Organizational strategy/development

Using a Visual Listener to Change the Conversation

Joe Benesh is a Senior Architect with Shive-Hattery and President + CEO of the Ingenuity Company, a strategic planning, diagramming, framework development, and design thinking consulting firm.

You probably think this is an easy topic for me. As an architect, I rely on my drawing skills to convey ideas. Translating the thoughts of others into built forms. In many ways, strategic planning is a lot like architecture – you’re building something from an intangible to a tangible – but there are distinct differences in how you process, synthesize, and deliver the information.

When I work with organizations, the first thing I do is ask if I can come and listen to them. I observe their processes and communication dynamics, getting a sense of the personalities that make up their identity. Once this has been established, we start to talk about ideas.

Ideas take many shapes and forms – there are ways to create visual representations of many things that make up the group’s mission and vision, and, through further discussion relationships start to appear. These relationships become a framework. 

Using a visual listening facilitator allows these frameworks to become clear, especially during strategic planning. I have used this technique in developing ideas – every single person I have worked with has a set of really great ideas, and creating a diagram of how these ideas become a system short circuits what can otherwise be a very linear process. The short circuit comes from the dynamic jump forward that happens when you can “see” your ideas and how they relate.

An example of this is when I was asked to create a systems diagram for various services and organizations and how they relate. I started by meeting with a few key stakeholders and letting them download every bit of information they could to me while I furiously sketched and took notes. I listened to their conversation and took in all of the characteristic data that they took great care and rigor in explaining to me.

The system was confusing, complex, and there were many, many interrelationships – but the ecosystem started to emerge, the longer they spoke. As we were speaking, drafts of the diagram became a living part of the conversation, triggering thoughts and structuring adjacencies.

Even as a series of small, rough sketches – lines and shapes on a page, really – the conversation took leaps forward. I left our session with a robust understanding of business sectors and offerings I only had superficial knowledge of prior to the meeting, and I set to work building a diagram that this community and series of organizations could use collaboratively.

When I completed the diagram, the ideas we spoke about all fit together. You could see the flow between sectors, identify processes, establish common collaterals, and track ROI factors in a meaningful way. Pain questions about what areas could stand improvement became clear, and the diagram could be used by groups internally and by groups external to the particulars. His diagram truly became a tool intended for collaboration.

Turning ideas into graphical representations allows for a dramatic positive turn in conversational dynamics. As you develop your thoughts on how to address strategic planning within your organization, think of engaging a visual facilitator to push the conversation to a completely new level.

Meet new blogger Joe Benesh

Joe Benesh is an Architect with Shive-Hattery and President + CEO of the Ingenuity Company, a strategic planning, diagramming, framework development, and design thinking consulting firm.

During a presentation of one of my projects in college, I compared the approach I took my Joe Beneshbuilding design to two different types of sandwiches. As soon as those words came out of my mouth, I watched an expression of horror creep across my professor’s face. I got the impression that she felt I wasn’t taking things seriously or, worse yet, that I had lost my mind. But the simple truth is that I make analogies a lot. Probably more than I should. But relating different things together is how I attain clarity on an issue.

Architecture is like that. Architects take ideas and turn them into something tangible. For me, a client’s thought might become a set of windows, a childhood memory might help finish out a wall in bedroom. Then I noticed something over the years – in organizations I was getting involved in, I was drawing diagrams of what we were talking about doing. But they weren’t doodles; there was structure and purpose to each part – loose at first, but then with purpose to truly understand the complexity of the organizational ecosystem I was working within.

I did this again and again in different groups, before someone caught me in the act and asked that I share what I was doing with the rest of the group. That event changed the way I view what I do, and how I use the skills I have as a designer. Those diagrams helped people understand what we were trying to accomplish, what we were trying to build collaboratively and how we could truly synthesize an idea or group of ideas into action effectively.

Organizational change and development is very much like designing anything else – key stakeholders, a set (or not so set) mission and vision of what the group is trying to accomplish, and a shared desire to make this shared vision into a reality. But the key is to bring into harmony the many dissonant voices within a group, bring order to the seeming chaos of what are generally a collection of really, really good ideas. To prioritize. Take the strategic to tactical; take the visionary to operational. Build a holistic organization.

When you build a building (or a sandwich for that matter), you start with a plan. Then a structural framework. Then you add finishes. The successful design of an organzation uses these steps, but builds in institutional knowledge, experience, the input and opinions of many, creativity, innovation, and open mindedness about the future.

With this blog, I hope to share some of the experiences, strategies, best practices and organizational design concepts that we can talk more about as a community.


Twitter: @ingenuitycmpny

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