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I was chatting with someone about what to do when someone asks you a question in a meeting. If you are fine with where everything is heading or you’re not sure what to ask, should you simply say you don’t have any questions?

That may seem like the natural answer.

I suggested another one: Go ahead and ask a great strategic thinking question.

It is always better to respond to a request for questions with a question versus saying you are completely set (whether you are or not) and have no need for more information.

In these situations, asking a positive, open-ended question:

  • Suggests that you’ve been listening very closely
  • Puts the attention back on the other person
  • Provides an opportunity for the other person to clarify

The next natural question in our conversation was about what types of strategic thinking questions to ask.

While I think there’s a Brainzooming blog post for this, it was almost faster to write a new, updated list of questions than to find the post. (That’s why having a book of Brainzooming creative leadership ideas all in one place will be so handy!)

21 Strategic Thinking Questions When You Have Nothing to Ask

via Shutterstick

Here are 21 updated strategic thinking questions with varied purposes you can use when someone asks you if you have any questions:

Create More Room to Elaborate

  • Can you talk about that more?
  • How will it work?
  • What is most intriguing to you about the idea?

Seek Additional Background

  • Is that a typical approach that you take?
  • What brought you to that conclusion?
  • What other ideas did you consider before arriving at that?

Explore Potential Impact

  • What are some upsides to this approach?
  • What types of impacts should / can we expect?
  • Did you look at this idea relative to others and their expected impacts?

Identify Opportunities

  • Are there other areas in which we can apply this?
  • What other initiatives could branch off from doing this?
  • What other initiatives could get new life when we introduce this initiative?

Identify Success Factors

  • What do we need to pave the way for success?
  • Who will need to be involved to make this successful?
  • Can we depend on existing capabilities or will we need new ones to make this work?

Understand Previous Experience

  • What does your experience tell you about how this will work in our situation?
  • How have you used this idea in other situations?
  • How does that differ from other things you’ve tried?

Push for More Innovation

  • Is that a new idea / approach?
  • What are other alternatives you considered (or are under consideration)?
  • How does this approach improve on what’s been done before?

Given all that, do you have any questions? – Mike Brown

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Mike Brown

Founder of The Brainzooming Group, and an expert on strategy, creativity, and innovation. Mike is a frequent speaker on innovation, strategic thinking, and social media.

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The most popular statistic right now when it comes to knowledge transfer inside organizations?

Ten thousand baby boomers are reaching retirement age daily.

This statistic is used to light a fire under executives to hop on the knowledge management program. Many articles I’ve reviewed for an upcoming keynote presentation that I’ve informally called, Baby Boomers: Losing their Minds, paint the situation as totally dire.

While there’s a clear risk to losing intellectual capital, I see several potential upsides with the changing of the generational guard. We still see too many Brainzooming strategy workshops without enough women in senior roles, let alone healthy racial diversity. Given that, the baby boomer turnover has the potential to deliver multiple benefits, including:

That’s why the relevant number for your organization isn’t 10,000 baby boomers reaching retirement age daily. It is how much of your organization’s intellectual capital is subject to departure risk?

When identifying information to transfer in a strategic, coordinated fashion, I’m recommending to attendees that they prioritize several types of knowledge:

  • Information inside the heads and in the files of employees (irrespective of level in the company) who have influenced the organization’s body of intellectual capital, knowledge, and expertise
  • The details, keys to important communications flows, and histories within customer relationships integral to maintaining and growing revenue
  • Information on processes, procedures, and activities related to critical factors for organizational success
  • Successful structures and processes to transfer, embed, and ensure that the organization can act on vital knowledge

One other factor to narrow the knowledge you try to capture? Focus on capturing information that will be relevant in the future. While you may have a tremendous amount of information inside baby boomers’ heads, why waste time documenting things that won’t be important going forward? – Mike Brown

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Mid-year is that time where you look ahead to the year’s end while simultaneously reviewing this year’s plan and wondering how everything will get done by December 31. That leads to asking, “What would happen if we don’t get everything done? Didn’t we put too many things into the plan, anyway?”

Sound familiar?

5 Areas to Get Stalled Strategic Planning Initiatives Moving

I used to go through this routine repeatedly until I realized that I lacked a standard checklist of project assessment questions to use when a strategic planning initiative is behind schedule. I guess I was recreating the question set every time I needed it.

To spare yourself and everyone around you the hassles involved with not working from a standard set of questions, you can use the following routine this week, and in the years ahead, to standardize your diagnoses and approaches to floundering projects.

Rank the Suspected Causes

The first step is to assess the potential reasons why a strategic planning initiative hasn’t started within the time frame you originally planned. We recommend making a quick assessment. Our approach is to rank potential factors based on which you think are the most-to-least significant in delaying launch. Some typical factors you may consider:

  • The initiative’s importance or fit within the plan is off or no longer relevant
  • The leader and/or team on the initiative isn’t the right one
  • There’s an issue with the structure of the approach the team is taking to the initiative
  • There’s an issue with the size or scope of the initiative
  • Resource availability or levels are a roadblock
  • Some other reason is creating the roadblock

Ranking these factors, 1 through 6, helps prioritize your starting place to address the initiative’s delay. One ground rule: there can be no ties in your ranking. Not EVERY item can be the #1 reason. Force quick priorities so you can begin addressing the important issue as quickly as possible.

After completing the assessment, work through question-based checklists on the most significant factors. These are our starting questions in each category:

#1. The Importance or Strategic Fit Is Off

If changes in the internal or external environment are now calling into question a delayed initiative’s importance, ask:

  • Are there ways to simplify or change the initiative’s direction to increase its relevance?
  • What has changed in the underlying business strategy that impacts the need or interest in moving forward? Will the strategy change back (or again) soon?
  • Are specific reasons for moving forward more important than others? If we focused only on those reasons, how would we adjust the initiative?
  • If we don’t move forward with the initiative this year, what material impact will it have on attaining important goals and objectives?
  • Would we be better to divert focus from this initiative to other initiatives? Would we benefit more from diverting focus from other initiatives to jump start this delayed one?

#2. Leadership or Team Issues

Maybe the leaders or team expected to develop an initiative aren’t the right fit. This scenario prompts a variety of questions:

  • Is the initiative under-staffed? If we put more people on it, what will that change?
  • Does the team have challenges working together? Who, among the team members, needs to change in order to fix those issues?
  • Are there parties critical to developing or launching the initiative who haven’t been included to this point? Will involving them now help address these delays?
  • Are there people whose participation would have an immediate impact on moving forward?
  • If a major change in the team is needed, who from the current team should remain, in order to provide the right degree of continuity?

#3. An Issue with the Approach

In some cases, a struggling initiative makes sense, but delays in getting started are impacting the effectiveness of the original approach. Consider:

  • Is there a smaller effort or pilot related to this initiative that we can use to get progress (and results) going as soon as possible?
  • If there are uncertainties with the approach or the current environment, can we start with a part of the initiative that we could easily change or adapt later?
  • Are there steps we can easily remove (with disproportionately less impact) to streamline the development time?
  • Did we miss the order of steps we identified to launch the initiative? If so, is that fixable?
  • What initiatives have we previously completed that we can repurpose to accelerate progress?
  • Have we exhausted all the leeway in the original schedule? Do we (or can we, even) negotiate for more time?

#4. The Size or Scope Is an Issue

The delay can mean that the original planned initiative is now too big or small for current needs. Ask:

  • What are the areas in which to naturally modify the initiative, so it makes smart, strategic sense?
  • Are there nice-to-haves within the initiative that we can easily eliminate?
  • If the initiative isn’t going to have a big enough impact at this point, what changes do we need to make in order to minimize the gap?

#5. Resource Availability

Another factor that can slow progress is resource mismatches. Scenarios to think about:

  • If we put more money or other resources at this initiative, what type of impact would it generate?
  • Can we couple this initiative with a different, active one, so that they can leverage common resources?
  • What resources can we grab or repurpose from other initiatives and work them into this one?

First Ask, then Answer about Strategic Planning Initiatives

We hope that you’ll find this list of questions helpful in conducting any mid-year initiative reviews you need to do to make sure you deliver the most important aspects of this year’s plan. – Edited from Inside the Executive Suite

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Mike Brown

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I was at a church vision council’s meeting recently. The relatively new group is overseeing implementation of the church’s strategic plan and progress on it updated mission. That evening, the group was discussing alternative strategies to improve the church building and grounds. Looking at various plans, their conversation focused on the building activities in each plan:

  • The number of meeting rooms
  • The number and sizes of offices
  • Minimum hallway widths for accessibility
  • The types of dividers and doors to provide flexible room sizes
  • Which buildings might be torn down to enable new construction

Their discussion turned to how parish members might react to the various options and whether they’d support a building initiative.

via Shutterstock

My caution to the group was that, from the first stages, members need to be careful about the language they use to discuss the building initiative.

The group faced the classic features-benefits trap; their building project discussion was only about features.

Customers Write Checks for Features, but Buy the Benefits

They were ignoring the benefits: how each plan would dramatically expand the parish’s ability to realize its mission of prayer and service. Beyond the numbers of rooms and wall finishes, THAT is the important benefit from the building initiative. While the parish (and its members) will write a check for buildings and infrastructure, they are buying an experience. They are buying the ability to better help parishioners and all those they will reach out to with assistance to realize a closer relationship with God.

It’s easy for any organization to fall into that same features-benefits trap with its marketing and sales messages: While customers pay for features, they are buying the benefits.

That is why it is so vital to make sure you identify and articulate benefits that are clear, vivid, and important for your potential customers. – Mike Brown

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This matrix on 4 ways your organization can deal with major issues is DEFINITELY courtesy of the Brainzooming R&D lab.

Going back through notes and strategic planning posters from previous client engagements, I came across a big easel sheet. It was used during a particularly long and particularly challenging strategic planning workshop. The notes all pertained to tackling elephant in the room issues. These are issues inside an organization that everyone knows about (and will discuss in private) but that are NEVER discussed in meetings or any type of formal group setting. For this organization, which was undergoing a significant transition, many years of micro-managing resulted in at least one huge page’s worth of elephant in the room issues.

4 Ways to Address or Avoid Major Strategic Issues

That combination of knowing and discussing major issues led me to wonder: What are all the potential combinations of an organization knowing and discussing major strategic issues? That thought experiment is played out in this matrix.

You can see the elephants in the room in the lower right. Blind spots are in the lower left; these are the issues in the organization that are narrowly known and discussed. Failing to uncover issues the organization (and especially its leadership) doesn’t know, but that are very real, typically poses a significant threat.

Speculation occurs when there is a lot of chatter about issues that some might suspect, but for which most of the organization lacks any solid facts.

The upper right – the best quadrant – is transparency, where there is a reasonable balance between knowledge and discussion about major issues within an organization.

Did I mention that his was from the Brainzooming R&D lab? We haven’t used this matrix about major strategic issues in any formal ways yet. The first use will likely take place with an organization dealing with poor communication and a negative environment. We might use it before or during a strategic planning workshop to better understand where major issues are landing. If you do anything with this matrix ahead of that, we’d love to know what you think.

One Final Note: While this matrix is discussed in the context of an organization, it relates to other situations, particularly couples and families, at least based on being able to readily identify interpersonal behaviors within the matrix. So, maybe try it out at home first? But, probably not as a big poster you put up on the wall! – Mike Brown

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The day the IHOP/IHOb story broke, Emma messaged me that her son, Luke, wanted to discuss branding strategy with me. I wasn’t sure what to expect. Twelve-year-old Luke Gibson’s insight on the dangers of brand extensions was intriguing. We had quite the conversation about when brand extensions do or don’t make sense. Luke clearly saw fewer opportunities for smart brand extensions than I did.

His strong perspective on what would likely be a family restaurant decision underscores how consumers outside the intended target are forming opinions and influencing purchase decisions. And, since Luke and I didn’t exactly agree on brand extensions, I asked him to share his thoughts with Brainzooming readers. – Mike Brown

Luke Gibson on Branding Strategy: Change is Good. Greed is Not.

If you’re good at one thing, then most likely the right thing to do is stick to that one thing. For example, if you’re really amazing at pottery, you do that as your job, and people know you for your pottery business, then why would you suddenly switch to supply chain and logistics, with little to no experience in that? Don’t be selfish.

So yes, what I’m hinting at is IHOP, or should I say, “IHOb.” I’m sure that all of you knew IHOP, or “IHOb,” for their pancakes, and have gone to eat their pancakes at least once. Most likely you ate them during the day.

In an article for Business Insider, Darren Rebelez, president of IHOP, said, “We had to make a bold move to get people to be willing to talk about us for something other than breakfast food.”

Why? Your brand name is still about breakfast food. Might I add, what’s wrong with this picture?

Sam and Pam were walking to the International House of Pancakes. Sam asked, “What are you going to get at the the International House of Pancakes, Pam? Pam said, “I am going to get a hamburger from the the International House of Pancakes, Sam.” Sam said, “That is a good idea, Pam. I think I will have a hamburger, too,” said Sam.

Exactly. And yes, while the burgers at IHOb might be okay, you know what would taste even better? Their pancakes.

I’ve noticed that California-based Foster’s Freeze has done this as well. They have added burgers to their menu. What’s more is that it’s one little burger poster among thousands of ice cream stickers, so it’s also kind of hard to notice. And yes, hamburgers and ice cream are delicious together, but I would like to assume that the better place to get that would be at your local greasy spoon. It’s probable that most people don’t even order the hamburger! As many times as I’ve driven past, there is not one person holding a hamburger! (That Foster’s Freeze happens to be located across the street from a grocery store and surrounded with hot food places, so…) Yes, while their burgers probably taste okay, you know what would taste even better? Their ice cream.

To tie it up, brands should stick to the one thing that they are good at, and can branch off into other related areas. Leave the completely different opportunities for other brands. Your customers see you as greedy when you do this.  – Luke Gibson

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“The more bad ideas the better. If you work really hard on coming up with bad ideas, sooner or later, some good ideas are going to slip through.” – Seth Godin (June 19, 2018)

Failure is an option here. If things are not failing, you are not innovating enough.” – Elon Musk (Sometime before June 19, 2018)

You’ve heard it, and maybe even said it, or wished it. Who wouldn’t want to have explicit permission, even encouragement, to routinely make mistakes with your innovation strategy?

An article in The Wall Street Journal addressed this issue relative to baseball and how the strategies many major league baseball teams are using to improve player performance translate to typical office settings. The article focused on dissecting mistakes to learn valuable lessons, similar to the oft-cited trade-off benefit in making more business mistakes: you will learn more things, faster.

3 Ways a Productive Out Benefits Your Innovation Strategy

One section addressed making productive outs: the idea that when making an out, a batter tries to create a benefit for the team in exchange for not reaching base. Digging further, an article from redlegnation.com makes an important point tied also making more business mistakes: “Some [baseball] players, seemingly, are attempting to record a productive out rather than just attempting to get on base and avoid an out at all costs . . . productive outs should be something that happen at random . . . they should not be something a player strives for, except in very fringe cases.”

Since we are now in the thick of summer, let’s go with this baseball backdrop to explore how some types of productive outs in baseball shed light on your innovation strategy and potential beneficial impacts:

#1 – Helping Other Good Things to Happen

Baseball Situation: A sacrifice fly involves a batter hitting a ball in the air (with fewer than two outs) and so deep in the outfield that a base runner can safely advance after the ball is caught. The team trades one of three outs for the opportunity to move a runner ahead, creating a score (if the runner is starting from third base) or increasing the likelihood of the runner scoring on a subsequent play.

Generalized Impact: A sacrifice fly creates time and space for other positive actions to take place, even though an important objective (the batter reaching base) is never achieved.

Actionable Learning: A comparable business situation involves regularly employing moonshot projects to boost innovation. A moonshot project is one with a large, far-reaching, and overarching objective that may never be fully realized or expected to directly contribute near-term revenue and profit impact. While ultimate success would be beneficial, it’s not essential. What a moonshot project yields, ideally, are near-term benefits through collaboration and smaller discoveries and innovations along the way. These will enhance revenue, reduce costs, and/or otherwise improve profitability and other business prospects.

Business Impact: How many moonshot projects has your organization attempted in the past year? The past few years? If innovation is lagging, purposefully use this concept to get your team thinking bigger while it throws off smaller, innovative benefits along the way.

#2 – Wearing out the Competition

Baseball Situation: Major league teams go to extremes to control how many pitches a starting pitcher throws in any game. One hundred pitches are a frequent limit. That means that the more pitches an opposing team forces an overpowering starting pitcher to throw, the sooner that pitcher will leave the game.

Generalized Impact: Long-at-bats involving multiple foul balls and/or not swinging at pitches outside the strike zone prematurely exhaust one of the opposition’s scarcest resources. You can hit the first pitch and let the pitcher off easy or battle through ten or twelve pitches and wear him down faster.

Actionable Learning: Translating this idea to business means focusing on what your stance is toward competitive strategies and implementation. This upends the strategy of simply trying to beat out the competition on features and benefits. You can purposefully use promotions, market pilots, and the concentration of your resources in niche markets to attempt to divert a competitor’s attention from its pre-planned strategy and force them to follow you. In some cases, your actions may drive a competitor to expend unplanned focus and resources (both at a premium in most organizations) to match your agenda.

Business Impact: Executives typically think about current competitors and ways to outsmart them. How often do you engage your team in developing and implementing strategies to wear down your competitors’ resources to create new advantage for your brand?

#3 – Stacking the Odds with Controlled Failure

Baseball Situation: Hitting behind the runner is another type of productive out. As an example, if a base runner is going from first to second base, a runner tries to hit somewhere closer to first base. If they execute this well, it makes it more likely that the fielder will throw to first (which is easier), allowing the base runner to safely advance.

Generalized Impact: This play represents controlled failure: an experiment that is designed to yield positive results when it doesn’t work (e.g., produces an out), and even better results when it does (the fielder fumbles the ball and the batter is also safe).

Actionable Learning: In a business setting, you may have various unknowns or untested ideas. You can use this idea and design an innovation pilot, experiment, or test whose primary objective, rather than a market success, is a learning success. Gaining the right new insights is the focus, and if a near-term business success happens to result, all the better.

Business Impact: Is the idea of an experiment designed for learning success a new or a familiar concept in your organization? How can you apply it more frequently?

The Similarities Are Striking

Even if you aren’t a baseball fan, there are innovation strategy lessons galore throughout the game. And for the big fans: what strategy takeaways do you find in the intricacies of America’s favorite pastime? – Edited from Inside the Executive Suite

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Mike Brown

Founder of The Brainzooming Group, and an expert on strategy, creativity, and innovation. Mike is a frequent speaker on innovation, strategic thinking, and social media.

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