Ann couldn’t believe what she was hearing from her team. “We talk about this ALL the time!” she said, frustrated. “We need to increase revenue to $87M for our line of business. It’s not that hard.” She couldn’t believe that the team couldn’t clearly articulate, off the cuff, the general strategy–or even the basic numbers–for the year.
Frustrated with some of the recent directional decisions her team had made, not to mention some of their recent interactions with the E-team, Ann had asked a strategic facilitator to join her offsite to run a strategy articulation and alignment workshop. The facilitator, Dee, had just asked each of the team to write down the top three priorities for the year, and see how aligned they were. They weren’t. Dee had asked them to write down a description of where they wanted to head this year as a business. The results were all over the map; they mostly represented siloed department goals instead of overall line of business goals.
Strategy Alignment and Articulation
“Let’s remind ourselves why these are all some of the most critical things we need to work on, and how they’re related to the ‘Top Challenges’ we captured at the start of the day,” Dee suggested.
As the team started to do a round-the-table readout to describe why each of the items they had written was one of the most important this year, lightbulbs started to go on. They began to see the areas of overlap, and to realize just how siloed their initial approach was. Alignment started to visibly increase. New items were created that summarized the effort needed across departments.
When Dee had the team vote on the top three items from the overall set, the team emerged with clear alignment on top priorities–four key strategy areas that represented what they most needed to do together this year:
– Give our technology organization air cover to fix tech debt.
– Increase sales in North America in large, complex organizations where our products are needed most and where our current feature set is still competitive.
– Leverage Marketing and Analytics to decrease cycle time for sales teams (via collateral and engagement/process changes).
– Provide sales training for everyone–because an overhaul was needed to sales collateral and process, and because engineers were expected to use some of this material when they spoke at conferences and meetups, and because customer service team members were expected to help customers with new offers as needed.
“Wow, that was fast!” exclaimed Ann. “Thanks, Dee. I thought you said this would take until lunch tomorrow!”
“Well,” Dee smiled, ”this is great alignment already, you’re right! I bet we’re already 20% of the way there. So we’re not done, yet! Next we need to capture some quick background information on these strategies.”
She handed out worksheets labeled Key Strategy Background.The team’s recent excitement took a noticeable drop. “We have all this. We have hundreds of pages of project descriptions and requirements, business cases for budget requests….”
“That’s great!” Dee replied. “Then this one-page backgrounder will be simple. Please humor me. Getting to a succinct shared story is of critical importance in creating alignment not only among this team, but more broadly, throughout your larger value stream, too.”
Dee asked the team to break into groups of 3-4 and asked each group to fill out a Key Strategy Background worksheet on one of their selected strategy areas. Within the root cause analysis, she asked them to include a fishbone diagram.
“Time to bring your pre-read learnings about how to do great root cause analysis into play!” she said. “Since we’ve got all the great background information and just need to summarize here, let’s see if we can finish these up in 25-30 minutes, sound good?”
There were lots of nods in the room, and Ashish, the head of business operations said, “No worries, we’ll be finished well before that. Give us 20.”
After a full hour had passed and the teams were still avidly working on the Key Strategy Background documents with no signs of slowing down, Dee stopped the team. “Wow, that was a long 20 minutes. Let’s read out to each other on current state, and then decide if want to do another iteration today.”
The teams reviewed each other’s strategy documents, and gave each other suggestions, updates, and feedback on each of the strategies. Another hour magically passed with the team fully engaged. They made enough refinements that they were quite happy with the current documents as a first draft.
“Now,“ Dee said, “please take a good break. Walk around, get some air. If you find your brain wants some homework, think about what we want to use as our True North, our audacious goal we want to achieve together this year. This is the “Year of… what?”
It’s the year of “Air Cover”, Sharon, the head of marketing, announced when they got back.
“Oh?” said Dee happily, “Tell me more? I thought that was one of your key strategies.”
“Well, it was. But we were walking around outside, talking about why these four strategies are so important, and where we want to go together,” Sharon continued. “We know we have a great product, AND we haven’t invested enough in paying down tech debt. It’s time to pay down some of that debt so we can go faster, later. All the other strategies are really in service to creating that Air Cover to pay down the tech debt.”
Chuck, the head of sales chimed in: “AND the key strategies clearly show our responsibility for increasing sales, which is hard to do without much new product coming out.
“I’m on the hook for $87M in revenue, folks,” he joked, uneasily.
“We are all on the hook, Chuck,” Craig reminded. “Our development organization really does feel like it is essentially at a standstill. Even though we release new code every quarter, we’re only seeing maybe one or two features of value to our customers. We’ve got to spend some time on our architecture, our DevOps pipeline, and upgrading search, which is going to be a nightmare.” He shook his head, obviously going deep into the issues in his mind. “We’ll need air cover for that. It feels really great how this team is coming together to work on this challenge. Thanks, all.”
Sharon chimed in, “We are absolutely together on this, and it isn’t going to be easy. To deal with the fact that we still won’t be releasing many new features of value to our customers, we need to come together to provide value to customers in other places. We need to enable our current product sales, primarily in North America, and with large, complex organizations undergoing digital transformation where our products and services are most needed. So we’ll need to enable our sales team and customer success teams with collateral and process changes needed to speed our sales cycle in those accounts, and keep our customers happy, help them take full advantage of what we have.”
“So it all ties together,” Dee said. “Awesome! Let’s capture that language in your True North and Key Strategies worksheet.” Postcards from Our Destination
“Ok, we’re about 40% of the way now,” Dee said, “and this next exercise is fun. We’re leveraging an exercise called Destination Postcard from the book “Switch: How to change when change is hard” by Dan and Chip Heath. I want each of you to take five minutes to silently write this team a postcard from one year in the future, when things are awesome. Your top challenges have been resolved, you’re achieving your true north through implementing your key strategies. How can you tell it worked? What do you specifically notice that’s different?
Each member of the team wrote a postcard (many taking much more than a postcard-sized paper to write all they had to say). When they read their postcards out loud to the team, there was a great deal of laughter and exclaiming. A couple of descriptions were so vivid that they gave the team goosebumps. “Wow, that was fun.” Ann said. The energy in the room had visibly increased again.
“Who would have thought something that sounds as boring as a strategy alignment workshop could be fun?” Ashish agreed. “It sounded like we were going to the chiropractor or something. I kind of expected it to be painful.” The team laughed.
“You know,” Craig said, “the other cool thing that came out of this was to remind us what it will feel like when we pay down some of this tech debt. It will feel like we’re built for speed, again. I wonder…would that be a better name for our True North–Built for Speed? To help our teams think about where we want to go?”
The team all nodded and agreed “Yes!” they said.
“And actually,” Craig said, “our original four strategies make sense then. Our ‘Air Cover’ strategy becomes simply ‘Pay Down Tech Debt’. That’s even more clear on where we want our teams to spend their time.”
“This is fantastic,” Dee said, and re-wrote the True North and Key Strategies in short form on the wall.
True North: Built for Speed
– Pay Down Tech Debt
– Sell to Large, Complex NA Companies
– Marketing, analytics, customer care (collateral, engagement, process changes) to support #2
– Sales training for all
“Are #2 and #3 almost the same now?” she asked. “Maybe together they are optimize selling to and serving large, complex, NA companies?”
The team agreed. “Also, we lost our feeling of air cover,” Ann stated. “Maybe that’s still part of the True North?”
“Ok, how about this as GEFN – good enough for now,” Dee suggested.
True North: Air Cover to Become Built for Speed
– Pay down tech debt
– Optimize for selling to and serving large, complex, NA companies
– Sales training for all
The team agreed that this was not just good enough for now, but really great progress in clarity.
“Great.” Dee said, putting one more worksheet in front of them. “Let’s now leverage some of those things we noticed about how life would be different in the future to help us capture our leading and lagging indicators of our success. Last worksheet of the morning!” The team took another half hour to capture a draft set of desired results for each of the Key Strategies.
“Ok, team, great work this morning!” Dee said. “We’ve clearly articulated where we want to go. We’ve got our True North and Key Strategies for the year. After lunch, let’s look at where we are already spending our time, where we have momentum and direction, compared with where we want to go, and see how it matches up–what our gap is. Then we’ll spend our final time together talking about what we need to stop, start, and keep doing to bring us in alignment with our key strategies. And perhaps even refine the key strategies and true north based on our True North / reality gap. Sound good? Ready…set… lunch break!”
Stay Tuned for the next Offsite Adventure: Bridging the Gap Between True North and Reality