Every small business owner knows there is a fine line between working “on” your business and working “in” your business. Michael Gerber described the tug and pull between strategy and operations in his 1986 classic, The EMyth. The struggle remains relevant more than 30 years later as Gerber’s work is frequently quoted in publications like Forbes, Entrepreneur, Inc, Huffington Post, and The New York Times.
However, being aware of the tension between the strategy and operations is vastly different from doing something about it. It is not uncommon for business leaders to find themselves in the weeds, acting as technicians working on the day-to-day instead of strategists working on business growth.
Enter: the strategy session.
What is a strategy session?
“Small business owners and non-profit leaders approach us with questions about what to do next in their business to sustain growth and profitability,” Taylor Tricarico, Managing Partner, Open-i Advisors, shares. Oftentimes, leaders are so close to their business’s operations that they miss opportunities to think and act strategically.
“We invite small business owners to a free strategy session where, pre-COVID, we’d gather key stakeholders in a room alongside a few consultants from our team. Over the course of 60 to 120 minutes, we’d lead them through an exercise that started with gaining a clear understanding of their ‘WHY’: why they exist, what their values are, and how they define success for their business.”
The strategy sessions were so beneficial to the client that Open-i started facilitating them at the beginning of every new client engagement.
However, when COVID-19 made in-person meetings impossible in early 2020, it was time to rethink the structure of these sessions.
Christian Dawson, Open-i Advisors’ Co-founder & Senior Partner, states, “At the onset of COVID-19, we had a great stable of consultants and some big projects in the pipeline that ended up being put on pause. We wanted to keep our team working and engaged with our communities, meanwhile, we knew that our communities were in need. It didn’t seem reasonable to ask businesses in need to pay, so we decided to offer the workshops for free.”
Open-i Advisors got right to work on how to replicate the strategy session model and value online. Our team came up with a screen-share format that delivers comparable value in just 60 minutes.
A strategy session is the first step towards answering your most pressing questions.
The new reality posed by COVID-19 presented business owners worldwide with unprecedented questions.
“Pre-COVID, clients came to us with questions about strategies for achieving or managing growth. Now, their questions are all about survival. For instance, one client’s business model revolves around recording videos inside busy restaurants. His issue was one of survival: ‘How do I keep the lights on and not lose momentum with my product/brand when people are no longer gathering in restaurants?’” Tricarico shares.
Strategy sessions give business owners space to breathe. Setting aside time to focus on why they are in business allows them to reconnect to their purpose and goals.
“By the time business leaders get to us, they are so close to the problem that it’s all muddled up in their mind,” Tricarico says. “The strategy session offers them clarity; it becomes plain to see what they need to focus attention on (i.e., this, not that). Armed with this information, they have the confidence to go out and start chipping away at their goals.”
Beyond offering clarity and confidence, the collaborative nature of the strategy session demonstrates something else, too: compassion.
“We genuinely care about the companies in our community, and the well-being of their leaders. It’s a hard time to run a business- we sincerely want to support them.”
What happens during a strategy session?
Before each session, Open-i Advisors sends the client a questionnaire with the aim of getting the client thinking in advance of the session. There is space for the client to provide their definition of success, their mission statement, and to identify their core values.
“Some companies have a clear understanding of all three; others need help firming these up. This is how we prepare clients to think strategically while at the same time providing us with a baseline understanding of where they’re coming from and where they’re headed.”, Tricarico shares.
The questionnaire also provides clients with an opportunity to discern who from their team they want to participate in the session.
At the onset of the session, Open-i Advisors affirms the organization’s mission and values. “Then,” Tricarico states, “we take their ‘why’ and derive goals from it.”
During the moderated discussion time, business leaders share their ambition while members of the Open-i Advisors’ team drafts an action plan in pursuit of those goals.
One of the benefits of the free session is the opportunity for courses of action to be both supported and challenged. The Open-i Advisors team acts as a rudder, steering clients towards goals that are in alignment with their mission and values while steering them away from distracting activities.
Is the strategy session appropriate for certain industry sectors and early stage businesses only?
“We are industry agnostic,” Tricarico states. “Start-ups, non-profit organizations, Certified B-Corps, and more have all participated in these sessions. What’s also interesting is that we see everyone from solopreneurs at the ideation stage to founders of small businesses struggling with losing 80% of their revenue due to COVID. All have walked away from these sessions having gained clarity and confidence about their next steps.”
What do people walk away with after a strategy session?
Strategy sessions are not fluff, pie-in-the-sky gatherings. Rather, they are opportunities to establish plans that advance the organization’s mission.
“We ask the question: If you came back here in 12 months, how would you know if you were successful? What would your business look like/feel like? How would you be able to communicate to me that you were successful?” Tricarico shares.
Not satisfied with vague statements such as, “Sales will be up”, Tricarico challenges leaders to establish specific, measurable goals that will alleviate pain points. By digging deep into leaders’ motivations for their goals, Tricarico is able to gain a better understanding of the obstacles standing in a business’s way.
“Ultimately, the client leaves the session with both clarity and confidence: they know what they need to accomplish and how they’re going to achieve their definition of success.” Tricarico states.
What happens after the strategy session?
Strategy session clients often feel a sense of relief once the session wraps up. They have taken the time to work on their business and have gained an ally in Open-i Advisors on their road to success. However, the work is just beginning.
“We spend a day or two with the information we gathered during the session and compile it into a one-page plan.” Tricarico states. “The plan is short and actionable: one page plots out their mission, values, and the goals we’ve defined together. Under each goal, we list the activities necessary to work towards those goals.
“We try to include any resources we think might help them based on their very unique situation – books to read, online learning opportunities, introductions to our network, etc. We try to give as much value as possible in the short deliverable.”
The sessions appear to be effective.
“We have heard of some strategy session participants laminating the one-pager and putting it on everyone’s desk to maintain the team’s focus.”
To learn more about or to book a free strategy session with Open-i Advisors, visit https://openiadvisors.com/covid-19-pro-bono-offer/.