Leading Strategy

Unusually Excellent leaders appreciate the power of a plan. They realize that even the best athletes need a playbook, a game plan, or a pre-shot routine to ensure that their talent shows up on the field. Surgeons, pilots, lawyers, practitioners of any profession where the work is complex always have a plan–even if the task is something they’ve done hundreds of times before.

And the most important thing they know is that although the content of brilliant plans is the domain of sophisticated data and creative thinking, the art of leading strategy is a process competency–a skill that great leaders continuously sharpen. They realize that great plans develop from vigorous conversations, among the best people they can gather, and then are endorsed and driven from the top.

That said, a plan–no matter how brilliant–is not a strategy. A strategy is bigger than a plan. After all is said and done, a plan is an intellectual construction that combines the best information that can be gathered about what is so now, thoughtful predictions about what will happen in the future, and a model for how to succeed in light of those conditions. A strategy includes this plan but also accounts for how we do things, not just what we’ll do–and it accounts for what happens when that plan collides with reality.

A strategy is the next, penultimate step in the process that begins with a vision, that then becomes a formal plan, and only then, in light of changing events, plays out as a strategy. That strategy, when put into practice, produces measurable results–with tactics as the short-term response to unexpected contingencies. A great plan, as it evolves into a great strategy, also presents the opportunity for the crucial performance variable to be measured and discussed–the core requirement for managing execution.


The Process: Inclusive and Collaborative

Leading strategy is a process competency. Thus, the leverage for leaders is in designing, creating, and blessing the planning process. The process must include the best people and the best ideas, from both within and outside the company, and must foster collaborative thinking and constructive, rigorous discussion. As is true for any effective process, there is a team that owns and runs the process. To accomplish this, a critical first step is deciding who is on the planning team. The composition of players on the team will have much to do with the shape of the plan. Who are the best people to have in the room? One clue: it usually isn’t just a top down organizational chart roster. It is important to have a bottom-up process for gathering ideas from a wide range of people before a plan is made.

The challenge for the leader of a planning process is to support these contributors in a collaborative conversation that distills a wide range of ideas into a workable list of principles from which a real plan can be built. It is simply impossible for a single individual, no matter how brilliant, to understand all of the nuances of the current situation or come up with all of the possible future scenarios.


The Plan: Realistic and Compelling

One of the common dangers in planning is allowing the process to build too much complexity into the final plan. The liability of complexity, even if it makes the plan seem more complete and elegant, is that it can lead to confusion and difficulties in coordination. It can also take limited resources away from the highest-priority section of the base plan and spread them too thin across too many possibilities.

Ensuring that a plan is complete and powerful comes down to a series of smart and courageous decisions by you, the leader. Your role in the planning process begins with setting the vision and assembling the planning team. After that, unfortunately, many leaders tend to walk away and focus on other pressing matters–with the understandable intention of granting the team sufficient autonomy and latitude–and to return only when the team presents a finished plan.

That is a mistake. As leader, you need to be engaged throughout the process; not to try to influence the contents of the final plan, but to make sure the process moves along with appropriate energy and that the team remains realistic in terms of time, resources, and goals. That means you must set boundary conditions, based on your own appraisal of the people, money, attention, and time available. When you reach the final plan, what is delivered to you for ratification should be a plan to win, but with the widest possible range of scenarios within the constraints of your resources.

All great plans ultimately have great utility. And for that to happen, the plan must have the full commitment of everyone involved in its execution. That commitment may begin at the top, with you–but it must be made manifest throughout the organization. That will happen only if all the participants feel that they’ve had a stake, no matter how small, in that plan’s creation.

Great plans are essentially carefully crafted scenarios for victory–and they always balance the conviction of commitment with the reality of the unknown. Though perfect precision is impossible with any plan, good ones always make an effort to account for likely contingencies–the “known unknowns.”

A final and equally important task of the leader during planning is leading the team by example, resolving disputes, and breaking logjams. The leader also needs to inspire and motivate creativity when the team is being too careful. When the plan is completed, the leader needs to scrutinize it based on his or her own experiences, then formally and publicly bless it. But at the same time they invest in building the best plan possible, leaders know that, as the saying goes, no plan survives contact with the enemy–so they must regularly monitor the conditions on the field and remain flexible enough to revise or replace the plan if necessary.

John Hammis a Silicon Valley leadership expert and venture capitalist. He has also been a CEO, a board member at over 30 companies, and a CEO advisor and executive coach to senior leaders at a wide variety of organizations.


Reprinted by permission from the publisher Jossey-Bass, an imprint of Wiley from Unusually Excellent by John Hamm. Copyright (c) 2011 by Hamm.


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