Facilitating A Strategy Workshop

Being able to guide a team of people forward in an effective discussion to craft strategy is no simple task. There are many challenges and traps to be recognised. And while most obstacles will hopefully be managed and avoided, there will be some that you must push through on to achieve the necessary outcomes. Select your facilitators carefully.


Active Knowledge Question:

On what basis do you select someone to facilitate a strategy workshop?


The Art Of Facilitating

There certainly is an art to facilitating, which reflects the ability to guide a team of people through a process to land at a consensus point. A consensus point which will guide and enable action throughout that team, and in the case of business strategy, the entire business unit.

It is an art as every team, and every journey is different, and the dynamics of each group you take on this journey will vary, including the way they respond to each other and you.

It is a process as you must have rules and steps that you will follow almost without exception. ‘Process is your friend’ is a great expression to abide by. Process allows you to manage interactions and ensure you cover all relevant points in your journey to consensus.

And it is the ‘why’ of the process and not the ‘how’ that is most important. You can’t just follow a set of instructions. You must understand why they are relevant, and that will allow you to explain them if questioned and vary them as necessary.

Facilitating is not just being a scribe and copying down what various people say. You may well use whiteboards, flip charts and pens to capture thoughts and ideas, but as the journey progresses, they serve as the roadmap to consensus.

Great facilitation requires that you have a presence in the room, in fact, that you control the room. You are able to guide the conversations, drawn in people and also close down conversations. There is a journey to be undertaken, steps to be completed, active participation to be gained and at times, silence and reflection. You need the process but also the presence to deliver it.

The best of the best is what you are seeking to bring to the table through your facilitation, and that requires everyone leaning in and contributing all they have. Some will give more, and some will give less, but they must all be drawn to give their best.

Expect to be challenged and for there to be agendas present in the room. Strategy can be infused with politics and self-interest, which can rise to the surface quickly and unexpectantly. Your ability to respond as appropriate, diffuse conflict and even ‘stare-down’ looming challenges is important.

You are the impartial strategy expert who will be able to orienteer and weave the team through the journey. They will be challenged and extended in their thinking, gain insights and understanding and land at a point of knowledge and confidence.

There will be an energy in the room to which you must be attuned and be capable of influencing as the journey progresses through activity, discoveries, agreements, progression, rest, and of course through the impact of your presence.

There is an art to facilitating, which requires skills and creativity to reach the desired outcomes.


The Outcomes Sought

Preparation is critical to successful facilitation.

Meeting with your principal and understanding your brief is obviously the first step but that often requires clarification, recommendation and affirmation. You should be comfortable in listening carefully to your principal’s goals and instructions, hearing what is not being said and openly speaking into your brief as necessary.

Understanding how your client and the team has approached these sessions before is very useful, and engaging individually with key team members prior to any session can really assist.

In larger groups, I would also use a pre-workshop questionnaire to allow individual preparation, but also to allow me to gain an appreciation of where everyone is on in this journey of developing a strategy.

An understanding of the company, its business and the industry is important. But what is more important is your knowledge of strategy as a field and your ability to facilitate. The people in the room with you will likely be experts and experienced in their fields, industry and the business.

Your task as a facilitator is to draw out their business and industry knowledge and craft that into an effective strategy. You must understand what effective strategy looks like and be able to explain that to your principal and their team from the moment of your first meeting. It will impact materially what outcomes are sought and achieved.

In my view, you must be the strategy expert and allow the team to be the industry experts.

The outcomes sought will always be in the form of:

  • the dynamics and learning experienced during the strategy session, and
  • the consensus landed upon to enable action.


Room Dynamics

When thinking of strategy, think of conversations. As a facilitator, you want to seed a conversation that will continue well beyond the room and will eventually permeate the entire business.

As the conversation builds during your session, a new language should emerge. A language that is unique to that business and which is rich with images and metaphors which carry significant meaning to the team and then the business. Images and metaphors can be very powerful and enduring. Lego Serious Play as a methodology can be very effective in this respect.

So what should the dynamic in the room be? One which reflects thinking, analysing, exploring, playing, arguing, imagining, understanding and agreeing – an active, robust conversation.

Not an easy dynamic to create especially if everyone is sitting back in their chairs with pads, pens and mobile phones out and with a limited amount to time broken up by a long lunch. But there are ways to create the right environment which you can open your principal’s mind to and weave into the session’s agenda.

It is also vital the roles of the chair, the board, the CEO and management team in the development of a strategy are clearly understood and agreed upon prior to seeking to facilitate a strategy session.


Sit Back And Observe

I believe one of the most important learnings that a CEO, and Chair, can take away from a strategy session is insights into the team members participating – management and board level.

At times the CEO and/or Chair may feel they need to participate and guide the conversation actively, so they reach the outcome they want. Given ‘understanding and agreeing’ by all those attending a session is vital, it is often better that they allow the facilitator to guide the conversation, freeing them to participate but not over-participate.

But what they should absolutely do is sit back and observe how their team members participate, contribute, support and work with others. It reflects not only their knowledge, thinking and ideas but their ability to lead.

I often hear from CEOs that seeing their team members participate has allowed them to separate the real leaders out from those who are there for themselves.


The Product Of The Day

Strategy is never a checklist nor vague aspirational statements – it should be a compelling story.

Your strategy is how you intend to compete as a business to achieve the purpose for which you exist as a business – profit is not a purpose; it is an outcome.

The strength, the competitive fitness, of your business is founded in the combined talent and effort of everyone who works within and with your business. Your strategy needs to engage and guide them by communicating:

  • Why your business exists, its visions and its goals. A righteous purpose and a quest of a vision.
  • How it connects with and meets its customers’ needs.
  • The value it delivers to its customers and how it operates to deliver that value.
  • What it does better than everyone else.
  • Why it is a business worth working for.

It is a story that directs the entire business, aligns all its resources and draws everyone’s focus to what is most important – how you have chosen to compete.

You compete around customer value, that is, the unique way you have chosen to define customer need and to meet those needs better than anyone else possibly could.

At the end of the session, you want to be able to have drawn out the best the business has to offer and to have succinctly distilled that into a strategy that will enable the business to compete to its greatest capability. And to have set that journey in a manner that it will be executed and compounded on as the business progresses.


Maturity, knowledge, capability, imagination, vision, energy, passion and an ability to lead the team forward drawing out and blending their best– these are some the key attributes that you seek in a person you select to work with to facilitate critical discussions in your business.


An entirely new level of performance.

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All the best in the success of your business,

Richard Shrapnel