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Q&A with Strategic Coach Ed Tyson

the marine corps veteran and expert facilitator answers questions on strategic planning



Ed Tyson has accumulated more than 20 years of leadership experience in a broad range of non-profit, private and publicly-traded organizations. As both an internal and external consultant, Ed has worked hand-in-hand with boards, leadership teams, C-level leaders, and subsidiary presidents from around the country to assess and solve issues ranging from solvency to strategy. Ed is a master facilitator, tested executive coach, and an individual, group and organizational development expert.

BRAINARD STRATEGY: First of all, what is a strategy?
EDWARD TYSON: Much has been written on just what a strategy is. When it is comes down to it, I believe it is quite simply a schema for resource deployment. Whether you’re talking about a sports team or a business, resources (human and otherwise) are finite and therefore the trick is to deploy yours in such a way as to make and take advantage of opportunities without fully depleting your supply or falling prey to the maneuvers of others or general environmental circumstances.

BRAINARD: What separates a good strategy from a bad strategy?
TYSON: Good strategies are pervasive. They penetrate to the bone. They drive organizational structure, process and technology deployment. They are, like my definition, succinct and easily understood (and repeated). When the rubber hits the road, the actions of thousands of people across an enterprise may very well be complex (particularly to view from the outside) but the truth is it only looks complex because to those who are executing it are able to make dynamic, autonomous decisions based on arising conditions with very little thought and pre-coordination (because the strategy is simple, well understood and therefore easily translated into action). Complex strategies on the other hand, are rarely understood by the people who need to act, placing a high burden on management and communication structures that are rarely designed to be dynamic enough for today’s market conditions.

BRAINARD: Why are mission, vision and values so important when discussing a strategy?
TYSON: For a strategy to make any sense at all, it must be formulated from a deep understand of the purpose of the organization and a clear picture of success – otherwise your strategy may win the wrong game and therefore lose the right one. Consider, for instance, Eastman Kodak. They thought they were in the film business and therefore ignored a technology their own engineers produced. They tried to win the wrong game; and, by the time it was clear what the right game was, they had lost.

Values are important precisely because culture is so important. Values are the signposts of the culture you want/need and culture is the invisible river running through everything and everybody in every organization. Anything you try to execute (including even the best of strategies) must pass through its mighty waters – the only question is whether or not you’re going to be going with or against its mighty current. Organizations that pay attention to culture have determined the characteristics and/or behaviors that will enable success within their unique organizational environment and they formalize these concepts in their values. Organizations that don’t just have values but live their values hedge their bets that come execution time, their team is riding the rapids downstream, rather than exhausting themselves fighting against the raging waters they failed to harness.

BRAINARD: What is the biggest mistake you have seen when implementing a new strategic plan?
TYSON: I’m not sure it’s the biggest; but the most common mistake I see is mistaking tactics for strategy. If you’re running around trying to “socialize” a huge deck of slides, detailing a three-year plan full of beautifully crafted initiatives that will transform every corner of the organization, you’re making the same mistake many of us (including myself) have made at some point in their careers. Before trying to nail down all of the tactics, you need to get really clear on the underlying strategy and then communicate it…maybe even only it. Then, let your business units play with it for a while and develop business plans based on the strategy. When the plans come back, you get to see how deeply the strategy was understood by your leaders and their teams. And, they own it on a whole new level.

It’s worth noting that what keeps most of us from doing this is fear. Can you imagine the sheer horror of presenting a single, albeit well-crafted, sentence the board? In truth, I’ve never had the “stuff” to be quite that extreme; but I’d love to…just once. In reality, we need to think the strategy through enough to help others appreciate what we mean. How will it affect our structure, our process and the technologies we deploy? The trick is stopping at a few and allowing the strategy, not the tactics, to take root within the organization. A wise man once told me, “When you try to cover too much, you cover too much (meaning we obscure it from view).

BRAINARD: Who needs to be involved in the strategic planning process?
TYSON: The key word in this question is “involved.” I am a firm believer that as many people as possible should be involved in the gathering/providing of information about the company and the marketplace. The more people you are able to reach out to, the richer the information and the more ears that are primed to hear what you come up with.
In terms of the actual planning sessions, I am fond of holding multiple sessions where you start with your leadership team and then steadily winnow the group down to just the executive team for final decisions and word-smithing. I believe this strikes the right balance of listening to your people, engaging your leaders and ultimately resting the final responsibility where it belongs – on the shoulders of the executive team.
BRAINARD: How do you ensure the success of your new strategy?
TYSON: I believe firmly that there are no guarantees in life. A perfect strategy does not equate to perfect execution or success. However, the principles I’ve cover here are the concepts and practices that I live by:

  1. Make it simple, make it pervasive.
  2. Get clear about your purpose and your picture of success.
  3. Respect the power of culture to accelerate or thwart your progress.
  4. Let your team define the tactics.
  5. Give a voice to everyone, engage your leaders and then decide.