Organizational strategy/development

Arson and organizational management

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.

Whether you’re working within the C-suite, board of directors, or a community group, there is often a common factor: an “arsonist” in your midst. This person or group is easy to identify – they are the ones who may raise objections to what seems like everything and anything. They may appear, to the balance of the group, an impediment to progress or moving forward, but I would argue that tapping into the spirit of this group may actually lead to more robust success and greater buy-in for your organization.

There are many mechanisms for dealing with conflict, some collaborative, some individual. There is also a lot of value in bringing up opposing viewpoints within the framework of productive discussion. Let’s use the context of a board of directors to better explain how to address and integrate what, on the surface, appears to be a negative:

The Problem: A board of directors is trying to make a decision about taking on a new program. No matter what perspectives are presented, there remains a single individual who needs more information, needs the information formatted differently, or feels like they were left out of this discussion.

Potential Solution 1: Address the problem with this person directly and on an individual basis. Make sure the person understands their contribution about the program is important, and that they should keep collaboration in mind when bringing up opposing viewpoints. This strategy allows you to indicate that the person’s contribution is valuable, and that the board desires them to work with the remainder of the team to develop solutions together.

Potential Solution 2: Structure a task force or a small work group, including this person, with a mission-supported project to work on related to the program. This will allow the person to take the lead on efforts central to the organization’s success and channel their energy toward being productive in a more focused environment. This also provides the opportunity for the person to develop shared experiences with other board members, which can temper the sharing of disagreements with the board as a whole. This is not meant to eliminate the alternate viewpoint; it is meant to change the culture and process of how it is shared.

Both of the above solutions above afford the chance for the "arsonist" in question to use a more positive construct. Redirecting negative or questioning energy into momentum forward demonstrates the commitment that the organization has to the individual, provides a forum for that person’s thoughts and opinions, and illustrates to the rest of the board that there are positive ways to be inclusive.

There is a Latin phrase from Virgil that goes “flectere si nequeo superos, Acheronta movebo” which translates to “if I cannot move heaven, I will raise hell.” If the natural tendency of the arsonist is to set small proverbial fires or even to burn the whole thing down, the organization must try and mitigate this by giving the individual opportunities to redirect their energy into making a contribution to the success of the full group. A little fire is good – it builds passion and engagement in an organization. The key is to not let the flames get out of control.

Journeys, destinations, and other adventures

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.

One of the most familiar tag lines out there is that success is a journey, not a destination. I usually try and steer clear of tag lines, except when I feel they truly do capture an important point efficiently. In a previous blog, we explored the differences between strategies and tactics. In this blog, I’d like to talk a little about the third part of the strategy ecosystem: goals.

Goals are the most challenging thing faced by any facilitator. In theory, they are the destination statement. This organization will do “X”. But that question can and should be more complicated than that. Keeping in mind the distinction between strategies, tactics, and goals, I would like to expand our definition of what a goal truly is within the context of success metrics.

Managing a team creatively often involves being a bit less clear about what the end result should be. A proximal goal is one that I feel is more journey-based – “do your best work” or “invent something new”. Those are goals to be sure, but the emphasis is on what happens in getting there - the innovation – rather than the end point.

This is a valuable argument in favor of the 20 percent time used by aerospace industries during the space age of the 1960s, which is still in use today at many software companies. This "free" time has produced products ranging from magnetic space boots to Gmail. Those inventions were not set as goals; they came as a result of an innovative process that was put in place.

But it’s not fair to completely discount the end result. The process must lead somewhere and it’s not always fair to put so much pressure on process. Sometimes clearly established goals can also lead to innovative thought. As someone who really enjoys movies, I’ve always found movies like “All Is Lost” and “Apollo 13” interesting in the context of how a clearly distal goal - in those cases the goal being survival – creates a de facto state of innovation to reach that goal. Necessity is the mother of invention in practice.

Distal and proximal goals are different things and depend on the situation and circumstances, but both are important parts of organizational growth. Organizations or groups can also use combinations of these types of goals to better define the other. Setting a proximal goal can help form a distal goal more clearly, and the reverse is true. Both are different tools for different outcomes.

Proximal goals, when used in helping formulate distal goals are generally more effective in establishing process-based or qualitative criteria, whereas distal goals, when used to clarify proximal goals, will tend to focus more on quantitative outcomes. In both instances, you can see that success is defined by the journey and the destination. In fact, how you define the journey and how you define the destination is at the very core of how you can define what success looks like for your organization.

Innovation bias and the myth of vacuuming

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.

Flipping a very simple concept around sometimes leads to the best conclusions. Sometimes taking a key piece out of something allows you to look at something in a completely different way. I submit the following to you for your consideration - you may not be able to innovate in a vacuum, but I believe you can innovate while vacuuming.

I read an essay in high school written by Igor Stravinsky on his attitudes about conductors. Stravinsky was not complimentary on the role of the conductor in the orchestra, and many rhetorical devices were conveyed to try and persuade the reader that the conductor of an orchestra served no critical purpose.

I disagree with Stravinsky, for a number of reasons. These reasons tie back to my feelings on innovation. I can follow the argument that the musicians in an orchestra follow their sheet music, and that those musicians are able to take cues from each other and stay in time. However, there needs to be a unifying element that draws everything together, acts as a foundation, and is there to prevent disaster from ensuing.

Music is one of the most innovative mediums in existence. Sounds are woven together in infinite forms and contain complexities that almost no other form of communication is capable of producing. But, unchecked, these sounds can detach from structure, move away from the symbiosis of an orchestra, and become noise. The conductor is there to keep innovation from running amok – the musicians must innovate within the framework of their leadership and the boundaries set forth by the music itself.

The conductor is facilitating “innovation bias” or structuring an environment in which participants can move freely within certain bounds, ultimately leading to a pleasing and productive solution. To attempt to innovate in a vacuum, in this case without the conductor, may yield positive short term results, but a more likely outcome is true – as more and more musicians “innovate”, the greater the chance of the music drifting toward noise.

When I vacuum, it makes a lot of noise, and I argue that there is a lot of innovation happening there. There are all sorts of hard to reach places that I have constructed any number and configuration of apparatus to reach, all with the end goal of leaving a spot just a little cleaner than I found it. These mini engineering projects take on a life of their own and my OCD is supremely satisfied with the outcomes of these little experiments. As ridiculous as this probably sounds, the unifying element is there, and I’m the one making sure the house gets clean; I’ve structured the innovation within the confines of baseline parameters and kept it on task.

Enacting parameters, setting specific frameworks, and generating a productive innovation bias is a sound (pun intended) strategy for keeping teams on task while allowing them to be creative within productive boundaries, and prevents discussions from becoming “noise”. Stravinsky was wrong; a conductor is a critical component of creating an ecosystem where music can flourish. What he was missing is the other part of the analysis – flipping something simple around to see how what is missing changes what is there.

 

Evidence-Based Strategy and Peter and the Wolf

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.

When I was a kid, my father bought me a cassette of a recording of Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf. Dad enjoyed classical music and that rubbed off of me; Aaron Copland especially. Lincoln Portrait is one of my all-time favorite works. Peter and the Wolf came up in a playlist that I was listening to recently while I happened to be reading an article about evidence based strategy and my mind started to wonder if there were overlaps between one and the other.

I read up on trends in strategic planning. It seems like every year there is a hot new thing people want to try as an emerging thought on how to make organizations work more efficiently. Some seem to work, others do not. Evidence based strategy seems obvious – base decisions and actions on information that exists in some sort of reference format. Recently though, I have noticed that this is not the norm.

“Blue Sky” strategy is actually the most common thing I see emerge in planning sessions. The tendency to want to start from scratch or “think outside the box” can be so overwhelming at critical moments when strategy is being developed, but that can lead to very important and relevant historical data being neglected or omitted completely.

This leads to several problems that can have adverse effects on planning efforts. The first of which is that there are really very few original ideas out there in terms of organizational development. This isn’t because of a lack of innovation or anything negative, it’s just that some really smart people have established some best practices that work, and there is a good chance that even within your organization that things have been tried and have either worked or failed. Remember what your organization excels at, and don’t succumb to new and completely untested (or worse yet - tested and failed) ideas, based solely on enthusiasm.

It’s important not to fall to the “new blood, old idea” model that a lot of groups fall into. New enthusiasm for an idea that has already been tried and has not been successful should not re-enter the conversation unless there is some critical variable that has changed or new information has emerged that makes the failed model viable. Thinking outside of the box is important, but sometimes it’s more important to remember what is actually in the box to begin with.

Peter’s observations in Prokofiev’s work are based on what he sees – what already exists; the bird escapes the cat, the duck, frustrated by the interaction with the bird, is eaten by the wolf. Peter ultimately disregards his grandfather’s warning and catches the wolf with the aid of the bird. So, what does any of that have to do with evidence based strategy?

The initial steps in the story are about trial and error and what resources exist. Peter’s grandfather sets the initial parameter (don’t go into the meadow, or the wolf will eat you) and peter observes interactions between the animals and determines what resources he can use to ultimately formulate and execute his end goals. The experience of seeing how the animals in the story interact and based on what he determines is the best course of action forward, he executes a successful plan. From Peter’s perspective, maybe he initially thought that running out into the meadow was just fine – blue sky strategy - but later decided that line of thinking would have likely led to a much shorter story, with a far more negative ending. As for his grandfather, with the benefit of his experiences, likely knew of many other boys who ran out into the meadow and were eaten - Peter seems to have taken this evidence into account in his final plan.

When you set out on formulating a strategy, remember to base decisions on observations and evidence. Best practices and established norms can ultimately build a robust, well-conceived path forward, allowing for innovation, increased efficiency, and bolstered effectiveness.

Eating a Snickers bar (and other vast oversimplifications)

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.

The most common problem I find when I work with organizations is the transition that happens between strategy and tactics. Actually, it’s the differentiation between strategy and tactics that is the source of the most frequent misunderstandings and problems with the implementation of a strategic plan.

It’s not that organizations do not understand that you need both of these things to work in concert with one another; it’s more a function of how these two very different things work together to enhance an organization’s mission and vision.

I think it’s unfair to think about strategy and tactics without a third variable: goals. The meaning and function of three things together are the source of endless debate, but once understood and segmented, are extremely powerful tools that organizations can use to be incredibly efficient and effective.

At this very moment, I have a Snickers bar sitting on my desk. OK. Before I eat, let’s decide what the strategy was leading up to this very critical moment. Now, I make this analogy with the full knowledge that I gave this blog a somewhat snarky title with “oversimplification” in it. I know I run the risk of doing that by defining these complex concepts in the context of eating a candy bar (and everything leading up to it), but bear with me – I promise I have a point.

The strategy includes everything that the marketing folks at Mars candy company did to get that Snickers bar to me. They have told me that it “really satisfies,” and I tend to believe them. Mars dedicated considerable resources to making me feel that way, and it worked. So there is an external strategy at work here – the folks at Mars want me to be successful at eating this Snickers bar.

A more specific internal strategy developed from the one above is simple – me thinking that a Snickers bar is what I want. It’s fun to think about, right? But I haven’t dedicated any time or resources to reaching my goal, which is to get the candy bar and eat it. I’m in the analysis stage – nothing is off the table in terms of me procuring that Snickers.

So, using the sum of my past experiences, I know the following things need to happen: get change from my desk, walk to the machine, punch in the numbers, etc…those are tactics. I’m dedicating resources. These tactics are used to achieve my broader goal of being “really satisfied” by this Snickers bar.

This distinction seems simple enough, but it is by far the most complex transition in the planning process.

Facilitating a strategy session is often marked by the exuberant sharing of ideas; nothing seems too hard or too vast. Nothing seems out of reach. But developing a strong tactical plan is hard – it involves dedicating resources (human and/or financial) and becomes much harder to conceptualize. It’s where things become a little more somber and it becomes less clear how goals are reached. That’s because you have to specifically explain how you’re going reach them.

I urge you to think about the process in terms of that Snickers bar. You know what the goal is. It’s clearly defined, based on internal strategy and the influence of external factors – you developed the strategy yourself when you got excited about that Snickers bar. Now it’s just a matter of thinking through the steps, dedicating resources, being diligent about acting on them, and holding yourself accountable for each step of implementing your resources dedicated to accomplishing that goal.

The biggest challenge organizations face is failing to recognize that these three pieces work together in a complex and interdependent way. But, when they are used to reinforce each other, success is easier to both conceptualize and execute.

 

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.

Email: joe@ingenuitycompany.com

Twitter: @ingenuitycmpny

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