Organizational strategy/development

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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