A great Kick-off - the smart way to launch a strategy

Or about senseless CEO Strategy Roadshows

My vocation is to make companies fit for the future in the role of a sparring partner and to ensure true sustainability, i.e., in all three dimensions. Strategic Foresight is the method that enables a «future-ready» strategy instead of a «conventional» one. How this is subsequently introduced and implemented is what this blog is about. I have seen (too) many Foresight projects, which were only done for the gallery and hardly led to actual activities. A strategy that doesn't really get off the ground in real day-to-day business is piecemeal at best, no matter how great and future-ready it looks on paper. At the end of the day, only what is done is decisive for the match!  

Don’t get so caught up in planning that you forget about the people

In my observation, a strategy process usually works something like this: After C-level management has agreed with the board on longer-term goals and associated strategies in a process that lasted for weeks or months, with the involvement of consultants and other stakeholders, implementation primarily focuses on the «technical implementation», i.e., quantifying the goals and aligning them between the various functions and units. Good and widely used methods such as «Objectives and Key Results» (OKR) or «Balanced Scorecards» (BSC) are available for this purpose. Surprisingly, what is usually tackled only at the end, virtually as a last priority, is the information within the own company and the related question of how to get the «employees on board».

I don't know of any study and can't prove it, but my perception is that very often the CEO and/or the C-level management team visits the various organizational units in a so-called roadshow to give as many middle managers, team leaders and employees as possible a first-hand impression. In the best case, there is some form of dialog or feedback-round involved. This, however, serves only to get a feeling for how the whole thing is being received and where the shoe might pinch. It is obviously too late to incorporate this into the strategy. The goal behind this is praiseworthy, but how involved is middle management in this process and what is the benefit from the employees' point of view? Yes, the CEO was there, gave a (hopefully) good, inspiring speech about the future direction of the company, but what happens afterwards? My observation is that the organization is then in a state of waiting for things to happen, wondering what exactly this means for me or my team, and afterwards eagerly expecting to see what concrete things will come «from the top». As a result, most of the own organization becomes a «strategy recipient» and is not (yet) involved and thus not part of the strategy.

Pictorially speaking, this is like when the helicopter appears with a big roar, raises dust everywhere, then moves on and the dust settles again afterwards.

At such events, it seems to me that people are forgotten because of being caught up in all the planning. The power, the competencies, the knowledge, the creativity and the ideas of the own people are only used in a rudimentary way, it is not really exploited. Maybe it is too strong a word, but I think this is nonsense. There are better ways, and more and more companies have recognized this and have long since been treading new paths.

The power of a great kick-off

I will not go into the «technical implementation», i.e., the entire «plan-to-perform process» here. As I said, there are good instruments for this and, in my opinion, useful routines have been established in most companies, which are also well orchestrated by the CFO and the finance department. I will address the following three questions here:

  1. How does the company take middle management, team leaders and its many employees on board?
  2. How does the leadership team activate the organization’s knowledge, skills, creativity and ideas?
  3. How does management ensure that as many activities as possible support the strategy?

At first glance, these are big questions. But I would like to claim here that there is a single, almost absurdly simple answer to them: With a great kick-off! 

A properly staged and well-thought-out kick-off event has the power to elevate middle management to the position of strategy bearer - rather than receiver - and to set in motion many smaller and larger bottom-up processes in addition to the top-down, which meaningfully complement the corporate strategy that the C-level itself could never be able to take care of. In addition, it literally gives motivated employees at all levels of the company a stage to show themselves and to be able to present themselves in a positive light. Pure «empowerment»!

Everyone who has dealt with me in the last 10 years of my corporate career (i.e., at the very latest since my time in Russia) knows it: I am a passionate «kick-off freak» and would like to encourage every executive to become aware of and use the power of such an event. It's not difficult, here's my quick guide for CEOs:

  • Present strategy to middle management teams approximately 3 months prior to launch
  • Task them with presenting their function's strategy at the kick-off event
  • Give free rein to how they do this, but prohibit a PowerPoint slide show
  • Identify a kick-off organizing team with a coordinator (profile: lots of drive, good ideas, well-connected among teams, close to you as the person in charge)
  • Set the «big picture» with the team (slogan, common thread, time, place, budget ...).
  • Give the team the resources they need and ensure your support
  • Then stay in the exchange and enjoy what happens with the organization

What this sets in motion is what I call «business and fun in its best mix»: the teams think about what the essence of their strategy is, how they will bring it to the stage and who will take in which role. They look left and right, see what others are doing, the coordination team comes up with all kinds of suggestions, and something unusual happens outside the usual routines. Under a certain time-pressure, which encourages creativity, business and fun mix in the best and most positive sense. In Group Shared Services, a mail from the USA suddenly appeared, with space suits purchased by the team there, inspiring local imitation by the teams in Poland and China, or when the Polish organization's self-built stage-ready space rocket made the rounds, it led to corresponding activities in the USA and China (and you know how good ideas can be perfected in China). Wonderful!

Of course, there are better and worse kick-offs, but with this kind of staging, a momentum builds up, nervousness here, anticipation there. As a rule, it is a success per se. It only becomes problematic if you do it too often and it becomes an «annual routine» or it takes place in the same place, with the same pattern, then the magic gradually fades.

Finally, four examples that I remember well:

  • Market stand: Each business unit gets a stand and presents itself, while the whole organization goes to the different stands for 2-3 hours, like at a grocery market. A good way to strengthen the internal company network and promote «best practices».
  • Moon landing: Simulation of John F. Kennedy's mission to NASA to fly to the moon for the first time, starting with his legendary speech «We chose to go to the moon ... ». Still (!) a good metaphor to swear to a lofty, common goal.  
  • Drama in 3 acts: Short play of the management team on stage that wants to set off to the stars, but the rocket does not want to take off because something is missing in the first act (for example the «the Continuous Improvement Department«»"), in the second act because something else is missing (for example «the employees») and then the launch only works in the third attempt.
  • Escape Rooms: Here, mixed teams free themselves with questions and tasks about the strategy of their room, this as a preparation for the later kick-off-event as such. This is very suitable if a strategy is already in the advanced implementation phase and you then aim for a somewhat smaller, more discreet event for the kick-off itself (for example, in a smaller setting on your own premises).

There are few limits to the imagination, except for one principle that must be paramount: 

It's the mix of business and fun that counts: Dry business-like PowerPoint presentations are just as ineffective as events where most of the focus is on fun and no longer on business strategy.

And the CEO, what is his role? He, like many others, has his appearance on stage, sometimes alone, sometimes with his team. In all other moments, he can talk to the middle managers, the team leaders and the employees in a much better, more relaxed way, perhaps feeling the pulse better and more authentically.

Long story short - here is my summary

  • CEO/ C-level strategy roadshows are not effective, on closer inspection even counterproductive, if not nonsense. Think of the «helicopter syndrome».
  • Well-designed kick-off events have a lot of power and strengths. In addition to the top-down, they set in motion many smaller and larger bottom-up processes that meaningfully complement the corporate strategy and are a wonderful empowerment tool for motivated employees.  
  • Properly staged kick-off events are splashes of colour outside the usual routines. They promote creativity and combine business and fun in the best and most positive sense.
  • The mix of business and fun is what makes it. It is important that it is always first and foremost about the corporate strategy and not about a leisure event (like a skiing weekend or a bowling evening).
  • Remember: Only what arrives in the real business world and triggers concrete activities will move the company forward. A Strategic Foresight project and a good strategy alone are of no use. You only become fit for the future through action, and the more people at all levels feel empowered and do the right thing, the better equipped they are for the future.

What does it look like in your company? What experience do you have with kick-off events? I'm eager to hear your comments. Are you looking for the sparring of a «C-level kick-off lover» who has as much enthusiasm as experience with this? Then network with me on LinkedIn, write me, or book a complimentary discovery call directly.

PS Let the future be your guide – the best in life is yet to come.