Aug 31, 2009

Strategic Leadership: White Papers Organize Action Plans, Part 1

Samuel R. James, Ed.D.

Recently a newly hired senior manager, Max, and I were discussing his two most important domains: creating strategy and managing his people. He was new to his position and eager to assess his department and transform it into a vision of what he believed it needed to become. Together we agreed to work our way through the vast volume of information and multiple relationships that needed to be thought out and aligned.

“How do we get started?” asked Max.

“It is simple,” I said, “Create a white paper.”
“A white paper? Surely you jest?”

“Not at all; white papers began as an informal parliamentary document explaining government policy. Then they morphed into introducing new ideas, typically technical or marketing. Now white papers provide senior management with a brief, specific, and accurate summary of an opportunity or plan of action,”
I added.

Our task was to create a detailed outline of his transition plans: goals, prioritized steps toward realizing the goals, his team’s responsibilities, cross-functional collaborators, the resources and assistance needed, benchmarks, and timelines. Max’s white paper involved using an LCD projector to project the work onto a screen so that Max could see his ideas developing. As Max talked, I typed and captured the specific details of each idea. The process of projecting ideas on the big screen requires a commitment to rigorous thinking, innovation, and identifying areas of expertise that lay outside Max’s team. Quickly, Max realized that ideas that appeared to be adequately articulated wilted under the scrutiny of putting them to paper.

The rigor of critical thinking is challenging but it works. Ideas can be moved from one part of the paper to another to clarify important objectives. For Max, a hard copy of the working document was simultaneously generated so that missing elements could be identified and added to his plan. When we finished the draft, Max’s boss Ellen, the company’s CEO, joined us. Max presented the white paper as a work in progress and asked her to join in the discussion. She readily validated his ideas expanding the scope of some of his recommendations. She was impressed with the quality and level of detail of his plan and offered her assistance. Max in turn was in charge of his transition. He was not encumbered by the typical trial-and-error; he was ready to go.

A strategic white paper is a working document. This framework encourages active problem solving and discussions while strengthening the overall design. The clarity of the paper helped Max and Ellen review his plans with her senior team to gain additional insights and build momentum. The inclusion of the senior management team had the desired effect of engaging Max’s peers. They welcomed the clarity of his plan, built upon his ideas, and identified ways to collaborate with him. Max mapped disparate ideas into a woven plan of action and, with fellow senior managers, engaged a coalition of partners. With an approved plan, he was ready to influence the organization: It was time to move forward with his team.

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