Are you making this strategic planning mistake?

PSMJ Resources, Inc.
Posted on: 04/02/24
Written by: PSMJ Resources, Inc.

Why an Outside Facilitator?

Strategic planning discussions can be painful and difficult. They involve personal values and goals, deeply held beliefs about the nature of the firm and where it’s going, and maybe different perspectives on the marketplace. Some principals may have values or goals that conflict with those of other key members of the firm.

All this can reduce the team’s ability to take the objective, long-term overview that strategic planning requires. And unless differences are dealt with carefully and openly, they can result in dissension that subverts the strategic plan.

Added to these complexities are the networks of interrelationships among people who have been working together for some time, comfortable (or uncomfortable but at least familiar) behavior patterns, and knowledge of how the firm has done business in the past. Also, some people in the session are bound to perceive that their careers depend on how they relate to some others.

An outside facilitator carries none of this baggage. He or she can look at the firm, at the management team, and at the planning process, objectively. An outside facilitator can say things like “that’s habit talking” or “you’re rationalizing,” and can make sure that some people don’t dominate the discussion. An outside facilitator knows how to keep the discussion on track, while taking everyone’s concerns into consideration.

What Happens if You Don’t Hire Someone from Outside?

Some firms try to do their strategic planning entirely with their own people. Maybe they have an executive who’s known for objectivity and fairness and they invite him or her to be the facilitator.

Here’s what often happens:

• Strategic discussions break down into non strategic, operational issues.
• Participants tend to look back, into the company’s history, rather than forward.
• The discussion gets stuck in mundane operational issues and detail, as opposed to focusing on the big picture.
• Participants don’t engage in “out-of-the-box” thinking.
• The internal facilitator cannot facilitate fully, for several reasons.
             -Lack of experience in strategic thinking
             -Intimidation by the owners
             -More concern about his or her own job than the firm’s direction
             -Habit of dealing through normal procedures
             -Job pressure
             -Unwillingness of other staff members to share negatives with an internal facilitator.
• The process will take longer than with an outside facilitator.
• The process doesn’t result in specific action items or a way to assure that the planned actions really take place.

The Role of The Facilitator

During a strategic planning session, the facilitator’s main objective is to steer the meeting toward the final goal of formulating a strategic plan, while creating a sense of teamwork among the participants. To do this, he or she performs the following functions:
• Focuses the discussion on the strategic issues, and steers it away from daily operational concerns.
• Makes sure everyone participates fully.
• Keeps people focused on the positive and helps them avoid the negative.
• Keeps activities focused on the purpose of the session.
• Encourages the achievement of positive, important decisions.
• Prevents the group from engaging in “motherhood and apple pie” discussions, statements and decisions.
• Comments as a knowledgeable industry expert on whether the stated goals are consistent and achievable.

What Makes a Good Facilitator?

As you choose a facilitator, look for the following qualifications, according to consultant Joseph Brown:
• Knowledge of the industry. Choose someone who comes from the design, engineering, environmental or construction professions. If you choose a registered, licensed professional, you won’t have to spend time (and therefore money) explaining how the industry and a firm like yours works.
• Hands-on experience in design, production, sales, finance, human resources and management.
• Knowledge of suppliers, understanding the needs of outside consultants, contractors and financiers.
• Client knowledge, understanding their needs and the challenges of working with them.
• Experience in strategic planning sessions and implementing the outcomes.
• Experience facilitating strategic planning sessions and other kinds of productive meetings.
• Understanding of the interplay of personalities, with a set of rules and standards that will be enforced during the discussion.
• Flexibility to accommodate the different needs and unpredictability of participants while steering the meeting toward its goals.


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