The DIY Strategy Sprint: Grasp & Frame (Day 1)

This is the third in a series of five posts devoted to a DIY guide on running a strategy sprint.

You now know how to prepare for a strategy sprint, and you’ve gathered the right people. You’re ready for the first full day of sprinting. Take a deep breath, you’ll need it!

Day 1 is all about grasping the current situation, understanding strategic choices, and framing go-forward possibilities. The goal of the first day is to arrive at a few different strategic possibilities to be developed over the next two days. The path to getting there has several steps, including:

  • engage the Play-to-Win (P2W) strategic choice framework
  • achieving clarity on the current strategy
  • defining the core strategic problem
  • reframing the problem as a choice between mutually exclusive options
  • generating a multitude of strategic possibilities
  • selecting the most promising possibilities to develop

Let’s take each step one at a time.

Step 1: Engage the P2W Framework (90 minutes)

It’s one thing to read about the cascade of five integrated strategic questions that comprise the P2W framework; it’s quite another to apply it. Devote the first half of the morning to getting comfortable with the framework. Three exercises help to do this:

Book Club. First, devote 15 minutes to discussing the reading material. This assumes some part of the pre-reading was completed, of course. What are the most compelling parts of the framework? What seems confusing? What opportunities do you see in our organization for thinking about strategy this way? This is nothing more than breaking the ice, and you won’t do anything with the input or output other than to warm the room.

Brand Love. Second, devote a total of 30 minutes to a small team exercise: “Pick a favorite company that you’re a loyal customer of. Based on your experience as a user or customer, come up with answers to the first three of the five questions in the P2W framework. What do you think their winning aspiration is? What’s their playing field? How do they win?” (Favorites include the likes of Netflix, Southwest Airlines, Zappos, Nodstrom, Google, Trader Joe’s, Apple, Amazon.) Teams usually spend a minute or so agreeing on a compelling example before diving in.

The first 20 minutes is breakout time. Each team then does a quick 1-minute report out. With short debrief this takes about 10 minutes, assuming no more than four small teams.

Competitive Cascade. Third, devote a total of 30 minutes to a large group exercise: answering all five questions of the P2W framework for a key competitor. This is usually a lively conversation. There are two reasons to do this exercise: 1. it engages people in the framework in a more real-world way, because now you’re talking about your business, albeit from a competitive perspective. 2. it reduces the time needed to draft your own current strategy cascade.

In less than two hours, the group will have engaged with the strategy cascade and begun to internalize it.

Take a 15 minute break, then move to Step 2.

Step 2: Draft the Current Strategy (90 minutes)

The group is now more at ease with the P2W framework, and you can turn your attention to the current strategy. This is more difficult than it sounds, for two reasons:

First, it’s hard to stay in the present. It’s natural and intuitive to talk about “what should be,” but you can’t take a new direction until you’re clear on the current one. Use these questions in this post to gain that clarity.

Second, everyone involved will have a different interpretation of the current strategy. The goal is developing a common understanding.

This is where outside facilitation can really help. A facilitator is a greenpea when it comes to the current strategy, and his or her pokes and prods can keep the group moving toward consensus on the “is now.”

Don’t seek perfection or comprehensiveness…you’re after the essence of the current strategy. In fact, you should be able to capture it on a single page.

Take a one hour lunch break, you’ve deserved it!

For steps 3 through 6, refer to “You Can’t Craft a New Strategy…” for an example of how to think about these steps.

Step 3: Define the Core Strategic Problem (45 minutes)

This is a crucial step, and one that people love to leap over straight to solutions. I learned, or rather had drummed into me, while immersed in the Toyota environment that the key to successful improvement in any effort depends almost entirely on the ability to identify the problem. I also learned that it’s often the hardest thing to do.

A couple things will make this a bit simpler, if not easier. First, split your resources, time and people. Second, leverage the six major sources of strategic problems and opportunities: industry structure and segmentation, channel value, customer value, relative capabilities, relative costs, and competitor reaction. Here’s what you do:

1. Diverge. Give small teams 30 minutes to discuss what they believe to be the most worrisome challenge with the current strategy. Is the structure of your industry such that new entrants make it tougher to make a profit? Has the growth of your company in the chosen segments slowed? Has your key offering lost value in the eyes of your partners or customers? You get the picture.

2. Converge. From the three or four possible problem statements (one from each team), spend 15 minutes coming to agreement on the most urgent and troublesome strategic issue. It doesn’t need to be more than a few words: “Slow growth in X segment.” “Lack of innovation.” “Weak capabilities relative to our key competitor.” “Brand irrelevance.”

Remember, you’re not trying to solve a problem. Yet. You’re trying to pinpoint it. You’re like a doctor seeing a patient. Your current strategy is the equivalent of a patient’s chart of vital signs. A doctor concludes that a patient has a strained muscle, you decide you have a strained capability.

Step 4: Reframe the Problem as a Choice (30 minutes)

NOW the group gets to talk about solutions. But in a disciplined way. And don’t be surprised when they struggle, because you’re going to put them in a bit of a box, a constraint: they must reframe the problem defined as a choice between two high-level options.

If teams get stuck on a second option (in most cases one option is fairly apparent), have them simply think about the absolute opposite of that option. You’re after an either/or pairing, not a both/and pairing. Again, refer to my earlier post for a walkthrough example.

Use the same diverge/converge method above, splitting the time into 20 minutes of divergence, and 10 of convergence.

Take a 15 minute break.

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Step 5: Generate Several Strategic Possibilities (45 minutes)

This a pure ideation session, with the goal of producing as many where to play/how to win possibilities as you can. Go crazy, go wild, silence the voice of judgment for now. Tackle the first option, then the second. See if you can come up with at least a half dozen for each. Using the diverge-to-converge construct, split your time in two ways:

First, devote 20 minutes to each option. Second, split those 20-minute segments into two equal segments of 10 minutes, where the first segment is individual ideation, and the second is small team ideation that builds on the ideas produced individually.

You’re looking for brief expressions of where-to-play and how-to-win possibilities, not fully baked ideas. Remember that the status quo is always a possibility.

It’s funny, even though people want to jump ahead to solutions, it never fails to happen that when it comes time for solutions and ideas, people seem to be at a loss. Have ready some thought starters, such as, “What could we do to become the (enter market leader name here) of this space? What new playing fields could we occupy? What spaces can we vacate? How could we win in space (_)? What could we do differently in a given space?

The hallmark of a good set of possibilities is when one or more are appealing enough to make people question the status quo, and/or makes people uncomfortable because they question how feasible or safe the possibility is.

The last five minutes of this step is to simply make all the many possibilities by all the teams visible to everyone. Put each possibility on a 3X3 Post-It note. Put all those Post-It on a wall, white board, or table top, because in the next step you’re going to move them around.

Step 6: Select the Most Promising; Close (45 minutes)

Do a quick purge of identical possibilities. Then devote 15 minutes to each of two tasks:

1.Cluster. Group similar possibilities together thematically. For example, put all “expand” possibilities together, or all “narrow” possibilities together. Label the cluster with a theme that represents the essence of the possibilities in that cluster, e.g. “strengthen production capability.”

2. Cull. Narrow the possibilities to those that the group feels hold the most promise.

Use the final 15 minutes to compose teams, one per possibility. Reiterate that over the next two days, each team will develop a strategic cascade for that possibility, reverse engineer that cascade, and develop an initial experiment to test the strategy.

It’s been a full day, your brain hurts, so go relax!