Strategic Work

On my Team: the Traditionalist

“We have always done it this way.”

“That’s just the way it’s done.”

We think of these phrases as the killers of innovation. And, unchecked, they are. If we hear, “It’s how we have always done it,” and stop, questioning no further, we do a disservice to the organization as a whole and everyone in it. But if we ask, “Why have we done it this way?” we learn things we may never have discovered otherwise. This is why the Traditionalist is someone I am interested in having on my team. Not a whole team of Traditionalists, of course, but one or two? Most definitely yes.


Tradition! Tradition!

I love working on process improvements. I love finding ways in which we can do things just a bit faster or a little more accurately, or even, with the same speed and accuracy, more consistently. I love building tools and systems that enable individuals and teams to do their jobs more efficiently, therefore freeing up time for more strategic work or more personal development.

That said, such tools/processes cannot, and should not, be developed in a vacuum. In order to change a system for the better, we must first understand the system that was in place before and the reasons for each component of said system. Otherwise, we revise a Benefits process to make it easier for the Benefits Administrator without realizing that the step which seemed so meaningless was vital for accurate payroll processing.

This may seem extremely similar to what we discussed regarding the Old Guard, and in your team, the Old Guard and the Traditionalist roles may be held by the same person. The distinction here is that the Old Guard is on our team because they have organizational memory. They know what is meant when someone refers to “Sarah’s* Prom.” The Traditionalist may be of the Old Guard, but they may also be someone who is newer to the organization and lacking in cultural memory, yet has deep knowledge of and loyalty to the processes and procedures which are currently in place.

*Actual reference, with name changed, for obvious reasons.


On my Team: the Analyst


Data analysts can sometimes be left off the team until we want them to prove our case or “make the numbers work.” This is a traditional and normal way to deal with analytics related to strategic work. Another way to deal with them is to let the Finance department drive strategy, putting all of our eggs into the numbers basket. Neither approach is optimal, or even aligned with the realities of business in the real world.

I have been talking a lot about analytics over the past few months, as my most recent employment was in a contract role as a Benefits Analyst and I have had a few interviews lately for roles that are data intensive.

Along the way I have found that a few principles about analytics have been forefront in my mind:

  • Data can be manipulated to say anything you want it to.
  • When data says what you want it to, it might not actually be saying anything meaningful. Or helpful. It can be counterproductive by reaffirming existing prejudices.
  • Approaching data analysis with a question to answer as opposed to a thesis to prove may result in unexpected insights.
  • Unexpected, even undesirable, answers to our questions bring us closer to a real solution than simply proving a case.

When strategic planning initiatives partner operations and analysis, the end result is more powerful and more relevant than either of the disciplines working independently. It is far more efficient for a team to face objective realities of both practice and data along the way than it is to construct a plan that is doomed to fail by way of negligence.

On my Team: the Fresh Meat

steak-1081819_1920By “Fresh Meat,” I am referring not to someone who is young or early career, though he could be. What I am talking about here is the person who is new to the organization, even as little as 6 months tenure.

When we think about forming strategic planning teams, we don’t normally think to ourselves, “You know who would be perfect for this project? The brand new specialist on the division Sales team!” We are more likely to say, “We really need folks who know this organization inside and out.” And we’d be right.  But that naivete about this specific organization is exactly why Fresh Meat needs to be on our strategy team.

The “newbie” is the one that comes in with current and relevant experience with what other organizations are doing. Your new employee has all the comparisons to their previous company fresh in mind: what worked at Starbucks, what didn’t work at Twitter, how adidas approached this problem, while Nike did it this other way.

Don’t get me wrong. The team doesn’t need the ultimate surf and turf of newbies. Hopefully, your strategy team members already hail from a variety of other organizations and industries. What this person brings is not necessarily organizational diversity so much as recency.  I was on a team a few years back that had members hailing from some big players in the Northwest. It was a diverse team with representation from Nike, TMobile, Starbucks and others. What the Fresh Meat brought us was current experience, untainted by internal expectations about what was possible.

On my Team: the Old Guard

helmet-978558_1280When you hear the term “Old Guard” what do you think of?  As I have been writing this series, I am reminded of how labels carry both positive and negative connotations, but it seems often the negative ones are those that come to mind first.

It can be tempting, when what you want is innovative, creative strategies for pushing your business forward, to forget or even dismiss the Old Guard. These folks have been with the company through thick and thin and seem like they will remain forever, regardless of where the company goes.  As a result, they may not have an experiential understanding of what might be possible. They might even have animosity to change on general principle. What you need are the movers and shakers, right? Right?

Well, yes, but you also need the steadiness of this person who has stuck around. You need their knowledge of the organization back when no one else in the room worked here. You need their stories of events long past. Even stale biases and political grudges can be of use to the strategic planning team, as long as the team is not allowed to bog down in them. The business would not exist without the Old Guard and there’s more than one in your organization, so representation at the table is critical.

A few years ago, I had the delight of welcoming a new executive into the organization I was at and I had helped him plan the meeting where he would be introduced to his new team. When he got up in front, he proceeded to tell this story of how he had outsourced a particular function and it helped both the team and the bottom line dramatically. It’s a great story exhibiting his courage to make changes and his willingness to listen to his team. Here’s the problem: we had been through outsourcing that exact same department at our organization only 2 years prior and it was an unmitigated disaster. We brought the team back and they spent the next year cleaning up the mess. Looking around the room, I could see that our new executive had all but lost his audience. If I or someone else on the team had taken some time to give him some history of the group, he might have used a different story, a story which would have had the intended impact.

In every strategy meeting someone inevitably says, “I did X at my other company, let’s try it here.” X might be the best idea since sliced bread, but if X here would present organization specific stumbling blocks, you need the Old Guard to point them out before you run headlong into an epic face-plant.

The “Yes Man”: every team needs one

thumb-up-441938The person who always gives an unqualified yes can be irritating and easy to hate for their peers, dangerous for their leaders and aggravating for their subordinates. If you couldn’t tell from that summary, they’re not my favorite archetype. This may be because my tendency to say exactly what I think, regardless of the consequences, makes myself and the Yes Person like oil and water.

I have faced an executive leader and laughed so hard at his idea that I nearly fell out of my chair. In retrospect, that was probably not the wisest move, but he found it “refreshing,” so I was forgiven. In contrast, the stereotypical Yes Person in the same situation would nod, agree and find a way to make it happen, even if the idea was laughably inappropriate for the organization.

Over time, I have learned that while I do not want a team full of this type, the Yes Person serves an important role in any organization. They have the ability to say “Yes.” It may not be the best strategic decision in the history of humanity, but gosh darn it, we’re going to make it happen. And that will to make it happen, the unwavering belief that impossible is unacceptable, makes the Yes Person a vital part of a well-balanced team.

Who’s on my team?

When preparing to do strategic visioning work, assembling the right team for the job is vital. If groupthink is the arrow that killed creative problem solving, then a homogenous team is the achilles heel of your project.

In my ideal strategy team, you would find a variety of archetypes.  Here are some of the types of people I consider vital:

  • the Executive Sponsor as the team’s champion and air coverage
  • the Academic providing deep knowledge of relevant practice and theory
  • the “Yes Man” who is certain we can make it happen, regardless of constraints
  • the Naysayer reminding us all of the elephant in the room, throwing a wrench in the machine, and all the many ways why this won’t work
  • the Dreamer with head in the clouds and giving us lofty, beautiful, utterly impractical ideas.
  • the Realist pointing out that words are pretty, but here on planet earth, there’s this thing called gravity.
  • the Innovator standing so close to the edge that it bleeds
  • the Traditionalist steadfastly insisting that this is how it is done, how it has always been done
  • the Analyst demanding to see the numbers
  • the Old Guard with the institutional history to keep everything in context and navigate the political landscape
  • the Fresh Meat, someone newer to the organization, unbiased by internal history and politics
  • the High Potential for whom this is a stretch assignment
  • the Facilitation Team with one partner to facilitate and one to observe

Each of these types has their strengths and weaknesses, but when you bring them together, with mutually agreed upon expectations about behaviour, amazing things happen.

What types of people do you look for when building a strategic team?