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Develop a common focus for your division aligned to a corporate strategy.

By Ruth Tearle

One of the principles of strategic alignment is that all divisional and SBU strategies support the organizational strategy. This article deals with doing strategic planning at a divisional or SBU level.

When to do strategy at a divisional level.

Strategic planning is a powerful organizational development intervention, that can be used to help a team develop a common focus.

As a leader of a division or functional area within an organization, you will need to hold a strategic planning workshop for your division when faced with one or more of the following situations:

  1. Your organization has just developed a new corporate strategy which will now place additional demands on your division.
  2. You have a number of departments reporting to you - each headed by a good leader. But the different departments are not supporting one another in the way they should.
  3. You are feeling frustrated by a team that is not achieving what you expect from them. You are getting complaints from your colleagues in other divisions that shows your team is no performing as they should. They are not meeting deadlines. Their quality is not what their customers expect from them. They are having to redo work.
  4. Your team is not happy. They feel they are doing too much. There are too many projects. They are feeling stressed. People say that the different departments in your division are working as autonomous silos - often against one another. Some members of your team complain that there is a lack of direction.

To provide your division with focus, you decide to hold a strategic planning workshop.


What does a team focus look like?

How do you know when you got a team focus or a common direction? Providing focus means adopting the 80/20 principle. This means helping your team to focus on the 20% of priority areas that will provide them with 80% of their future success. To do this, they need to have:

  1. A long term vision: A clear and detailed picture of what you division will look like, in the long term future.
  2. A short term focus. The team needs to identify a few 'golden projects' that the entire team will focus on during the next 6 months. These projects would simultaneously:
    • Solve 80% of the most critical problems your division is currently experiencing.
    • Take a giant step towards achieving both a corporate and divisional goal, and living your divisions brand or long term vision.
    • Energize and excite your team.

5 habits that prevent a division from achieving a common focus and direction.

The following five habits prevent a division from achieving a common focus.

1. Using operational thinking to solve a strategic problem.

People that are used to operational rather than strategic thinking, often want to have debates about what they already know - (their objectives, action plans and solutions.) They often feel uncomfortable doing the systems thinking or strategic analyses that are needed to provide a common direction.

2. Silo mentality.

This is where individuals or units view the entire division through the filter of their own department or function. This type of 'silo thinking' is often reinforced during strategy workshops when the head of each department or function is asked to deliver a presentation on their own area. They are often encouraged to talk about what their area achieved over the last year, what issues they are facing today, and what they want to achieve in the future. While this may make each leader feel that he has been heard, it has a negative effect on the team work of the division as a whole. It reinforces departmental silo thinking, operational thinking and encourages political power plays between different departments within a division.

As your leaders try to squeeze their square pegs of real business issues into the round holes required by the template, they become frustrated.

3. Cascading jargon.

Some organizations cascade mission statements from corporate level, to divisional level to departmental level. Often these mission statements are developed using a generic template or methodology which may be unrelated to the business of your division. The generic methodology often asks leaders to develop objectives, indicators, or critical success factors around generic themes like 'customer focus', 'people', 'technology', 'process', or 'collaboration'. Not only do these templates fail to provide direction, but they waste your leaders time. This causes them to be cynical about anything related to 'strategy'.

4. Large group debates.

Many people believe that by having debates or conversations in a large group, they will achieve a common direction. The opposite is true. Usually two or three powerful individuals choose the issues to be debated. And as long as they are dominating the discussion, the power players feel satisfied with the process. Meanwhile the rest of the group often opts out. The end result of large group debates is usually a lot of hot air, and frustration. A common direction is almost impossible to achieve via a group debate.

opt-out5. Weak facilitation.

Facilitators who try to please everyone in the group, often land up pleasing no-one. Because they are afraid of upsetting a power player in the group, they allow:

  • Political agendas to control the agenda.
  • Discussions to go off track or to go on too long
  • Two or three individuals to dominate discussions.

After two or three days of strategic planning, the group is left where it started. Departments acting in silos trying to score political points off one another, rather than a team united by a common focus. What a waste of time!

5 habits that help a team achieve a common direction and focus

Use the following 5 habits to develop a common strategic direction for your team.

small-teams1. Multi-disciplinary teams.

To ensure that everyone in the group participates in the process of building a common vision, use a number of small competing teams. This will prevent one or two people from dominating, and will encourage people who work in different functional areas to share their knowledge and ideas.

If you keep mixing your teams, so that everyone gets a chance to work with everyone else, a commonality of thinking will emerge naturally - without a tedious debate or conflict.

2. Strategic rather than operational thinking.

Many leaders are comfortable with operational thinking. For them, strategy is about finding ways to improve their existing operations. In their thinking they like to move from the present to the future, and look at their world from the inside out - they begin with their department and then consider their division, their organization, and maybe their customers.

Strategic thinkers think in reverse:

From the future to the present.

From the outside in.

To achieve a common strategic direction, leaders need to do strategic thinking. This means reversing their natural thinking style. They focus on what will be required of them in a future that may be different from today.

They begin with the future and work back to the present.

They look outside their department to the organization's future customers and then work backwards - looking at how their organization will compete for these customers, and the role their division and therefore their department can play, in supporting their organization.

3. Stay focused.

While the aim of your workshop may be to develop a common direction for your team, not everyone in the workshop wants that to happen. For some political players, a common direction could curtail their power. These power players will often try to distract the group from the work they need to do to develop a common strategic direction. Or some delegates cannot move out of operational thinking. They will bring up all sorts of urgent or important problems or issues that they insist have to be debated right now and will get very upset if you don't immediately agree to debate these issue.

If you want to achieve a common focus, it is important to get the group to recognize that not every problem can be solved in one single workshop. If your strategy workshop is to achieve a common direction, it is important to focus on those activities that will give the team a common focus. Other issues should be placed on a 'parking lot' to be discussed at another time.

4. Use the right thinking tool for the right purpose.

Developing a common focus requires a group to work through a number of structured activities. Each activity is designed to achieve a different result, and requires a specific type of thinking to achieve that result. Thus in any strategy workshop, delegates will alternate between detailed and big picture thinking, left brain and right brain thinking, creating their own vision, and getting direction from their leader. A skilled facilitator directs the group into the best type of thinking to use for each activity. For example, the first phase of any strategy workshop aims to get groups to expand their thinking and see their division from different points of view. Here a facilitator will provide the group with structured activities that use the left side of their brain for encouraging detail, and the right side of their brains to get a big picture focus. Once a group has a developed a common vision of their division for the future, and has chosen their 3-5 focus areas for the next six months, the facilitator may use a debate as a way of choosing their 'golden project' or get the leader to provide direction.

5. Know when to stop.

non-strategic-leadersImagine the scene. It is 3:30 pm on the last day of the workshop. You can feel the positive energy in the room. People are saying "I would never have believed how much we all have in common." "For the first time ever, we have a clear direction." "When I arrived here yesterday, I was so demotivated I was ready to resign. But now I am excited about where we are going." "It's nice to work as a team." The leader of the division is both excited and relieved. He has achieved far more than he ever imagined.

He looks at his watch. They were supposed to end at 5:00 p.m. Like a gambler who has hit the jackpot, but can't take his winnings and go home, he decides that perhaps the group can use the extra time to debate one of the issues on their parking lot. Doing this would take the group back to where they were before. Unfocused. Divided. And negative. So resist the temptation to gamble away your win. When you have achieved your common focus, stop the workshop. Thank the group for their hard work. Then find a way to celebrate your achievement.

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