Six Focus Groups, Three Lessons

I often hold meetings with stakeholders in a strategy development mandate in advance of kicking off any workshops. Sometimes those meetings are one-on-one, sometimes they are in a focus group format. Deciding on which approach to take is based on several factors, including complexity and interdependence between the stakeholders. The ultimate purpose of these meetings is to co-create meaningful objectives for the strategy development exercises, and to develop a methodology which will resonate with the group. I call this “honoring the group.” Often these sessions will bring to light things that the client was not aware of.

In the COVID context, of course, these preparatory sessions are done virtually. I invested in my own development prior to setting up these virtual focus groups, of course; there are many differences between how they are carried out in person and online. This post does not replace that type of technical or design preparation. Rather, I want to share three things I learned while actually facilitating six virtual #FocusGroups over the course of three days.


1- Body language is important. You can read it even in a virtual meeting with people you don’t know. Participants lean in, they nod, or shuffle papers, or look away. Tip: research has shown that turning off your “self” view will allow your brain to focus on what’s important – other people. It works.
2- Relationships matter. People want to connect and hear each others’ stories, even if they don’t know each other. A few times I thought the introductions were going long, but reading the participants’ body language told me that people cared about what was being said. I found another way to meet my objectives for the focus group, without taking away from the connection being forged between the participants.
3- Great planning and support are not optional. Prepare, prepare, prepare, your content and methodology…then be ready to roll with the punches. Find someone reliable to act as co-facilitator, who has a skill you do not, to catch what you miss.

If you’d like to learn more about holding meaningful, multi-party conversations virtually, send me a note at lesley@horizonstrategy.ca or call me at 514-518-7975.

Ecosystem Strategy

The current global crisis will accelerate the movement of societies, corporations, and economies away from “leadership” and towards “communityship,” to use a term first coined by Henry Mintzberg (1).

Ecosystems are an essential part of the move towards communityship. Each entity within an ecosystem can be – must be – is – a significant contributor to something greater than the sum of its parts. Also, members of an ecosystem have a common purpose.

Read four of my blog posts on the subject at the links below.

How Ecosystems affect strategy

Defining your ecosystem

Collaboration in complex ecosystems

Influence and ecosystems

If you’re interested in developing an ecosystem map, or in developing strategy with others in your ecosystem, please reach out to me at lesley@horizonstrategy.ca.

(1) Mintzberg, Henry. Bedtime Stories for Managers. 2019, page 44.

Invest in yourself

In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, I gave a live webinar to the Women in Bio organization about the ROI of a self-investment. the truth is, most of us tally our assets as those material things: cars, homes, bank accounts. We invest in cars, homes and bank accounts, so that we can get the best use out of them. Unfortunately, we rarely think of ourselves as assets, yet we are the reason for the accumulation of those other, more commonly thought of assets.

The interesting thing about investing in ourselves is that the principles of compounding apply. A small change made today and maintained will yield benefits for years to come, and the benefits are generally cumulative. Micro-habits, and micro-learning, lead to breakthrough changes over time.

The four steps to investing in yourself which I discussed during the webinar are:

1- Establish the mindset. You control your mindset. If you want to invest in yourself, you need to vividly visualize doing it and the payoff that the investment will have. You need to realize that the common excuses – lack of time, money, energy, or motivation – are really choices.

2- Decide. Clearly articulate what you want to invest in, and why. In a past article, which you can find here, I list three areas of self-investment: your health, your family, and your career. Pick one, and write down exactly what it is you want to improve. Saying, “I want to get a coach” is not clear enough. Saying “I want to improve my communication skills for difficult conversations so that I can better influence my organization’s direction and reduce my own stress level” is much more powerful, and will lead you to a multitude of “hows” beyond simply “getting a coach.”

3- Develop a Massive Action Plan. The MAP is a very powerful method of identifying more “hows” than usual ; so many, in fact, that when a wrench is thrown into your current plan, you can refer back to your MAP to identify other things that you could do to achieve your investment goal. Developing a MAP involves rapid brainstorming and very careful monitoring of your internal dialogue. Our brains are programmed to seek safety and known variables; make sure you are in the right frame of mind to generate many big and small ideas. By the way, this approach is taken from Tony Robbins, and I have used it regularly since I was first introduced to it by my own Tony Robbins-certified coach. You can find a free description of it here.

4- Make Time. Many people talk about making time by deciding not to do certain things, and that’s valid, until you get to a point where you have no more wasted time in a day. Making time leverages the mindset that no investment is too small. Fifteen minutes driving to the grocery store is enough for me to listen to 15 minutes of something which will help me get to my goal. I can’t take notes. I can’t stop and replay parts I find interesting. I might miss some points. But overall, I trust in the fact that the value I can derive from that 15 minutes of listening is better than not listening at all. If I get one gold nugget from that 15 minutes that I can apply, that’s my microlearning.

If you’d like to see the whole presentation I used as the framework for my webinar with Women in Bio, you can find it here. The full webinar can be found here.

If you’d like to discuss this approach, or your own self-investment plan, feel free to reach out to me at lesley@horizonstrategy.ca.

Creating value during a slowdown

A production slowdown is a perfect opportunity to re-direct resources to mandates that generate strategic advantages and long-term, sustainable increases in profitability….in addition to cementing employee and customer loyalty. Here are five ideas that can be implemented virtually and which will create long-term value for your business.

  1. Ask that cross-functional groups co-develop innovative solutions to any of your business issues. Challenge these teams to define the ideal state. Ask them to develop various approaches to achieving it.
  2. Identify the most painful, cumbersome processes and resolve to simplify or eliminate them. If the process in question is “owned” by one department, ensure that a cross-functional team virtually collaborates in its re-definition.
  3. Develop collaborations. Necessity is the mother of invention. A slowdown in activity is a great time to talk about new ways of doing things and to develop new common visions with others in your ecosystem.
  4. Have team members research new markets, new ideas, and prepare a plan for you. This is great work for your sales support or bids team, who see details and emerging trends that senior leaders sometimes do not.
  5. Take the time to step away from the crisis, two hours at a time to hold facilitated strategic thinking sessions with your teams. These are great for creating aspirational visions of the future, especially in times of crisis.

Whichever of these value-creation mandates you engage your employees in, make sure that these value-creation ideas include the development of an action plan. 

If, as a leader, you have chosen to keep some of your highly qualified, educated, and experienced work force to work on improvement projects in recent weeks, I’d love to hear from you.

If you’ve already furloughed people indefinitely, it’s not too late to re-think your approach and experiment with one of these ideas.

Ultimately, the decision to protect short-term margins by furloughs during a production slowdown is an answer to the wrong question.

As always, feel free to reach out with comments or if you’d like to explore this idea further!

Business Development as fundamental to strategy

The terms “business development” and “sales” are sometimes used interchangeably. Although strong relationship building skills are a prerequisite of both sales and business development, they are distinct activities with very different objectives.

“Sales” focuses on immediate commercial pursuits. In contrast, “Business Development” is a long game about building expanding existing markets and venturing into new markets. I’ll use an example in this article to outline four key elements of a good business development strategy, but of course you can draw parallels for your own company and industry.

1- Have a Vision. You need to know where you aspire to be as an organization and for your product or service lines. Your vision is your guiding light. For example, Cubic’s vision is to “Improve One Billion Lives Through Intelligence.” This vision informs each department’s strategy, and the company’s approach to business development*. What’s your vision and how can it guide your business development strategy?

2- Get out of your comfort zone. If you are a construction materials supplier, it goes without saying that you’d attend construction conferences. However, you are one of 1,000 other suppliers at that same conference, “developing business.” If you were to show up at an economic development conference, for example, you’d be one of few (maybe even the only) construction materials supplier in attendance. You’d learn about the concerns of communities, you’d establish new relationships, thus broadening your network and knowledge. What alliances can you forge? How could your technology be applied outside your specific industry? How can you be a catalyst for change or for innovation? Part of the challenge is in creating relevance for your participation, which brings us to the next point…

3- Speak up to stand out. Once you attend conferences outside your comfort zone, look for opportunities to speak up and establish yourself and your company…and to create opportunities to get you closer to your vision. At a construction conference, you’re among dozens of experts on construction materials, and whatever you say will probably get lost in the noise. However, attendees at an economic development conference may not be aware of new developments in the construction materials industry, of the benefits to communities, or of your company and its vision. Ask questions during panel discussions. Meet the organizers and offer to speak at the next conference.

4- Stay connected. Look for ways to offer value to your newly expanded network. I’m not talking about email marketing campaigns. I talking about thoughtful notes. Did some recent situation or article make you think of someone? Drop them a line. Did your company offer something new to a client which your extended network might find interesting? Write about it. Constantly be on the lookout for what will benefit others.

Someone once said something like, “If you do what you’ve always done, you’ll get what you’ve always gotten.” Business development is really exciting because it requires constant thinking, constant innovation. If done right, it really is very strategic in nature.

As always, reach out to me if you’d like to discuss, or if you need support in developing a truly strategic business development plan.

*Reference https://www.cubic.com/news-events/news/cubics-gridsmart-launches-version-1910

Small Business Strategy: Four tips

Strategic thinking and planning is a universal need for any organization, be it small or large, that wants to thrive in this rapidly changing world. Unfortunately, too often, small businesses skip this exercise. Those that do, though, report that setting aside time and resources to strategize gives them greater agility and provides a framework for decision making. Here are four guidelines for small businesses that want to get the most value out of a strategic planning exercise.

  1. Tap into your Talent. If you were the one to start the business, realize that what got you to where you are will not get you to the next stage of growth. Open up discussions about vision, strategic objectives, issues, and opportunities. People-powered strategies are the best. The best strategic plans have been the ones created by the teams that will be accountable for their execution. They take the vision all the way through the mission, strategic initiatives and execution plans – also developed by the people. Follow this framework to ensure a link between vision and execution.
  2. Listen. Listen to what your people are telling you, especially hard for what is not being said. Things may not be brought up for a variety of reasons, most all of them stemming from fear. In a recent workshop, I asked, “What are we not talking about?” A few very strategic items were raised, and we were able to discuss why they were not being mentioned. Listen also to what your ecosystem is telling you about strategic directions. What do your ideal clients care about? What do your best suppliers see that you can’t see from where you sit? Where is legislation going? Where is it not going? Where is the white space for your company?
  3. Decide and move. Many teams get hung up on the same conversations. Among the many reasons for this is a feeling of not having all the information to be able to make a decision. This condition has been called “analysis paralysis.” Information is ALWAYS incomplete and imperfect. So is analysis. But perfection is the enemy of excellence. Yes, due diligence needs to be done before deciding on a course of action. But there is an element of “leap of faith” involved in moving forward. During one recent workshop, I encouraged the team to list the merry-go-round type discussions. I scribed one complete flip chart sheet with items that had been in discussion for up to 18 months! Think about the cost of this – in terms of time, money, missed opportunity, and erosion of morale. If you find your team stuck in the same discussions, ask what is holding you back from making a decision. Ask what the impact of a wrong decision would be. Realise that you learn more from failure than from inaction. Can you fail fast and re-adjust accordingly? Decide. Move. Adjust. A good decision today is better than a perfect decision never.
  4. Get outside help. Yes, you’ve created a successful business. You have a great team and a great Board. Maybe you think you don’t need help, or that you can’t afford it. That is exactly when outside help is most valuable. The cost of the untapped and unidentified opportunities is far greater than that of facilitation. The best strategies are created from a place of strength. An experienced facilitator with a broad range of experience and solid knowledge of strategic planning can help bring out the best from your people to identify truly strategic initiatives and much more. An experienced facilitator can also raise the conversation to a level above day-to-day realities, team dynamics and power distances that exist in organisations. In a recent strategic thinking session I facilitated with the management team of a small business, we listed the strategic initiatives they came up with during our session alongside other strategic initiatives they had developed together but in the absence of an impartial third party. The difference was stark both in the robustness of the initiatives and their strategic nature. In fact, when we did a prioritization exercise to determine which initiatives they would investigate more deeply and act upon, none of the initiatives they developed on their own made it to the short list. The ones they came up with through our facilitated process were truly strategic.

If your small organization wants to have a great future, it’s got to be designed. These four tips can help you with just that. Reach out to me if you’d like to discuss!

(c) Lesley Antoun, 2020

Bien collaborer avec un consultant: les Ă©lĂ©ments incontournables

J’ai rencontrĂ© de nombreuses approches diffĂ©rentes pour travailler avec des consultants. Il y a une diffĂ©rence entre les contrats, le conseil en processus et le conseil expert. Voici six astuces pour vous aider a bien collaborer avec votre consultant.

  1. DĂ©finissez les rĂ©sultats. Pensez Ă  ce que vous souhaitez retirer de votre collaboration avec ce consultant. Quelle amĂ©lioration dĂ©sirez-vous retenir de votre travail ensemble? En revanche, si vous demandez quelque chose de spĂ©cifique comme un atelier ou une Ă©valuation, vous pouvez empĂŞcher le consultant de vraiment rĂ©flĂ©chir au rĂ©sultat souhaitĂ© et de tirer parti de sa propre expĂ©rience pour dĂ©finir la meilleure façon d’atteindre ce rĂ©sultat. En d’autres termes, demandez le «quoi», dites-leur le «pourquoi» et laissez le consultant dĂ©terminer le «comment». Des clients m’ont demandĂ© de «diriger un atelier» ou «d’Ă©laborer un plan stratĂ©gique», alors que ce dont ils avaient vraiment besoin Ă©tait quelque chose de totalement diffĂ©rent. Je les ai informĂ©s et nous avons discutĂ© de leurs vĂ©ritables objectifs, ce qui nous a permis de collaborer sur le mandat de manière Ă  produire des rĂ©sultats durables.
  2. Mettez en valeur l’expertise du consultant. Vous avez embauchĂ© une aide externe pour avoir un regard neuf sur certaines de vos questions stratĂ©giques. Vous avez beaucoup d’expĂ©rience et connaissez votre entreprise, votre industrie, vos produits, vos employĂ©s. Votre consultante n’a pas cette expertise. Elle a son expertise spĂ©cifique qui peut ĂŞtre très prĂ©cieuse pour vous, si elle a la chance de jeter un coup d’Ĺ“il, de parler aux gens et de vous donner son opinion.
  3. Renseignez-vous sur leur meilleur mandat. Quels facteurs ont rendu leur meilleur collaboration client si gĂ©nial? Qu’a-t’elle fait – et qu’a fait son client – pour contribuer au succès de ce mandat?
  4. VĂ©rifiez ses rĂ©fĂ©rences. A-t’il des tĂ©moignages client? Que disent les autres de leur travail? Demandez Ă  vos pairs et Ă  leurs anciens clients. Regardez leurs recommandations et tĂ©moignages de clients. (En passant, voici les miens!) N’oubliez pas que cela va dans les deux sens. Les bons consultants examinent votre profil et celui de votre organisation avant d’accepter une collaboration. Je le fais moi-mĂŞme avant de collaborer avec quiconque, y compris des clients potentiels.
  5. Posez des questions sur son parcours de dĂ©veloppement professionel. A-t’il investit Ă  approfondir ses connaissances? Ă€ quelles confĂ©rences assiste-il? Dans mon cas, la planification stratĂ©gique a considĂ©rablement changĂ© au cours des 20 dernières annĂ©es depuis que j’ai commencĂ© Ă  travailler sur le terrain. J’investit Ă©normĂ©ment Ă  mon propre dĂ©veloppement, soit 20% de mes revenus pour me tenir au courant et pouvoir offrir Ă  mes clients des approches et des idĂ©es courantes.
  6. Reconnaissez vos responsabilitĂ©s. La consultante ne peut pas travailler en vase clos. Elle ne peuvent pas rĂ©ussir avec votre Ă©quipe si vous n’avez pas prĂ©cisĂ© votre vision par rapport Ă  son mandat. Aucun mandat de consultant n’est universellement acceptĂ© par tout le monde dans une organisation. Par consĂ©quent, pour rĂ©ussir, les consultants ont besoin de votre soutien en tant que sponsor et avocat.

En fin de compte, un excellent consultant doit ĂŞtre un excellent collaborateur qui se soucie de vous, de votre organisation et de la rĂ©alisation de grands rĂ©sultats. Les meilleurs mandats de conseil que j’ai jamais entrepris ont en commun les six points dĂ©crits ci-dessus et sont soulignĂ©s par la confiance et le respect mutuels.

Si vous voulez en discuter plus longuement, ou si vous ĂŞtes curieux de savoir comment une collaboration avec nous pourrait vous aider Ă  aller plus loin, envoyez-moi un courriel lesley@horizonstrategy.ca ou appelez-moi au 514-518-7975.

© Lesley Antoun, 2020

Working with Consultants: essential tips

I’ve come across many different approaches to working with consultants. There’s a difference between contracting, process consulting and expert consulting. Either way, you’ll need to do these four things if you want to get the most value out of your consulting arrangements.

  1. Define outcomes. Think about what you want to get out of your collaboration with this consultant. When they leave, how will you and your organisation be better off? In contrast, if you ask for something specific like a workshop or an assessment, you may prevent the consultant from really thinking about your desired outcome and leveraging their own experience in defining how that outcome can best be achieved. In other words, ask for the “what,” tell them the “why,” and let the consultant determine the “how.” I’ve had clients ask me to “run a workshop,” or “develop a strategic plan,” when really what they needed was something totally different. I let them know, and we discussed their real objectives, which got us to collaborating on the mandate in a way that would deliver sustainable results.
  2. Leverage the consultant’s expertise. You’ve hired external help to have a fresh look at some of your strategic questions. You have lots of experience and know your company, your industry, your products, your people. The consultant does not. They have their specific expertise which can be very valuable to you, as long as they are given a chance to have a look around, talk to people, and give you their honest opinions.
  3. Ask about their best work. What factors made their best work so great? What did they personally do – and what did their client do – to contribute to that mandate’s success?
  4. Check references. Look into who they are and what they have accomplished. How are they keeping current with their area of expertise? What conferences do they attend? In my case, strategic planning has changed significantly in the 20 years since I started working in the field. Had I not pursued my own development, my clients would be using tools and approaches that were 20 years old. What do others say about their work? Ask your peers and their prior clients. Look at their recommendations and client testimonials. Remember that this goes both ways. Great consultants care about who they work with, and they will look at your profile and your organization’s before agreeing to a collaboration. I do this myself before collaborating with anyone, including potential clients.
  5. Recognize your responsibilities. The consultant cannot work in a vacuum. They cannot achieve success with your team if you have not made your vision relative to their mandate clear. No consulting mandates are universally accepted by everyone in an organization. Therefore, in order to execute successfully, consultants need your support as a sponsor and as an advocate.

In the end, a great consultant must be a great collaborator who cares about you, your organization, and achieving great outcomes. The best consulting mandates I have ever taken on have the five things outlined above in common, and are underlined by mutual trust and respect.