Strategic Planning in a World of Uncertainty

In the UK there seems to be consensus on just one issue, uncertainty has increased since the UK Brexit vote on 23rd June. In our organisations, one key question is how to manage uncertainty and lead our organisations through the coming months and years?

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As the floods have taught us, nothing is predictable and stable!

Today’s UK situation reminds me of a business situation I experienced several years ago. During this period of uncertainty we ran a series of workshops using the ‘exploratory approach’ to Scenario Planning.  This workshops had a big impact on our business and helped us to move forward through the ‘fog’ with some confidence – we managed uncertainty.

The situation then, in early 1990’s, was that the company I worked for faced a high degree of technical uncertainty. The company was very successful in fixed cabled voice telephones. All around the world was changing rapidly. Desktop computing, mobile computing, mobile telephony, high speed data, wireless technology were all perceived as an opportunity, or threat, to the company’s traditional technology and product base.

Using Scenario Planning

I was part of the management team that addressed this, assisted by external facilitators, using the exploratory approach to scenario planning. People with differing perspectives worked together in workshops to describe 4 alternative, but possible futures. The possibilities were that the future of communication would be dominated by

  • Low Cost
  •  High data rate demand;
  •  Maximum mobility;
  •   Maximum security (of information)

The objective was not to predict what the future would be, (that was too uncertain), rather to create a series of plausible futures. This approach had the advantage that different perspectives were automatically valued and listened to and captured. (Interestingly, 30 years on, we could debate how things have evolved. In practice, I believe that it is a hybrid of the possible scenario worlds we described at that time).
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Once we had defined the 4 plausible futures or ‘scenarios’ we looked at each in turn and addressed what actions (e.g. technology development, product development, skills development), we could take to prepare ourselves to prosper in that world. When that was completed for all 4 plausible futures, we found that some actions were appropriate for all 4 of the different scenarios; whilst some actions were unique to a single scenario.

4-box-grid

The important point is that the work we did on the scenarios enabled the marketing, technology and new product development teams to prioritise and focus on actions which would be very relevant, useful and revenue generating in 2 or 3 of the scenarios.

Decisions were made and we emerged from the process with a clear agreed plan of strategic and tactical actions – we were managing in uncertainty!

Nigel Chapman, Director, Centre for Facilitation

To discuss ideas for future strategy planning events contact us via our website

Collaborative Venues

Very frequently, whilst we are starting to plan workshops / events with our clients, the discussion incorporates ‘where shall we hold this event?’
At one level there are the usual practical considerations, including cost, ease of access, capacity and facilities at the venue, cost etc! At another level, we consider the opportunity the location and environment provides to enhance the event itself. A few examples in the past couple of years illustrate the point

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• A Programme Manager needed a project group, composed of very technically competent specialists to understand the interrelationship between their disciplines and how the various parts of the project formed the whole mosaic. In this case a countryside location, remote, but accessible and modest, was chosen for their monthly two day project review workshops. The two days together in a remote location enabled the team to leave behind the shackles of the day-to-day workplace. It enabled collaborative working so that the specialists were able to deliver coherent and highly effective solutions.

• A team needed to develop their Customer Relationship Management capability so we held their workshop at a conference venue that shares space with an up-market repair centre for prestigious cars. The venue provided a great opportunity for participants to see first-hand how the repair centre went about its work – and particularly to see the attention to detail that really makes a difference and generates referrals and repeat business.

VLUU L200  / Samsung L200

• We worked with the Energy Strategy UK team to explore the future of transport energy. The workshop was held at a Transport Museum in Coventry. This venue provided an insight through a tangible record of transport energy in the past. In the workshop design we incorporated activities using these resources to ‘hover above’ today and look back and look forward. A great stimulate to innovative thinking.

Photo competition

• Another client, passionately seeking for innovation in the Long Term Care of people, chose a location that enabled visits to be made to local venues to provoke thinking. For example, the visit to a local horticultural nursery, highlighted the motivation and dedication of the plant specialists, for many of them their work was much more than a means to earn money.
A well-chosen venue can support the overall theme of an event and can become part of the process. Seeking out interesting locations is a challenge but can often add real value to the event.

Nigel Chapman

Peeping Upwards Above Our Silos: the process of inter-disciplinary working

Diverse skills working together in valuable ‘white space’

As Facilitators we enjoy the stretching challenges we encounter as we strive to help people by providing appropriate processes to achieve ambitious goals. Recently we have successfully provided facilitation in situations where people are engaging ways of working to elevate themselves out of their usual silos into valuable ‘white space’ to create breakthrough or ‘holistic’ solutions. We know there is both a need and benefit for people with diverse skills to work together in some form of ‘higher ground’ that could be called ‘white space’. Sometimes we call this process “Cathedral Thinking”.

white space

Facilitators can help people to reach this white space, by providing well-thought through facilitation processes. These processes are designed so that people are enabled to explore, challenge and articulate a shared goal. We design ways to make sure that people really listen to, hear and understand each other, and then bridge through to working together to achieve progress towards the shared goal.

How can this happen? These four examples are great demonstrations of what I mean by facilitating in the white space:-

I worked with a newly appointed business manager, needing to turnaround an ailing company very quickly. The diagnosis was that there were many people, with excellent functional skills working in strong functions. However, in totality the overall business result was quite frankly abject mediocrity! Through a series of workshops we enabled people to envisage a ‘boundary-less organisation’ where the diverse, but potentially complimentary skills were welded together to achieve a successful, sustainable, robust business.

Another project was focused on constructing a brand new hospital. The traditional ways of working were at best transactional, more frequently adversarial. We invested time to share goals and perspectives and to form common goals. This process motivated everyone and helped people to understand each other’s potential contribution. Unprecedented levels of productivity resulted. It would be easy to assume that everyone just wanted to ‘make as much money as possible’. However when you delve deeper into the shared personal motivations there is far more at stake than this. The installers wanted to go home at the end of the working day without a sore back / neck (ergonomics). We heard stories from the factory workers wanting to go to Sunday morning sports with their children instead of being in the factory making rushed components desperately needed the next day. In practice, a well facilitated process enabled people to achieve their personal goals and make a successful project.

Another project exposed me to another circumstance where diverse skills needed to work together in this valuable white space to craft a comprehensive and robust solution to a very complex set of issues. In this case, an organisation had a need to design and implement a global process / system for dealing with and transparently reporting financial currency hedging. This programme had all the usual ingredients of establishing common goals. The critical factor in this project was the impact of language, and in particular the understanding of meaning and culture within the multi-national team of people. The facilitation processes had to invest time to carefully tease out perspectives. This meant that people were able to appreciate and value the background underlying those perspectives.

More recently, we facilitated an EPSRC sandpit, addressing the Nexus involving Water, Food and Energy. It was delightful to work with and facilitate a wide range of academic disciplines and stakeholders with differing perspectives. Our process supported the group to identify some approaches that transcended the whole topic and expertise in the room. Once again the facilitation processes were designed to enable people to explore, challenge and ultimately share a common goal. We encouraged people to value and connect diversity. The result was to create and articulate novel programmes in the ‘white space’.

This approach can also be seen currently in the world’s response to Ebola, using a ‘Systems Thinking’ perspective. As we start to see progress being made what is becoming clearer is that a diverse range of skills / organisations, including Governments, Armies; Community Leaders; Scientists; Pharmaceutical competitors; Medical professionals; Academics; Charities; came together to formulate and adapt a programme to tackle the situation. It will be enlightening to understand what learning can emerge (de contextualized) and how that learning might be reused to inform any situation where there may be a benefit to enabling a diverse group of skills to work together, to address a shared goal.

Increasingly we see that people, organisations, communities are facing up to challenges which may be most effectively addressed by moving outside and above boundaries into the ‘white space’ described here. In that space, people need to be helped to listen to each other, to understand each other’s language, context, perspective and drivers. Fortunately a professional, skilled Facilitator will be able to provide useful processes to enable this dialogue and engagement.

If you would like to explore ways of reaching upwards to the white space of Cathedral Thinking we would love to talk to you.

Are our meetings giving a return on investment?

Whilst delivering a training course recently, the perennial topic of effective meetings raised it head – again!

Several of the people on the course were quite stressed, working long hours, looking tired and generally not the happiest people on the planet! I then did a quick survey, asking the simple question, ‘On average, how many hours per week do you spend in meetings?’  The replies ranged from about 5 hours to one person spending 30+ hours per week in meetings. Each of these meetings seemed to be typically attended by about 6 people. I then asked:-

 ‘and if your company’s CEO walked into the meeting, would all participants be able to explain what the meeting was going to achieve and how they were contributing to that objective?’ 

There was some nervous shifting in chairs and mutters – I felt I touched a nerve, so not wishing to heap further pain on already stressed individuals I backed off and opened up a ‘back to basics’ session on effective meetings, this resulted in a number of delegates committing to revisit their own meeting schedules.

It seems that most of us know what we should do for a meeting (e.g. justify, plan, prepare, run, follow-up on). However it is easy to find a series of meetings that have become a routine – they have a ‘life of their own’ – and occur without much thought and even less challenge about the actual value.

In our working lives, do we start to behave like hamsters in a wheel, expending more and more energy running around the same track? If this touches a nerve for you, do yourself a favour and just do a very quick analysis of your recent time at work:-

  • How many meetings did you run / attend?
  • Was the meeting justified, was it the best way to achieve the objective?
  • Was each meeting effective and efficient, were all attendees required and able to contribute?
  • If a key stakeholder, like the company CEO, or a major shareholder in the company, walked into the room, would you be confident to explain why the meeting was happening?

If you are positive in all your answers, Gold Star, well done! – keep up the good work.

If not, maybe you have found one key to a more productive and less stressful working life.

Value Added Venues

When we start to plan workshops and events with our clients, the discussion includes the question about ‘where shall we hold this event?’

Of course there are the usual practical considerations, including cost, ease of access, capacity and facilities at the venue and the cost! At another level, we consider the opportunity the location and environment provides to enhance the event itself.

  • Transport Energy Issues

    Transport Energy Issues

    We worked with the Energy Strategy UK team to explore the future of transport energy. The workshop was held at a Transport Museum in Coventry. This venue provided an insight through a tangible record of transport energy in the past. In the workshop design we incorporated activities using these resources to ‘hover above’ today and look back and look forward. A great way to stimulate creative thinking about a future where transport may look very different to the past.

  • We worked with a Programme Manager who needed a project group, composed of very technically competent specialists to understand the interrelationship between their disciplines and how the various parts of the project formed the whole mosaic. In this case a countryside site, remote, but accessible and modest, was chosen for their monthly two-day project review workshops. The two days together in a remote location enabled the team to leave behind the shackles of the day-to-day workplace. A more collaborative style of working was established so that the specialists  were able  to deliver coherent and highly effective solutions.
  • A team needed to develop their Customer Relationship Management capability so we held their workshop at a conference venue that shares space with an up-market repair centre for prestigious cars. The venue provided a great opportunity for participants to see first-hand how the repair centre went about its work – and particularly to see the attention to detail that really makes a difference and generates referrals and repeat business.
  • Ready for Revolution

    Ready for Revolution

    We worked on a “Sandpit” event for the TSB, who were seeking projects to support radical innovation in the Long Term Care of people. We agreed on Crewe Hall,  a location that enabled visits to be made to local venues to provoke thinking. This included a visit to a local garden centre  which highlighted the intense dedication of the plant specialists, for many of them their work was much more than a means to earn money. We also planned a visit to the Methodist Chapel, which provided insight into communities, care and peaceful revolutions.

A well-chosen venue can support the overall theme of an event and can become part of the process. Seeking out interesting locations is a challenge but can often add real value to the event.

Collaboration: The Key to Project Success?

In October 2012 the BBC broadcasted a 2-part series by Evan Davis entitled ‘Built in Britain’ http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b01nd290.

In these programmes Evan explored the potential for major infrastructure projects to act as a catalyst for reinvigorating the UK economy. In part 2, the story focused on two major projects; the high speed rail link between St Pancras and the Channel Tunnel; also the Olympic Park. The projects and the potential economic impact were very interesting.

The programme explored the reasons for the success of these two projects and sought to explain the reasons for our ‘new found ability to deliver complex projects successfully’. In addition to funding and engineering excellence, key project people identified a significant reason for the success of these projects in comparison to previous experiences was the contractual relationships set-up; which really encouraged people to work together – a very practical demonstration of the power of collaboration.

This is music to the ears. For many years I have worked with projects, engineering, construction and business change projects. In my experience the most successful projects emerge when project teams really do work together and engage their stakeholders effectively.

Some recent examples in my work include

Global Change

The Project Director inherited a global business change project that had experienced two previous false starts. The Director instigated monthly, off-site, facilitated workshops.

New IT Systems

In the other two examples, business change projects incorporating new IT, the solutions needed to be rolled out across numerous business units in the country. A short sequence of facilitated project launch workshops were instigated.

During these different workshops the facilitators focussed on providing processes that enabled participants to absolutely engage in the highly uncertain situations.

These workshops went much further than the traditional project kick-off meetings where PowerPoint slides are shown and contact details are exchanged. In these facilitated workshops differing viewpoints and perspectives at the start of the project were seen as enriching the process. Through a series of professionally facilitated steps, all participants were able to share, explore and ultimately shape their projects. This led to true collaboration.

Just as in the recent infrastructure projects described in the Evan Davis programme, these business change projects were all delivered very successfully. Perhaps the evidence points to an emergent clue – the key that unlocks a stream of successful projects – true collaboration?
nigelchapman@centreforfacilitation.co.uk

Facilitation Must Be More than Fun

Inevitably when we commence planning with clients / potential clients we hold discussions with the leader – the champions of the cause.

In two recent examples comments have been made that set alarm bells ringing. One client said, “I hope you are not going to get us to play silly games, a recent facilitator had us throwing cushions around the room, someone ended up with broken glasses, I’ve no idea why we did that”. Another client recalled having some fun painting tee-shirts, but didn’t feel there was any relevance to the workshop.

This set me thinking. We start with the premise that the role of the facilitator is to provide the group / team with processes that enable them to (more) effectively address a defined purpose. We find that whilst there is often a need to explain and sometimes justify our proposal to include a certain exercise before we run it, we have not encountered examples where after the exercise has run people, especially the leader, dismiss it as ‘silly’ or a ‘waste of time’.

It seems that, at best, some facilitators are failing to communicate the purpose of their exercises, at worst, perhaps, some are including disparate activities without purpose to the fill the time. We believe that this is bad news for the franchise that is ‘facilitation’. Our aim should be to provide effective processes that are ‘fit for purpose’. Maybe, sometimes, an exercise fails to work / deliver the desired progress; this can and does happen, the professional response should be to say so, to regroup and address the need in a more appropriate manner.  This should be transparent to all involved so that people will not go away muttering ‘I’ve no idea why we did that’.

We are not being spoil sports, ‘fun’ exercises can be very usefully incorporated into team building and creative learning events, but let’s make sure that they really do fit and ensure they are highlighted in context to participants.

Nigel Chapman, Centre for Facilitation

nigelchapman@centreforfacilitation.co.uk

What Makes Change Programmes Stick?

Currently I am working on four independent pieces of work which can be described as business change. These involve, to varying degrees, changed ways of working, new IT solutions, strategic initiatives to address the market. All have in common the desire to improve the organisation. In every case there is a senior sponsor holding some fairly clear thoughts on the need for the change but not so sure about the means to achieve. Ultimately what is achieved from all of these various programmes will be largely dependent upon the extent to which people grasp the change and make it happen.
I am quietly very confident that all of these programmes will be successful. Yet this seems at odds with the numerous surveys that would suggest that as many as 3 out of 4 change programmes fail to meet expectations. In a way it feels as though we have grown change programmes into monsters – and they scare us! This often leads to a response that mobilises various resources, books, courses, consultants, complex models which in turn either leads to confusion or paralysis or both. Does this have to be so? I think not!

At the heart of many, if not all, change programmes – are people. All sorts of people, people who have identified the need for change (sponsors), people who agree the need (advocates), people who feel threatened by the change, people who can bring potentially useful specialist expertise and other people, probably the majority, who either haven’t heard about the change programme at all, or if they have – just wonder what is going on.

If the situation described above is the reality, then it seems that fundamentally that to move forward and to build momentum it is simple…. people need to talk to each other. However, somehow this gets lost in the hustle and bustle of the day-to-day pressures. Combine this with the noise from the advice and teachings of the books, courses, consultants, complex models and the desire to be ‘seen to be doing something’ and surprise, surprise whatever results are, or are not delivered, there are always massive gaps versus expectations.

Compare this to my current role as a facilitator on the four different change programmes. In each case I am working closely with the sponsors to ensure that we create the appropriate environment for people to be able to talk to each other. Of course, it is not just to talk, it is to listen, to ask questions, to challenge, to propose, to explore and to listen again – so that everyone builds a shared understanding, not only of what the change is aiming to achieve, but also how they can shape, influence, contribute to –  and ultimately own the change. I know how important these discussions will be in making the change stick and I am looking forward to observing how powerful this seemingly simple process is in practice.

nigelchapman@centreforfacilitation.co.uk