Post-it notes at the ready. Felt tips poised; flip charts ahoy. Who doesn’t love a business strategy workshop?

As a veteran of many such workshops – each one a different cocktail of group-work; blue-sky thinking; dot-voting and backward-planning (a particular favourite) – I have to confess, I love a bit of Participative Strategy. Working collaboratively on a strategic level can do for your business what a day at the spa does for your body and soul: cast off the shackles of the daily grind, think big, and see the future reborn over coffee and better-than-average biscuits.

But what is Participative Strategy, anyway? And will it work for you?

The case for participative strategy is almost unassailably sound. It revolves around the premise that business planning is not a one-off event that takes place in the boardroom, but a living, breathing process in which your whole stakeholder team should have a voice.

By approaching business strategy in a way that is participatory and collaborative, you will inevitably reap a wider spread of perspectives than are ever heard around the board table. You will gain a clearer understanding of the issues that affect your business at every level, and emerge with a well-rounded basis for prioritisation when it comes to setting goals and moving forwards. The icing on the cake: when you take a participative approach to your strategic decisions, you secure the full buy-in and engagement of everyone who will be involved in implementing them.

You emerge from your planning sessions with a team that is spiritually energised and glowing. Everyone has been listened to; everyone feels valued, and you’re ready to move forward as one. Or at least, that’s the idea.

Participative Strategy can be used to navigate any strategic decision that your business faces. I’ve facilitated many successful (and even fun) sessions focusing on topics ranging from business planning, to website redevelopment. By getting all the right people in the room and taking a workshop-style approach, you emerge after a few hours with a plan of action that might otherwise have taken days and weeks to develop. That is the easy bit.

It’s what you choose to do afterwards that makes or breaks the Participative Strategy process, and beware: the participative approach isn’t for everyone. There are some serious questions to consider before you take the plunge, and you should only consider this approach to your strategic planning if you can answer “yes” – honestly – to the five questions below:

  1. It is one thing to give your team a voice: but are you ready to listen to what they say? Even if you don’t like what you hear?
    Ignore them at your peril. There’s always the risk that your participative process may open a Pandora’s Box of issues to be solved. Once those issues are out, they won’t go away on their own. If you’re not ready to make changes to the way you do things, or if you don’t want to hear things you don’t like, do not enter the process. 
  2. Do you have an open mind about what the outcome(s) of your process will be?
    There is nothing worse for team morale, than being invited to participate in a process whose outcomes are ignored in favour of a pre-determined course of action. If your mind is already made up as to what you’re going to do and how you’re going to do it, do not enter the process.
  3. Do you genuinely value your stakeholders and their views?
    It seems obvious that you should respect and value the people you work with – after all, that’s why you work with them – but without a spirit of respect, the process will be no better than a hollow sham. If you don’t truly respect and esteem the people you’re going to involve, don’t waste their time (and yours): do not enter the process.
  4. Are you ready to be held accountable by your stakeholder team?
    Before you enter the participative strategy process, ask yourself if you are prepared to be held to account by your stakeholders for the actions you take (or choose not to take) as a result of your planning sessions. Participative strategy is not a one-off event: it’s an ongoing process. If you’re not ready to embrace that, do not enter the process.
  5. Do you truly believe that many heads are better than one?
    Be honest with yourself here. Not everyone is wired the same way. If, in your heart of hearts, you know that the decisions that determine the future of your business lie with you and you alone, then your participative strategy sessions will be no more than a box-ticking exercise that results in frustration all round. If that’s you, do not enter the process.

Well-facilitated Participative Strategy can provide a powerful approach to business planning. It can be efficient; effective; creative, and it’s almost always a lot of fun. But if you can’t answer a resounding YES to the five questions above, please do not go near it. Get your team building kicks another way: go quad biking, go-karting or take everyone to the pub. Just steer clear of participative strategy.

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