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Francis Wade | Overcoming strategy amnesia

Sometime in the past, you attended a strategic planning retreat that appeared to be going extremely well. The team was on a roll! As the momentum built, you became convinced that this session would be the one to make positive change.

However, a few weeks later, you saw that something important had been lost. The excitement faded and it became impossible to recall the discussions which were held.

You felt confused. Why? All the attendees were smart, committed people who sincerely wanted to make a difference. Yet, since the retreat, it all went downhill. You could not understand what happened.

Fortunately, as I mentioned in my Sunday Gleaner column of December 10, the book Lead from the Future offers some answers. Authors Johnson and Suskewicz draw a sharp distinction between two mindsets: “past forward” versus “future back”. Let’s use these two ways of thinking to frame the problem in a new way.

The ‘past forward’ mindset is all about making incremental improvements based on analyses of prior successes and failures. This is the way most managers think as they tackle everyday issues. Your executives have demonstrated a certain prowess in this area, hence the reason they were promoted through the ranks.

Yet, during a strategic planning retreat, participants are faced with the challenge of adopting an unfamiliar mindset. The task involves defining a specific future for the company and working back to the present.

The problem is that the average manager has little practice in this skill, and how it works in a group setting.

They may disagree: they know how to craft a high-level vision statement. However, the more difficult work of defining a detailed future and then backcasting to the present is very different. As such, they need to be taught how to conduct this difficult exercise moments before they attempt to do it for the first time.

As with most new skills, they struggle in the beginning. But, if they persevere, they can gain some momentum. It’s exciting to see ideas flow quickly as they build on each other.

However, this euphoria actually creates a problem which is unique to strategic planning meetings.

Hubris of ‘future back’ thinking

In the middle of these very real, positive feelings, the team may not realise that it’s extremely fragile.

Imagine flying down Spur Tree in a pushcart derby contraption built at the last minute by a novice. It might hit mind-boggling speeds, but the frame might break apart at any moment.

In like manner, this high point in a strategic planning retreat is built on a ‘future back’ mindset which is fragile. The positive feelings only lead participants to overestimate its durability and longevity.

The sad truth is that, a few hours after a strategic planning retreat is over, the ‘future’ mindset disappears. Therefore, the commitments, decisions and promises made during the meeting itself are ephemeral. They fall apart once daily life resumes and the ‘present forward’ mindset returns.

As such, you need to be careful. Knowing that the state of mind will pass, you need to execute some specific tactics which are designed for strategic planning retreats. They help your team transition from this temporary mindset into successful implementation.

But, as you execute these tactics, be aware that your participants won’t be aware of the precarious state they are in. Instead, they believe they can always reconvene later and pick up where they left off.

As you execute these tactics, don’t be swayed. They are wrong. Hold fast and insist that the following actions are critical.

Building concrete bridges

In your next retreat, take on the following tactics:

1. When you define the strategy, don’t just use words. Instead, use diagrams like a strategy map. They help to capture the elusive strategic hypothesis that underlines your thinking.

2. Make sure you have created projects which are clear enough to be assigned to an individual. They are necessary to move the plan towards implementation via a series of practical actions.

3. Before leaving, define each project in a written paragraph or two. This enshrines its unique contribution and explains why it’s being included in the strategy.

4. Assign each project to a sponsor. This person is now the owner of the effort, even if they won’t be the chief implementer. A sponsor may continue in that role until a project is completed, or relinquish it at some point. But, in the meantime, they’ll provide a critical measure of continuity.

5. Record key elements of the meeting, and save the transcripts.

These five tactics are more than a convenience. They guard against ‘strategy amnesia’, which afflicts all planning efforts. Put them in place so that your team looks forward to implementation because there are clear accountabilities.

Francis Wade is a management consultant and author of Perfect Time-Based Productivity. To search past columns on productivity, strategy and business processes, or give feedback, email:

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