Guide to recommendations rather than decisions

In a strategy workshop or other big room planning event, we are often trying to help a group of leaders make some hard choices–strategy should clarify what NOT to do as much as where to focus effort. We push hard for the group to prioritize, to stop work (lay it down gently), and to choose among strategy options.

It’s really hard.

I was recently reminded how much harder that work is when the group of humans don’t have actual decision-making authority. That lack of authority made choosing nearly impossible.

In retrospect, we probably should have strived for different, more modest outputs for this particular meeting, and I might have chosen slightly different prompts in order to best leverage the incredible knowledge and perspective of these brilliant conservationists.

Meeting Purpose: Charter a Strategy to Make a Big Impact

Let’s back up to set some context.

The meeting in question was for a conservation organization. The purpose was to build an 18-month strategic roadmap, as a way to validate that a particular country program can and should indeed pursue an aggressive vision toward achieving a deeper impact faster. The alternative outcome would be to discover that the bigger vision was impossible, and so to suggest a more modest strategy with a better likelihood of success.

In order to achieve that purpose, we assembled a varied and deeply knowledgeable group of leaders. We had the full staff of the country program, the organization’s leadership team for the entire geographic region, and key specialty leaders from various global departments of the NGO–that is, experts who lead global practices but who are not necessarily experts in the country in question.

The idea of the meeting was that we would build shared context around what the program has achieved thus far, dig into understanding what factors have impeded or helped the program’s impact up to now, and then lay out a path forward that would help the program achieve scaled impact to conserve natural land and water and incredible biodiversity (which of course serves both that country, and our planet).

Meeting Purpose, revised: Recommend Potential Strategies to Earn Investment

The Friday before the meeting, I spoke with the sponsoring executive. We agreed that as part of his welcome message Monday, he should make very clear what this group’s decision authority would be.

“What is their authority?” I asked.

“They do not have decision authority,” he replied. “They will make a recommendation, which the regional leadership team will use in the following weeks to help us decide how much we want to invest in the program.”

It was the right answer. Decisions rest as close as possible to affected areas, where the most context and local knowledge reside, and with the people who will do the work. This is the structure I would hope for. Many of the people in the meeting were lending their slices of expertise, so the regional leadership team could put together a whole picture of the options.

The lack of decision authority did not diminish anyone’s passion or caring for helping this group find the best possible path forward. They are all leaders, so of course they were trying to choiceful and thoughtful–exploring options, highlighting risks, asking insightful questions, all in service to trying to find the best strategies to lead to the best possible results.

Lots of Divergence, Not Much Convergence

They are caring leaders, but they are also human. And it is human nature, especially in these workshops, to want to do All The Things. Pursue several strategies at once, and imagine you can get it all done.

And then someone would ask, “but what resources do we have” or “how will we fund this”. In response, the group would talk about prioritizing.

I kept trying to ask different prompt questions to help people focus the work.

  • Rather than focusing on activities, let’s focus on what we need to LEARN, and by when.
  • I challenge everyone to put work into this box labeled “what NOT to do”.
  • Place the critical work on this grid, based on EFFORT and IMPACT, so we can prioritize the work with the least effort and highest impact.

It sorta worked. Work got put into the NOT box. But then in the discussion, people would question whether that work could really be ignored. Or, someone would note that it wasn’t really “our place” to decide to abandon efforts.

Work was plotted into the effort-impact matrix; but very little work was considered low impact, which is the equivalent of saying “everything is important!” And although we usually try to de-prioritize work that is high effort and low impact (impact being the NGO version of value), no work ended up in that quadrant.

The group did make a valiant effort to suggest work to drop, and places to focus. And they generated a ton of amazing information. But they did not make firm choices. They posited possibilities.

Facilitate Differently When the Group Lacks Decision Authority

Some of my facilitation adjustments were just right, and a couple (as always) could have been a little better. The next time I facilitate any kind of strategic planning with a group that lacks decision authority, especially where some people are there as advisors, I’ll pay attention to the following.

  • Call it what it really is: Strategic exploration, or strategy options, or…. I’m sure the right label will depend on the context.
  • Craft a purpose statement accordingly. I would change the purpose from the original:
SO THAT we set up [the program] to achieve the extraordinary [vision statement],
we want TO build an aligned 18-month roadmap of specific achievements, learnings and program development
BY rallying around the vision and key strategies for the […] program, focusing on the most important work to achieve impact and scale toward that vision, adjusting how the program operates and collaborates with partners, and planning clear next steps.

to something like this:

SO THAT we help the leadership team decide on the investment and goals for [the program] while inspiring action and commitment,
we want TO explore potential strategies and outcomes, making a strong recommendation for a an aligned 18-month roadmap of specific achievements and learnings might be possible
BY understanding the current situation, identifying the most important work to achieve impact and scale, suggesting program improvements (including how it collaborates with partners), and suggesting clear next steps.
  • Stop pushing the group to make hard choices. By constantly narrating the week of meetings as a journey toward making hard choices, I set up the group to feel a bit like they had failed, when in reality they did amazing work. The information they surfaced, the questions they explored, and the options they identified were tremendously helpful to the leadership team that would actually make the decision later.
  • Instead, focus the group on options. Perhaps rate various options by likelihood of success, risk factors, potential impact. Keep the language open–we seek an understanding of options, not decisions about which options to choose nor predictions about which paths are best to pursue. Get the group to articulate what further information would help the leadership decide which options to pursue, in what order. This approach would further ground the organization in an options mindset, which is part of what we want to inspire (more in another post on that).
  • Build learning paths, rather than doing paths. We did some of this approach, but it would help to focus even more on learning paths. Prompts like “If we want to achieve X, what do we need to learn over the next quarter, 2 quarters, 3 quarters in order to keep honing in on the best path forward.”
  • Be explicit that inspiring action and commitment was part of the point. One of the best outcomes of the meetings was that these experts and practice leads from around the organization were now inspired to help. Once strategy decisions were made, a next step was going to be to solicit resources from these leaders. Thanks to our work together, they were now more ready to provide those resources. That was huge.

I look forward to the next chance to facilitate a group of brilliant, passionate, and committed people in exploring options to make a huge impact on our planet.