Business in Vancouver: Boardroom Strategy

MikeOne of the things CEOs ask consistently is how they can foster more strategic thinking in their organizations.

Simply saying “I want to see you thinking more strategically” isn’t direct or specific enough to help guide people in the right direction. Thinking strategically is essentially a way of being – a mindset, a way of looking at things and linking them together.

Here are eight things you can do to improve strategic thinking.

Understand value creation and differentiation. Leaders understand the business and industry they are in, but it’s more than that. You need to understand how the industry adds value to customers and how your business differentiates that value equation from your competitors.

Connect “me to we” to “they to us” (operations to strategy). As a leader you need to be able to understand the overall corporate direction and strategy in the context of your team and your own personal areas of responsibility. Think of it like this: the strategic moves we make today are setting up the operational successes we have in the future. So the better understanding you and your team have of the connection between corporate goals and the work they do day-to-day, the more likely they and you are to focus on longer-term priorities versus staying mired in operations and shiny objects.

Here's a possible framework to structure weekly team meetings within your business and keep them on track and worth attending.

  • Personal update: everyone shares the good, bad and ugly of what's going on with them. This helps explain everyone's context and helps build trust.
  • Top three: have everyone in the room state the top three things they're focused on over the next week.
  • Stuck points: have everyone list what the key thing is that's holding them back. It can be resources, health, time, people, information, technology – anything.

An enormous amount of time and energy gets devoted to solving problems within organizations, all under the pretence that solving those problems is the best way to achieve success, superiority, a competitive advantage and greatness. The challenge is that growing organizations are constantly changing, which inevitably leads to new and more interesting problems to solve. It’s an endless cycle of focusing on problems that means it’s impossible to solve our way to greatness.

Fortunately, there’s an alternative to the traditional problem-solving approach. Appreciative Inquiry was developed by David Copperrider and his associates at Case Western Reserve University in the mid ’80s. It focuses on doing more of what does work: uncovering the high moments in an organization’s history and using the commonalities of those experiences to build a plan to replicate those wins for the future. Sounds like more fun than constantly problem solving, doesn’t it? Here’s how it works and how it can be applied to your business.

In an effort to avoid conflict, leaders and team members often conceal their true feelings, withhold their opinions or outwardly agree and go along with the crowd while inside they are vehemently opposed.

For some, this lack of candour also extends to hoarding information or avoiding communicating with others entirely, in an effort to save face or get and stay ahead of the pack.

Strength of the strategic plan and the ability for executives to collaborate cross-silo with their teams depends considerably on trust and respect within and between teams. The willingness to come forward with authenticity and transparency is key to building up that trust and respect.

In Jack Welch’s book Winning, he describes a lack of candour as businesses’ “dirty little secret.”

When you start working on the action plans for your strategic objectives for the year, one of the most important steps is to understand the order of priority of your objectives.

You might think you know what needs to happen first, but your team might not agree with you. The key is to spend time together as a team to rank the order of your objectives using a technique called the Hoshin Star (a variation of matched-pair analysis).

Originally developed for total quality management, the Hoshin Star helps leaders understand the cause and effect connection between objectives to determine the underlying order of importance.

Using this tool to prioritize strategic objectives can serve two purposes:

In the past month, I have had two unique opportunities: the first was to spend a few days in Boston with one of my clients and Frances Frei from Harvard; the second was a fireside chat with some fellow CEOs and author Malcolm Gladwell (Tipping Point, Outliers, What the Dog Saw). There were some great strategic nuggets interwoven into both conversations, and I want to share with you what I learned.

Frei is a professor in Harvard Business School’s technology and operations management unit and the chairwoman of the MBA required curriculum. Because Frei’s work focuses on how organizations can more effectively design service excellence, I was eager to hear her thoughts on organizational strategy. I was not disappointed.

Here are some key points I took away from the conversation.

Choose great over average. When you’re considering your points of differentiation as an organization the key is not to try to become five out of five on all aspects of your client value proposition; by diffusing your efforts as an organization among so many things you end up becoming three out of five (average) on everything.

Really great, standout companies figure out what they can sacrifice (areas where they are at about a one out of five), so they can truly be five out of five on the areas that count most to their customers.

Choose differentiation versus “me-too.” For true differentiation you need to do something that the competition can’t properly replicate. Consider the example of the Heavenly Bed Wars. Once Westin hotels rolled

out its heavenly beds campaign, all their competitors had to do was provide a similar quality of bed – a simple yet costly undertaking, the net result being that consumers now get better beds from all competing hotels. But each is still in the same price-competitive space: higher cost, lower margin and no differentiation. The trick is to focus on providing something to your customer that is difficult for your competitors to replicate.