No one knocked on our doors that night. It seemed that one of the SEALs was shouting to his buddies to get up and go to the conference room because he’d just had a great idea. A few minutes later, the sleeping quarters were in silence as all the SEALs had left. Over breakfast, we asked the SEALs what had happened. It turned out that one of them had awakened with such a good idea related to their strategic planning project, that he couldn’t wait until morning to share it. Except for a bit of friendly joshing, all the SEALs had gone to join their enthusiastic buddy without any complaints.
Later that day we were working on developing the vision for the SEALs. A vision is a very important part of a strategic plan, and we work hard at getting it exactly right. The SEALs had been working in small groups and, as we went back to the plenary session, we saw that one of the participants was missing. His colleagues assured us that he would be back very soon.
It is worth mentioning that the dress for these workshops was very casual—jeans or shorts, t-shirts, and flip-flops. Several minutes went by and finally the missing SEAL returned—freshly showered, and in a perfectly pressed uniform. He came into the conference room, saluted the commodore, stood to attention, and recited the vision that his small group had produced. It brought tears to our eyes. It was passionate, inspiring, and carried with it the seeds that would transform what the SEALs were doing and how they did it.
In most military organizations, where the command turns over every two years, there is frequently very little continuity. But because the SEALs who attended our workshops at the beginning and end of this particular commodore’s tour became subsequent leaders and were passionate about the vision and strategic plan they developed, it remained virtually unchanged for 14 years.
We had always stressed to our clients that visions need an element of feeling or emotion, but at that moment, we saw how powerful a vision with passion could be. We had seen that kind of passion before from various business leaders. Some of those organizations succeeded brilliantly, while others worked well but not so spectacularly. We came to the conclusion that success cannot be achieved when just fueled by passion or only by a vision and strategy. It is the combination of the two that enable organizations to take off.
We learned a lot from the SEALs, and the experience caused us to think more deeply about what we were doing for our clients. Most of our team had been strategic planning consultants for more than 25 years. We had been very successful with helping our clients develop good strategic plans and, to us, strategic planning was just good common sense. But so many wonderful ideas were expressed and shared during that project and a subsequent one, and so many good things came from those workshops, according to the commodore, that we began to see strategic planning differently.
In fact, we had had an inkling of these ideas more than a decade earlier, when consulting with a major British retailer. The organization was doing rather poorly, and the leadership didn’t understand why. It turned out that they had defined themselves in terms of their competitors, rather than thinking about their own vision of their business. We remember drawing a diagram of the way we perceived their business—it had many facets all facing outward, with each facet representing a competitor. In many cases, the company was competing solely on price. In the center of the diagram was a void. When we asked them what should be in the void, none of the leadership team had an answer.
We were holding our strategic planning workshops at a huge mansion that belonged to the company, and in the entrance hall was a bust of the founder. At one point in the proceedings, we asked the leadership about the history of the company—who was the founder and what was his vision? This seemed to finally elicit some animation, so we led the questions into the area of “If the founder were alive today, what would he want to do?” “What would his vision be today?” Without exception, the entire group had a real “Aha!” experience.
It became clear that the founder’s vision was still relevant—although the way in which it would need to manifest was different. Everyone became passionate about this new approach to thinking about their business. The new, vision-based strategic plan that they developed was very successful. It was the “Aha!” moment of thinking about the founder, and the passion that followed that turned the business around. The combination of HEAD and HEART is a winning formula!
Excerpted from Strategy with Passion: A Leader’s Guide to Exploiting the Future, by Christine A.R. MacNulty, FRSA, and Stephen R. Woodall, PhD.