Grey Areas in Strategic Planning
Some of the most difficult moments you experience in terms of strategy come when you are faced with an issue that falls in what is commonly termed a grey area. For the purposes of what we are to discuss here, what those issues are is less important than how we go about addressing them.
When you reach a decision gate or are working to develop a strategy that involves a factor (or factors) without clearly defined parameters, it can make decision making challenging. Figuring out the best course of action can be harder still when factors depend on certain less distinct inputs or when there are variables that are not clearly defined as right or wrong.
Developing a Strategy Based on Consensus
Developing a strong strategy should always be rooted in the same thing — what is best for the most. It does matter what the “most” means, but setting clear objectives is more closely aligned with maximization of benefit. With that in mind, what is best is generally coupled with some form of consensus. That’s important to note, as the next step in the process gets its foundational strength from this idea.
So, now we are thinking about consensus and creating the most opportunities for success possible. This is when we introduce the grey area. The major problem generated by the existence of the grey area is that there is a greater amount of difficulty creating consensus, or, more commonly, there are deeply rooted conflicting viewpoints and little possibility of swaying one side or the other into full agreement.
Gaining Consensus Through Listening
The most effective way to address this is rooted in listening. By listening to differing viewpoints with careful moderation — viewpoints that are and should be illuminated and worked through — you build safety, trust, and the feeling and opportunity for issues that are not clear cut to be deliberated with consideration and careful reflection.
The above can be difficult. Consensus can be a hard-fought thing to arrive at. And you might not get all the way there. But, by listening, you are signaling to the group that their viewpoints are being factored into the final strategy of how to proceed. I cannot overstate the importance of this. Strategic plans fail primarily because of a lack of internal support. This, more often than not, is the result of a lack of careful consensus building or a “thou shalt” management style that does not engage or consider the consensus view of how best to proceed in meeting specific objectives. This can be compounded if more sensitive — or grey — issues are avoided, not carefully considered and integrated into your strategy, or worse yet, treated with contempt or disregarded when brought up.
My best advice for groups who may have one or more of these types of issues — and each organization does — is to find an artful and empathetic way to engage and discuss these issues so that they are taken seriously and integrated in some form into the final approach. It may not be possible to resolve all of them completely, but the effort put forward in making certain that voices within your organization are considered inclusively is a key factor in the success of any well-formed strategic plan.
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Joe Benesh is the President and CEO of The Ingenuity Company, located in Des Moines. The Ingenuity Company specializes in Strategic Planning, Diagramming, Organizational Design Thinking, and Leadership/Change Facilitation. He also teaches strategic planning at the University of Iowa in the MBA Program.