Strategy Teams for a Tough Economy - Soft Skills Matter

May 22nd, 2019 | in Strategy
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As an organizational effectiveness expert and management coach, I get to learn from many different teams. During the last downturn in the oil patch, I engaged in strategic planning with the leadership team of a business unit in a major oil and gas company. The team included engineers, geologists and an accountant. They managed a geographic region of resource assets on behalf of the corporation.

At our first meeting, they rolled out a map and started discussing different locations to drill wells. The team all shared the same understanding that they would drill six wells in this geographic area and they debated which locations to recommend.

As a newcomer to this team, I listened to these discussions intently and studied the map to try to make sense of it all. As someone with ‘soft’ skills, opportunities to participate in these types of discussions were rare.

As everyone seemed to align on where to drill these six wells, I became puzzled. What would drilling at these six well locations accomplish? Why was six the right number of wells? What was the broader organization expecting from this business unit? I had heard that corporate strategy was shifting as a result of the downturn. How was this business unit going to be impacted?

So I asked the questions.

The room went silent. The looks I received, made two things apparent to me. First, this bottom-up approach to strategic planning was how it had always been done. And second, I lacked credibility with this group because I was not an engineer or geologist.

These were two very difficult challenges to overcome.

To the credit of the leader, they provided answers to my questions. When their responses were met with more questions, the conversation changed.

When challenged, the group was open to exploring this different line of thinking. The result was a new top-down strategic planning process starting with an in-depth discussion of the purpose of the business unit within the corporation. This caused much debate as the members of the leadership team struggled to align on something as fundamental as why the team existed in the first place.

At that time, capital allocation strategies were shifting and the role of the business unit was changing (not unlike the situation in the oil patch today). The role of the business unit was no longer to find the best way to spend their sizeable budgets, instead they found themselves in competition with other business units for a much smaller pool of capital.

Margins were shrinking, risks were increasing and there was no guarantee that investment in the area would continue.

The leadership team of the business unit needed to get crystal clear on the value they could contribute to the company’s new priorities and they needed to be aligned. Since they were the most knowledgeable about the assets they managed, they were uniquely able to quantify the upside value and say how best to realize it. They saw this as their new role.

The strategic plan that we collectively devised took into account the vision, purpose and values of the business unit and articulated strategies, goals and activities based on key success factors and strategic issues and risks.

As part of these discussions, we contemplated what the team, as a whole, needed to be good at in order to successfully achieve this plan. Skill gaps were identified and the composition of the team changed as a result. Some of the skills called out were critical to strategic success:

Project management excellence

  • Understanding of the value of a shared project definition for alignment to delivering outcomes.
  • Understanding of cost drivers and impact of changes in these cost drivers to project economic viability
  • Effective cost control during project execution
  • Understanding of all factors contributing to project timeline and ranges of uncertainty in each
  • Reporting mechanisms that accurately reflect progress against baseline plan, forward trends and projected outcomes.

Leverage of existing knowledge

  • Knowledge management – written documentation of what work has been done and results; efficient processes for storing and accessing the information
  • Ability to understand what data is relevant (helps us learn about an uncertainty that is important) and material (information has potential to change decisions)
  • Communication skills to effectively share learning within and across teams

Facility understanding

  • Strong process engineering
  • Strong JV support and understanding of agreements
  • Innovative thinking – optimize, downsize, rationalize, change process
  • Management of regulatory and legal issues
  • Negotiation skills

This experience illustrated to me the power of a soft skilled perspective on this technical team. The ability to ask questions and ensure an unrelenting focus on the team’s purpose resulted in much better outcomes for this team. My credibility on the team grew dramatically as did their willingness to try new things.

Ultimately, a great many of the soft skills I brought to the team, were already there to varying degrees across multiple members of the team. Yet somehow, the full value of the soft skilled perspective was only achieved when these skills were concentrated in one individual who could draw out the others.

In a perfect world, it is the leader who possesses all of these soft skills. In reality, the leader is often the technical expert: the founder of a small business or an individual with strong technical skills that was rewarded with a leadership position.

At the end of the day, organizations need to pay close attention to team composition and introduce soft skilled individuals to fill the skills gap especially on teams with technical leaders.

Many organizations embrace this concept, but they struggle to act on it. Teams often contain multiple technical skillsets but are lacking sufficient soft skills to make effective strategic decisions and then act on them. Critical soft skills include communication, decision making, adaptability to change, leadership, team-working, creativity, problem solving and time management.

Team builders need to pay particular attention to soft skills in times of strategic change like the present. It is soft skills that give teams the resilience to adapt and the insight to make critical choices.

Image from Geological Survey of Canada

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