energizing breakthrough performance

Transcultural Strategic Planning

Author: ; Published: Jun 8, 2011; Category: Strategic Planning; Tags: , ; No Comments»

I just returned from a gratifying strategic planning assignment overseas engaging participants drawn from three continents. I have some reflections that I hope will be useful to those who are involved with global strategic planning which draws input from participants from around the world. Many have said it and it will come as no surprise to most, but those of us who view the world through the lens of the urban U.S. and Western Europe often make cavalier, yet implicit assumptions about the thinking patterns of folks from places like Africa, Asia or elsewhere. I believe that the tacit, root-cause assumption is this: Everyone is speaking English and they are speaking it so well, and therefore it follows that they pretty much use the same thinking patterns that I do! Indeed, having facilitated strategic planning for Native Americans in the American Southwest, I can attest to significant cultural differences on the North American continent itself. Many of us proceed apace as if all people see things through the same lens as we do. Slow down. Curves ahead.

A key skill needed by participants in a strategic planning process is the ability to visualize and then verbalize an outcome end-state as a goal. Such a goal statement answers a question such as, “how will things be different three years from now?” What we seek in strategic planning is a freeze-frame still photo of an outcome from which we can do reverse engineering to identify the objectives and strategies that will be needed to take us from where we are now to where we want to be. Sounds straightforward enough, doesn’t it? I thought so too until one of my African participants, an extremely capable young executive who is fluent in several languages said, “Spelling out goals this way is one of the hardest things that I have ever done.”

Why was visualizing an end-state outcome so difficult? There are a variety of reasons, depending on the culture that shaped participant thinking. For example, Native Americans’ notion of time often differs from the straight-ahead linear model that is implanted in many of our beady brains. In other cultures, the idea of “freezing” an outcome at a particular point in time is especially foreign; in these instances, a “process video” or moving picture is as close as some participants can get to defining a future desired state. In other cases, the whole skill-set of mental “time travel” – taking us from how things are now to how they need to be — which underlies strategic thinking is especially foreign and difficult.

The bottom line is that the strategic planning facilitator needs to pay close attention to the fundamental perspectives and skills that are needed for effective plan development. Don’t assume that your cultural viewpoint is shared by everyone in the room. Take the extra time to ensure that everyone has the power tools and skills needed to visualize the future and describe it. As you do so, you will get as much or more than you give by way of cultural insights and new ways of looking at things. I can guarantee that it will be more than worth your while.

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