Providing strategic leadership is not a highly complicated process. Essentially it is about making time to create a vision of the desirable but attainable future state of the team’s business; identifying crucial conditions for success; making sure that work is not confused with achievements; and setting up development projects and action points to turn the vision into tangible results.
A good way for the team to formulate effective strategies and action plans is to hold a strategy development workshop. The idea is for the team to spend a day or two away from the office, entirely free from interruptions and other distractions, where participants can concentrate their attention exclusively on the critical issues facing the future of their team. A country house hotel is an ideal venue. The purpose of the workshop is for the team, collectively, to address issues of strategic importance to the business. They may be immediate, short or long term in nature. There are other benefits including the development of collective responsibility among the members of the team; improved motivation and team effectiveness; an opportunity for people to say what they genuinely think and believe and for them to learn more about the purpose, objectives and needs of the team as a whole.
The team leader’s main task is to manage the process. It is primarily a facilitating role. It involves helping team members to concentrate their attention on key matters; and to encourage them to be creative and analytical, to face up to contentious issues, to speak openly and frankly and to agree responsibilities and timings for post-workshop action. If the workshop is being held for the first time, then it may be helpful to have an experienced outsider to act as an adviser and facilitator.
It is not uncommon for members of professional service teams to attend monthly meetings at which they do little more than give reports on their own responsibilities and the progress of their own tasks. A strategy workshop helps to overcome this weakness by getting all members to become concerned with the future direction of the team’s work without letting their own particular professional interests get in the way. When participants are encouraged to come up with their collective vision for success and action plans for achieving it, they often produce ambitious proposals and rigorously thought-through plans. They are generally more committed to translating such plans into action because they see them as part of their own strategy. There is a sense of ownership.
It is not uncommon to find one team member lacking crucial knowledge of another’s roles and responsibilities. A workshop provides opportunities to clarify such matters and to get problems out on the table and resolved constructively in the interests of everyone. In an effective team each participant is willing to say his or her piece openly without fear or favour. Perhaps surprisingly, there are many professional service teams where this does not happen. Amajor contribution that the team leader (or an experienced outsider) can make is to encourage plain speaking and to assist participants to ask questions that go to the heart of a matter. The ideal workshop is one where all participants are able to think and act in the round and be concerned with the future of the team’s business as well as contributing their own technical or professional expertise.
A successful strategy workshop is set up with great care. A venue that provides freedom from interruptions and distractions is crucial. Telephone calls and e-mail transmissions should be forbidden during working sessions and restricted to lunch breaks and other free time. When individuals are frequently interrupted by telephone calls and deliveries of faxed materials it is symptomatic of a deeper malaise. If people are unable to lift their heads from important but nevertheless day-to-day matters for 24 or 48 hours then they are unlikely to be taking a proper strategic view.
Team members should ideally arrive in time for dinner on the evening preceding the workshop to allow the scene to be set and to ensure a prompt start next morning with everyone present. It also provides the opportunity for the development of team spirit and to get participants in the right frame of mind. If it can be arranged then two days is a particularly good span for a workshop. It allows for serious discussion and conclusions to be reached. There are risks involved with a workshop lasting for more than two days. It may well run out of steam and finish with an anticlimax.
It is essential that there are positive outcomes. A talk shop that fails to deliver action creates disenchantment and cynicism and leads to poor motivation. The more useful outcomes are a few business development projects and action points with particular team members accountable, personally or as leaders of small teams, to undertake them. Agreed target dates for completion and implementation are important. The process of steering the team to conclusions, based on a broad consensus, is an important task for the team leader (or outside adviser).
In professional service teams useful strategic outcomes from workshops are likely to include:
- the development of new professional services;
- the exploitation of new market sectors;
- the targeting of selected potential clients;
- investments in research activities in order to be more valuable to the clients;
- improvements to service delivery through the development of new processes and systems for handling assignments and projects;
- innovations in recruitment and selection so that the team provides more value to clients by deploying higher-calibre people;
- better training and development arrangements to improve technical, professional, client relations, marketing and leadership skills and thereby provide greater value;
- investments in productivity improvements to reduce costs.
If periodic attention is not given to these sorts of issues then the team’s behaviour is likely to be one of simply responding to short-term pressures from competitors, clients and economic forces. Good strategic management, and therefore effective performance and higher profits, requires a judicious blend of responding to environmental changes and taking initiatives. It involves both adjusting appropriately to external pressures and establishing leadership in the marketplace with well-thought-out innovations.
Strategy formulation is also about developing a strong culture. The ethos, spirit and drive of a firm; the ways that its people behave towards clients and colleagues; its approach to innovation and service quality; and the values and beliefs widely shared are the essence of culture. When the culture is strong everyone knows what the firm and the team stand for and can act accordingly. In those cases where there is a strong and relevant firm-wide culture then the task of the team is to work out how to ‘live’ the cultural values in its day-to-day work. In those cases where corporate values are not advocated then it is useful for the team, as part of its strategic thinking, to agree its own appropriate values to guide its behaviour in relation to tasks, colleagues and clients.
A lot of work goes into developing a sound business strategy and creating a strong culture. The first step is to get agreement and commitment within the team.