How to stop corrupting the process
Thursday, August 9 2012
IT is only the rare Caribbean CEO who can avoid the corruption that occurs when the annual strategic planning process turns into a rubber-stamping charade. Courage and self-knowledge are required to protect this critical exercise from unaware chief executives, who don’t know that they must proactively downplay their power to get a reasonable, balanced outcome that is widely supported.
As a CEO warned me before a retreat: “Make sure I don’t take this thing over.”
When retreats take a turn for the worse, naysayers and contrarians are pushed away, while bootlickers and yes-men close in for their own safety. They all know that “alignment” and “being a team player” are code words for “agree with the boss.” CEOs fool themselves into thinking that their ideas are the best simply because all the heads in the room are nodding.
According to recent public testimony, top CLICO executives tricked themselves into thinking that all was not only well, but improving.
So did the leadership at RIM (the Blackberry manufacturers), dooming their company to obsolete products even as they were reaping profits.
The annual strategic planning retreat is a unique opportunity for even the most isolated CEO to open the executive doors to new and opposing points of view. It’s a chance to tune out the sycophantic, familiar opinions that prevail on every other day, and to promote new thinking.
It’s also a chance to reveal surprising new data that tells a fresh, new story that may end up saving the company from making big mistakes.
Generally, these aren’t the people who are heard every day; the risk of offending the powers that be is too great for most. Instead, the solution lies in picking the right facilitator, and making sure that the roots of established thinking are challenged.
1. Controlling the Flow
CEOs who facilitate their own retreats are the worst offenders. The truth is, they should simply cancel the affair and rubber stamp their own PowerPoint presentations, saving the expense and hypocrisy.
Any executive who matters in the company needs to be kept away from the task of limiting the agenda, controlling the flow of conversation, writing summaries on flipcharts or even arranging the seating. The best CEOs I have worked with know this, and make special arrangements to “check their power at the door” so that members of the executive team are able to offer their own strategic insights.
During the session, they also allow periods of painful silence as their team grapples with unfamiliar numbers, facts and consequences. They don’t interfere with the learning the executives must undergo in order to make a material contribution.
Choosing friendly, familiar or weak facilitators who are over-dependent on the CEO’s good favours offers no improvement. They only act as extensions of the CEO’s ego.
When there is real independent facilitation, unpopular and minority voices are amplified to the point where they compete with status quo thinking.
I have found that these voices usually are alive and well in the organisation, but remain muted unless the right environment is created at the retreat. Within CLICO and RIM, there were many people who saw exactly what was coming, but suffered a similar fate to John the Baptist as they sought to speak truth to power.
2. Challenging the Roots
Oftentimes, as a facilitator during a retreat I have the opportunity to play the ignorant outsider. I’m unwittingly able to offer a number of “stupid” questions that serve a useful purpose; they illuminate faulty premises.
I have observed that executives who have worked together for too long get used to solving problems the same way every time. Normally, they do this to save time, making the assumption that their original baseline thinking doesn’t need to be updated.
While this shortcut makes sense for daily problem-solving, a retreat represents the perfect opportunity to unearth forgotten and unchallenged assumptions.
One company that I worked with took the opportunity to question the perceived corruption of its major shareholder / owner. They decided to find a way to buy the owner out — an effort that saved the company from being a part of a massive failure.
Sometimes, questioning accepted thinking makes all the difference, and one simple question directed at the root of an issue can do more to solve it than all the analysis of a sophisticated spreadsheet.
In this sense, retreats usually don’t need more smart people, but at least a few who are willing to be courageous in asking already-settled questions.
When the team has the opportunity to challenge “known” truths, it’s able to forge a new agreement. Our region’s companies desperately need this kind of truth-telling to avoid making colossal errors of judgment.