The academic year has begun and with it comes all the excitement of starting anew. For our fall class in Strategic Management, we also started anew – not just with a fresh group of students, but also a completely revised course. Out went the textbook and in came a fully redesigned course centered on articles, cases, sometimes-conflicting views, unstructured problems, and a heavier dose of discussion.
As I was prepping for the first session and thinking of words to explain to students how the case discussion process works, it dawned on me just how much a good case discussion is like setting strategy. In short, both are team sports, involve a lot of information, require fresh perspectives and dialogue – and are, at times, messy processes.
Some of the ways they are similar include:
- There is no “right” answer, although we all wish there was. Rather, it’s about considering context, constraints, opportunities and options before coalescing on a decision and path forward that is right for the organization.
- It requires deep thinking and understanding tradeoffs and implications to reach a good decision. “More” is not a strategy.
- Everyone needs to be prepared. All participants need to understand the situation and the decision to be made. They need to prepare for the session, considering both qualitative and quantitative information, and come in with some thoughts on both problems and solutions.
- Fresh perspectives can help spur thinking. Think outside the company, the country, and the industry. What is the context? The history? What else is happening in the industry, in other countries, and with new and emerging competitors?
- A diversity of opinion aids in debating goals and alternatives and in planning a way forward. If everyone is thinking the same way, it’s unlikely that innovative insights or solutions will emerge. A good facilitator should mine for these different opinions and bring them forward.
- Listening and discussion skills are needed to reach a solid conclusion. Discussing, questioning, building, branching and distilling are all part of the process. So is dissention. Truly listening to others’ ideas and opinions aids understanding and often leads to new insights.
- Progress is not always linear. Sometimes it feels as if you’re going in circles, or even moving backward – but stick with the process of listening and challenging and there will be progress.
Sadly, a lot of strategy sessions (and case discussions) are not like this. Sometimes people come in with preconceived notions of what is “the right way,” or canned comments meant to impress the boss. And sometimes the boss is driving the discussion, rather than facilitating the process. In these cases, the strategy chosen may be good, but leaves a team frustrated by the lack of true dialogue and consideration. It may also result in missed opportunities and a lack of commitment.
One very experienced case teacher once told me that in case discussions it is very important to “trust the class” – they may muck around and appear lost for awhile, but they will ultimately trying to impress the instructor and each other and, given good information and facilitation, start discussing the real issues and opportunities.
The same is true with setting strategy in an organization – you have to trust the team. Give them the facts, the context, fresh insight and different ways of approaching the problem and let them wrestle with the information, discuss options, and consider the pros and cons. And make sure to guide the process and facilitate the discussion well.