Strategy is Hard Work

I facilitated some strategy work with a client two weekends ago, and it was hard work. I pushed them hard on identifying the missing "middle level thinking" in their strategy. They had some success, and even with only less than one full day to do this work, they were able to pull together a more prioritized list for the next twelve months–something that the ED said hadn't happened in eight years.

Yay, right? Well, except for the fact that the group completely hated the process. They said throughout the whole day that it was a waste of time and that we weren't "getting anywhere." I even got flamed by one of the Board members on her Facebook status–during the meeting! (this was a first for me, I believe) She referred to my "facilitation" in quotes.

I am reflecting on what I could have done differently to have created an environment where they would have been more willing to do the work they did, but so far I don't know what that would have been. I have seen this in every strategy project I have done. Here is my conclusion.

Strategy is hard work. Come to think of it, so is leadership.

If you want a powerful organization, you are going to have to work hard, and it is not always going to be fun. If you want the elation of crossing the finish line in your first marathon, you are going to have to do several 20+ mile training runs, and those are going to hurt. But you don't get your finish line moment without doing the training. Period.

You don't get to do the work of strategy and have it be easy. Sorry, but if strategy were easy, every company would be successful. We strategy consultants work on developing processes that make it easier. I suppose there is value in that. On the other hand, look at what we've come up with: SWOT analysis! We made it easier by over simplifying, which does not do us any good. We create processes that "get us somewhere" faster, and they do: they get us to those twenty-nine page strategic plans that sit on the shelf for a year.

Don't get me wrong: I am a big fan of process. I think organizations frequently don't pay enough attention to process. But I think when it comes to strategy, we have been over-relying on process and in doing so have turned our brains off to the actual work here. In my strategy work, I push the thinking and conversation. I guess I need to better prepare people for the discomfort they feel in using those muscles again.


  1. Fred
    24.11.2008 at 12:21 pm

    FRED SIMMONS is reading the world’s most boring blog post on “facilitation”. (15 minutes ago)

  2. 26.11.2008 at 1:01 am

    Just out of curiosity, how much time did you spend considering the fact that you might have been wrong, versus deciding that the client was probably at fault?
    That sounds snarkier than I really mean it to be, but there’s a reason that many association executives roll their eyes at consultants and “facilitation.” An honest discussion, from the consultant’s point of view (other than “this is really hard work”), might help alleviate the concerns of those who have sat through really bad “facilitation” sessions. Unless you think that all “facilitators” are created equal, but based on your thoughtful blog posts in the past, I can’t believe you really think that.

  3. 26.11.2008 at 6:15 am

    Oh, I’ve been thinking about it a lot! I’ve already identified things I could have done differently, and I have some things I will definitely do differently when facilitating this kind of conversation in the future. I didn’t mean to imply it was all their fault. This post was only pulling out that one lesson: that part of doing strategy work can be frustratingly hard, and I don’t think ANY kind of facilitation can really relieve you of that hard work. But i wasn’t implying my facilitation was perfect or the client was the problem, by any means. I’ll see if I can come up with a good post about facilitation before I head off for Thanksgiving! Thanks, Kevin.