of Strategic Conversation
The U. S. economy and world events are creating enormous challenges for businesses of all sizes. For many companies and government bodies, it is a time to examine the costs related to doing business and delivering services in a sustainable manner. These firms are laying off workers because they see little chance for even a moderate economic rebound over the next year or two.
In my experience, a company in layoff mode exclusively focuses on cutting costs and stops thinking as an organization. The distractions of dealing with a slump are so consuming that leaders don't take the time to look ahead to anticipate what else might happen. In difficulty, strategy is the first victim. The second victim is marketing.
A business slowdown is actually the best time for initiating a strategic conversation because it is a natural point at which to pause and reflect. To ignore the opportunity is tantamount to ensuring that the next downturn is going to come more quickly and with greater intensity than it otherwise would.
There are many ways to organize and sustain a strategic conversation within a company but it is more important to get underway than to take time to search for the perfect method. For background I recommend The Art of the Long View by Peter Schwartz, co-founder of The Global Business Network (www.gbn.org) of Emeryville, California.
Schwartz and Co. have done the rest of us a great favor by including a brief but definitive description of the necessary conditions for creating a strategic conversation. This "user's guide" takes the mystery out of the process while allowing leaders to create formats that work well for their particular situations. The assumption here is that no "one size fits all" program exists.
The first and probably most critical step in my experience is an open environment in which no ideas are rejected (or accepted) out of hand so that participants feel safe to speak up. This means company leaders may participate but not preside. Get an outside resource to play the role of facilitator. Promote fearless give and take and make sure the group considers every point.
Next in line is to involve outsiders (customers and suppliers for example) in the process. It is extremely rare for fresh thinking to take place internally. There are too many turf battles and preconceived notions present for the process to be of any value. What appears to be irrelevant information is often very useful. Peter Drucker likes to point out that the greatest advancement in producing steel occurred about 90 years ago with the introduction of a process invented entirely outside the industry.
Next ask the question "where are we now?" as a precursor to "where are we going?" It is very important to examine trends, in your business and elsewhere, that may affect you at some point. You will likely find there are areas of information that you need to study more carefully. The old buzzword of acting like a "learning organization" still applies.
And, by all means, keep a strategic conversation going indefinitely after the project in front of you comes to an end. You will find that the people you involve will tell you that the exercise was the best thing you have ever done for the company. People will likely read more and share more information than they had prior. New energy and ideas you never knew existed will come across your desk, so long as you resist the temptation to invent your company's "official future" and thereby kill any initiative your people may have put into motion.
Skip Corsini represents Dale Carnegie Training in the San Francisco Bay Area. He has a 29-year career in sales, marketing, advocacy, public relations, education and corporate training and development. He is a freelance writer in addition to his real job. In his spare time he bakes 30-minute brownies in just 20 minutes. You may contact Skip at firstname.lastname@example.org .
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