strategic planning

Can you keep a secret?

Most people can't keep secrets.  It goes against the grain of human nature to keep information to ourselves and yet so often I see senior management naively assume that bad news won't get out or that gossip leading to speculation and insecurity won't proliferate.  In case you are in any doubt about this, let me spell it out for you: PEOPLE LIKE TO TALK.  

There are three primary reasons why people in companies or large organisations spill the beans.

  1. The fear factor - because they are worried and are fulfilling the basic human need for comfort by sharing a worry or a woe.
  2. The simple truth that information is power – and the opportunity to disclose and display knowledge overwhelms  the sense of right and wrong.
  3. Vindictiveness, anger or frustration with a pending decision and the desire to cause damage to the people making those decisions by exposing their pending announcement to drive a negative reaction.

So what should business leaders do when it comes to passing on sensitive information?  My golden rule is quite simple: Be deliberate in how you release information and have a plan.  I've lost count of the number of times leaders blithely assume that information won't get out.  It will and sooner than you think.  Once you've made a decision that is going to eventually need to be shared you need to sit down and think about the nature of that sharing process.  

Clearly there are times when legal impediments loom large – as is the case with stock market rules about disclosure.  But so often, the focus on other operational imperatives means that discussions about when and how disclosure will occur are left to the last minute.  You need time to prepare your messages and make sure you are talking to the right people with the correctly targeted messages.  Most critically, you need to ensure you are anticipating the likely questions and ensuring you have thought through how you will answer critical questions.  What will this mean to our jobs?  How do timing, cost and other consequences need to be considered?  Ultimately here we are talking about issue management planning, which companies like mine can help you with.

The critical thing is to assume that information will get out and it is far better to have a plan for an ordered release than to pretend those around you will keep their mouths shut.  Many years ago I recall a client whose most senior executive was notorious for warning his management team about keeping sensitive information in the board room.  Time and time again, though, the information would find its way outside.  Months later one of the other executives told me precisely the nature of the problem.  While the boss was good at warning others to be discrete, he had an alarming habit of letting the cat out of the bag over a few drinks.  Read a couple of espionage books if you don't believe me – people like to talk – even the guys at top.  So plan to be found out, because it WILL happen.

Strategic planning stripped bare

Before your company or organisation heads into its next round of strategic planning, can I suggest you take a look at one of the best business books I’ve ever read?  It was written by Hans Christian Andersen nearly 200 years ago and tells the story of the emperor who hires two swindlers to make him a new suit of clothes.

It all ends in tears because it turns out the con-men have convinced the Emperor he looks stunning when in fact he is stark naked.  Of course, none of his ministers have the courage to let the King know the truth…until some kid in the crowd yells the obvious: The emperor is wearing no clothes!

For me this story is a perfect parable of what I see occurring in so many companies and organisations when it comes to so-called strategic planning.

You know the gig: The senior management team head off site for a day or two with the butcher’s paper and sticky notes to set out the company's plan for the next 12 to 48 months.  The one element that seems to almost always be missing is the view of the outside world, or to be more precise: the customer.

I’ve come to the conclusion that all strategic planning sessions should begin with an externally focused brand planning session.  Provided it is robust, brand planning forces companies to ask the most critical question of all: What value does my company bring to the world? And the people most able to answer that question are consumers.  Understanding their perspective of your company and the value it brings to their lives is utterly critical in ensuring that your strategy doesn’t end up looking rather…well, naked.

Without that perspective, there is a significant risk that the CEO will end up a bit like the Emperor - Parading a new strategy on the catwalk which is completely bereft of the real fabric that every business needs to succeed: brand meaning.

I suppose the other alternative is to invite a few kids to review your strategy.  Sometimes the simplest minds have the sharpest insights.