4 Strategic Planning Co-creation Steps & Benefits

Strategic co-creation planning…what’s that?

Co-creation to speed up understanding, buy-in, implementation

Many organizations, particularly those in the for-profit SME and the NFP sectors have, until now, operated well on the outdated annual programme/budget basis. Now, downward pressure on income and/or funding is revealing the lack of organizational skills in both management and programme development and delivery. They are ineffective and/or inefficient for new complex market conditions. Change has come calling at the door and the need for strategic outcomes-driven planning is overdue. Some even argue that strategic planning is outdated…

Traditionally, strategic planning takes time and requires expertise, often delivered from the outside. The experts examine the problems and devise solutions, goals, strategies, etc. The plan they deliver may be somewhere between ideal and flawed, but we can’t know until it’s been implemented. The risk is in people, (staff/partners/stakeholders/funders/customers) taking their time to become engaged in the strategic plan. It’s often difficult to get them to stop doing what is supposed to change. It’s a slow process.

You can take the horse to water, but can’t make the horse drink it.

What’s the option? How does a Solution Focused co-created planning process speed up the process of planning change, especially in looking at long-term outcomes?

It asks three simple questions you’ve heard before on these pages: What is working that we don’t need to change? What do we do more of/ instead of the problem? What do we need to do to see immediate progress?

The approach is used to engage many stakeholder perspectives in assessing

What’s working (that we don’t want to change)? There’s always more than we realize. Benefit: Moves people from hopeless to hopeful

What needs to be different/better? We clarify the problem, but do not make it central to the solution Benefit: It’s easier to see what we will stop doing.

What will it look like when the problem is no longer present? When asked this way, people discover what they have in common. Benefit: build a plan that leverages input and insight of all parties.

What would we see ourselves doing to initiate the change? Benefit: The change can begin at the start of the planning.

Engage the horse in getting it to the water it will drink.


Yes, but what if the people engaged are wrong about what needs to be done? They may be wrong, but no more so than the planning experts. If they own it, they will make it work flaws and all. If they don’t own it, they will take more time to engage.

Yes, but what if the staff (and others) are resistant to any change? Start by asking them (and their customers) what’s working and what needs to be better. Watch the change start happening. It may have to slow down a bit if they are deeply entrenched.

Key ingredient: early cross-stakeholder alignment (everyone is a stakeholder) and the above solution focused better questions. When everyone is aligned around the new desired outcomes, the plan falls in place more naturally.

It is a co-creation planning process. 

More on the better questions that Solution Focus brings to co-creation

Fry The Monkeys is now the official book of www.betternxt.com

Betternxt 2.0 tiny




How to Co-Create with the Customer

It wasn’t so long ago that I heard a C-suite executive say that working with staff and the customer to develop strategy was equal to communism.

Ah! The good old days of single-minded hierarchy!

Happily, as we seek to flatten the organization it’s even become desirable, among some circles, to talk about co-creation of strategy – particularly products and services – with customers, not just staff and partners. It’s a valuable tool to clarify what the customer wants and align the organization’s various functions around that.

After deciding to open up dialogue with the customer, there are some interesting opportunities to use a Solution Focus mindset, particularly if we use the roundtable / kitchen table approach. This approach works equally well with the traditional consumer, or the B2B buyer.

Having talked about 4 Strategic Planning Co-creation Steps & Benefits, here’s a few thoughts on what to do when you engage with the customer and your staff together in the room.

So, be brave and bring a group of customers together with your staff to have a dialogue beyond the data you already know. It’s not a focus group with 10 questions that must be answered. We are co-creating around the customer’s needs; not the Marketing, Sales or Operational team’s performance measures. We are looking for both the functional and the emotional aspects of their needs relative to our products and services.

We ask questions in the context of where the customer group is, not where we want to direct them. We also encourage them to disagree among themselves.

The customer’s needs are often far more complex than their supplier (us) can know.

We want to know where the customer has both opportunities to become more satisfied/efficient in their own realm, but also where any pain points in their own process/usage cause them difficulty (so that we don’t inadvertently add to the pain).

The client’s main priority with suppliers is often to be listened to, then sold a service. We show how we can listen.    

We also co-create with the client to find out where we fit in their value chain. We are mostly interested in what works. When something doesn’t work we ask, ‘What could be better?’ ‘Suppose that’s no longer an issue, what will be happening?’ ‘How do you see that being useful to you?’

Make sure your customers also engage in a dialogue with staff.

Once the clients depart, the staff team can discuss and share insights, decide which of the client’s priorities stood out for them, consider what small actions they may be taking to move forward, plus discuss what they plan to share with their colleagues back at the office.

Ways to Help Employees Self-engage!

Employee engagement, solution focusIf you aren’t a regular Apple store or Zappos’ customer, you may not have experienced one of the higher forms of the engaged employee.

More often than not, you may have experienced the opposite.

Many employers still don’t recognize the multitude of valuable aspects of having employees who are interested in their work and the customer – internal or external.

And, the engaged employee doesn’t have to come from reading a manual.

Employee engagement is actually a two-way street.

You can help people realize and own the choices they have – you don’t need to have all the answers.

I recently overheard this comment: ‘When you focus on the problem, you get no engagement. When you focus on solutions you get progress and engagement.’

One of the simple keys to employee engagement is to ask them better questions. Of the many employee engagement roundtables that I have conducted, close to 100% of them worked well when people are asked the following simple questions:

‘What works in this organization?’

Why? Instead of probing for the problems, most of which we already know and certainly will provide little insight, have them notice what they are doing right.

Build on each of their points with either, ‘tell me more,’ or how did you manage to do that?’   

Start with the little things – dig deep on them. Then, watch the bigger ideas and insights emerge.

Once you’ve exhausted the questions in this part of the conversation, you can move to the next one, which is:

‘Even though, like most businesses, things can get messy, it does sound like a lot’s working around here. So, what could we do better, more of, or slightly differently?’

Why? While this may sound like you are going to get in trouble with a load of complaints, you’re not. The first section will reframe the dialogue so that people want to be constructive in what ‘needs to get better.’ Notice that you’re not asking, ‘what’s wrong?’ which looks backwards. You’re asking them to look forward to things getting better.

You’ll find that their former complaints start to sound more reasonable. You are now ready to ask them, Suppose we made progress on some of these issues, what would be happening?

Followed by, What would you see management doing to help make that happen?’

Followed by, ‘What would you see yourself doing to engage in that change?’ 

And, ‘What would one small step forward look like?’

Why? Because staff can self-engage in the solutions.

Will this change staff engagement overnight? Possibly. Better to keep asking these questions over time and watch what happens. It’s all about fully engaging staff in the solutions they want.

This article was a redux of a blog I wrote for Shawn Murphy and Ted Coiné in 2012.

Employee satisfaction video

More on employee satisfaction (click picture)






How to Dramatically Improve Stakeholder Consultations

Asking stakeholders what they want used to be an exercise in self-flagellation. The assumption was that you had to take everyone’s perspective seriously and literally. Those that complained loudest were given the most attention.

Consultations are an important and growing component of aligning organizations, both public and private with the community / customers they represent or serve.

The clearest reason for stakeholder consultations is to make strategic and tactical decisions more effective and efficient.

They don’t have to be a form of torture. But, when you ask people for their opinion in an open form they will tend to express their doubts and concerns. For some, it’s a therapeutic opportunity to express their deep frustration. I remind you of my often-quoted line about frustrated voices; never wrestle with a pig – the pig enjoys the wrestling and you get dirty.

The good news is that progress has been made…

Here’s where you can turn consultations into powerful exercises to align communities and the organizations that have to make things happen.

Pre-planning should involve a core group of the stakeholder advisors to find out what outcomes they’d like to get.

Be clear on higher outcomes. For example a recent consultation was designed not only to actively listen to group of stakeholders largely at war with each other, but also to let them listen to each other.

Allow the group a short period in every session to express their concerns, but don’t let a few people dominate – we already know what upsets them and, other than ‘demands’ they usually can’t express what they actually want. When we discuss problems at any length it keeps the person in a state of being stuck. Our interest in their problem means we are not being helpful to them.

Better to ask the group, a) what’s working in their area, b) how they are managing to cope despite the complexity/difficulties and c) about exceptions to the problem. If the complainers want to go back to the problem, simply ask them what would be happening if the problem went away. Don’t skip asking about what’s working or make it short – it’s the basis of helping them get unstuck.

Turn to what needs to be different, or better in the future. Find out what the larger group has in common about what needs to get better. Start by asking, ‘Suppose more was working, what else would that be happening (for the community)?’

Get people thinking about actions by asking them what the larger group and some of the individual stakeholders might do to make progress right away.

Read back to the audience a long list of the purposeful things they said. Let them see you have been actively listening. Don’t promise lots of change, but instead offer progress – thanks to their input.

Help stakeholders make progress by noticing what everyone has in common about the need. Help them see they can have a role in making it happen with the support of the organizing body.

Here’s an example of local community stakeholders at work:

Don’t forget that customers are stakeholders too!


Solution Focused dialogue via disagreement at the ‘Kitchen Table’

How do you make sense of negative dialogue during strategic planning?

Changing the dialogue at the Kitchen Table

During a strategic planning project the client agreed to roundtable dialogue sessions. The organization was successful, but elements of its old culture made change difficult. We decided on three groups of roundtables: the customers, distributors and staff. In all three areas the client was worried that there would be disagreement and negativity. Hence, the use of ‘Kitchen table’ dialogue to overcome the negative perceptions.

My colleague Coert Visser kindly a blog that examines this interesting case where the organization had thought there was disagreement and resistance to change, and instead they created purposeful dialogue and progress.

Click here to view case

How do you handle negative dialogue in your organization?

More on ‘Kitchen table’ dialogue



Project Management: What’s the opportunity in Solution Focus (SF)?

Guest blog post by Ujjwal Daga, a fine MBA student at Schulich School of Business. Ujjwal has an engineering background and spent several years in software development before signing up with Schulich.


Most organizations have a comprehensive Change Management Plan to address the changes to scope, schedule or budget of a project. Using this framework, the Project Managers try to quantify the impact of the changes and make decisions accordingly.

However, to succeed, they also need to have a clear picture of what is it they want to accomplish, engage the customers in the process, and address the ‘human side’ of change management. Steps forward in these areas will supplement the existing change tools and protocols and utilize the best of already working change approaches within the organization.

Projects initiate change and Project Managers can be considered as the change agents. We are seeing many examples of organizations collaborating with change partners, also known as ‘change management experts’ to facilitate the changes required to deliver projects. Solution Focus (which is the approach in ‘Fry the Monkeys – Create a Solution’ can be used to accelerate the Project Management changes – both strategic and human. It can help on a number of fronts:

  • Help the Project Managers create a vision of the preferred future by asking the right questions
  • Identify the elements (strengths, abilities and resources) of the desired future that are already present
  • Help them take the small steps in the direction of the desired change, and achieve visible progress right away
  • Seek innovative ways to engage the customers and external stakeholders
  • Enable the individual groups of silos to discover the common goals, collaborate on the key priorities and arrive at shared solutions for change

What are your thoughts and comments on the emerging opportunity?

Tips for Solutions Driven Strategic Planning

Want to get more out of strategic planning? Much more!

Want to make it a creative, concrete way to move the organization move forward right away?

How many times have you seen a SWOT analysis tilting to one side because the Threats and Weaknesses outweighed the Strengths and Opportunities? Why do planners, bless them, love to focus on the first two and skip lightly over the latter? Why do teams build their plans on the things they already know are not working?

Let’s not even bother answering those problem focused questions. Instead…

Here’s some of the solutions-driven questions used at the recent AMA Toronto strategic planning session:

What’s already working?

VIDEO: AMA Strategic Planning July 2011

What does the research tell us needs to be different?

What are the 5-6 most useful questions we need to answer in the planning work?

Suppose be made progress in the next three years, what would be better?

What outcomes would our key stakeholders, especially the various member groups be doing as a result?

How would do we see that be useful to our partners?

Suppose we focused on 5-6 strategic priorities, what would they look like?

Suppose our plan was communicated widely, what people see us doing?

View the outcome of using this approach: (Video)

Want details on using Solution Focus (and a pinch of process) to power up your planning? See page 62 of my book; Fry the Monkeys – Create a Solution

6 questions for the self-reliant customer

Do we know what our customers really want? Today, there’s so many ways to find out, but are we asking the right questions?

One factor to consider in our questions is the self-reliant customer. They can never be fully self-reliant – they do need you. But, consider this…

A strategically driven not-for-profit recently had me facilitate a session on a new programme offering on financial literacy. We invited in a group of self-declared math-deficient learners. We were joined by folks from the field and the major sponsor, a bank.

The questions we asked them were very important, namely,

What are you most pleased about in your math skills?

On a scale of 1-10 where would you place yourself?

Suppose that number was to go up a little, what would you have learned?

How would that be useful to you and your employers, family, etc.?

When you received good training in the past, what did that look like?

Suppose you were getting tutoring on math skills, what would that look like?

Notice, the lack of discussion about the problems they faced.

With rich helpful answers based on their existing self-reliance and – importantly – the gaps that needed to be filled, we sent the learners out to further discuss their needs with the business professionals in the room.  The NFP team was able to immediate engage in asking questions about developing solutions for these ‘customers’. They knew where help was not needed and where it was.

What’s the key point? If we are going to ask people to change their behaviour we have to find out what they want, not what we tell them they need to fix.

Interestingly, as the math learners were about to leave, one of the group asked if they could stay and contribute to the planning session. They did.

Want to know more about this approach? As I say in my book, Fry the Monkeys – Create a Solution, ‘It’s about their resources for change’