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The Problem

Strategic business planning is time-consuming. It usually involves a lot of running around, chasing people for numbers, answers, commitments. It often focuses on a document and, as a consequence fails to achieve the alignments between people and functions of the business that are necessary for effective implementation. Scheduling a flow of iterative meetings can be frustrating. The laborious part of writing up the document falls usually to one or two people. Then, after all that work, to add insult to injury, nobody reads, let alone implements it!

As facilitators, we have been used to leaving events with armfuls of flipcharts, Post-It Notes™ and a day or so worth of work writing up the outputs. As a facilitator, my heart often sinks when I lay the flipcharts on the floor of my office, ready to start writing up. Not just at the volume of work but the lack of detail. “Improve profitability of X product” does not do justice to the rich conversation that produced this mediocre expression. In using the shorthand of flipcharts, the value of detail gets lost. Writing it up afterwards only partially recovers that value.

A New Way of Planning

Through frustration and experiment, we’ve developed a new Business Planning methodology that:

  • Works with the whole team, creating alignment and using collective intelligence

  • Enables the team to work both creatively and translate their insights into detailed plans

  • Produces a good first draft of a business plan, including financials and implementation milestones

All in a day or two.

Traditional vs Modern Planning

Now don’t get me wrong; I can do traditional facilitation. When it comes to the normal kitbag of facilitator supplies, I am an avid questor after the perfect materials. I have sticky notes the shape of which you’ve never dreamed. I have portable whiteboards and all sorts of fancy pens. Physical movement and visual recording are very powerful. They create visual recall, mental metaphors and muscle memory.

But it is an inescapable fact that the enduring tools of business are documents on computers. That’s where intentions are recorded, plans are made and follow-through tracked. The flipchart was only ever a temporary communal space to enable groups to create shared understanding.

Our unique use of collaborative writing tools such as Dropbox’s Paper or Google Docs provides the best of both worlds. It’s a communal space but now we have the injection of productivity and detail. They allow multiple users to contribute to the same document simultaneously. People can enrich, amend or challenge ideas live on the same page. Think Track Changes with massive speed and less screen-jumble.

Traditionalists have already challenged me. “People don’t want to spend all their time in a room together on laptops. You’ll kill the group dynamics” they say.

Group dynamics are very important and a core reason for using a facilitator in the first place. The roots of practical business problems are often in how people relate to each other and work together (or not), develop common objectives and align their activities. You would not want to lose the people dimension of a collaborative planning event.

An Example

So let’s look at these issues through a practical example.

We start with wide conversations, laptops shut. For instance, I might ask 2 or 3 sub-groups (harnessing the power of divergent thinking) to work in parallel on the same question:

“Thinking about some real customers, brainstorm and prioritise the big problems will they want to solve in the future?”

A round of individual thinking and contributions followed by small group discussions ensue.

Then I might ask them to go to the prepared template on Paper and work collaboratively on the following questions:

  • What expensive problems will customers face in the future?

  • How could we help them solve these? What product or service innovations can we conceive to help?

I might then ask them to have a further round of discussion to answer two questions:

  • Which of these offers a viable, money-making opportunity for us

  • What do you recommend we do about your findings?

Using Dropbox’s Paper’s “Present” mode, each group is then encouraged to do a short presentation. This would be followed by a plenary discussion which I would record in real time, asking questions to clarify and organise thinking and to challenge and move people into action mode.

The Role of the Facilitator

The facilitator’s role is the same as in the traditional format. He or she is there to:

  • help the group work out what they want to achieve and to ensure they don’t fail to address important (perhaps difficult) elements

  • structure activities and the space to help the group focus on valuable topics and tasks

  • think differently

  • inject frameworks, methodologies and insights from experience

  • challenge and ask questions about what I see to help the group improve it

  • enable the group to build upon each other’s ideas

  • help the group decide what, if anything, to do and who is going to do it.

What can you achieve?

On a recent 2-day offsite, a group of 10 Managers worked in this style and together, we created

  • An analysis of trends presenting opportunities or challenges

  • A detailed vision

  • An analysis of the product portfolio of target markets

  • A deep dive into an exciting new product

  • A product development policy and roadmap

  • A set of revenue targets

  • Sales and marketing improvement initiatives

  • A detailed operating plan

  • Individual plans outlining the priority areas of focus for the next 12 months for each function and person

The 5 Benefits

What benefits did the group achieve?

1. time saving

They have probably saved 3 months of elapsed time compared to the “series of meetings followed by sole author” approach. In fast flowing markets, time is of the essence.

2. discovery of opportunities

The group discovered and created new possibilities that were being incubated individually and were able to breathe life into them by having people working creatively together. Time will tell how big those opportunities are but a lot of zeros were involved.

3. alignment reduces friction

The work on the roadmap, the co-ordination between sales and marketing and product management and the involvement of finance at the early stage will significantly reduce frictional costs or misalignment. They have started on the same page. This will make progressing together much easier.

4. strengthening ambition

Working together, considering how things could be done, I think the group expanded its horizons. It left with a significantly more ambitious plan than the iterative version I think they would have created. What’s more, with some of the detail and calculations, it feels at least partially grounded in reality


5. engagement and ownership

Judging by the commitments made in the individual plans, this team is highly engaged and determined to make big strides forward. Engagement and ownership are key to implementation.

Combining digital technologies with good group processes is leading to a major leap forward in outcomes and productivity.

If you wish to consider how such a process can help you, please call 0800 011 2624 or email us.

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