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Strategic planning done differently to drive bold thinking in a risk-averse bank

Sarah McGill | Case Studies

The bank was obsessed with planning, but the strong organisational culture did not encourage leaders to plan for and drive big, bold change.  In fact, excessive stretch or boldness was dis-incentivised.  The ‘sweet spot’ was to look like you were being bold while not actually doing anything that involved risk or excessive disruption to the status quo.  As a result, the leadership team ‘muscle’ in visionary strategic planning was weak.  The senior leader was an exception.  He had been recruited internationally (in part due to his reputation as a disruptor) and given the mandate to drive digital transformation.

The leadership team were a group of smart but conservative delivery managers.  Having been through four restructures in two years they were jaded, cautious and underperforming.  They were focused on delivering to project goals to meet commitments to their business stakeholders (with whom they did not have a smooth relationship).  They were very reluctant to be held accountable for the achievement of anything more than day-to-day operations, especially if that meant accountabilities that cut across individual delivery silos.

This meant an annual strategic planning process that typically ended in the creation of a set of goals that would tick the operational ‘business as usual’ box and at least appear to meet stakeholders’ needs, but be far from strategic.  Digital transformation, however, was thrusting these technology leaders into the limelight.  The bank needed them to champion an end-to-end, technology-driven view that would secure significant and sustained operational savings.  They could no longer be passive ‘order takers’ to the business but rather needed to partner strongly with the business to set direction.  This was not a comfortable change for anyone involved.  The team didn’t have the mindsets, the capabilities, nor the stakeholder relationships needed to contribute to shaping the bank’s technology agenda the way they needed to.


Our Approach

Address mindsets first – There was never a need for an external consulting team to help with the mechanics of a ‘normal’ planning process.  The step-change results were driven by surfacing, naming and addressing limiting mindsets up front in the process.  We raised the real conversations – “How bold do you want to be?”, “What are you willing to give up to execute on a bold vision?”, “How confident do you feel about shifting your relationship with the business?”  A series of tough, authentic facilitated conversations with the leadership team rapidly built trust, alignment and conviction towards a bolder outcome.

Iterative, dialogue-based planning – We engaged the leaders and the organisation in an iterative, dialogue-based planning process.  It started with high-level direction shaped from the overall bank strategy and the team’s learnings from the past year’s results.  We harvested wisdom and tacit knowledge from the body of the organisation in a series of spiral planning conversations.  Information was continually fed back to the leadership team to align with the vision top down.

Radical transparency – We structured a communications approach that ensured the leadership team were regularly sharing progress with the wider team.  This reinforced leadership commitment at each ‘gate’ of the process, ensured every single person in the organisation was part of the conversation, and accelerated the dialogue-based planning.  By the time the plan was finalised, the entire organisation already felt ownership over it because they had been part of shaping it.  They moved straight to action.  Lime produced the scorecard in a large public display format that was hung in the main communal area of the office to ensure ongoing visibility of progress.

Structured decision gates – We structured the planning and metrics identification as a series of decision gates.  A regular agenda item at the weekly leadership team meetings over six weeks enabled us to accelerate the process while ensuring ownership with each and every iteration.  Also, if conviction wavered at any point, or there was an attempt to revisit, we were able to quickly and easily trace the logical, progressive steps to the current point and cut off any unproductive looping back.

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The radically different planning process built ownership at every level and began generating improved, accelerated results before the plan was even finalised.  The wider team pushed for outcomes and partnered with the leadership team to drive strategic action rather than being passive as they had been in the past.  The approach created a reinforcing system of accountability where the leadership team were held accountable because the goals and monthly progress tracking were made public on the display scorecard.  The team were accountable to contribute and adopt an ownership mindset to overcoming obstacles because they had been involved in shaping and creating the content.

The secondary outcome was the impact of the activity on the maturity of the leadership team. They shifted from being passive approvers of a set of actions and metrics to active co-creators of a scorecard that they were committed to delivering against.  They grew in confidence, reshaped their relationship with key business stakeholders and were able to release an industry-leading technology to market first.  Several of the elements of the strategic planning process used were shared and adopted by other leadership teams.