Earlier this year I had the opportunity to travel to Lithuania to work with the ISM University of Management and Economics  on thinking through strategy and how they compete in the global market for management education. I could do an entire post about the beauty of Vilnius, how gracious everyone there was, or how cool it was that they’re housed in an old monastery and built their newest building on top of the old city walls – but I won’t. Rather, I’ll tell you about what impressed me most – the way they creatively approached developing strategy.
The school itself focuses on developing innovative managers and they modeled what they expect their students to become throughout the two-day meeting. The session was structured so that on the first day, participants all viewed, reviewed and discussed a common set of information and the second day they discussed options, debated alternatives, and created a rough outline for how they would move forward. They followed a lot of best practices  throughout the session:
- Include a diverse set of opinions: Participants included ISM’s president, top management team, a handful of faculty, and me.
- Inject fresh insights: They started by asking me to present overall trends in management education and then facilitate a discussion around what’s happening in the sector not only in the Baltic region, but in Europe, the US and Asia to get a sense of how what they’re experiencing is unique to ISM or common across regions. Lots of slides, lots of discussion and it took a full day.
- Listen and discuss: In this case, many of the more senior people hung back and waited for others to present ideas and data – and they really listened to what others said. And no one in the room appeared to be nervous about questioning others’ ideas or disagreeing with their conclusions. It was done in a spirit of cooperation and good will, and people could disagree without being disagreeable.
- Understand that there is no “right” answer. On the second day discussion turned toward “what’s next” for ISM and what it would take to get there. The team envisioned, discussed and debated ambitions, future states, and positioning. It became clear that there were a lot of alternatives and tradeoffs, but no single right answer. Some ideas and options, however, were better than others.
- Understand the tradeoffs and implications of various strategies. After the above debate, the group coalesced around one desired future state and voted on the four main areas/priorities for achieving this state. Four emerged quite naturally and they broke into four smaller teams to discuss initiatives, resources, tradeoffs, etc., and then came back to present and discuss ideas.
- Keep in mind that progress is not always linear. It wasn’t.
So far this sounds like many strategy sessions I’ve been a part of, but what the teams came back with was anything but. What emerged was some very creative thinking – one team, for example, summarized their discussion using an equation with variables and consonants to describe their research agenda and desired results. Another utilized a theatre analogy to describe how to create the motivated team they needed to get closer to their desired future state. This one, in particular, was impressive – and you could tell by the knowing smiles that came from easily understanding the analogy and how it would be applied in their situation.
For a school focused on innovation, they certainly demonstrated it in the way they approached this strategy session – using a facilitated process and making the outcome their own. Of course the hard work began after the two-day session, and it’s well underway. That’s not the point. The point is they used a solid process and set of practices to discuss options, debate alternatives, and consider the best path forward.