One challenge for strategic initiatives is getting people out of their comfort zone so that they work strategically. In this story about the kickoff of a major project platform at a joint venture, I describe seven take-always related to discovering unknowns and a learning on working with cross-cultural teams.
A R&D Breakthrough Creates Opportunity
Two global companies (one French and one US) had created a joint partnership to patent and commercialize medical products. The JV’s first product was in use by the early adopters in its market. However, sluggish product performance was keeping the product platform from “crossing the chasm” and becoming a major revenue generator. A R&D breakthrough found a solution to this performance problem. Top management wanted to exploit the opportunity with a global new product launch (and on an aggressive schedule).
One of the JV partners had a rigorous new product introduction process. The team’s short-term challenge was to validate the feasibilities to manage risks.
Boundary Spanning: Cultures and Global Product Launches
The client assembled a team (mostly R&D people) and scheduled a 1-day kickoff meeting, asking me to facilitate it. The job of the facilitator is to provide structure to the meeting, with the goal of enhancing dialogue, deliberation, and decisions.
It is worth mentioning, too, that French was the first language of many of the participants, including the strategic initiative Program Manager. At this stage, the team was only French and US, but eventually the team added people from other countries. Often strategic initiatives take place in cross-cultural setting, so an important skill is facilitating effective conversations.
Of course, corporate cultures are also an issue. In this case, there were three distinct organizational cultures in play.
Setting The Scope
People (technical, particularly) tend to avoid ambiguity and stay in their comfort zone. I recognized that this audience might waste time in “interesting technical discussions” and not make progress towards the most strategic of the objectives.
I started the meeting by asking each person to complete this sentence, “I want to accomplish this _______ in this meeting.” (A similar idea on defining completion criteria and success criteria is found in this article.) Most of their expectations were tactical, and I recognized that this group would need my help to leave their comfort zone.
To help the team gain a strategic perspective, I wrote these three statements on a flip chart page:
- What do we know?
- What don’t we know?
- How do we find out?
For the first question, the senior marketing person presented top management’s wishes for schedule and volumes. This clarified much of the ambiguity about vision. Next, one of the engineers presented the results of one of the preliminary feasibility studies.
What Don’t We Know & How Do We Find Out?
After the presentations by the company insiders, the team listed the major risks and unknowns. The program manager started a parallel list that assigned responsibilities for investigating the issues and making decisions. The format resulted in something similar to the issues management approach described in earlier articles. When all participants agreed that their expectations had been met, we ended the meeting (ahead of schedule).
A Major Success!
The product is now a internationally-recognized product with significant revenues.
Lessons for Leaders of Strategic Initiatives
Here are seven learnings that come from asking the group to identify what they know and don’t know:
1. It is important to focus a group on what they don’t know. Too often, conversations focus on knowns and knowables. The faster you can get answers to what you don’t know, the more progress you will make.
2. You need to get people out of their comfort zone and into the learning zone. Strategic thinking makes people uncomfortable and their anxiety can brush them close to the “panic zone.”
3. Strategy is inherently ambiguous, so recognize and accept ambiguity as a fundamental leadership responsibility.
4. Let people who hold strategic information share what they know. assure that everyone is getting the same information at the same time.
5. You will tend to find more issues than risks (early in planning); thus, be prepared with a issues-management strategy.
6. The “focus on what you don’t know” principle is an expression of the Chief Learning Officer role: be curious and encourage others to be curious. Also, assume the Chief Integration Officer role, which seeks to recognize patterns and understand relationships of the various elements. Together, these two leadership roles help promote sense making, which is essential for gaining stakeholder commitment.
7. Recognize and avoid the time-wasting trap of “interesting technical conversations.”
Recommendations for Strategic Initiatives in Multi-Lingual and Cross Cultural Teams
This example involved a French-US team. Strategic initiatives increasing must span geographic, language, and cultural boundaries. The obvious recommendations apply: don’t assume that others process and value the same things, take extra time to define words and acronyms, leverage the abilities of bi-lingual people, and write things down for all to interpret.
What tips do you have for kickoff meetings in strategic situations? What are your experiences with cross-cultural teams?
- Four Things Strategic Initiative Leaders Need to Know About Requirements (leadingstrategicinitiatives.wordpress.com)