Strategy workshops help organizations explore how their actions can drive market events and competitor responses. They’re an internal exercise for the organization to prepare, debate and challenge internal assumptions and to assess strategic choices. When executed effectively, the workshop will challenge participants to define clear strategic objectives, inspire lively debate and encourage the critical evaluation of a diverse list of ideas.


While the mechanics may seem straightforward, many companies struggle to use these workshops effectively. Too often, the exercise fails to challenge existing thinking and doesn’t accurately define the core business issues. There are many pitfalls in workshops of this kind, but typically there are three root causes behind their ineffectiveness:


1. Failing to achieve “escape velocity”: Many companies struggle to get beyond their own perspective on how market events will play out and how their attributes vs. competitors’ attributes will be perceived. When a team has been striving to position its product, it can be fundamentally challenging for them to escape a myopic, group think bias. Moreover, the presence of senior leaders in these workshops can create additional pressure to demonstrate a company’s steadfast commitment to the brand.


There are a number of ways that companies can achieve “escape velocity” in their strategy workshops. First, it’s important to define meaningfully differentiated future world scenarios. These should be scenarios in which the market events or competitor data varies significantly from our base case expectation. These are the precise scenarios that need our best thinking, so avoid the temptation to dismiss them as unlikely. 


Next, take the time to meaningfully immerse people in both their customers’ perspective as well as the perspective of their competition. Separating the group into sub-teams that play the role of customers and competitors can be a highly effective way of getting teams immersed in an alternative perspective. This device also provides some “cover” for unpopular ideas that people might otherwise censor in a broader group discussion.


Finally, have an external panel of judges to bring a true outsider’s perspective to the meeting. Ideally, the panel will include one or two actual customers, but at a minimum, it should include some people from outside of the company who can genuinely challenge team thinking.


2. Mistaking goals for strategy: Richard Rummelt, the strategy guru, describes “good strategy” as the “bridge between the challenge and action, between desire and immediate objectives that lie within grasp.” The failure to create that link is a hallmark of bad strategy and often comes down to what Rummelt describes as “mistaking goals for strategy.”


We often hear strategy defined as “winning against brand X” or “being the market leader in industry Y.” These are not strategies; these are goals. This issue is particularly difficult to overcome as it is ingrained in organizational culture and often reinforced within senior leadership. But a goal is not a strategy. A goal doesn’t tell you how you are going to do it, only what you want at the end. A strategy is a chosen course of action to pursue an outcome. By its nature, it implies a choice, a trade-off.


The best way to assess if your strategy falls into this trap is to ask, “As opposed to what?” A well-framed strategy should have a converse that represents a reasonable choice that another market player might choose. For example, if your strategy is “to win against brand X,” the converse would be “to lose against brand X,” which is obviously meaningless. You need to be able to articulate how the converse is still a viable option, even if it’s not the best option for your individual brand. If you can’t do this, it’s probably not a strategy.


Working with internal or external strategy experts can help overcome this tendency. Asking challenging questions and pushing on “Is this really a strategy?” fosters the productive and critical evaluation of opportunities before deciding on the best action.


3. Lack of focus: Outcomes of strategy workshops often include laundry lists of objectives and tactics that are disconnected and ultimately fail to address the critical challenge. This often happens when strategic objectives aren’t clear or specific, covering anything and everything. By wanting to play it safe and avoid making the wrong decision, there’s no decision-making and no prioritization. Effort and resources get split without putting enough focus behind the key priorities to mobilize and overcome the challenge at hand.


To overcome this tendency, commit to only pursuing objectives that connect back to the defined challenge and strategic objectives, and don’t be afraid to reject ideas because strategy is about making choices and deciding what to focus on. Again, leveraging a panel of external experts who aren’t subject to internal politics can make this easier. They can discuss challenges and play the devil’s advocate when evaluating the alignment and prioritization of actions to strategic objectives. This outside perspective can break through group think to ensure that the final strategy builds that bridge between the challenge and the action.


While this list of common challenges isn’t exhaustive, incorporating these best practices will ensure that you have a solid basis to strengthen the impact of your next strategy workshop.