Most organizations have a strategy that includes a vision of what they are working to become, a shorter term mission supported by initiatives and goals, and a set of values that guides how they work and behave in the world. The strategy provides structure to promote desired change. When unwanted or unexpected changes happen, organizations look to their strategy for guidance and support to work through the adversity.
People can do this, too. Having a strategy & defined core values can help keep you stable and more resilient when change doesn’t go your way.
Three basic reasons people shy away from or struggle to do this work:
1. One and Done.
This is the notion that planning is an event and you have one chance to get it right — one shot at it and then you’re stuck with that one choice, as if you’ve chiseled your strategy in stone. And changes or edits are illegal, immoral or impractical.
It may be possible to create a perfect vision the first time. But for most of us, our purpose, vision, even our values evolve over time as we experience life, like an organization’s strategy changes and shifts with time.
Leadership is a practice; strategy is a process. As people, circumstances and environments change, plans need refinement. With each contemplation, each iteration, we refine both our plans and our planning skills. The trick is not letting it be something you did once, but rather, to use the structure to make change a way of life.
2. Belief that Pride is a Sin
Remember the song, “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” by the Rolling Stones? Well, some of us learned you can’t — and shouldn’t — dream too big or at all. Kids get these messages from parents, teachers and other adults who are ultimately trying to protect them from heartache or to teach them humility. I certainly remember those conversations with teachers and priests in grade school about the seven deadly sins and the fast track to hell. On the plus side, those conversations also came with motivation to use my gifts for the good of others; that said, I spent a lot of years dismissing compliments and downplaying my accomplishments. I even struggled with tasks like writing my resume and claiming results.
I will never forget my first coaching class. Our ice breaker was basically introducing ourselves to each other and sharing one of our dreams. I had no idea what they were talking about, and when I raised my hand to ask for clarification, they told me I’d figure it out. Here I was, the poster-child for over-achievers, and about to fail the icebreaker. I was mortified. Then this lovely woman, Julie, took my hand in hers and introduced herself: “Hi, I’m Julie, and my dream is to ride in a hot air balloon.” Someone behind me said something about writing a novel; someone else mentioned a long trip to Australia. In that moment I realized I had no idea what my own dreams were. I “borrowed” other people’s dreams to get through the exercise, resolved to make my own list, and vowed to never get that far off track ever again.
To this day, I struggle a bit with connecting with my deepest desires, let alone claiming them, and the process of strategic planning is still uncomfortable. But the work is powerful and helpful -- and the pain is worth it. My plans guide my day to day choices, helping me make quicker decisions and to avoid distractions.
3. Fear of Humiliation/Shame
Prior failure to achieve a goal, one that was big and public in particular, can make you shy about putting any goal on the table. If you’ve been laughed at in a moment of failed try at something, you know that feeling. And it's a sticky one — as in, it tends to stick with you. These icky feelings are a heaping food buffet for your ego — that part of you that wants you to stay the same. And the bigger the humiliation you felt, the more you avoid anything that could lead to feeling that way again.
Feelings of shame and humiliation are a universal part of the human experience. Whether its for how you look, being smart, giving a wrong answer, something you did or didn’t do, or even for something you didn’t know you were supposed to do — feelings of shame and humiliation leave a mark, an internal wound. And reaching for something big without certainty that you’ll get it can feel like pouring salt in. No one likes to feel that kind of heat.
Fear of humiliation can shut down a room pretty fast. I’ve seen it. I’ve seen leaders summon great courage and visibly show passion, fear, and overwhelming excitement at the possibility of bringing a vision to life, and others shrink into the corner, unwilling to put themselves out there for fear of being wrong.
What’s great is that the strategic process basically forces you to deal with all these obstacles. Without a doubt, strategy work is the best ongoing team building activity for any leadership team that I’ve seen, if facilitated well. Creating and committing to the plan is the first part; the real power is in strategy execution and ongoing focused problem solving.
But the struggle is real. The conversation you physically hear is a mere fraction of the conversations happening in the room. Participants battle their own demons to summon the courage to lean in. For some, the urge is to write anything down and go back to work, back to what is familiar and safe; for others the battle is with guilt or fear. For all, the process brings vulnerability, hence we resist, avoid, or merely tolerate.
Over time, if you work at the process, you will come to see how the structure of strategic planning can serve you in success at work, and also as a structure for choosing and creating change in your life.
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