"Can you send me the form and we will get going?" How many times has a misadventure started with those words? How did we end up with forms being a form of work output?
I run into the forms question a lot. It usually happens when trying to lead a team through some kind of critical thinking exercise. It often occurs when teams are doing something for the first time. The question can arise out of a misplaced sense of urgency; perceived pressures to just get on with the work. The attention deficit driven call to just do something can create an anxiety that inhibits strategic thought. Why is this and why should we care?
Let’s start with forms. Forms are nothing more than an artifact of some kind of information. Often that knowledge is mundane. Examples of mundane information include the inputs used to complete a driver’s license application. You don’t need to generate your name, birthdate or address. You already have that. Routine is also acceptable when the form is a repository for information developed in a defined well-established process. The inputs that come from a source are processed and captured as outputs and sent to a consumer. The critical thinking went into developing and refining the process.
The challenge comes when the forms are used to capture artifacts of novel thinking or new approaches. Then the questions arise, how do we know what the forms should be if we are taking this approach for the first time? Sometimes participants ask for forms and it is helpful to show examples. However using forms to substitute for a critical thinking exercise is a recipe for waste. The danger arises when individuals eschew the discussion of what is important and huddle with the intent of completing the forms.
The challenge becomes a sharp change in the risk profile when discussions focus on completing the sections of the forms and do not consider broader questions, most of which are not represented on the form. For topics such as strategic planning the forms are often developed after the conversation is complete. Forms are context specific and completing a form without critical thought ignores context. Critical thought processes are not easily reduced to the information presented in a form. It takes time and effort to do that. During this effort the organization is developing an understanding of the language and behavior needed to understand the changes embodied in the strategy.
The team may have a general outline for capturing information to make content easier to share with others such as the Board of Directors or senior managers. However the use of predefined forms for the capture of all information implies a predetermination of what information is important. This becomes even more confusing when the organization is asked to develop plans based on the information presented in these prematurely summarized forms.
So what happens when form is substituted for substantial discussion? A gap develops between the understanding of the executives playing with the forms and the senior managers below them who will be charged with executing the strategy. These middle level executives are not privy to the conversations of the senior leaders. The senior executives focusing on the forms short change the critical thinking process and have not developed the language they need to convey the explicit and tacit knowledge needed to execute the plan.
Senior leaders should consider the format for capturing their strategy after they complete the construction of that strategy. Prematurely imposing a structure strategy constrains and even short circuits the messy discussions that lead to discovery of new information, penetrating insights and breakthrough solutions. Executives may want to consider a review of how information is captured (forms) as part of their annual strategic planning. In doing so they may want to engage middle level executives to determine what information will best facilitate a cascade to action and outcomes.
So stop and think. Does it make sense to start with the forms? Would we benefit from a broad discussion of how well we understand our business and what we are trying to accomplish? Should we include a consideration of how we will execute and specifically what our middle levels executives will need? What form is your next executive discussion going to take?
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