Laying out a strategy for the year ahead is no easy task. What’s more, it’s rarely as collaborative as it can be. Leaders usually just retreat into a series of meetings in November and December, then emerge with a handful of key goals for the following year. One reason so many organizations fail to hit those targets is because so few of the people on staff were actually involved in conceiving them.
To remedy that, company leaders need to ask their teams to think 12 months ahead and work backward. These two sets of questions offer a useful exercise for doing just that.
Start by asking your team to imagine some of the ideal scenarios you want the company to experience in the new year:
- What headline will accompany a news story about our company a year from now?
- Which topics will our executives be addressing at next year’s conferences?
- With which industry or social movement will our organization become associated?
- What aspect of our organization will customers be tweeting about?
- What will investors and analysts be predicting about us?
- What will the CEO of our top competitor be telling their sales and marketing teams about us?
- Besides a paycheck, what’s the main reason our employees will want to come to work a year from now?
Talk It Out: After everyone shares their answers, steer the conversation in a way that helps you reconcile them. As you zero in on popular ideas, you may find some differing opinions that remain. That’s okay! Companies thrive on a wide range of views. But in order to move forward, encourage healthy debate, then take a vote on key sticking points. Use these questions to guide discussion:
- Which of our answers are similar?
- Which ones are the most dramatically different?
- What conversations and choices need to happen today to align our visions, and which ones can wait?
- What role does innovation play in shaping the version of the year ahead that we’ve articulated?
- How do we need to change what we’ve been doing in order to achieve what we’ve set our sights on?
You’ve just defined the “what”; now it’s time to talk about the “how.” Fast-forward to a champagne-soaked celebration one year from now. You’re toasting the milestones you achieved over the past 12 months and calling out the specific people and decisions that made it all possible. Ask everyone on your team to write an imaginary toast based around answers to these questions:
- What was the single most effective action we took that led to our success this year?
- What was the biggest hurdle we needed to clear?
- What was the single most effective action we took in order to clear it?
- Who and what were the driving forces behind the changes we made?
- How did we secure everyone’s buy-in in order to make those changes?
- If we hadn’t made them, where would we be today?
It can be tempting to overanalyze the feasibility of solutions (especially hypothetical solutions to challenges you haven’t tackled yet), but try to stay as specific as you can. Encourage participants to imagine the exact scenario that would render an existing barrier a complete non-issue. For example, if one of your barriers is, “Our tech capabilities lag behind our competitors’,” an effective solution might include, “Partner with tech company X,” “Hire developers with Y capability,” or, “Increase IT investment by Z percent.”
Raise Your Glasses: Now ask everyone to share their individual toasts with the group. (Pro tip: Opening actual bottles of champagne makes for a more authentic experience.) Afterward, discuss the following:
- Did we identify similar obstacles with similar solutions?
- If our answers varied, what do we need to discuss and decide today in order to bridge the differences?
- Of the tactics shared in our toasts, can we agree on the three most important action items?
- What’s the best date for us to meet again next quarter in order to review our progress?
This is more than just an aspirational exercise. These questions can help teams lay a clear path for short- and mid-term goals. It can also provide substance to abstract ambitions like “innovate” and “succeed.” At the very least, this exercise can help uncover divergent points of view before it’s too late to resolve them.