Strategic planning meetings are sometimes magical. There is excitement, debate, deep discussion, and a sense of momentum. Innovation joins with clarity and a palpable energy fills the room. After the session people are excited to share the results and get back to work to launch bold new initiatives.
And sometimes, strategic planning meetings suck.
Energy is drained from the room. Snarky quips shut down the free flow of ideas. Old patterns dominate and fear chokes out innovation—sometimes before the ideas even make it to the flip chart.
There are a lot of things that set the tone for planning meetings; the state of the business, the legacy of planning, preparation, personalities, and of course, facilitators. A good facilitator can be a great addition. He/she can allow the participants to all engage deeply; the flow of the communication can be managed effectively, and the results compiled in a way that is appropriate and useful.
But a bad facilitator can be a very bad thing indeed. Most of us have horror stories. But I went ahead and sought out the worst of the worst. Meet the man selected as the worst planning consultant in the country.
Meet, Mr. Max McLewser
RH: Thanks for taking time for the interview… I know you are a busy guy.
McLewser: No problem, Glad to help out. Do you think I was followed here? Thanks for the chips… do you have more of these? Are they free?
RH: Help yourself…We’ll just jump right in. Does it bother you to be the worst planning consultant in the country?
McLewser: Hell no. If anything it has helped my business. I am booked all the time, making great coin and I don’t really do squat. As they say in the biz, I tell you what time it is by looking at your watch. Do you have dip? People hire me cause they know nothing is going to change. I mean it may get worse…but you know…
RH: How did you get to be the worst in the world?
McLewser: Well, I can’t name names you know, unless I’ve been drinking, or you were a hot babe (laughs); you know, confidentiality and all; like they say “loose lips if the shoe fits.” Most people don’t know it but my strategic planning program was behind more than fifty corporate scandals, bankruptcies, and a few international crises. You know the “big recession”?—that was me…
McLewser: Yeah I know, right? But to tell the truth, that colossal failure was not what I was after. It is all really very simple. I think that part of the secret to really terrible strategic planning is setting out with no foothold in reality. My clients tend to start out deluded about their strengths and weaknesses—and by the end of the planning session they are completely confused. They are like people who have been fishing in the same lake for years—and then they convince themselves that they could do amazing things if they owned a harpoon or a submarine.
RH: Do you like to run SWOT (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats) Analysis with your clients?
McLewser: Oh hell yeah. I am a SWOT-master; I am like the Yoda of SWOT. SWOT rocks.
RH: Why do you like it so much?
McLewser: Because I need no preparation at all; everybody loves to chime in; we fill up lots of flip-chart sheets; and we end up with absolutely no clarity about what’s important and what to do. SWOT analysis is like dieting in the morning so you can eat cake at night. You feel like you are doing something, but you’re going nowhere. This is a nice pen…can I keep it?
RH: I never realized SWOT was so terrible…
McLewser: SWOT is just a tool. Just as a hammer can be helpful, it can also smash your thumb or ruin a hotel restroom… It’s all about how you use it. I find after a good SWOT session my clients are tired and a little depressed. They are worn down. They really don’t care anymore. It is a great space to set the stage for terrible decision making.
RH: What other techniques are in your bag of tricks?
McLewser: Some, I have to keep secret…you know like my eleven herbs and spices. But three of my favorites are:
- The Disturb and Motivate Plan
- The Double Secret Plan
- The Scouting Plan
Each one of these approaches will stymie even the best organizations. You will create active disarray—or at least impede any hope of progress and efficiency.
RH: OK—run them down for me…
McLewser: There are lots of ways to run the Disturb and Motivate…They only key is in the way you disturb everyone. I like offering a ton of information in their pre-reading. I include the page after page of “facts” about businesses and competitors. I include facts about commodity markets—like the current price of tin or pork bellies, even though it has nothing to do with their business. I include scads of charts from the fed because they are easy to download. I make sure some charts are trending way down—while others are going up. It is a win/win for sure. If they read the packet- they don’t know which way is up—if they don’t read the packet they are thoroughly confused. They just look constipated through the whole meeting. It’s kind of sad really.
Sometimes I just call out a single information point…out of the whole mess, like “social media penetration”—everybody is paranoid about Facebook… and then I just start asking a lot of questions, implying they are deficient in that area—but I am not saying it out loud.
RH: That is the “disturb” phase…right?
McLewser: Yep. Then you push them really fast to come up with a long list of things to do—because now they know they are in trouble. The funny thing is, for everything they decide to do, they simultaneously pick out someone to blame for not making progress. It will be like, “Well we need to get right on the social media thing. It seems that Karen’s team in marketing is missing the boat!”
You know you have won when they serve up a ridiculous set of objectives and the list of names for heads that need to roll.
RH: Wow. OK. What about the “Double Secret Plan?
McLewser: This one is super easy. The trick is to have at least five meetings ahead of the planning meeting with different subsections of people. Meet with the Board Chair…alone. Then meet with the CEO…alone. Make phone calls to a few mid-managers… It doesn’t matter what you talk about. And send out emails with different people CC’d and BCC’d. The BCC is key for this one. You BCC the paranoid people…then they will know that something is afoot.
I also like to make a big deal about confidentiality, secrecy, and control of communication. I will bring a shredder in with me to the session and shred working papers right in front of them. I make sure that the tables are cleaned up before the catering people can refresh the room. I tell them, “there are spies everywhere…”
RH: So everyone is paranoid…
McLewser: Exactly. Then they decide that real plans must be secret plans. You know you have won when other people in the same company aren’t allowed to know “the whole plan.” “Why would Joe need to know about this…?” I guarantee in three weeks you will see all kinds of games being played. Huge amounts of grapevine gossip; no trust in official communications; backstabbing left and right. It is incredible. It’s like ancient Rome—without all the wine and fun. People could have the best ideas in the world, but they will never happen because somebody is always heaving and gasping “Et tu Brute’?” with a corporate shiv in their back.
RH: OK…What about the “Scouting Plan”?
McLewser: This one is fun… I take the values of the scout motto…you know, “Helpful, friendly, kind, obedient, tidy—whatever they are. I forget them all. Then I pull a couple out of a hat on my way to the gig and make them the centerpieces for the session. Really they can be anything as long as they are truth, justice, and the American Way.
Then I ask questions like, “What would it look like if we were really doing business with helpfulness as a guiding value?” Well then they are off to the races. People go nuts… Everybody has an idea. Blah, blah, blah… And I am writing things on flip charts like crazy. Everybody gets jazzed up because they realize they really don’t have to change anything—they just have to be more helpful or thrifty or whatever.
RH: They can feel good about themselves for doing nothing.
McLewser: Yes. The most they will do is make some t-shirts that say BIG-CO is HELPFUL. They might have workshops on being helpful. But it’s all crap, everybody knows its crap, but nobody can be against “helpfulness.”
RH: But nothing has really changed…
McLewser: What’s really cool is I can run this one year after year, till they go out of business. It never gets old.
RH: That brings up a good point. Why do you want your clients to go out of business?
McLewser: Bottom line is I really don’t care one way or the other. I am like a honeymoon guy—I want to get out of the relationship as soon as the honeymoon is over. And really, I am just giving people what they want—an easy way out.
RH: Real strategic planning is hard work…Painstaking.
McLewser: Damn right. That’s just not for me.
RH: So what are your top tips for others who want to be terrible planning facilitators?
McLewser: Simple. Keep people off balance, help people see how insignificant they are in the big scheme of things, never get pinned down on priorities or values, and always bill a ten minute call at a one hour rate.
RH: Wow. That is… something….
McLewser: That’s it? That was the interview? You my friend are a wuss. You wouldn’t know a tough question if it bit you in the ass. Seriously. What a maroon.
Ahhhh, I’m just playin’ with ya! Maybe one of these days we can work together.
RH: Not going to happen. I am however happy to introduce you to Ms. Jones; you may know her from the fraud and scum-bag investigation unit with the IRS. She gets the next interview… Bye now!