Friday, 23 May 2014

How to get feedback on a strategy

In my experience, writing then distributing a strategy document is a fairly limited process to receive input and feedback. The type of critique that you get is generally narrow rather than far-reaching. The number of people who choose to respond is often very low.

As part of my role, I'm responsible for developing strategy. It's my belief that the best way to get people engaged in a specific direction is to get them involved in setting the course. Recently, as part of defining strategy, I decided to run a workshop activity to seek feedback in an interactive way.

The structure of the exercise I used was based on one demonstrated by Adele Graham in a training course that I attended. Adele split the class into groups of four or five people, then gave each group a set of three coloured cards that read:

Adele then made a statement and gave the class five minutes to discuss the statement in their groups. At the end of this time each group had to pick the card that reflected their collective opinion of the statement. There was then discussion among the class where differences existed between groups.

I decided to use this same exercise to get input on my strategic thinking, focusing on areas in which I was uncomfortable about making a decision. By opening these aspects to critique, I hoped that the group would bring forward ideas that I hadn't considered.

I had seen that the best discussion in Adele's session came where the statements expressed a polarity; my language had to be clear and absolute. I worked to frame my statements so that the tester favourite of "it depends" would be abandoned in favour of clear choices, yes or no.

I also decided to intersperse the strategy discussions with those that would give me insight into the existing opinions of those present, to give me confidence in areas that I felt my thinking was sound.

Ultimately, I had a set of four statements for discussion:

  • A mind map is an easy way to present my test ideas to other people
  • [PLATFORM] is the best way to create a [PRACTICE] community at [ORGANISATION]
  • I could do [PRACTICE] in my current role at my current client
  • One hour of training, once per month, is the best way for me to learn more about [PRACTICE]

I had planned to spend 20 minutes on this piece of the workshop. I estimated that I would need to allow three minutes for each individual group to decide, then two additional minutes for wider discussion in the case that there was disagreement between groups.

On the day, I had 23 people at the workshop. For this exercise, I split the attendees into five separate groups based on their current client engagement, in order to support discussions against the third statement.

We began, and agreement was reached on the first statement almost instantly:

This made me a little concerned that the exercise wouldn't achieve what I had hoped!

Fortunately, the remaining three statements created the type of conflict I was expecting to emerge and provided a good catalyst for opinionated group discussion. As a result, I felt that the group understood the types of compromise inherent in these areas.

My expected timing didn't hold true for each piece of the process. In every case the groups had decided well within the three minutes. However the resulting workshop-wide discussion was much more detailed than I had planned, as different opinions were aired. Overall, we hit the 20 minute estimate for the entire exercise.

I was happy with the breadth of thinking that appeared, and the conclusions reached where opinions were varied. I felt that this workshop gave us a strong foundation to begin from, as the strategy should now reflect the agreement reached here.

How do you seek input on strategic direction? Any other innovative ideas?


  1. Hi Katrina,

    Having been present at this workshop, I'll offer a few opinions on why your first statement didn't elicit the level of discussion you perhaps hoped for.

    First, you introduced it as "an easy one to start" (or something like that). I'm not sure whether this was intentionally a bit of a trick, but I think it meant that a lot of people switched off, and didn't think too critically about it. By implying it wasn't a difficult decision, you unconsciously endorsed the use of unthinking instinct. I'm not saying this is a good response, but I think it played a part.

    Second, I think that the nature of the exercise to some extent promotes agreement. While there was an option of "cannot reach agreement", the environment was congenial and the groups were made up of colleagues with existing relationships. This meant that the groups tended towards reaching a useful compromise, rather than resorting to what appeared to be little more than an unhelpful "it depends".

    In particular, I felt personally that in some cases you knew what MY response to the statements would be (given our close working relationship), and so while I asked what I felt would be pertinent questions, I didn't want to overtly influence the unknown opinions of others in my group - despite, in a couple of cases, the groups decision not 100% reflecting my own thoughts (or, more accurately, being too definitive to play well with my hesitant doubts).

    Finally, I think that the statement you were surprised to discover universal acquiescence with is less absolute than it might initially appear. A mind map IS an easy way to present my test ideas to other people. It's not ALWAYS an easy way, and in some cases it is NOT an easy way. If you'd said "is always" or even "a mind map makes it easy to present my test ideas to other people", you might have found more resistance. But the "an" implies - rightly or wrongly - other options, which made people comfortable with suggestion that yes, a mind map can be an easy way - even if it isn't always.

    Ultimately though, I think this is a good way for gauging people's ideas on certain topics. The above points are worth considering when using it though - particularly the second one.

    The option to disagree is important, but the dynamics between the people there are crucial in how or when that option gets exercised. In a less congenial environment, the questions above might have elicited far more "cannot reach agreement" responses.

    At the same time though, this tendency to promote agreement (or universal disagreement) is probably a plus point for this technique. Any strategy will likely involve compromise from one side or another, and allowing the parties involved to actively debate and, importantly, potentially resolve them is a fantastic tactic.

    You also know then that - unless the atmosphere is very hostile and all answers are "cannot reach agreement" - that those questions or statements which do divide opinion are likely those where further investigation of options or compromises may be required.

    As usual though, an interesting post :)

  2. Awesome post Katrina! In the past, I have been disappointed in the attention given to strategy documents. This post made me realize I could talk it up, and get better feedback AND better engagement. Thanks!