Few would argue that a nimble, quick-to-learn and quick-to-adapt organization is a bad thing. Given the rate of change in our world, those characteristics are increasingly table-stakes for survival and success.

Why then has the approach to strategy and the notion of “strategic planning” in so many organizations remained mired in a 1960’s kind of static, top-down event-focused model? Many firms practice a style of strategic planning that might have worked in a different time and place, but today, fast-to-try, fast-to-fail and fast-to-learn are essential for survival and success.

Give Me an Epiphany, Darn-It!

Rarely does just the act of thinking through circumstances, opportunities and strategies yield the epiphany that allows a firm to carve out a competitive advantage. In my experience, the management teams who have pursued the “strategy as event’ approach with the annual or semi-annual meeting(s) serving as the time to talk strategy and decide, are often frustrated with the time investment and disappointing outcomes. Few epiphanies…a lot of time…a lot of bickering and ambiguous outcomes with no clear next steps. Sounds like fun, doesn’t it?

Hypotheses and Informed Experiments, Please!

The best outcome of the front end of any strategy process is one or more (a limited number, please) of ideas … hypotheses, that can quickly be turned into and managed as experiments.

True value in the form of learning accrues to the organization from working through the strategic experiment, assessing outcomes and refining the ideas. Because these workplace and marketplace experiments require people to implement, manage, and assess them, the act of engaging the employee population creates understanding, involvement, excitement and importantly idea sharing.

It Feels So Good When We Stop!

I’ve worked with teams who were accustomed to and frustrated by the “event” orientation of planning. When refocused on assessment, analysis and importantly, hypothesis generation, the unreasonable expectation of finding the magical answer was replaced by high quality dialogue around generating ideas for better serving customers and beating competitors. After a series of these discussions over time, and with some focused facilitation, the teams were able to zero in on one or two strategic hypotheses to invest in and learn from.

The Project Management Art of Building out Strategic Experiments

While I frequently reference this phase as the Execution phase, I prefer Experiment…both because it doesn’t sound so fatal…and it implies Doing, Measuring, Learning and Refining (DMLR).  In my estimation, it’s in the DMLR cycle where the real work … and the real “Ah Ha” moments of strategy occur.

Six Ideas for Implementing an Effective Doing, Learning, Measuring, Refining Program:

  1. Treat each strategic experiment like a project. Assign a Project Manager and use Best Practices PM to charter, scope, engage stakeholders, define the work, assess the risks, plan and estimate the work, implement the work, monitor and communicate. Yeah, that’s a mouthful. Your Project Manager in this case is priceless.
  2. Ensure that there’s a strong sponsor in place for every experiment. Yes, best practices project management again. If this is important enough to be betting your strategic future on, it’s important enough to provide a Supportive Sponsor with heft and teeth.
  3. Explain, Engage and Listen! People work in compliance under orders, they work with their hearts and minds when they are part of something big. Getting them involved is good. Arming them with context on why, and what and importance is critical. Listening to their feedback is priceless. Since many strategic initiatives involve doing new things or doing things differently, this holistic approach to engagement is essential.
  4. Create Learning and Sharing Forums with Teeth. It’s good to pre and post-mortems…it’s better to create ample opportunities for idea sharing, lessons learned and adjustments to experiments on the move. Hey, I’m probably violating several tenets of The Scientific Method with the adjustment statement, but timeliness is critical and your Project Manager will help you manage changes in the plan. By the way, by this time, you may want to give your PM a big fat raise!
  5. The Truth is Always in the Field … Sometimes You Just Have to Look Carefully. The best strategic experiments involve customers and partners. Invite them in…make them part of the process and of course observe and listen carefully. And then act.
  6. Do Something with the Outcomes-Plan to Change or Move Forward. After a period of time and armed with the insights and feedback of employees, customers and partners, there’s a vetting and decision-making process that those in charge have to prosecute. From kill to change to go to what’s next, you and your team are on the hook for returning to the process and assessing and deciding.

The Bottom-Line for Now

There are at least two “dirty little secrets” in what I’ve described above. It’s a nefarious plan for involving the broader organization in strategy and execution, and it not so secretly “operationalizes” the work of strategy. While there’s no magic and I would be misleading if I didn’t highlight that the process is filled with bumps, hiccups and debates, it’s darned powerful if and when managed properly.

This blog originally appeared at artpetty.com.

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