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Strategic problems

Strategy

Six ways to engage with your teams to frame and solve strategic problems 

Published 28 March 2022 in Strategy • 5 min read

There is no one-size-fits-all method to find the right solutions, but a ‘team engagement’ checklist will put you on the right track.

 

The most important way executive teams create value for their businesses is by framing and solving strategic problems. There are, of course, other important things leadership teams need to do, ranging from updating strategy, doing annual budgeting and planning, reporting results, and interacting with key external stakeholders. However, to a large extent, these are routine tasks; being good at framing and solving strategic problems is the true hallmark of high-performing business teams. 

By strategic problems, I mean the organization’s most significant emerging challenges and promising potential opportunities. Examples include deciding whether to pursue a substantial acquisition or divest an underperforming business or enter a new market or diversify into a new line of business or make a significant capital investment. 

What these examples have in common are: (1) they have major impacts on organizations, their health, and prospects for growth;(2) they are complex and don’t have obvious right answers; and (3) they usually require “deep teamwork” – by which I mean integration of the knowledge and judgment of team members – to achieve good solutions.  

Seen through this lens, the most important role business leaders play is to guide their teams effectively in framing and solving strategic problems. Unfortunately, there is no one “best way” for leaders to do this; it depends on the nature of the problems and the context in which they are being solved.  

While there is not a tried-and-true recipe for doing it, leaders with whom I have worked have found it helpful to have a menu of “team engagement modes” from which to choose, as well as a set of principles for how to make the right choice. 

By team engagement modes, I mean distinct ways in which leaders can engage with their teams to frame and solve strategic problems. Specifically, there are six distinct engagement modes that leaders can employ that are arrayed on a spectrum from team self-organization on one end to leader-directed decision-making on the other.   

Making sound decisions about team engagement modes is an important example of the power of process control. As executives move to more senior levels, leadership becomes less about understanding the substance of all facets of strategic problems (although this, of course, remains important) and more about shaping the processes that they employ to frame and solve them. This is an essential shift leaders must make as they move up, but it can be challenging when their success and even identities are deeply grounded in their technical knowledge and mastery of the detail.  

The checklist 

 

1. Full empowerment

Authorize the team to frame the problem, identify and assess potential solutions and reach their own conclusions without providing substantive input or recommendations.

2. Process guidance

Guide the team in (re)framing problems and/or developing and assessing potential solutions without providing your views on the substance.

3. Problem framing

Frame the problem and direct the team to identify and assess potential solutions and make a recommendation.

4. Full framing

Frame the problem, specify the potential solutions, and direct the team to assess them and make a recommendation.

5. Input seeking

Get input from the team about ways to frame the problem and identify potential solutions, then decide on your own framing, identify and evaluate possible solutions (if appropriate, with supporting analytics from team members).

6. Decide and communicate

Frame the problem and identify potential solutions, do your own assessment, and make a decision without any input, informing the team what you have decided and why. Deciding without explaining is rarely an acceptable mode. 

Leadiing edge check list

How to use it 

How should leaders decide which mode to use? It depends on the balance among forces pushing for more directive versus more empowering engagement modes. 

Forces pushing for higher-numbered (more directive) engagement modes. 

  1. The problem is relatively unimportant and/or the solution is relatively obvious.  
  2. There is time pressure, such that a decision must be made quickly. 
  3. There are irreconcilable differences among team members about how the problem should be framed and/or about potential solutions, such that efforts to engage the team are likely to exacerbate conflict. 
  4. The leader has a high degree level of confidence in their ability to frame the problem, define the options and make a good decision independently.  

Forces pushing for lower-numbered (more empowering) engagement modes. 

  1. There is value in developing the team’s problem framing and solving capabilities. 
  2. The leader has the time and energy to support this development. 
  3. It is acceptable for the team to make mistakes and learn from them.  

It’s possible for leaders to start with more empowering engagement modes and move to more directive ones if the team is not making sufficient progress. However, it’s difficult to move in the opposite direction – from more directive to more empowering. 

Issue 5

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Authors

Michael Watkins - IMD Professor

Michael D. Watkins

Professor of Leadership and Organizational Change at IMD

Michael D Watkins is author of The First 90 Days, Master Your Next Move, Predictable Surprises, and 11 other books on leadership and negotiation. A Thinkers 50-ranked management influencer and recognized expert in his field, his work features in HBR Guides and HBR’s 10 Must Reads on leadership, teams, strategic initiatives, and new managers. He taught at Harvard, where he gained his PhD in decision sciences, and INSEAD before joining IMD, where he directs The First 90 Days and Transition to Business Leadership programs.

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