Lighting The Strategic Fire, Part 2


*If you haven’t read Part 1 yet, you should read it first.

Part 2

When I heard my client say “light the fire,” I was reminded of a weekend I spent at a remote lodge up in the mountains. You know—the kind of rustic building that doesn’t have a central heating system, so if you want to warm up on a cool morning, you literally have to light a fire.

I recalled that one early morning, I didn’t have a lot of fire-starting material on hand, but I knew I had to start a fire and warm up the cabin before my wife woke up. I wanted to be a hero and demonstrate my ability to build a warming blaze, so I coached myself through the process:

“Go easy as you begin,” I said to myself.

I had a good supply of the old-fashioned stick matches. For a moment, the thought, “light the whole box at once and throw a pile of wood on top,” flashed through my mind.

“No,” I told myself, “that doesn’t seem very wise, and it isn’t very practical, either.”

I remembered that even though I was low on easy-burn material, I did have a notepad with two or three sheets of paper, so I tore out a couple of pieces of paper and scrunched them up.

Next, I went to the wood pile out back, and there, I managed to scavenge a handful of very tiny wood slivers and a few slightly bigger sticks. Then I took an axe and split a few large logs into smaller, more manageable  pieces. When I was finished, I put the whole mix into a bucket and headed off to tackle building my early-morning fire.

I carefully placed the wood slivers onto the little bit of paper I had, lit the match, and held my breath. I wondered if my little pile of material would start.

It did!

I knew I was making progress when I heard the first crackle of the wood slivers beginning to burn. I knew I had the process rolling. Slowly, I added bigger and bigger pieces of wood, and in just a few minutes, I had a blazing fire that warmed the whole room. I was feeling pretty good about the situation, despite my original doubts.

I thought back through my experience that morning and it dawned on me that just like a wood fire, a team’s strategic fire—the strategic initiatives they’ll pursue—need to start small.

It’s imperative to go easy and avoid throwing a huge log (or strategic challenge) into the mix too soon. If you do, you’re likely to smother the team’s strategic fire, as well as their interest in pursuing new, strategic avenues for the business.

After my epiphany, I told my client the story and we talked about the fact that he needed to approach how he introduced strategy to his team in the same way.

“Your team knows that having strategic fire is a good thing, but they probably lack some of the discipline needed to get a good fire going,” I said. “Maybe they need a match, some paper, or some wood slivers to help jumpstart their proactive minds.”

I explained that every team will experience a bumpy start when they are balancing their normal, generally heavy workload with their new strategic projects.

“So,” I said, “you’ll need to start a few new traditions—disciplines to get the proactive ball rolling.” I explained to my client that as my team and I brainstormed together on how to become more strategic in our own work, we came up with an approach that worked really well for our organization—and once he’d tried it, it turned out to work just as well as for my client.

We feel confident that if you are willing to be a strategic leader, it may also work very well for you. However, you’ll need to be prepared to be courageous because, strange as it may seem, people will push back in the beginning—even at the start of a good strategic change that will benefit everyone involved. This is the approach we developed together:

1. Start Small

We concluded that if they start small, people will figure out how to find the time and resources they need to be more strategic in their daily work. As they see the progress they’re making, they will slowly become more and more excited about their new, strategic activities and approach to their business.

2. Talk About It Regularly

We decided to initiate holding a really simple mini-forum twice a week. We called it our “strategic huddle.” We decided that this huddle would last 30 minutes and would be held at the same time every Wednesday and Friday.

3. Establish Firm Processes and Expectations

These huddles would start at 11:30 am. Everyone was expected to be there. If you were in the building, you would attend the meeting in person; if you were on the road and it was at all possible, you would call in for the meeting.

4. Execute, Evaluate, and Revise

We would experiment with this idea for four weeks. At the end of that time, we would evaluate it, expand it, tighten it up, or throw it out if it didn’t get the fire going that our organization needed. If we tossed it, we would try again.

After four weeks of giving this process a try, a few people had some lingering doubts and there were still a few naysayers. But we also had some tangible and promising results. It wasn’t a big, blazing, strategic effort yet, but it was starting to crackle and ignite. We doubled down and went for more.

At the end of eight weeks, people started liking this process. They figured out how to be more productive and efficient on the operational side of the business, which resulted in them having more time for their strategic projects. We began to throw bigger strategic logs on our little fire.

The strategy was finally burning brightly, and our team’s scorecards were starting to show encouraging results. People began to enjoy the time we spent together on Wednesdays and Fridays. Sometimes our “huddles” were even fun!

If you were stuck on your strategic project, you could get help from your strategic partner; if you needed fresh ideas, you could ask the group to brainstorm with you; if you needed an hour to work or write in the conference room instead of at your desk, you were more than welcome to do that.

We discovered that this sliver of time (30 minutes, twice a week as a group) was just what we needed to get everyone in the strategic game—and people absolutely discovered that they had more to give and devoted more of their time, energy, and resources to the strategy than one hour a week.

But it came easy.

They began to think about their strategic ideas on the way to work. Ideas began to hit them after they’d seen a show or watched a documentary over the weekend. Some people said that a new solution hit them while they were jogging in the park or working out at the gym.

The good news was that we had ideas, we had a little time, and most importantly, working on the organization’s strategy became a true team effort.

“There is no way we are going back now—we’re unlocking new sources of value for the business,” my client recently told me. “We are meeting our obligation to help prepare the business for the future. We just needed a little firewall between our regular tasks and our strategic tasks.”

Eventually, these two essential sets of tasks became almost completely integrated. Working on activities designed to help shape the future felt natural; it simply became the way that they—and we—function as a team. We can see the same results in your future.

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About the Author

Steven Stowell, Ph.D.

Dr. Steven J. Stowell is the Founder and President of the Center for Management and Organization Effectiveness, Inc. CMOE was created in 1978 for the purpose of helping individuals and teams maximize their effectiveness and create strategic competitiveness. Steve’s special interests lie in helping leaders and organizations transform into high-performance cultures that are focused on long-term, sustained growth. Steve began his career working in the energy industry. During the past 30 years, Steve has consulted with both small and large corporations, government agencies, school systems, and non-profit organizations in 35 different countries. Steve enjoys the challenges of • Helping functional organizations define, create, and execute strategy in order to differentiate the business. • Developing and designing creative and innovative learning experiences, simulations, and keynote presentations. • Helping functions across the organization be more effective and aligned in executing long-term plans. The centerpiece of Steve’s consulting, learning, and executive coaching work is his advocacy of applied research and data collection. Steve is a highly effective presenter and facilitator and enjoys creating customized solutions, assisting senior teams, defining strategic direction from the individual level to the corporate and business-unit level, and improving teams that are faced with important challenges and issues.