Interpreting Strategy Documents: More Insights and a Valuable Tip!

Make this request of the strategy formulators

A “strategy implementation readiness” meeting is useful for aligning top managers (strategy formulators) and the program implementation team. Typically, strategy documents are distributed to the team in advance, and the meeting typically involves asking questions and clarifying intent. These documents include slide decks, spreadsheets, position papers, and research reports.


How to get them to ease into the strategy’s backstory

When you are in the situation of talking to the author(s) or editor(s) of a strategy document, make this simple request:

“I’ve read through the strategic planning documents that you provided me.  Can you walk me through the background and your thought process?”

This approach works wonderfully in getting people to open up. It gives them permission to think out loud; which is important because people structure memory differently. Your job is to listen for interesting things. As management guru Peter Drucker writes,

“The most important thing in communication is to hear what isn’t being said.

Much important information is found in a strategy document. However, the process of developing those documents is one where the author/editor – in trying to create consensus and clarity – removes information that might trigger disagreements.  Here are examples of things that seldom make it into a strategy document:

  • Weak signals from the marketplace, technology, and industry. Often these are important leading indicators. I classify these as external strategic context. For example, Silicon Valley is full of companies that were started by entrepreneurs who saw and exploited a weak signal.
  • An assessment of power and influence.  Yet, most members that vital organizational information is knowing who is up, and who is down. I classify these as internal strategic context. Despite all the methodology of rational process, tribal emotions rule the organization. 

When you let people tell their story in their own words, you hear about their passion and their pain.  This is the energy that creates relevance and enthusiasm for the strategic initiative. 

Avoiding Three Common Mistakes

The walk-me-through-your-thought-process request helps to avoid these three common mistakes…

  • You assume that because an individual’s name is on a document, the individual is the author of the document. That may not be the case. The author could have been a consultant, staff specialist, or executive assistant.

Now, let’s assume that they did not write the document.  
Should we assume that
they read it?

  • You assume that the author remembers what they wrote.  We all know that memory is fragile. Can you recall the details of a document that you wrote 3 weeks ago?  Probably not, and it’s not fair to ask someone else to remember the details behind the abstractions typically found in a strategy document. 
  • You forget that that the document likely went through a number of iterations and edits.  Ironically, the process of aligning and committing decision makers edits out much important contextual information that would be valuable to the implementation team.  So you assume that the strategy is “correct” and take it at face value.

It is risky to take a strategy document at face value.  Why? It is impossible to include all relevant information.  Furthermore, the document is an output of a long series of conversations, deliberations, and decisions. 

What interpretation techniques do you use to understand people’s perspectives on the strategic context?


About Greg Githens

Author, How to Think Strategically (2019) Executive and leadership coach. Experience in driving change in Fortune 500 and mid-size companies through strategic initiatives and business transformation. Seminar leader and facilitator - high-impact results in crafting and delivering strategy, strategic initiatives, program management, innovation, project management, risk, and capturing customer requirements.
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4 Responses to Interpreting Strategy Documents: More Insights and a Valuable Tip!

  1. Pingback: Validation: How to Get Strategy Right | Leading Strategic Initiatives

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