Strategic Dialogue - 3 Powerful Habits

Urban myth suggests that it takes 21 days of focused attention and repeated behaviour to break or make a personal habit. In the real world, we all know how hard this can be and how much longer than 21 days it can take! Time to success (if indeed you get there) is probably quite variable; complexity, motivation and experience all have an impact. 

Changing the habits of an organisation is hard – really hard – that’s why ‘change management’ is such a ‘thing’.  Complexity is typically high, motivation is driven by a range of individual personal agendas, and the ability to leverage past experience is dependent upon capability and culture (and a willingness to confront the difficult truth). The myths and legends of an organisation pack a punch when it comes to strategic inertia, whilst processes and structure can add a very effective straight jacket. Those involved in established strategic planning cycles can be overwhelmed with the level of information that needs to be processed and the demands for detailed analysis from senior management. The plans look great but when they come up against real-life they can crumble. The reaction? More structured planning of course…

What quantity and quality of strategic dialogue is really taking place?

Planning is a fabulous exercise but it is only as good as the assumptions upon which it is based. If assumptions are wrong the plan is redundant. How often do we give proper thought to the assumptions underpinning a strategy and how can we ensure we keep an eye on said assumptions to make sure they remain valid throughout the plan’s life? What quantity and quality of strategic dialogue is really taking place? Sophisticated strategic planning process or not, there are three habits worth catching. Habits that will create more abundant dialogue, generate creative ideas, and sense-check strategic plans as time marches on.

1. Refraction

We all accept that light changes direction as it travels through a prism or enters a different substance. In the same way, strategic choices and the best laid plans behave differently in alternative timelines. Quantum physics is already grappling with the likelihood that there are multiple universes like our own, and that a new one arises each time we make a decision. 

We tend to have a mental picture of the likely future but, if we’re honest, it rarely unfolds as we expect. We only have to consider the current state of global geopolitics to see this in action. Creating space and time to refract strategic plans through a prism of potential, plausible and challenging futures can only help us test assumptions and generate a range of alternative future strategies that would make sense in alternative worlds

2. Reflection

I’m a firm believer that there’s a pattern to everything and that, if you look hard enough, you can see patterns emerging even in the most mundane. With hindsight its often quite easy to be able to isolate critical decisions or events that precipitated a major change. In the moment it’s far more difficult … 

Encouraging a truthful look-back at history (near and far) can unveil patterns that may well be replicating themselves right now or evolving into a range of alternative patterns with shared roots. This is systems thinking in action – catching the system mid-flow and noticing what drives what and why. The habit of reflection provides some protection against myopia, signals risks way ahead of time, and has been known to shine a light on valuable opportunities.

3. Rehearsal

Most strategies live in a 2D world. Captured on paper they describe a chosen approach assuming a level of engagement, capacity and capability that may or may not in reality be available. Rehearsal brings strategy to life by working through situations as a group against the backdrop of a range of potential futures. Find the pitfalls, unearth the assumptions and isolate the critical pre-requisites for success. Wind-tunnel strategy and rehearse the moves that are most likely to create the reality you want to see.

So, next time you’re tasked with organising the strategic planning cycle – make a break from the normal routine, and start to ingrain a habit (or three) that will make your strategy more agile to whatever the future may hold!

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