How Organisations Build Strategic Muscle

Strategy

In working with boards and executive teams on strategy we are aiming for two results. The first is the required output, being the strategic plan. This is usually why clients contract us – they need assistance in developing or updating their strategy. 

But the second result, the outcome of our work, is, I believe, possibly even more valuable.

That outcome is about developing the strategic capabilities of the organisation. This may be from a governance perspective or within the executive or how implementation flows down through the organisation. Many times it is a combination of all three: board, executive and management.

This is about developing the strategic muscle of the organisation.

Much like training for an event, this requires a structured regime by which to think, plan and act strategically. Just as fitness requires discipline to follow the regime to achieve a goal, so strategy development requires discipline in the thinking and planning stages even before you get to implementation. 

Benefits of Argenti

This is one of the great strengths of the Argenti System of Strategic Planning. It provides a structured approach that is logical, fact based and additive. That is, each step builds on the preceding activity until the final plan is completed.

Importantly, Argenti provides the organisation with a replicable approach that can be used over successive planning cycles. These successive iterations can often be successfully completed without external assistance, because simply going through the cycle develops the strategic capability of the organisation.

In the sporting world, the term “muscle memory” is used to describe the unconscious long term memory that helps an individual to perform a specific task without thinking about it. This reduces the need for attention and generates maximum efficiency within the motor and memory systems. 

Examples of this are found in familiar activities such as riding a bike, typing, or keying your PIN into a credit card machine. On a bike, you may be thinking about the scenery or focusing on a sprint, but in either scenario the experienced rider does not have to worry about their balance. The experienced rider, with muscle memory long-developed, is free to think about higher-order issues than just the physics of staying upright.

The more a board or exec team practices strategic thinking, the more they build their strategic IQ. The mechanics of following a logical sequence of steps becomes strategic muscle memory and, therefore, the quality of the debate increases dramatically. Like anything, the more you practice, the better you become. 

Applying ‘muscle memory’

One way to apply this in a board setting is to conduct regular strategic dialogues within board meetings. In other blogs I have written about the importance of devoting 30 to 50 per
cent of time to strategic discussions and to do this at the beginning of the meeting, to avoid running out of time. 

But note that holding truly strategic conversations when you are not used to them is difficult. The natural human tendency is to revert to the here and now and the detail with which people are familiar. Strategic discussions require long-term perspectives and, thus, consideration of uncertain futures. They are hard work.

One client we worked with over a 12-month period of facilitating board strategic dialogues had the Chief Operating Officer prepare thought-starter papers before each board meeting. I would meet the COO to prepare the background material and assemble the pack two weeks before to the meeting. One afternoon I entered his office for the 4.30 meeting and he looked up, after what had obviously been a hard day, and said, “Not another bloody strategic dialogue.” And he was a big supporter of these board discussions! 

He had a brilliant mind, knew his industry intimately and could see the value accruing from the board focusing on the performance issues of strategy, rather than just the conformance issues that had previously consumed board time.

In the initial stages, strategic discussions are hard work. Individual directors may be good strategic thinkers but value-adding strategic dialogue is a whole-of-board function. Those naturally adept in working this way may have to support others who have strengths in other areas and this can best be done in the live environment of the boardroom setting. 

Remember, it will take time to perfect the skills. But the dividends will be worth it.

  • John Barrington is a leading strategy and governance expert, and founder of Barrington Consulting Group. For more information, email john.barrington@barrington.com.au.

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