Trust is the foundation of effective and authentic leadership. Without trust, leaders lose teams through attrition, or dangerously low engagement. Among the many qualities of trusted leaders, clarity is key: People trust the clear and mistrust the ambiguous. So, leaders who earn employee trust provide transparency around goals, plans and expectations.
Sadly, one widely-used leadership tool puts leaders at risk for destroying clarity and trust—the annual strategic planning session. If you ever want to put your team to sleep, just say these two words: strategic planning. While I agree that “without a plan, you plan to fail,” many employees have developed knee-jerk skepticism toward annual planning sessions. Why? Most have taken days at off-site retreats and hours of analysis without doing much differently afterward. Few strategic planning sessions provide clarity around the specific actions and changes required to achieve the intended goals. Without a clear plan, employees are confused and become ineffective—leading to fear, frustration, and a lack of focus. And with every ambiguous strategic plan, trust in leadership erodes. We can’t have faith in a leader who has fuzzy plans or unclear expectations. How can leaders create a strategic planning framework that builds clarity? One way is to practice quicker planning more often—one hour every 90 days—with a bias for action. While long term strategic planning can assist certain functions, the world is moving too fast for long-range plans to stay relevant.
Quick Planning: Four Questions
Instead of an annual planning session, try 90-Day Quick Planning (90DQP). It gives leaders and their teams an actionable framework that provides clarity for participants, and leads to tangible results. Simply pick one to three areas of your business you’d like to address, then ask and answer four questions. It should take less than one hour to complete the process, performed every 90 days. I’ve used this same process for my company, for my family, and for losing 50 pounds of weight.
Question 1: Where are we? If you do not know where you are today, you can’tknow where you would like to be in the future. Many leaders like to use SWOT analysis, which is fine—but only give yourself 20 minutes to complete it. Most teams can identify their strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats quickly. For my weight loss, I could easily see that I was 50 pounds overweight.
Question 2: Where are we going? Ask, in 90 days, where would you like to be? Would you like to be back to your high school weight, like I did, or double sales, or reach 100 more customers? Write a clear, quantifiable (numerical) goal of where you want to be.
Question 3: Why are we going? If the why is strong enough, the plan does not need to be perfect. If a building is burning and my kids are in it, I don’t need to know every detail—I’m going in because my why is so strong. When your team has a motivating and unifying why, they’ll do the little things differently. They’ll stay passionate and focused, and they’ll finish. Recently I was with journalist Larry King, when a friend of mine asked him, “What is your favorite question to ask?” He said that his favorite question is Why? because the why motivates people. He said he can conduct an entire interview by simply asking “why did you do that?” Why did I want to lose the weight? I wanted to look and feel better. But I realized that I also wanted to have integrity. In my work, I talk about doing the little things that make a big difference. But when I looked in the mirror, I felt like I was not living out that principle in this area of my own life. With a more compelling why, I increased my commitment to my goal.
Question 4: How are we going to get there? Why? may be Larry King’s favorite question, but mine is how?—how are we going to get there? I recently worked with a group of health care executives. After a day of training and consulting, they decided the issue they needed to address most urgently was clarity. Their brilliant minds discussed what they would do to be more clear. Their first answer was: “We will communicate more.” I wondered what exactly that meant. So I asked, how? They huddled and then responded, “We will hold each accountable.” I’ve heard that before and seen few results, so I asked them again, how? They huddled once again.
Finally, they came up with something specific they would do every meeting to build clarity. Keep asking how? Until your team commits to taking specific actions. If people do not start doing something differently right now, the plan does not matter.
Asking myself how—over and over—was the key to losing 50 pounds of weight. When it comes to slimming down, everyone knows what to do. Eat less and exercise more. But that wasn’t working for me. I had to ask how? until I could pinpoint something specific that I would do differently. I came up with 15 specific hows that led to me losing 33 pounds in 90 days, and 50 pounds in six months. For example, a doctor told me that most men in America would lose 30 to 50 pounds in a year if they simply would stop drinking their calories (8 oz. of orange juice has 110 calories).
So I achieved clarity on how to drink less calories by asking myself how? until I devised a list of things not to drink—and what to drink instead. I knew that if I picked up a glass of water or Fresca, I could drink it. If the glass contained soda or orange juice, I wouldn’t. I was clear on the how, and so were the results of my efforts.
Instead of laborious strategic planning once a year, try this 90-day challenge. Every 90 days go through the Quick Planning process for three areas of your business. Instead of approaching it skeptically or wanting to fall asleep, your team will find focus, energy, and motivation. With greater clarity around your 90-day plan and vision, you will gain the trust of your team—and bottom-line results will follow.
First Published in Leadership Excellence Magazine, January 2013.