Of all the meetings top executives go to in a year, none is more important than the strategy off-site, where the most essential conversations for the future of the business occur. Yet it is the rare management team that can say its strategy off-site truly changed the way the business is run. At best, participants do some vague direction setting and work on team-building skills; at worst, they write off the retreat as a waste of time and resources. It needn’t be like that.
Originally posted on Harvard Business Review
It’s easy to equate crisp, clear, black-and-white decisions with good decisions. After all, the very definition of decisive includes words like “unmistakable,” “final,” and “conclusive.” Make the call, check the box, clear the decks, and move on to the next topic. Spending my days facilitating offsite meetings with senior management teams, I’ve seen this classic model of decision making dominate companies in practically all industries and corporate cultures.
But, as often as not, this drive toward clarity and closure — and the need for precision that accompanies it — leads senior management teams to waste time and make meaningless decisions during their offsite meetings. Often, it’s better to be fuzzy, to deliberately introduce imprecision into your team’s decision-making process.
Typically, for example, an executive team charged with creating a high-level timeline for launching various strategic initiatives or determining whether a specific resource should be deployed would spend innumerable hours in offsite meetings debating which ones will be launched immediately and which ones later this quarter, which ones two quarters from now versus next year, or even which in 60 versus 90 versus 120 days.
The fact is that it doesn’t much matter. Once realities of implementation intrude on even the best-laid plans, decisions made by the senior management team often become more like suggestions anyway.
A few years ago, one of the senior management groups I work with tried something different. I had been reading about fuzzy logic — that branch of mathematics concerned with deliberately introducing imprecision into decision science. Washing machines, for example, were being programmed to heat the water to “warm” without a specific temperature being assigned to that concept — “warm” was simply the state of being hotter than cold and colder than hot.
We decided to try a similar approach. Rather than put initiatives into many specific time buckets, I asked the senior management team to make one decision: Was this something that would start “now” (meaning immediately — tomorrow morning 9 a.m.) or was it something that would start “later” (simply defined as “not now”)? This made executives uncomfortable, so we introduced a third bucket — “soon” — defined as “later than now but sooner than later.”
Suddenly, the task of assigning initiatives to timeframes became dramatically simpler. The challenge of determining whether something was 30, 60, 90, or 120 days out was transformed into a much more manageable — and meaningful — discussion: Was this something we were going to do now or not? And if it wasn’t going to happen now, should it happen soon? That’s the discussion the CEO wanted to have during the offsite meeting, and the energy of the conversation was refocused into a much more productive channel.
We soon extended this notion of fuzzy decisions not just to time but to importance. Rather than rank each initiative in order in a single list, as we had been doing for years, we began assigning them to broad priority buckets — “must do,” “should do,” and “nice to do.” This approach changed the task from judging the relative merits of each initiative against each other one to clustering projects with similar importance together. Since this eliminated both the problem of drawing artificially fine distinctions on the one hand and of trying to compare apples to oranges on the other, using this simplified approach enabled us to have a truly meaningful conversation about the relative strategic urgency, rather than the relative merits, of the various initiatives.
Of course when we began, few sponsors were willing to categorize their initiatives as either “later” or “nice to do.” So most projects were initially put in the “must do” and “now” buckets. But over the course of the conversation, a “high must-do” cluster emerged that was clearly more important than the “low must-do’s.” As the “low must-do” category devolved, predictably, into “high should-do” territory, the borders of the buckets were soon aligned into the appropriate clusters of initiatives.
I’ve since seen this fuzzy, nine-cell matrix become an integral part of the decision-making process in a host of companies, ranging from a major media empire to a global fashion house to a German mittelstand agricultural-trading company. Assigning relative importance (“must do,” “should do,” and “nice to do”) and relative time (“now,” “soon,” and “later”) to a set of initiatives, and then stepping back to examine the clusters of activities that have been put in the nine resulting buckets isn’t precise, isn’t black-and-white, and isn’t crisp. But because it more closely matches the way companies actually run, it is a far more effective tool for aligning the various priorities of the management team.