The challenge for most executives is that the skills they developed as middle managers are inadequate for the next step up.  They know their business, have mastered supervision, and have honed their decision-making skills.  But what’s often missing is a mental framework for becoming a more strategic leader.

One way we help leaders develop their strategic thinking muscle is through the use of experiential exercises. In just a short time, these activities allow participants in leadership development programs to make decisions in a safe environment that reveal flawed “mental models” while they develop new mindsets.

For example, in the simulation “Triangles” published by Thiagi, Inc., participants are assigned to a ‘company’ with two operating groups: one that plans the work to be implemented by another group, and a separate group of those implementers.  Both groups are told their goal is to “score as many points as possible” by cutting cardboard triangles and constructing them into figures such as boats, whales, geese, soccer players, etc. The more figures they make, the more points they accumulate.

The planning group is given all the resources to plan the task that their implementers will have to execute (scissors, figure templates, cardboard, etc.). In a separate room the implementers are instructed to “implement the plans provided by their planners.”  Before the simulation begins, two participants are chosen to play the role of customers who will ultimately buy the trigrams.

The beauty of the simulation lies in its simplicity.  An organization of two leaderless operating groups is given an ambiguous, time bound task that appears clear because it is accompanied by a page and a half of instructions.  These instructions define the task and provide the few rules that cannot be broken.

Besides being enormously fun to participate in, the activity reveals three “strategic leadership” mistakes that are mirrored in most real organizations:

1).   No strategy, all tactics. From the moment the simulation begins, planners hurriedly skim their instructions and start cutting shapes without strategically deciding which would maximize their outcome. Someone quickly suggests the boat looks easiest to construct, someone else agrees, and most are unaware that they just inadvertently established strategy for the entire company.  Unfortunately, no one considers consulting the customers to find out which shape they value the most, even though they are standing right next to them. At the simulation’s end, the customer reveals that which could have been easily discovered just by asking: the market price for different figures is based on its complexity.  The easiest product to build invariably commands the lowest price in the market, yielding minimal return.

2) Misaligned Structure.  Participants “inherit” a simple structure:  a planning organization and an implementing organization, each located separately from each other.  Though the task is clear, how to organize for it is ambiguous. In the face of this ambiguity, participants accept this structure without seeing its limitations. They fail to check their assumptions about roles (for example, the untrue assumption that implementers cannot be involved in planning) and they invent their own self-limiting rules (i.e., that implementers can’t challenge the ideas of the planners) when few constraints actually exist.

3) Culture of Compliance:  In addition to ambiguity, the simulation adds time pressure, which emboldens a few aggressive participants to ‘take over’ the exercise to meet the deadline, despite their lack of experience or insight.  Less aggressive participants collude with this power structure, which establishes a culture of compliance in which participants do as they’re told, seek permission to act, and stifle any impulse for creativity.

Exceptions do occur.  On occasion, a single participant has the vision of a strategic leader, and it impacts the whole company.  They engage early with the customer, putting their needs at the center of their strategic decisions. They take initiative to invite implementers to the planning process, so they’ll have ownership of the design.  They actively challenge assumptions, and bend the rules without fear. This results in outcomes far superior to the results of their average counterpart.

Strategic leaders learn to see what others do not. Their focus is less on managing people, and more on creating the structures, roles and cultures of their organization so others can act independently and creatively. And, they sell what their customers really want to buy, whether its boats, geese or whales.