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Category: ideas

What makes for the perfect strategy-making team?

(credit credit)

Yours may be an organisation that’s disciplined and sets aside time to work on strategy, or you may be in an organisation that sees strategy-making as an activity of last resort, either way a key question is ‘who should be on our strategy-making team?’.

It’s an important question because of the problems that can arise when strategy-making involves an ill chosen or ill prepared strategy-making team. It’s often taken as a given that strategy making is done by ‘the top team’, but this isn’t necessarily the best option. At Changez we’ve seen the kind of problems that can arise when a strategy making team goes wrong these can include:

  • turf wars brought into the strategy making process
  • vested interests in the current arrangements playing out into future strategy
  • under-representation of small but upcoming areas of the organisation
  • over representation of expertise in today’s technology rather than tomorrow’s
  • membership weighted towards those who’s success has come from the current structure and might not appreciate the future is likely to require something different.

The question is also important whatever the level of strategy-making be it for a group, department, division or whole organisation. The same holds true whether it’s a commercial organisation, governmental or third sector.

Of course you may at this point be thinking that strategy in many organisations is the product of individual thought and not a team job at all. The founder entrepreneur who knows best, the busy CEO who doesn’t have time to consult, the MD who knows that there is only one way forward…. They may or may not be right on any particular point but it is our opinion that with very few exceptions a strategy making team is the best structure and within which to create robust and actionable strategy that achieves buy-in.

Strategy pulls some big organisational levers (credit)

Strategy making is not just another instance of problem solving, strategy-making is important because strategy often results in the moving of some pretty big organisational levers. Ones that shouldn’t be moved unless all are pretty sure about the consequences. Which is why we believe a step towards de-risking strategy-making is to put together a broad-based team.

Another reason why the right team is important, is because the natural dynamics of a functional team automatically creates the first step towards buy-in. A team that creates a strategy together is committed and that is the first step to ensuring the strategy doesn’t lie dormant but goes on to drive change throughout the organisation.

Addison and Ackoff in their Mangagement f-Laws put it like this:

The only thing more difficult than starting something new in an organisation is stopping something old

Russell Ackoff & Herbert Addison, Management f-Laws, Triarchy Press, 1988

So far then we have suggested organisational strategy:

  • deserves care in its making because it can make or break the organisation
  • needs to be actionable,
  • is better created by a team than an individual

Who then needs to be on the team for there to be the best chance of delivering the objective of a robust and actionable strategy? The first thing is that the ideal team shouldn’t only be seen as those who will wrestle with the finer details of the ideas, plans and structures, there should be other members who can be considered team members that sit outside the direct process but need to give the inner team support and direction.

In summary then a good strategy making team will address the roles consist of:

  • Sponsor
  • Client
  • Champion
  • Group members

These roles don’t have to be covered by discreet individuals, one person can wear different hats but the hats are different and they need to be worn at different times for the different purposes. Lets take a closer look at the roles.

Sponsor

Sponsor: a windbreak around the flame (credit)

The sponsor sits outside the strategy making process but legitimises it. The sponsor sanctions the use of resources and protects the process rather like a a windbreak around a kindling flame. For a group strategy process the sponsor might be a departmental head, at the other extreme for an organisation it might be the Chair of the Board.

The sponsor is one member of the strategy making team who’s often overlooked. This can be because they are difficult to contact and engage. It can also be because the strategy-making process can get underway without a sponsor but if the process runs into organisational politics or blockages to implementation of the strategy the intervention of a sponsor can be vital.

Client

The client also sits outside the strategy making process but defines the need and sets the boundaries.

Politically the client needs to be in a position to give the final word, to take responsibility and to have ‘skin in the game’ as far as the outcome of the strategy is concerned. In terms of boundary considerations the choice of client should align with the scope of the strategy.   

Although an individual as client is the most straight forward arrangement ‘a client’ could be a small group so long as they are able to express a unified view, they can take decisions and are committed to the process.

The head of this or that may be the best qualified to be the strategy-making client, but cross checking the boundary of the strategy making remit with the support of the sponsor helps identify if a client has decision making power, reason to be concerned that the strategy is successful and of course the commitment to engage fully with the process right to the end.

Strategy group

The strategy-making group are the members who are hands-on creating the strategy. There are two key reasons for inviting someone to join the strategy-making group:

  • they have power to cause things to happen
  • they have useful knowledge

Some members will of course score on both points.

That’s not the whole story of course as picking a strategy-making team has similarities to picking almost any other kind of management team which means there are a number of behavioural considerations to take into account. Having a good balance of characteristics is important. Strategy-making teams also have some particular characteristics that need to be considered including:

  • Winners and losers
    Strategy creates organisational winners and losers and being aware of who is likely to be affected can influence the characteristics of the team. It isn’t just a case of leaving out those likely to be adversely affected. They will almost certainly have valuable knowledge or persuading power to bring to bear, but it is a case of looking for an effective balance between different positions.
  • Can do attitude or resistant to change? Balancing the drive towards change can be an important aspect of putting together a team that creates actionable strategy. It’s easy for ‘go-ahead’ thinkers to become critical of those they consider to be resisting change whilst at the same time those more suspicious of change become critical of others ‘rushing headlong into the unknown’. The situation can develop into a cycle of antagonism that drives entrenched views ever deeper. In reality both parties have much to learn from each other.  Putting together a team representative of both points of view, but one that can work together is a major step towards a team that’s capable of creating the goal of a robust and actionable strategy.
  • Idea generators. Organisations trying to concentrate on the problems of the ‘here and now’ can find blue-sky ideas people uncomfortable colleagues to have around. Invariably just when the organisation seems settled they pop up with a new idea. It’s important for a strategy team to value new ideas. But again, balance is important, not least because ideas people can pursue ideas because they like the ideas and not because the ideas are efficient or effective solutions to current or future needs in the organisation or its environment.

The need then is for a group who are knowledgeable and influential but who have a blend of skills and capabilities whilst able to work together effectively.

The Magic Numbers 5, 6 and 7

With a number of different factors to balance as outlined above, it can be tempting to add more and more people into the strategy-making group in an attempt to flood it with all the skills, knowledge, influence and personalities that might make it successful. Although this approach is understandable, academic research into team working clearly shows that close participation is difficult in teams of more than seven members. In fact it can be a good idea to begin with no more than 5 on the basis that it’s quite likely that extra people will be needed as the process gets underway and it becomes apparent that more knowledge, skills and influence are required.


In conclusion then, when your organisation comes to work on strategy don’t assume that the best group is defined by the organisation hierarchy chart. Time and energy spent thinking through the best people to invite to the strategy-making group and for the roles of client and sponsor will help ensure the creation of robust and actionable strategy. That in turn will help ensure the right levers are pulled for the future success of the organisation.

changez.io helps clients improve their organisations by creating focused strategy, efficient structures, lean operations and great culture.