Three reasons why strategy reports are doomed

Photo by Beatriz Pérez Moya on Unsplash

Strategic planning without reams of strategy reports? Sounds like heresy.

What would people do without documented research, colorful graphs, proof of deep and thoughtful dialog and a detailed plan to move forward?

Well, what do you do with it? (Hint: file it, toss it, circulate it or extract sections to help make a point.)

In reality, most strategy reports aren’t all that useful. Torpidity is nearly a guaranty given three converging forces that are innate to planning.

#1. Discussions have life, strategy reports don’t

Rare is the scribe who can turn a report into prose, bringing to life the mood of a discussion and the sizzle in the room. By definition, reports are static. Discussions are not.

It’s hard to capture the excitement and enthusiasm people feel when they have a collective aha moment and turn that into a two-dimensional representation. Packaging into a report isn’t easy; the aliveness doesn’t transfer well.

#2. Short shelf life

Reports rapidly turn into relics. Even when well-intentioned, reports have a brief shelf life. By the time many reports are generated, they’re outdated. Hence reports obsolete themselves quickly.

Time moves on. Information changes. New data becomes available. New directions are reached. Effective strategies work with this emergence, not against it.

Here’s one thing we can say about the value of strategy reports: they serve a purpose as a repository of point-in-time facts and decisions in case anyone forgets an important detail.

#3. A culture of CYA

Which leads us to how reports are actually used. In a constructive sense, strategy reports are repurposed in one or more ways:

  • all or portions are shared with the board
  • extracts go to management to guide alignment across divisions and departments
  • select portions morph into messages aimed at investors, social media, etc.
  • for people who weren’t in the room when decisions were made, reports function as a communication channel

Why, however, do leaders take strategy reports as the norm? I think there are three dominant reasons:

  • Reports are an accepted convention for CYA cultures. If something goes wrong with strategy, at least the report provides testament to the thoroughness of the process.
  • People who lead strategy processes are enamored with their work. That includes generating impressive reports. I suspect this is implicitly embedded into business models and revenue models for many large consulting firms.
  • Leaders haven’t discovered viable alternatives.

A clearer way

Once you recognize the limitations (and counter-productivity) of strategy reports, you have options. Stay the course and keep producing them. Declare them obsolete and stop them altogether. Or, create a new approach that works.

I’ve seen a number of different ways organizations capture the true spirit of a solid strategy so it continues breathing life into important decisions as well as daily actions. They include:

  1. Reduce every artifact – written summary, chart, graphic – to its essence. Simple, succinct and precise. Do this for interim and final reports. If it’s longer than two pages, you haven’t yet arrived at the essence.
  2. At the conclusion of discussions about strategy, snap photos of flip charts. They become your official record. Include a bullet list of decisions and open-ended questions. Post them in an online collaboration forum where participants can easily find them.
  3. Hang the charts back in the office. As new ideas surface, add them to the wall. Respect the dynamic nature of strategy processes and ride the momentum.
  4. Capture quotes from meetings and take a handful of photos of the setting and the participants at work. This is a powerful visual tool for reconnecting people to key moments in the meeting and the overall experience.
  5. Partner with a designer or graphic recorder to create a prototype instead of a document. Innovate and experiment with ways to animate the strategy.

Most important is #1. A pretty picture won’t turn a murky strategy into a compelling direction. Stretch then stretch some more until you reach the essence. Only then can the package (replacing a report) come to life.