profit usually defines some values / guiding principles it seeks to uphold, so directors also need to ensure their own personal behaviour and conduct always reflect and support those beliefs:  such things are readily watched by staff members!

9.  The Board not reviewing or developing itself well as a governing body:-  Like for any team, it is important for a board to manage its own effectiveness well, it if is to do its job well.  Unfortunately, this is a weakness of very many non-profits.  Some particular practices worth following:  ensure all board roles have good descriptions/skill profiles and all committees have good terms of reference;  ensure good induction programmes for all new board members when they start;  have all board members each year think about how well the board itself has worked (and also with the CEO/executive team) over the preceding period and then discuss together opportunities for improving effectiveness (including the effectiveness of the chair and committee heads);  and ask board members individually each year to suggest areas where they feel they could use some development support to enhance their own skill or knowledge.  Overall, boards should seek to foster a continuous learning culture for all its members (and the executive team).  Use an external facilitator or HR expert possibly to help the review where useful.

Altogether, ensuring effective strategic leadership for a non-profit/charity is a challenging process, but a very important requirement.  I hope the above points, including some  suggested measures, are relevant and helpful.

If I can be of any help or support to your organisation, do let me know.  As a strategic facilitator-consultant, specialising in non-profits and my firm working closely with our associate team of charity/governance lawyers – I would be pleased to help.

Mike P. Owen,  CEO & Principal Consultant at Owen Morris Strategic Partnership.


E:                 T:  01886 881092

Copyright of Owen Morris Partnership

Posted in Nonprofit / charity governance | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Mind the gap! Why business plans can fail to deliver. And how it’s crucial to respond with a rigorous, ‘outside-in’ strategic review

Most organisations today accept the value of doing strategic thinking and developing an overall strategy, and even a detailed strategic/business plan, for driving their future.  However, in a fast-changing world and with strategy not being an exact science, plans can – and do – go seriously awry.   When this happens, an organisation needs a major, wide-ranging ‘strategic review’, which – to be done well – should involve extensive ‘outside-in’ input and thinking and avoid simply an internal review by the organisation’s leaders themselves.

There are many potential causes of failed strategies, of course.  There is a reasonable range of literature on strategy implementation (but not as extensive as that covering strategy formulation), including research by The Economist Unit from 2013 entitled Why good strategies fail (which included a global survey of 587 senior executives combined with a range of follow-up in-depth interviews).  Coverage of this subject often attributes strategy failure rather simplistically to poor ‘execution’ of strategy.  But, here’s a quick list of mine that I think indicates a wider range of the most common causes:

Firstly, there are causes based around the preparation and content of the strategy/plan itself.  For example, drawing up a plan simply for planning sake without any real top-management commitment;  not having adequate data on key issues to inform choices;  leaders ignoring the reality of what’s going on externally or carrying on with out-dated or inaccurate beliefs or assumptions;  defining too many goals, too unrealistic goals, or not focusing on the right priorities;  lack of involvement of and support from an organisation’s range of stakeholders;  and – a crucial issue – lack of alignment of organisational capabilities and resources with strategic goals chosen.

Secondly, there are causes around implementation and organisation.  The Economist study found that 61% of organisations often struggle with this area – bridging the gap between strategy formulation and implementation.  The main causes include:  lack of buy-in or support from top management for their company’s strategic initiatives (The Economist found this to be the number one critical factor);  lack of adequate skills amongst managers for implementing strategic change (the second critical factor in the Economist study); lack of involvement of middle and junior managers in tactical planning (to both capture their ‘close to the ground’ insight and motivate them);  a poor ‘accountability’ framework for implementation e.g. defined responsibilities/decision rights/deadlines;  an organisational culture that stifles change;  poor project planning or delivery management of key initiatives; poor communication of strategies and initiatives across the organisation; weak recognition and reward policies for encouraging desired results; and poor systems for tracking/managing/reporting on the progress of projects and overall performance.

And thirdly, of course, there is change and disruption in the environment that can knock plans for six.  External change can range, for example, from developments concerning government policy and regulations to new moves by competitors.  Internal changes can range from the loss of key senior executives to the unexpected failure of a major, newly-launched product or IT system.  If an organisation lacks a good day-to-day intelligence system to monitor change and a flexible and ‘agile’ approach to delivery of its plan, it is likely indeed to go astray.

Whatever the cause of a strategic plan going awry, when it happens, an organisation needs to review and reflect.  Small divergences can be considered and responded to at a leadership team’s regular meetings or as part of its annual budgeting/business plan cycle.  But, where the variance between the expected and actual situation is large, a major review is needed, with some significant changes to the current strategic plan likely to be required.  At any rate, though, a Board should deliberately/proactively carry out a more substantial strategic review at least every two (or three) years in order to ‘dig deeper’ beyond what its ongoing monitoring detects and its routine/ad-hoc or annual planning process comes up with as new ideas or tactical adjustments.

What should a strategic review look at?  Well, it’s more than just the familiar SWOT analysis or even an updated market review for an annual business plan or product strategy.  In short, it’s a comprehensive review and assessment of all significant internal and external trends and issues relating to the performance, condition and strategic position of an organisation – in terms of how things look today and, more importantly, how they are likely to look over the following few years.   It’s the essential grounding and first step before defining a fresh, new strategy for the future.  Here’s a brief indication of some of the key areas a strategic review needs to look at:

a)Trends and developments in your markets/market segments e.g. structure, size, competitors, customer demand patterns, pricing/profitability, new technology, channels b)Changes in the wider external environment – PESTLE factors (political, economic, social, technology, legal & environmental)                                                                                      c)Your organisation’s products/services and marketing e.g. strengths of your products, market share, brand image, sales growth areas, customer numbers, channel performance – d)Opinions, satisfaction and expectations of your clients and other key stakeholder groups/organisations  (e.g. funders, suppliers, distributors/agents, regulators)                  e)Trends/issues re company financial performance and condition – revenues, costs, profitability, share price, financial gearing, funding levels, dividend cover                              f)Trends/issues in your organisation’s wider operating performance – e.g. production output,  productivity, research, innovation, quality

g)Strength/clarity/suitability of current strategic direction/mission/values/goals             h)State of current business/operating model e.g. suitability, efficiency, flexibility                i)Strengths/weaknesses in each functional area of the organisation                                        j)People & organisation – structure, skills, culture, values, morale, management style, flexibility, stability etc                                                                                                                          k)IT, systems & processes – age, quality, reliability, cohesion, integration, costs,                   l)Intellectual & other intangible assets – patents, brands, designs, contracts, partnerships, licences, key relationships                                                                                                                 m)Board/senior leadership – range of skills, diversity, capacity, cohesion, morale, stability, team effectiveness, leadership, relationships, reputations, roles/organisation      n)Strength/suitability of governance, information & control processes                                  o)Key strategic risks facing the organisation – today and looking ahead

A strategic review needs a rich mix of process skills, not just company knowledge or knowledge of the immediate sector or profession.  Not least, it involves a varied mix of collating and analysing a wide range of information, consulting and talking with a range of different people, an ability to reflect on findings holistically and critically, together with a creative and visionary mindset.  The overall aim is to appraise the overall strategic ‘health’ of the organisation and identify the key issues and opportunities for its Board and senior management to address and help shape future strategies and plans.

A must for an effective strategic review is to use a suitably-skilled external ‘strategic facilitator’ to assist with the process and help bring that vital, detached ‘outside-in’ and challenging perspective.  For instance, a facilitator can assist with the overall design of the review process, design/plan suitable research and analysis, conduct important consultation interviews and workshops, provide expertise in collating/reviewing and thinking about data needed, design/facilitate various creative/thinking/planning sessions needed, as well as writing up sessions and working with executives to frame, assess and develop actual conclusions/ideas/plans.

The support of an external strategy professional is necessary because – inevitably and quite naturally – the leaders of any organisation will be rather biased in how they see things about their organisation, finding it difficult to see fault in their past decisions and to accept alternative or fresh ways of viewing things today.   The skill of a professional strategic facilitator is needed to take and work with the knowledge and expertise of those leaders but, at the same time, stimulating a fresh injection of perspectives, ideas and solutions for the future.

Carrying out a strategic review is not a simple or quick project  (allow for at least 3-4 months and a good approach is to set up a dedicated team led by a Board member and made up of a cross-section of appropriate managers from different functions/parts in the organisation, working together with the external facilitator).  However, when an organisation does face strategic failure or change, doing a strategic review – with the  objective eye and support of external strategic facilitator – is one of the most necessary and valuable exercises a Board can take to ensure fresh strategic momentum and leadership.

Written by Mike Owen, CEO & Principal Consultant at Owen Morris Strategic.

Contact details for Mike:  E:  Tel: 01886 881092

Copyright of Owen Morris Strategic Partnership


Posted in Strategic planning | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

10 ‘bias-busting’ questions to ask your team before you decide on their strategic review, big idea, or major proposal

Most leaders today are aware how cognitive biases (e.g. ignoring some new evidence that contradicts an existing belief) can distort organisational decision-making.  The difficulty is that biases are unconscious things and it’s very hard to eliminate them in yourself.  However, as most organisational decisions are actually shaped and influenced by many people, a valuable approach is for senior leaders to focus on detecting and limiting the bias in the recommendations they receive from their managers.

Most decision-makers focus on the content of proposals they receive, but it’s even more important to check the background process followed by the recommenders to determine where biases may have steered them off-track.  This is particularly vital for major decisions – for example, entering a new market, a large capital outlay, or a radical pricing change.

Here is a checklist of ten particular questions I suggest for CEOs and senior leaders, stimulated partly by an old HBR article I recently re-visited (Before you make that Big Decision, June 2011, by well-known bias expert Daniel Kahneman, together with colleagues Dan Lovallo and Olivier Sibony):

  1. Are there any self-interest biases of the team members (e.g. chance of higher salary or better career prospects) unduly influencing the proposal ?

2.  Has the team got too emotional or perhaps ‘fallen in love’ with their proposal?  When   people are keen on an idea they naturally tend to downplay the risks and costs and exaggerate the benefits.  That’s why working through a checklist like this is important.

3.  Were there any dissenting opinions within the team, or has ‘groupthink’ set in?  Be worried if there looks to be 100% unanimity.  Check that different opinions were adequately explored.  Talk with those individual team members who hold minority views and check if the proposal includes some measures to reflect their concerns.

4. Are at least one or two credible alternatives included with the recommendation?   Ensure too that those alternatives don’t just have a perfunctory mention, but each has a genuine, serious review.

5. How much is there a sound, substantiated basis (anchor) for the numbers presented in the proposal?   Anchoring bias can easily occur – for example,  making an arbitrary estimate for a value used in calculations (e.g. inflation) and simple extrapolating from past trends to determine a future value (e.g. income growth).  Key questions to ask include:  which numbers are facts and which are estimates, were these estimates arrived at by adjusting from another number, and who put the first number on the table?  If necessary, require the team behind the proposal to re-work its estimates after some re-anchoring.

6. Is the team assuming that a person, organisation, or approach that has been successful elsewhere will be just as successful here (‘halo effect’ bias)?  Check how much the comparison is really relevant and also seek other examples or cases where the outcome may have been less positive.

7.  Are the recommendations perhaps overly attached to past decisions?   This can be particularly in terms of not ignoring past expenditures that really won’t affect future costs or revenues (the ‘sunk-cost’ fallacy).  A totally fresh, neutral view is what is really needed.

8.  Is the proposal overly optimistic?  Three common issues are:  overconfidence in making forecasts, taking false comfort in trying to plan and spell-out lots of internal detail, and failing to adopt a strong-enough ‘external viewpoint’ in terms of taking account of likely/possible responses in the marketplace e.g. competitors.

9.  Has the team made the worst case scenario bad enough?   Most companies ask strategy teams to propose a range of scenarios, or at least a best and a worst case, but the worst case is rarely bad enough!  A useful technique in such situations is the “premortem”: team members project themselves into the future, imagine the worst has already happened, and make up a story about how it happened.   After that, the team then reassesses their proposal and puts in some modified measures to help mitigate the risks or issues they have thought of in their future scenario.

10. Is the recommending team being overly cautious?   Often teams’ plans aren’t as creative or ambitious as they could be or as much as CEOs would hope for.  A major reason is that people naturally tend to have a stronger desire to avoid mistakes or losses than a desire to enjoy gains.  Another (organisational) reason is that very few companies have a risk management policy which defines and encourages an acceptable level of risk for new ideas/proposals to bear.

The above types of question – which obviously need to be phrased diplomatically – provide CEOs and Boards with a ‘quality control’ system for major decision-making in their organisation, especially where they need to rely substantially on others’ evaluations to guide them.  The questions should be used to stimulate a frank, open and searching discussion with the recommending team.

Being systematic like this may be disliked or resented by some middle-ranking executives and it may initially jar with the culture of some organisations, but Boards should promote it as an important way to help prevent unrecognised biases skewing major decisions by the organisation.

To help build acceptance amongst executives, seek to establish the list of questions as a standard decision-making checklist/tool – rather than a personal whim or preference of the CEO or Chair – to be used across the organisation for all major decisions.  At the same time, keep the checklist fairly short and simple, rather than being seen as a complex or bureaucratic compliance tool.

Furthermore, to reinforce use of the checklist, aim wherever possible for a mix of individuals who have some diversity of views and skills to be involved in the review process with you:  this could be a dedicated, ad-hoc review group or your executive team or Board.  Bring in an outside facilitator to help with the review, possibly, and it can certainly help too to ask one or two outside experts or staff from wider parts of the organisation (e.g. another division or subsidiary) to join the review team.  Of course, keep separate the people who prepared the recommendations from the decision-making group.

Overall, the main challenge in seeking to control the quality of major decision-making is actually building awareness and appreciation of the fact that even highly experienced, very competent, and well-intentioned managers are fallible.  A disciplined and systematic process, not individual flair or genius by one or two recommending executives, is the key to wise and effective decision-making by organisations!

I wish you well in working for more ‘bias-free’ decision-making in your organisation.  As ever, if I can help, do get in touch.

Written by Mike Owen

E:      T: 01886 881092


Copyright of Owen Morris Partnership

Posted in Decision-making | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

How new CEOs can boost their chances of success. New study stresses taking bold strategic steps early and it helps too if you are an ‘outsider’!

It may surprise you but, according to new research by McKinsey & Co, new CEOs tend to adopt many of the same types of strategic actions in their early years upon appointment – from management reshuffles to cost-saving efforts – whether they had joined a well-run organisation or a poorly performing one.  However, CEOs are more effective in poorly performing companies when they make a larger number of major strategic moves at the same time early on in their new role And, significantly, for all types of company, CEOs who were externally-recruited, or who at least adopt a strong outsider’s mind-set, tend to produce stronger results.

These were the key findings in an interesting piece in the latest McKinsey Quarterly (May 2016,”How new CEOs can boost their odds of success”).  The research was based on a review of the nature and effects (on their company’s performance) of strategic actions taken by some 600 CEOs who ran a S & P 500 company in the US between 2004 and 2014, together with a review of 250 case studies.  Companies’ performance was assessed in terms of ‘annualised returns’ to shareholders (a complex definition was given, but don’t worry!).

The research considered nine specific types of strategic move taken by CEOs and found a similar frequency of usage across poorly and well-run companies within the executive’s first two years of appointment:

Strategic move                                   Use % by co’s doing well      Use % by co’s doing poorly

Management reshuffle                                      66%                                     72%        Merger/acquisition                                            59%                                     54%                               Cost reduction program                                    42%                                     49%                               New business/product launch                         38%                                     37%                                  Geographic expansion                                       26%                                     32%                               Organisation redesign                                       26%                                     29%                              Business/product closure                                 19%                                      18%                                Strategic review                                                   14%                                     31%                Geographic contraction                                      9%                                       5%

However, despite this generally similar frequency of use, the efficacy of certain of these moves was found to differ significantly depending on the context of the company.  To be precise:  strategic reviews were very helpful for poorly performing companies but less helpful for companies that had been performing well;  organisational redesign was helpful for well-performing companies but not for low performers;  and management reshuffles were helpful for poorly performing companies but actually unhelpful for well-performing companies.  The researchers recognised that, of course, there are very many variables that drive and influence company performance, not just a few specific measures taken by a CEO, but they did consider these particular findings very plausible.

What I found particularly interesting from the study, though, were the findings regarding the number of major moves that a CEO took and whether he/she was appointed from inside or outside the organisation.

The researchers found no discernible pattern regarding the number of major strategic moves at well-performing companies, but in poorly performing ones the key finding was that CEOs who made four or more strategic moves at the same time during their first two years achieved significantly higher performance over their tenures compared to their less bold counterparts in similarly companies.

Regarding the background of the CEOs, the study found that externally appointed executives had a much greater propensity to act and be bold:  they were more likely to make six out of the nine strategic moves examined:  in particular, externally appointed CEOs were much more likely than internally promoted CEOs to adopt an organisational redesign, cost reduction program, geographical contraction, business/product closure, or merger/acquisition.    Poorly performing companies were more likely to appoint an external CEO and, where they did, they were found to outperform their internally promoted counterparts by a margin of more than five to one.

These findings about the greater boldness of outside hires do seem intuitively very reasonable:  one would expect external CEOs to feel generally less encumbered by organisational politics or inertia and to adopt more of an outside view compared to their internal counterparts.  However, as the article reminds the reader, performance differentials are the result of multiple factors, not just any single factor like the background of the CEO.  Also, crucially of course, it is possible for an internally promoted CEO to cultivate the necessary outsider’s mind-set:  it just appears that such a CEO appears relatively less often than an appropriately-minded external CEO.

The problem, though, in pointing to the value of an externally-minded CEO is that often in many organisations – poorly and well-performing ones – the culture of the organisation or the Board itself does not actually encourage an outside, different or challenging mindset!  Especially in a very established organisation or one that has quite a settled top-team or a very traditional culture, it can be very uncomfortable and threatening for a CEO to ‘raise their head above the parapet’ and promote serious change or new thinking.  Accordingly, an organisation in this situation – particularly the Board – needs to ensure it has wider mechanisms and arrangements in place to boost the inclination of its management to think differently and adopt that ‘outsider’ perspective prescribed in the above study.

There are, of course, many types of arrangement which organisations can put in place to help foster an ‘outside-in’ / multi-view perspective amongst its senior management.  A few quick examples:  ensure the Board itself has a reasonably diverse range of members and that some of the membership changes at regular intervals;   have senior people go and visit / meet with clients regularly;  set up a stakeholder / customer Advisory Board;  ensure the Board has dedicated discussion time at each meeting to review one or two strategic issues;  make one Board member a dedicated champion for strategic thinking and innovation;  invite individuals from outside organisations that are doing novel or progressive things to come and speak at your Board meeting;  and ensure your organisation has a good, ongoing ‘eyes and ears’ intelligence system for spotting trends and developments in your industry.  Another approach is to hire a suitably experienced external professional to be your outsourced ‘external strategic adviser/manager’ to work with your Board, help their thinking, and also handle a lot of the detail of the strategic management process:  this is a service that Owen Morris provides.

Altogether, an interesting article that gives some valuable pointers for newly appointed CEOs to consider.  But, at the same time, Boards must remember that organisational success cannot just be left, of course, to the boldness or background of their CEO:  Board directors need themselves to look at how they think and operate,  as well as ensuring the organisation has in place a strong mix of wider business and organisational strategies and policies.








Posted in Leadership | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

12 ‘must-do’ tips for running a successful strategic away-day meeting / Board planning workshop: a strategic planning facilitator’s guide

For any Board, executive or senior management team it is vital to spend dedicated time together at periodic intervals to reflect, think and plan.  Normal, routine meetings won’t do because they typically have a crammed agenda and there is usually not enough ‘quality’ time available to focus and engage in dedicated strategic discussion and fresh thinking.

Strategic away-days – sometimes called ‘executive retreats’ – can serve many specific purposes of a strategic nature, for example:  to review progress of the current business plan;  to review the progress of some major development projects;  to think of ways of improving the effectiveness of the Board;  to review/update the organisation’s vision and values;   or to engage in some broad ‘blue-sky’ thinking about the future.

Successful strategic meetings need a lot of careful planning and facilitation:  ideally you should be thinking and preparing at least 4-5 weeks before the meeting itself.   Based on my many years as a director, consultant, and professional facilitator at Owen Morris Strategic Partnership, here are a dozen ‘must do’ tips I would particularly recommend:

  1. Don’t treat a strategy away-day as just another, regular executive meeting:            Away-days are special meetings.  The scope of matters discussed is broader than the usual management meeting, with participants there to take an organisation-wide perspective rather than focus just a particular function.  The frame of reference is the long-term, not the short-term.  Participants will have to deal with information and issues that are often ill-defined, uncertain or speculative, which can make some executives uncomfortable.  Also, away-days must be planned and ‘owned’ by the CEO (or most senior executive), even though he/she may not actually run the meeting itself.
  2. Define the objectives of the meeting in terms of the wider strategy process:  The success of a strategy away-day is largely determined by what happens before the meeting, not at the meeting.  It won’t be effective or efficient just to schedule a meeting, perhaps add an external facilitator, and then let discussion take its own course.  Instead, you should first consider where exactly your organisation is in the strategy process and then decide what specific outcomes you want from the meeting to fit in with that process.  For example, does the group need to hold an expansive conversation about broad strategic options, or is the focus on preparing next year’s budget/plan?
  3. Avoid cramming too much into a single strategy meeting:  Two separate meetings, or a short series of half or full days over a few months, are usually more effective than a single meeting.  There are a number of reasons:  holding just one meeting severely limits the time available to deal with any issues in depth and participants’ energy and attention will start to wane after 4-5 hours;  breaking up the process over a number of meetings gives participants time to reflect after each session and prepare better for the next occasion;  and having a gap between meetings enables useful, supportive tasks like collecting more data or consulting others to be carried out.
  4. Carefully consider who needs to attend the meeting:  The number and range of participants should be determined by the scope and objectives of the meeting.  An expansive discussion about broad options benefits from a larger group (as long as it is well-facilitated), whilst decisions are best made by smaller groups.  Don’t just cobble together a unique list of participants but start with the team (e.g. executive team) who are used to meeting regularly.  Add possibly a few other staff members to help balance the overall make-up of the group (e.g. a newly recruited senior manager who may bring a fresh perspective) or outside experts or service providers for parts of the meeting where their input will be valuable.  Overall, keep numbers limited to what is necessary, otherwise you’ll have more of a ‘town meeting’ than a ‘strategic away-day!
  5. Use an external facilitator who specialises in strategy:  This is a must for three key reasons: i) to provide informed guidance on relating the strategy meeting to the wider strategy process;  ii) to professionally plan, structure and design an effective process and programme;  and iii) to help ensure group discussion on the day is well-led, fair and objective, enjoyable, and centred on achieving the session objectives.  It is possible, of course, to use someone as an in-house facilitator, but they inevitably will not be able to bring the same objectivity or freshness as an outsider.  An essential principle is that, whoever is used to be facilitator, they must keep themselves fully independent:  their job is simply to guide the process, not to influence the content of any decisions made.
  6. Ahead of the meeting distribute a background/data briefing pack   To orientate participants about the meeting and provide a common foundation for discussions, prepare a set of background reading and send out at least a week ahead to all attendees.  Stick to hard facts and figures only, or as as much as possible:  there will be enough subjective opinion raised at the meeting itself!
  7. Plan a suitable meeting structure, process and set of techniques:  This critical stage involves, firstly, designing an overall structure, agenda of topics, time-plan and set of specific objectives/outputs for each agenda session.  Secondly, selecting what particular discussion/interaction process and what particular frameworks and range of supportive techniques and aids will be most suitable for each session.  Avoid using an agenda made up simply of blocks of time with a broad topic for each block  and relying on free, open discussion to come up with useful outputs:  this is invariably not as effective as using a semi-structured approach for each session with at least some particular, pre-sequenced questions to work through.
  8. Ensure a comfortable environment and relaxed meeting ‘tone’:  If you want a group to work well together for several hours, make sure in advance the meeting room itself is well-aired, quiet, temperature-controlled, and large enough for participants to walk around at intervals for a break.  Of course, make sure that the layout of the room is suitable and seating arrangements comfortable for everyone (arranged in a U-shape or complete circle is usually best, and certainly avoid ‘theatre-style’ rows).  Natural daylight in the room is preferred by many people for a long meeting.  To help reinforce a convivial, relaxed atmosphere, it helps if participants have some time to relax socially together before the meeting (e.g. dinner the prior evening).  A ‘smart-casual’ dress code on the day also helps.
  9. Manage conversations carefully on the day:  This is where the facilitator’s skill is key.  At the very start of the meeting, the CEO or other senior executive responsible for the meeting should make some introductory points (e.g. welcoming everyone and summing up the aims of the day), followed by the facilitator overviewing the day’s agenda and giving some simple guidelines (‘ground rules’) on how sessions are to be handled and a few pointers as to what would be unacceptable behaviour by delegates (e.g. swearing, talking over a colleague, being unduly negative or critical etc).  Once the meeting has got going, for each agenda session, the facilitator should give a clear overview of the objectives and how it is to be handled.  Try and avoid sessions opening with any long data presentations (e.g. PowerPoint), as they often leave people ‘flat’ and bored.  Let the facilitator lead and gently steer and progress each conversation, as he/she will  have the appropriate skill to ensure things like everyone has a fair chance to speak and that nobody is allowed to be rude or domineering.
  10. Fix definite review/decision points along the agenda of the meeting:  At regular points during discussions, the facilitator should assimilate the range of points raised up to then and offer a simple summary to the group.  Also, at key stages in discussions – especially after an allotted time for a topic has been reached – the facilitator needs to bring the session to some form of  ‘closure‘:  that doesn’t necessarily mean reaching a particular decision, it can simply mean, for example, completing an important discussion, agreeing a set of issues or prioritisation of issues to be discussed later, agreeing to investigate a topic further, or even agreeing to disagree.
  11. End the meeting with a wrap-up review & check everyone is aligned:  If participants, guided by the facilitator, have managed to maintain a decent focus, quality and progression to their conversations throughout their meeting, the result should be the outcomes wanted.  So, in the final session the facilitator’s task is to summarise and overview the outputs from all previous sessions and check everyone is clear and agreed.  There also needs to be an overall check on which executive is to be responsible for taking forward or overseeing each issue/decision/action.
  12. Post-meeting write-up and action follow-through:  Straight after the meeting an overall write-up/digest should be drafted – usually by the facilitator – that collates and records all the ‘raw’ key points raised and noted (on flipcharts etc) from each session, gives a master summary/overview of all these points, and also lists all the agreed outcomes (including agreed actions, timings and allocated responsibilities).  After checking and final changes made by senior management, the write-up should be circulated to everyone who participated in the meeting – ideally within 7-10 days.

What sort of away-day are you planning?  If you’d like a FREE, no-obligation chat to help your planning, please call Mike on 01886 881092.   Or email Mike at: 

If you’re thinking of using an external facilitator for your meeting, be sure to read our post:  Looking for a strategy planning facilitator?  The key qualities and skills to look for.

About Mike Owen:   Mike is co-founder and CEO of Owen Morris Strategic – a consultancy based in the centre of the UK specialising in strategic facilitation.  An MBA, he has 20 years’ management, Board and consulting/facilitating experience across 30+ industries across commercial, public and not-for-profit sectors.  Working with CEOs, board chairs and senior executives, he brings organisations the power of a fresh, outside-in perspective combined with expertly-facilitated dialogue and thinkingSee his LinkedIn profile at:

Mike also provides facilitation services for various types of shorter/simpler, half-day or day ‘workshops‘, for tackling specific management issues or problems or focused innovative thinking.  Our services are inexpensive and flexible to suit your budget.

Contact: Phone: 01886 881092  OR  email Mike at: 

We’d love to hear from you!

Copyright of Owen Morris Partnership.


Posted in Strategic facilitation & dialogue | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment