Use Research Fellowships to Involve Employees in Your Strategy Definition
In a fast-paced business environment, it can be difficult for us to progress with our strategic work. Feeling like the swift current of day-to-day business sweeps us up and carries us along, despite our best intentions to the contrary.
Maybe the distraction is a customer emergency, an employee issue, or perhaps a project deliverable that is dangerously behind schedule. At times, the best we can do is to survive each day and not let our task lists get too out of control. In fact, if we are not careful, it is possible to go weeks or months without giving any quality time to our strategic agendas because we can't free ourselves up long enough to think strategically.
[TIP: If you feel like your days are out of control, here are ways to get back on track. Remember, great leadership depends on you driving and thriving, and not only surviving each day.]
Maintaining time to work on your long-term strategy is often difficult for two main reasons:
- Strategic deliverables are often due "later" and therefore are easier to postpone than tasks with short-term deadlines and easily visible consequences.
- Strategy work is not easy to delegate to others. After all, as leaders aren't we responsible for setting vision and strategy for our organizations?
Not postponing strategy work is a simple matter of discipline and prioritizing your tasks. But delegating strategic work is more difficult.
But there is a way to outsource part of your strategic work to people in your organization.
The Danger of Neglecting the Long Term
What happens if your business only focuses on current technologies, products, and customers? Even if you execute flawlessly, what will your business look like in 2 - 5 years? Are you preparing to dominate in the future?
If you are not, your thriving business will eventually be disrupted. As an example, think of the effects the introduction of the automobile had on the makers of horse harnesses. Suddenly, horses used for transportation were in less demand each year following the mass introduction of the automobile. Are horse harnesses in direct competition with automobiles? No. Do you think harness makers were intently monitoring the progress of the nascent automobile companies? Doubtful. But the horse harness industry became irrelevant after the use of automobiles went mainstream even though there was no direct competition.
While you're busy focusing on your to-do list, a new technology is emerging that will make your business irrelevant.
Luckily, there is one area of strategic thinking that you can successfully delegate to members of your organization: research.
One area of strategic planning that can be delegated to members of your team is researching emerging technologies, industries and business models.
The fellowship concept exists in many domains (although they are most commonly found in the academic world). We can borrow aspects from different domains and create a Research Fellowship program for your business to help you get the input you need to craft a solid long-term strategy.
In short, Research Fellowships are independent studies that members of your organization use to investigate and report on any topic that might be relevant for your future success. Study areas can vary, for example:
- emerging technologies
- new businesses that do not directly compete with yours, but a single pivot could make them a competitor
- tools or ways of working in unrelated industries that could be applied to your business
- social media or philanthropic possibilities as possible growth engines for your business
- new business and revenue models
Getting Started with Fellowships
Deploying the Research Fellowship concept to your organization should be fairly easy. While it is possible to scale it up to a large number of concurrent participants, I suggest you start small and see who in your organization self-selects for participating in the Fellowship process.
It is important that employees volunteer to research topics of their own choosing. The outcome of a Fellowship will be much more valuable if the research is driven by the employee (due to the power of intrinsic motivation), instead of assigning someone to research a topic.
- Introduce the Fellowship concept to your organization and explain to them this is a way to directly participate in the strategic work of the organization. Involving employees who don't normally focus on strategic planning can be a huge motivator for them, and bring in fresh thoughts as well.
- Ask your organization to think about emerging technologies, industries and business models, and which might be applicable to your business. There is no need to stay within the traditional boundary of your industry. Many great concepts and ideas can be borrowed from adjacent (or even unrelated) industries!
- Use the Fellowship template (and customize to your needs) to collect submissions from your employees.
- Review the submissions and select the Research Fellowship candidates that show the greatest potential upside for your business. Select as many as your business needs (however, I would caution having more than a small number of Fellowships executing concurrently).
- Be consistent: if you approve your employees to work uninterrupted on their Research Fellowship, then respect your promise and allow them to work undisturbed. Do not drag them back into day-to-day operations if you're short-staffed or have a customer emergency.
- When one Fellowship ends, try to approve a new one, so you always have a consistent portion of your organization working on strategic research.
To make it more clear, here is an example of a fictitious Research Fellowship application using the template.
- Date: For record keeping, when was the request submitted.
- Name: For record keeping, who submitted the request. Example: Mitch Cooper
- Research Topic: What topic will be studied? Example: How new convection oven technology affects cookie baking times and quality
- People Involved in Research (and time allocation %): Example: Mitch (100%), Julia (5%)
- Estimated Research Time (2 weeks min - 6 months max): Example: 3 months
- Additional Activities (such as creating a prototype, research trip, etc): Example: research trip to various oven manufacturers for information gathering
- Successful Conclusion Criteria: How will we know this activity is successful/what do we expect this fellowship to produce? Example: Mitch will create a final report summarizing new oven technologies and their potential uses for our business. He will also give a presentation to the group about the topic.
- Rationale/Why this topic is important for our future? Justification from the applicant about why this topic is important. Example: We are successfully using traditional oven technology to produce our line of cookies. Recently, there have been advances in oven technology that may allow us to improve various aspects of our cookie production. I would like to research the various changes in ovens and oven technologies to see if we should be utilizing them in a better way.
Take care, and I'll talk to you next time.