By John Barrington
“If I had an hour to solve a problem and my life depended on the solution, I would spend the first 55 minutes determining the proper question to ask, for once I know the proper question, I could solve the problem in less than five minutes.”
In a meeting with a CEO and Head of Strategy recently, we discussed the organisation's strategy program for the ensuing year. The organisation was going through profound change and there was great uncertainty in both the external and internal environments. While there was a longer term plan in place, the short term imperatives necessitated a clear view on tactical, rather than strategic, planning. To spend time on long term strategy in this environment would not have met the needs of the organisation, or its owners.
Through the course of the discussion, the CEO and EGM agreed greater clarity was required on the actions to be implemented in the next 12 months in order to fulfil the long term objectives. However, in this period of great uncertainty, many questions of significant importance remained unanswered. Such questions included those that required direction from the Board, and others that required shareholder approval. To embark on planning in the absence of clear direction in response to these questions would be folly.
The solution was to devote an executive planning session to framing appropriate questions to take to the Board.
This required a sound and shared understanding of the current operating environment (external and internal), performance to date, and a view on the outlook for the industry and the organisation.
But the key to success was framing the right question. The quote at the outset of this blog comes from an article by Vogt, Brown and Isaacs and a further quote is included in the text. Another Nobel-prize winner, physicist Arno Penzias, when asked what accounted for his success, replied, "I went for the jugular question". This applies whether you are a Nobel Laureate, strategist or just a person trying to resolve an issue. And the issue may be long-term, as is usually the case in strategy, or a short-term matter. First spend the time defining the issue, for then the answer is easy.
In the Argenti Process of Strategic Planning, the strategic issues, or strategic elephants as John Argenti calls them, are the fulcrum point of the strategy development process. Spend sufficient time precisely determining the truly strategic issues, those matters that management must absolutely get right if it is to prosper in the long run, and the strategy development process will be far more effective and far simpler.
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