For the past 18 months, people have felt a strong need to make things happen: To improve things by developing more innovative strategies. At a recent client meeting, a CEO of a B2B middle-market company talked about his struggle to build market share. This is a widespread business problem many CEOs face, if not all. 

Consider this: A CEO calls for a strategic planning meeting to recommend the company develop new strategic directions and requests a speedy response from team members.

So the team starts working to provide their thoughts in the quickest time possible. However, everyone realizes this request is “time-sensitive,” and their ready response will be expected. They write on the board all the ideas they can think of and then begin debating their pros and cons. Sound familiar? Well, it should, since this is the most often used strategic planning process throughout all types of businesses. You get the picture. 

Without thinking about it or intentionally planning it, the project’s urgency becomes the primary goal of the effort and leads to the inevitable. The point of the strategic priority disappears and is replaced by producing something to show for their efforts. Anything, as long as it’s different than what the company is presently doing.

CEOs tend to expect this type of action from their leadership teams, and team members in turn, tend to expect it of themselves. Of course, sometimes a brilliant idea will emerge from these ad hoc strategy sessions, particularly if one member happens to be Bill Gates or Jeff Bezos. But most of the time what occurs does not meet the true goal of a smarter strategy for the future.

The Syndrome: Nothing is Certain, But Everything is Urgent.

I remember early in my career, my manager gave me the assignment to write a new strategy for a national campaign. This was incredibly exciting for me until I heard the one requirement for this project. He told me to give him 10 strategic themes and lines by 9:00 AM the next morning. It was 10:00 AM the day I received this assignment. 

As a junior on the team, I worked all day, including through lunch and well into the night, to come up with the goods. The first idea came fairly quickly because I was somewhat familiar with the client’s business in terms of its operations and challenges. The other nine took the rest of the day and most of the night to compose. When I presented the themes the next morning, my manager immediately chose the first that I had composed and pretty much scolded me for the nine fairly mediocre lines I had written. 

In truth, I agreed with his assessment. I had tried my best to develop 10 unique ideas, but because I had one strong context to work from, my understanding of the client’s business, I could not get outside myself and form new strategic constructs. This is a rare talent, and only rather experienced and creative practitioners can work from a blank piece of paper and develop something incredible in such a short period of time. 

Strategic planning is very much like this. When you are asked to create something new, you need two things to be successful:

  • First, you need context from many different points of view, so you should research all of your co-workers throughout your business, you should conduct research at your current and prospective customers asking for their input, and you should ask your most trusted advisors for their input. 
  • Second, you need time to discover, analyze and strategize. You should not let the “urgency of the moment” drive your results, or you’re likely to end up with one good idea and nine that don’t hold much value. 

So give your leaders and staff time to complete the task at a comfortable pace. If there is an urgent project that demands immediate attention, then assign it to three people and relieve them of their present responsibilities, so they can solely focus on finding a solution to the problem. This is a far more empowering way to separate the important from the urgent.