One of the key lessons I’ve learned from facilitating strategic planning sessions over the past 13 years is the importance of ensuring clarity around the language of strategic planning before the team steps into the room to begin their planning work. If there’s ambiguity in the room at the beginning of the session about terminology, even the best agenda can quickly get off track. I’ve found this to be true whether I’m working with a team of senior executives at a Fortune 500 company or an operations team at a not-for-profit organization.
The culprit when the meeting veers off track is usually the different mental models team members enter the meeting with. Here’s an example: Ritu, a program lead who has worked at Company A for many years, has a mental model about strategic planning that includes the following hierarchy of language:
What do I mean by “hierarchy of language”? I mean that when Ritu thinks about strategic planning, she would expect to have an overarching vision that is supported by several strategies, which are broken down into specific objectives and then into more detailed tactics. Steve, on the other hand, also a program manager but new to Company A, comes into the planning session with a different mental model. For him, a more comfortable hierarchy of strategic planning language is:
- Strategic priorities
- Personal goals
As you can imagine, the lack of clarity around language can drag Steve, Ritu and potentially the whole group into a lengthy discussion about what means what, when their focus should be on thinking deeply about their business and building alignment across the team about the path forward.
So, what’s the best way of preventing the group getting off track if you’re a team leader or facilitator?
- Be clear about what your own mental model of strategic planning language is. What’s at the top of your hierarchy of language? Is it the “Long-term vision” or “10-year-plan”? What’s at the bottom? Is it “tactics,” “tasks,” or “actions”? Remember that your language is likely based on your experience working with these terms and your team members, especially if they are new to your organization, will likely favor different terms.
- Be sure that your language is consistent and aligned with the rest of the organization. If the rest of your organization uses “strategies” to mean the high-level approaches to achieving a 5-year vision, then stick with “strategies” in your planning work as well, even if you prefer the word “goals” or “pillars.”
- Start your planning sessions by sharing your hierarchy of language with the team and defining all of the words you’ll be using. Even better, provide specific examples of what you mean by “objectives” and “tactics.”
Try these tips for gaining alignment around language and keep your strategic planning conversations just that – strategic.
Lane Change Consulting is a consultancy based in San Francisco specializing in graphic facilitation, graphic recording and team effectiveness. We design and facilitate strategic, collaborative conversations that create clarity, focus and engagement in organizations. We can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.