In my work with teams I often hear the same complaint: “we aren’t strategic enough.” I have heard this from Fortune 500 leaders as much as from not-for-profit board members. I have heard this from individuals as well as managers.
Why is this such a common problem?
First off, teams are often focused on one of two sides of a continuum. Either they are focused too much on factors that are either beyond their control (e.g. company policies, board decisions, market trends, SOPs) or they are focused on issues that are far too detail-oriented (e.g. “Why do you need these extra two weeks?”, “How will you team implement this?” ). In my experience, this can be due to lacking clear decision-making processes, but it can also be due to avoiding more difficult conversations about how much control one party wants over someone else’s functional area. As a result, high-level issues within the control of the team are left for side-bar conversations at best or are not discussed at all, at worst.
Decision consultants such as the Strategic Decision Making Group suggest actively discussing a “decision hierarchy”. Focusing on this “middle zone” allows teams to have the strategic discussions they need to come to conclusions about the decisions to be made.
Questions that teams can ask themselves:
- Are we talking about things beyond our control, like company policies? (It’s okay to vent when necessary, but we need to accept what’s outside our circle of influence.)
- Is there really a need for me to be part
- Are we “in the weeds”: are we focused on the details of execution versus sitting at the “helicopter view”?
- What decision/s would get us closer to our primary objective?
- What decision/s would get us away from our primary objective?
Facilitating discussions about what this team’s “middle zone” is and how the team knows that it is on or off the mark make a huge difference to the effectiveness of a team. The more a team can share a common vocabulary (“hey everyone, is this discussion putting us in the weeds?”) and can have a meta-conversation in the moment (“what are we doing in this meeting, right now, that’s undermining our ability to be strategic?”) the more likely the team is to actually remedy the issue that compromises them. In fact, one team we coach established a “strategy altimeter”: During important discussions, one person would make sure that the level of the discussion what not too high or too low. That role would rotate among team members. Teams need observable criteria that tell them when it is “flying too high or too low”. When was the last time your team had such a discussion?
The other issue I see frequently is that saying “we are not strategic enough” is actually code for something else entirely, or in fact looks like the team lacks strategy but what’s really undermining the team is related to team structure or dynamics. To this point, a team can ask themselves the following questions:
- Are our roles and responsibilities potentially too vague or overlapping so as to create confusion, frustration, or even blame?
- Are our decision-making guidelines clear? Do we know who is responsible for making certain kinds of decisions, who should be consulted on decisions, who should be advised, and who should be informed? (also known as the “RACI” system)
- Are there personal dynamics on the team that are undermining our effectiveness? For instance, do people gossip about one another behind closed doors? Are there personal vendettas or grudges? Is trust lacking between team members?
- Are people so overworked that they are mired in the details of getting work done and lack the staff to appropriately delegate so they can act at a higher level?
The next time you think your team isn’t strategic enough, consider what may be contributing to that phenomenon. It’s only through an accurate diagnosis can you come up with an effective cure.