Aug 31, 2009

Strategic Leadership: White Papers and Teams Part 2

Samuel R. James, Ed.D.

In a previous blog, Strategic Leadership: Creating White Papers Part 1, I described the use of strategic white papers to facilitate and transform a senior leader’s nascent ideas into a written document. The purpose was intended to provide peers and subordinates with a succinct, specific, and accurate summary of a plan of action. Since the team is critical to success, the white paper process is also used to gain their buy-in and pull together their contributions in order to ensure the success of the overall strategy.

After Max met with Ellen, his boss and her senior team, he knew he had to work with his team to gain their insights and acceptance. The first step was to ensure that the best people were members of the team. We discussed individual members of his inherited team; he believed all but one had the skills and temperament needed to drive his agenda. He proceeded to transfer the member in question out of his team and began a search for his replacement. With the other team members, he got to work. Katzenbach and Smith in The Wisdom of Teams assert that teams develop from a shared understanding of compelling goals that challenge people to commit themselves to make a difference. Max had a compelling challenge. Now he and his team had to transform many directives into specific, measurable performance goals; agree on clearly defined objectives; align each person’s skills against the team’s goals; and create a team that was dependent on each other for success.

“What is the best way to go about this?” he asked.

Before I could answer he said: “White papers, right?"

I nodded yes.

Social psychologists say that if you want people to abide by the rules, let them participate in making them. Strategic white papers encouraged his team members to be the architects of his or her responsibilities. Once the purpose was clarified, I met with each team member to create a white paper, replicating a process that Max and I followed: strategies for achieving results against key deliverables, resources, timelines, measurements, and cross-functional partners. Using an LCD projector, each team member’s ideas were projected onto a screen so that he or she could see their ideas developing. Throughout the exercise, I typed and captured the specific detail of each idea, exposing it to rigorous thinking, innovation, and identifying areas requiring collaboration. Upon completion of the draft, Max returned for a presentation of his subordinate’s plan. Together they discussed the draft and problem solved the recommendations until he gave the go-ahead.

Now it was time for the team to present to each other. Each received a folder of his or her peers’ white papers in advance. In the meeting, they took turns briefly presenting their individual plans. Fellow team members were encouraged to vet the proposed plan, identify redundancies, and decide who would lead and who would follow each tactic. Collectively they agreed on their overall strategy for moving the department forward.

Max successfully transformed a collection of people into a committed team oriented to goals and results in a climate of trust, where data were shared freely, and decisions were made collectively.

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