January tends to be the time to make big long-term decisions, but what can we do to make the process less painful?
As someone who works with companies, trade bodies and governments on strategic planning for the wine category, I have been trying to read around the subject of decision-making. My working hypothesis at the moment is that a positive outcome of what is often a difficult and tiring process depends critically on certain factors being in place in the room. This is by no means an exhaustive list, and remains (probably for ever) a work-in-progress, but here are the five things I am thinking about when I start work on a strategy session:
1. Recognise your own pre-existing views
A fairly obvious point, one might think, but one often overlooked, especially by business leaders who are not used to being challenged. If you know you are anti something, for whatever reason, it helps if you can identify this up front. If you are feeling brave as a group, it may even help to talk about your existing views (try not to call them “prejudices”,though that’s what they are) together before you embark on detailed strategy evaluation, so that when you do criticise an idea, both you and the others know how much weight to give to that view.
2. Accept that perfect information does not exist
Frustratingly, we don’t know everything. It is particularly galling for an info-hound like me to be stumped by something, or find contradictory evidence, but it happens quite a lot. Despite the extraordinary information revolution of the past 30 years, information is always going to be imperfect. Therefore the classic decision killer of “let’s see if we can get more information” needs to be challenged: what more can we realistically know? What information would change the decision?
3. Embrace the idea of change
I am always surprised at how many participants in strategy sessions essentially don’t actually want anything to change. These people take the view that everything is fine as it is, and there’s no need to rock the boat – and that meeting to discuss strategy is wasting their time. If these people don’t need to be in the room, then get them out, as they will go out of their way to kill any energy or initiative. If they do need to be there (for instance, if they are a senior executive) then it may be worth doing a “recognise your pre-existing views” exercise to flush out their stance at the outset.
4. Don’t rush to fix things that are not obviously broken
The contrast to 3. above is the person who can’t wait to tear down the walls and start again. They may be motivated by the latest management theories, or by a fear (often well-founded) that inaction will lead to disaster. My observation is that the tear-down option is sometimes worth pursuing, but before it’s ratified, there needs to be a fairly compelling case that what replaces it will add value fairly quickly. This issue crops up most in the wine category over packaging and labels: new person wants to change everything, existing team want to keep what they’ve got and evolve it. Most of the time (though not always), evolution turns out to be the better route.
5. Map out a pathway of achievable steps
One of the better books I’ve read on change recently is “Switch: how to change things when change is hard”, by Chip and Dan Heath. Their prescription talks about getting emotional commitment to change, removing the fear of it, and instituting positive habits. However to me their most compelling point was about how powerful a clear and achievable route to change could be, which they spend quite a lot of the book illustrating with good real life examples. Having adapted some of their techniques for our work, I am increasingly convinced they have it right.
Author: Richard Halstead