One thing I don’t miss from my former life is being invited several times a year by other organizations to participate in so-called “strategic planning” sessions.
Never mind that regardless of intent, nearly all of them ended up having
nothing to do with strategic thinking, dumbed down instead to developing a
tactical to-do list.
Real strategy-making deals with uncertainty and ambiguity and very few people
are comfortable with that. More on that later in this essay but there is
another reason these sessions usually end up being a waste of time.
It is because they nearly always employ the outdated 1950s notion of
brainstorming, which until discredited in the 1960s was promoted as a means to
increase creativity by 50%.
So run as fast as possible from any group today still using this practice.
It has long been shown to suck the life out of creativity instead.
I’m not talking about soliciting ideas, observations and input in group
settings which can later be analyzed and filtered for patterns and connections
that could be useful strategically.
I’m talking about sessions where groups are asked to distill or narrow down
the input as a group.
Whether it be participants, governing boards, teams, executives or even some
consultants, there are four types of behaviors that undermine this endeavor according
to experts such as Dr.
“Social loafing” is one which is the predisposition of many people to become
bystanders when in a group setting, looking much as if they are watching a
Then there is “social anxiety” which refers to those poor souls who, rather
than engage in critical thinking, soon begin to defend other people’s ideas from
serious scrutiny and evaluation.
They are usually also the folks who cut off debate, “bless their hearts.”
Even if a few people in the group are given to discussion, evaluation and
strategic thinking, others engage in what is called “regression to the mean,”
meaning they dumb down the results of the meeting to the level of those who
don’t or won’t or can’t think critically.
Some of this is due to what is called “production blocking,” terminology
researchers use to describe a phenomena related to the size of the group.
It refers to the fact that the number of good ideas generated by a group
plateaus when there are more than six or seven participants and plummets as the
size of the group increases.
And this is even before what I call the “good ole boy” effect occurs, which
is when two or three participants align on an agenda in advance of the
brainstorming and spend the session trying to persuade or more often bully the
group into getting their way.
I can’t tell you how many times I was invited to these sessions because of my
expertise in strategic visitor-centric economic and cultural development only to
be forced to listen to someone without a clue pontificate on how something would
be great for tourism.
Now the new CEO of Hogan Assessment Systems, Chamorro-Premuzic explains the
behavior of those who were so eager to lecture me on what was good for tourism
in his recent book entitled, Confidence: How Much You Really Need and How to Get
My problem was never confidence. But shaping community consensus taught me
how often it is that far too many otherwise reasonable people get hoodwinked, as noted in the book,
when lobbied by those high on the narcissism scale, into mistaking confidence
Dr. Chamorro-Premuzic has also found that virtual or online collaboration is far more productive than
in-person group think not only because it tempers these behaviors but because
participants become more thoughtful overall.
Most so-called strategic efforts, however, actually digress into tactical
plans. The late Stephen G. Haines, an expert in strategy-making distinguished
strategic as the “what” versus the tactical of “how.”
Think “roadmap” versus the “vehicles for the trip.”
To paraphrase Gallup experts in the psychology of workplace strengths, being strategic comes from being able to see patterns in data
and events “where others simply see complexity.”
Okay, “piece a cake,” right?
The key word is “patterns.” People who can quickly see patterns and make
connections strategically use that ability to sort through various scenarios and
see alternatives which allows them to be more creative and innovative.
The reason so few people are strategically inclined is that it requires being
comfortable with uncertainty. Fear of impatience with uncertainty can make us
disregard important cues.
In her classic book Beyond
Fear, Dr. Dorothy
Rowe, a clinical psychologist, argues that more than death itself, we fear
But the comfort with uncertainty that comes with being strategic is much more
than falling back on intuition, at least the kinds that are merely gut instincts
or snap judgments, which also give profiling a bad name.
It comes down to what Dr. William Duggan at Columbia describes as Strategic
Intuition in his book by that title, “a clear thought,” but “not fast”
and even somewhat “slow.”
Think “percolate” when you think of strategic intuition or what Steven
Johnson calls a “slow hunch” in his book Where Good Ideas Come From, which by
contrast is another reason brainstorming sessions end up being so
In a now classic white paper for McKinsey & Company, Dr. Hugh Courtney who is now the Dean of International Business
and Strategy at Northeastern, broke “uncertainty” down into four levels.
Level 1 is “A clear enough future” based on market research and near term capacity, which in my experience is where most organizations stop when
attempting to think strategically, if at all.
Level 2 deals with “alternative futures” often in my experience related to
trying to keep up with, emulate or “fast follow” competitors, again pretty
straight forward but near term in nature.
Level 3 is when a push is made to deal on a spectrum with “a range of
futures” but still pretty predictable.
Level 4 is looking out into “true ambiguity,” still data-derivative but more
qualitative and speculative in nature.
Plans should strive to deal with all four levels but most clearly stop at the
first. Insights into level 4 often comes from looking back at history for clues
to patterns that will influence the future.
Truly strategic organizations employ all four levels but organically evolve
strategies by immediately informing them as new information become
It is amazing how rapid, in a relative sense, that even the most long term uncertainties are able to
be dialed into focus, only to be replaced by more longer term uncertainties.
Why bother then? Because research confirms that more strategic organizations are
not only more nimble and innovative but they perform at higher levels.
But strategy-making is hard work, even for people who are naturally