3 steps to creating participative strategy processes in organizations


Some of my most interesting work in in helping clients create effective processes for participative strategy. The traditional approach to strategy is that it is generated in the executive suite or by highly-paid consultants, then it is communicated to staff, usually rather ineffectively.

There is an increasing recognition that many people across the organization have invaluable insights into industry change, competition, client requirements, innovation and other issues that will help shape strategy. The challenge is in establishing processes that enable broad-based participation in a useful way, tapping ideas and generating positive energy for change.

In some cases, for example as I helped a global real-estate development company to implement, this can be framed in a fun competition format, assisting teams to generate visions of where the company can go. In other cases, a formal process can be created to expose staff across the company to strategic issues, then generating, capturing, filtering, and applying their insights to corporate strategy, as I did for a large financial services company.

Here is an excerpt from Chapter 7 of my book Living Networks providing some of the broader issues to address in implementing participative strategy.


The Work-Out process is one of General Electric’s standard practices. This brings together 40 to 100 people in a “town meeting” to discuss specific issues, and make firm recommendations. Once the issues that need to be addressed have been identified, these are clearly defined by a team, and attendees for the meeting are selected from a range of functions and managerial levels. The team meet in an offsite location for usually three days, commencing with a briefing by the relevant executive, who then leaves. The participants break into a number of teams, and in a structured process come up with clear recommendations. At the end these are presented to the senior manager, who must make a decision on the spot whether to proceed. Work-Out sessions are routinely run across General Electric’s divisions, and often include customers and suppliers.

This participative approach to strategy—which permeates General Electric’s culture and practices—has become imperative in the flow economy. Most importantly, strategy development must happen in real-time, rather than at the traditional annual off-site strategy review. In the same way as any form of innovation, it must draw on the broadest possible spectrum of experience and perspective available in the organization. This is required by the increasing complexity of technology and the economy. In addition, strategy must be communicated meaningfully to all employees and even partners, as it affects day-to-day business decisions. In short, strategy must draw in the participation of people across and sometimes even beyond the firm, rather than be set by senior management behind closed doors.

Clearly there are limits to the ability to distribute strategy formation through the organization. Leaders must assess rapidly-changing situations and make quick decisions. Confidentiality is often an important issue, especially regarding acquisitions and major strategic moves. Most employees cannot afford the time for deep consideration of strategic issues. However firms that use these issues as excuses to keep strategy an isolated exercise will be severely disadvantaged. There are three key steps companies can take to rapidly and effectively build participative strategy.


1. Develop an iterative strategy process

2. Link to innovation processes

3. Use scenarios

1. Develop an iterative strategy process

Most company employees will be all too familiar with the strategy roll-out session. A roll of drums, death by Powerpoint, and perhaps an appearance by the CEO, then everyone files back to their desks, deeply inspired by the bold vision they have just been presented, and already forgotten. People cannot have a sense of ownership when they are presented with a finished product.

An effective iterative strategy process cycles back and forth between the strategic planning group—that can put in the effort required to research key issues and develop strategic frameworks—and the broader employee community, that can take on early stage frameworks and be given an opportunity to provide input and perspectives. In most cases these sessions will result in valuable input to the strategy development process, and they will always generate a far greater sense of participation and involvement. Perhaps the most important success factor is presenting a strategic framework that is both readily understood, and has clear dimensions for input and discussion. For one global financial services firm, I designed a process that included framing the organization’s strategy in a format suitable for employees to provide input, and applying the output from these discussions into high-level strategy and innovation sessions. In this way an iterative strategy development cycle could be begun.

2. Link to innovation processes

Over the last few years many organizations have implemented formal innovation processes. In their simplest form, these enable employees to submit ideas to an assessment panel that selects the most promising for allocation of funds or other resources to develop the innovation to fruition. During the dot-com era, innovation processes often focused on ideas for ebusiness start-ups, functioning much like venture capital firms, however the focus for these initiatives is increasingly applied to issues such as product development and process enhancement. It can be very valuable to link innovation processes with participative strategy initiatives. Most companies that have implemented innovation programs have found that after an initial flurry of ideas, submissions dry up. People need to be challenged in structured ways to provoke new ideas. For example workshops that work through how value flows within and across industries are shifting often stimulate new thinking in those that have extensive experience in the field.

Royal Dutch/ Shell’s Exploration & Production division has been running an innovation process called GameChanger since 1996. It is essentially an internal venture group, reviewing proposals for new technologies and strategic visions that can come in from anyone, anywhere, anytime. It typically approves initial funding for successful ideas within one month, but if ideas are proven worthwhile they are then passed on to operating units within the Shell group for full commercialization. At the end of the last decade, four of the top five growth initiatives in Shell had emerged from the GameChanger process. While the GameChanger team is open to all ideas, most stem from innovation workshops that are run both within Shell, and at universities and institutes worldwide. These focus on stimulating different perspectives on where new revenue streams can be exploited in what appears to many to be a mature industry.

3. Use scenarios

I have consistently found that scenario planning is the single most powerful tool for developing participative strategy processes within an organization. The process of scenario planning develops a small number of realistic, complementary, and relevant future scenarios for the organization’s environment, that are used to establish a robust yet flexible strategy. One of the key advantages is that the scenario development process is inherently iterative, and so can very easily be adapted to running broad participation sessions, interspersed by focused development and research by a specialized team. By their nature, scenarios are easy to communicate, and the development process generates frameworks that provide a solid foundation for rich discussion.

Since 1995 Morgan Stanley has used framework scenarios as a foundation for strategic thinking across its businesses, involved more than 3,000 executives worldwide. The strategic fields to which it has applied scenario planning include technology, international expansion, and the changing nature of its institutional and retail clients. The scenario development processes are specifically designed to gain useful input from a diverse range of internal and external thinkers, and to give key stakeholders a sense of ownership and participation. To do so, initial scenarios are created that provide valuable perspectives on the future of the business in question, while still clearly being not in final form. This enables participants in the process to contribute effectively, gain a deeper understanding of the issues underlying the resultant strategies, and be clear on their role in successfully implementing the strategies.