Organizational strategy/development

Brainstorming ... the McKinsey way

- Joe Benesh is a senior architect with Shive-Hattery and president and CEO of the Ingenuity Company, a strategic planning, diagramming, framework development and design thinking consulting firm.

One book I enjoy reading when preparing for an engagement is called “The McKinsey Way,” by Ethan M. Rasiel. Mr. Rasiel was a consultant at McKinsey from 1989, and contributed to what is now called the McKinsey trilogy. In the book, Mr. Rasiel describes some key points critical for brainstorming:

  1. There are no bad ideas.
  2. There are no dumb questions.
  3. Be prepared to kill your babies.
  4. Know when to say when.
  5. Get it down on paper.

         (Rasiel, pp. 97-99)

Although you and I might both have a disagreement with bullet point No. 1 – there are actually some very bad ideas out there – the spirit of the five bullets provides a good framework for any brainstorming session. In organizations that I work with, there are challenges to each one of these with individuals or groups that impede the free exchange of ideas. Impediments to these must be overcome in order to ensure that your session is not a waste of time or material effort.

Accept for a moment that there are indeed no bad ideas. You can now focus your energy on accepting different points of view, free from the filter of having to sort ideas into “good” and “bad.” This step frees you up for point No. 2; if there are no dumb ideas, then it stands to reason you should be able to ask questions to get additional perspective on the idea free from the burden of feeling like others will judge you as ignorant, misinformed or off topic. That fear is a recurring problem with groups. No one likes to feel silly or off base. So create an environment where they do not.

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No. 3 is also very difficult to overcome. It is natural to want to protect something you came up with or spent time on, but if it does not end up being mission-critical or relevant to the objective, you should discard it in favor of a clearly defined direction with only those contributing factors that contribute to the success of that direction.

There is a rule designers use when working within a brainstorming session. When brainstorming, the ideas eventually run out. Once it starts to get quiet, generally someone will offer something off topic or absurd, and then the ideas start to flow again. During this second “peak” of brainstorming, evidence has demonstrated that the best ideas are shared. There is then a decline, and once that decline begins, it is time to stop. Ideas shared after this second decline begins are generally not creative or relevant in a meaningful way. But pushing through to this second peak yields good results for balancing creativity and relevance.

Recording these ideas is also a necessity. Brainstorming is an opportunity to not be constrained by the typical confines of the work ecosystem. However, these sessions are still expected to yield results. This means that producing an accurate record of the session with decisions, direction, strategies, or whatever defined direction of the session was determined. In short: Keep those flip chart pages and record the data as soon as you are able to after the session to preserve the integrity of your work.

Brainstorming is the part of the strategic planning process where you get to really explore the opportunities available to you as an organization. But effective brainstorming must be conducted within a framework. They are not free-for-all sessions, nor are they a soft session meant to not have any serious outcomes. Adapted from the graphic designer Michael Bierut, these sessions are meant to define “how to … sell things, explain things, make things look better, make people laugh, make people cry, and (every once in a while) change the world.”

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Overcoming the safety of familiarity

- 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 things that I have struggled with in groups is shifting from my role as facilitator to observer/adviser.

A healthy part of the strategic planning process is transitioning slowly and maintaining a passive role in the development of a new board structure or processes in the event that support is needed, so that plan gets traction. This alleviates the fear of removing the support and relative safety of having a facilitator or objective third party in the room as a new structure is put in place, but it also prevents one of the most destructive influences in the strategic planning framework – backsliding.

When I am asked to work as a strategic planning consultant, it is generally to improve, refine, adapt, or create a plan that helps organizations transcend their current operational benchmarks. Generally, this includes discarding some practices that are obsolete or arcane, replacing them with strategies and tactical enhancements designed to optimize efficiency or productivity.

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As I make the transition from facilitator to observer/adviser, there are behaviors that would be easy for organizations to fall back into if I simply departed following my role as the facilitator. Shared stresses brought on by a large workload, deadlines, or trying to generate new clients or workstreams are all triggers for a backslide. Pressure from existing clients or over-commitments are also potential areas of concern.

Cultural changes are hardest to enact, and these stresses make it safe to hide within the confines of the familiar, so all of the new behaviors created to implement the new plan are fragile and must be protected. How organizations do that must reflect a discipline they must be willing to administer with consistency.

In his book, True North, William George captures how one can work to prevent a relapse into past habits, referring to what Steve Jobs did to prevent the same type of backslide:

Jobs had a practice of looking in the mirror each morning and asking himself, “If today were the last day of my life, would I want to do what I am about to do today?” Whenever the answer was no for too many days in a row, he knew he needed a change. He said, “Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life…Have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. (George, p.191)

This is a truth not only from the standpoint of making sure the organization stays forward facing, but also plays into individual efforts in making sure that the new methods or changes wrought by the strategic planning process continue to take shape. The German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer made popular the belief that humans tend to act in accordance with their drive to satisfy their own motivations, which, in turn, influence the world in different ways.

Drawing back to our original thesis, there is a fragile point in the strategic planning process where the organization begins to adopt new practices and work toward assigning accountability, implementing tactics, and establishing metrics. If every member of the organization takes time to assess what they are doing in the context of how their own motivations and desires for success can support that of the greater whole, the positive influence will be widespread. Not only that, but as motivations and support mechanisms become more clear, the tendency to want to return to familiar practices will be outshined by the success rooted in following a new mission and vision framework.

I have found the most success as a consultant when I see groups that I've worked with start to exhibit confidence in using the plans we have developed together. This allows me to shift from facilitator to observer/adviser and watch the self-actualizing around a new set of systems and processes.

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The QWERTY problem

- 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 QWERTY keyboard was invented in 1873 to alleviate a mechanical problem with typewriters contemporary to that time. The metal bars that held the keys would get stuck together as individuals typed. To correct this problem, the most used letters were spaced apart so the bars would not stick to each other. That’s the only reason that the QWERTY keyboard was invented.

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As the typewriter has become obsolete, different keyboard layouts have been introduced, none of which has been adopted. But why? The Dvorak key arrangement was designed to enhance the speed of the typist. There was even an ABCDEF layout that was designed to break us of our addiction to the QWERTY style keyboard.

We become so accustomed to using things, systems, or processes that we sometimes lose sight of why we are using them. The concept of path dependence is something that has a very large influence on the success of strategic planning. When we use one of these things we are accustomed to, and subsequently follow a predetermined course of action or behavior, there almost certainly has been a “critical juncture” at some point in the past. At that moment, we made a decision that set a specific trajectory leading to this predetermined course.

This trajectory and the decision that set it in motion are generally based on legacy knowledge, and, from the moment of that decision, a behavioral bias was formed. Seldom do we make decisions that we do not have supporting data on, such as with our ability to be effective in completing skilled tasks. These tasks require legacy knowledge of what steps make that task successful.

If I were to ask you why you use a QWERTY keyboard, you might answer that it’s the most readily available, and it’s how you learned to type, and it doesn’t make sense for you to change. Fair enough. But if I could demonstrate that one of the alternate layouts would improve your results dramatically, would you change to one of these new layouts? Likely not; because you’d be breaking a convention and deconstructing the hardwired “critical juncture” and resulting path dependence that has developed as a result of that decision. Your decision to use the QWERTY layout is so far in the past that it would cause a dramatic decrease in your ability to be effective if you were to change now.

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But is that really true?

In strategic planning, there is a strong bias toward using conventions to achieve results. I am not arguing that you should not use those conventions from the standpoint of best practices and institutional knowledge. However, organizations should use caution here, and watch for the biases presented by path dependence that may be woven into organizational practices.

This is another example of the importance of asking “why” organizations do the things that they do. A majority of the population likely does not know why they use a QWERTY keyboard or what the origin of that key layout is. The same is probably true of ingrained organizational strategies.

As you develop your strategic plan, it is important to consider the past in the context of what was effective in a way that is germane toward developing a strategy for the future. Simply sticking to a path because it conforms to what builds upon what already exists will not always yield optimal results; in fact, it may lead you to make decisions that will alter your course in a damaging or negative way.

As with the problem with the metal bars that QWERTY was designed to correct, so must the considerations be in designing the optimal framework for strategic planning – or you might be trying to solve a problem that hasn’t been a problem for almost 60 years.

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Zero latency: Leadership vs. management, Part 2

- 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.

In my last post, we discussed the differences between leadership and management: finding the proper balance between the two and the problems that arise if they fall out of balance. In this post, I would like to explore that concept further in the context of organizational design. In his book, "Exponential Organizations" (a book I highly recommend), Salim Ismail talks about a company called Holacracy. Holacracy has taken frameworks from the start-up world (such as Agile and Lean) and applied them to its organization in a broad-based way. As he describes it:

Holacracy is defined as a social technology or system of organizational governance, in which authority and decision-making are distributed via fractal, self-organizing teams, rather than being vested at the top of a hierarchy. (Ismail, p.104)

How does this relate to our earlier conversation about the lever arms of leadership and management? Ismail has the answer to that as well:

…hierarchies tend to be competence-based hierarchies, relying more on peer accountability than on authority-based accountability…(Ismail, p.105)

To me, this describes the nature of how healthy businesses can operationally adjust to balance the needs of management with employees. The management-based structure of organizations will inherently resist this, as there will be a loss of control. But, as stated in the last post, the accountability will increase.

Companies with the courage to self-organize based on competencies with direct peer accountability align with the emerging workforce of millennials, who have grown up as the products of social networks and rapidly accelerating technologies and modes of communication. Management-modeled authority structures tend to slow down innovation, as they are mired down in policy frameworks and defined by boundaries.

Inversely, holacracy in leadership structures allow there to be reduced latency in the adaptability of employees to take on new projects, innovate, and self-regulate. The fractal nature of these teams that Ismail refers to creates an environment conducive to rapid protoyping, failure learning, and optimized product or service delivery models.

I am not advocating for the elimination of all management structures, but I do feel that things in the organizational development ecosystem are evolving. Those in the marketplace that are able to be responsive to build upon the strengths of the emerging workforce are the companies that will continue to grow, increase their curb appeal for potential employees, and produce better products for clients.

Valve-working-system

Valve Corporation is a video game development company that was founded by former Microsoft employees in 1996. Valve is almost completely run as a flat organization, run by its employees. Individuals select/create their own projects, there are no managers, and employees can also hire employees to work on their projects. During Valve’s 19-year history, they have been responsible for creating not only some of the most innovative modern video games, but an Internet-based distribution system for online gaming. The company was estimated to be worth close to $3 billion in 2012. (Image to right is from Valve's employee manual)

I included Valve as an example to illustrate that holacracy truly works. I would argue that it may not work for every corporation or organization, but combining this model with the balance argued for in the last post between leadership and management, you can produce a formula for success in the modern organization. Every organization has an equilibrium point. One with responsive, engaged, and self-starting employees, ready to interact in an environment where leadership and accountability are dynamic and innovation can flourish with almost zero latency.

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Leadership vs. 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.

Within the host of elements that make up an internal business culture, there is a delicate balance between how a business is led and how it is executed. There are four elements that are our focus here: we will discuss the differences between leadership and management, and how adjustments in the levels of control and accountability can feed into performance outcomes.

Our first lever arm is balanced between leadership and management. In a general sense, businesses tend to focus on management. There are a number of reasons for this: 1) Metrics are easier to establish, as they tend to be analytical and based on established benchmarks. 2) There is less risk associated with management – generally, it is the improvement or monitoring of established processes. 3) There is often no pressure to push individuals out of their comfort zones – in many ways, management is about creating conformity or adherence to the pre-established norms.

Leadership is rooted in something different. It isn’t always about change, but the purpose of leadership is to create, rather than maintain. There is a higher level of risk involved, but the outcomes are rooted in: 1) Greater organizational sustainability. 2) Higher employee engagement and investment in organizational mission. 3) Ability to positively adapt to changes in market segments.

As the balance between leadership and management is established, there are two internal elements that act as subsets of each. Control and accountability. These factors are complex and many organizations struggle to find the right levels of each. As a function of human nature, there tends to be a decrease in accountability as control is increased beyond a certain threshold. Similarly, if control is relaxed (up to a certain point), the level of accountability and employee productivity increases substantially. There are obviously extremes on both ends, but there is a range in the middle where these two factors can reach an optimized level.

In an aspirational sense, many organizations seek to self-actualize as leadership / accountable type organizations. But as risk increases, there is a tendency to gravitate back toward the safer, more cautious framework of management and control. But that’s why finding the right balance is important and to acknowledge that these two things are not the same and should not be used interchangeably.

IBM and companies like Tesla are two examples of one extreme and the other. IBM stood as an example of exceptional management for the better part of a century. However, by 1991, the strict adherence to the status quo – managing existing systems without modernizing or adapting to current market conditions – almost caused the company's complete collapse. Company officials chose to be almost exclusively devoted to management and control; low risk, which led to a contraction that was completely avoidable. Apple_welcome-ibm-seriously1

Tesla is just the opposite. As a company, Tesla is built around a singular idea – that they will lead the market by providing a product that will eventually replace the status quo. They chose to lead and that leadership instills a sense of accountability in their employees – there is a social obligation as well as the business one. There is high risk here, as it still remains to be seen if Tesla will be sustainable in the long run.

I've included an image in this blog from an ad that Apple ran to welcome IBM to the PC market, one that they should have, by all measures, been able to dominate. It serves to underscore how damaging an adherence to the status quo can be.

Leadership and management are two different things, but they are both essential to creating a successful organization. In the right doses, control and accountability are also critical elements of success. The key is to find the right recipe of each to produce the desired results and build upon your successes as an organization.

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It’s not you…it’s my confirmation bias

- 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.

Confirmation bias is one of the most dangerous elements of strategic planning and organizational development. There is an entire science behind how individuals draw conclusions based on their own beliefs: attitude polarization, belief perseverance, illusory correlation, and subjective validation all fit into this category.

No one likes being wrong - and I am not arguing that (in certain instances) that you shouldn't go with your instinct about some things. But when you look at large decisions or setting up basic frameworks for long-term development, direction should be rooted in evidence.

There is a natural human tendency for us to show preference for data that support our arguments. This is coupled with our tendency to reject data that interfere with our ability to arrive at a solid conclusion – especially in situations where we feel we need to show strong leadership or be expeditious. Leaders often like to self-identify as being unbiased with their thinking, but it is tremendously difficult to overcome something that they believe is right (as in the case with belief perseverance) or is a long-held belief, even in the face of data that conflict with their baseline or “original” thinking.

Design thinking is a process that helps alleviate some of the individual burden of confirmation bias. To a certain extent, it does not matter if a bias exists in design thinking, because the process itself avails itself of cognitive bias through rapid prototyping and testing – there are many opportunities to learn from failure and combine personal biases into a single, successful outcome.

Subjective validation is another form of confirmation bias. In this case, the individual will feel that data given to them is accurate if they have a personal experience they feel confirms that data, regardless of proof or lack thereof. This is a very dangerous and uninformed way to make decisions.

Overcoming the above biases are some of the most difficult aspects of strategic planning. There are always individuals who feel they are correct, regardless of the opinions of others or other data that may be present. There are also always individuals who feel that past personal experience is the overriding factor in making decisions about the future. Neither one of these approaches is incorrect in a discrete sense. Success means taking each of those viewpoints and adjusting them to take into account unbiased data - that is, in many instances, the difference between success and failure.

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Chess is an example of how to apply the solution framework to the above. If you approach the game with the attitude that you are going to win, regardless of the experience and or knowledge of the other player, and solely because you have been successful in a certain segment of the sample population of other chess players, you may win, but it will be due to chance and circumstance rather than proper preparation and skill.

Similarly, if you play the same person over and over and consistently beat them, you may continue to do so. However, if you do not adjust your tactics, the opposing person likely will begin to beat you, because your confirmation bias tells you that you always beat that person, so no adjustment to strategy is necessary. However, your competitor will adjust to your tactics. In a more extreme example, you might feel you always win on days you wear a blue shirt. But do you always wear a blue shirt? Correlation is not causation. As you can see, fallacy is deeply woven into the DNA of confirmation bias.

Combining the points above, in chess or with your organization, the use of personal experience and bias must be combined with a healthy dose of data and non-prejudicial evidence that can be used to generate a conclusion that clearly demonstrates an estimate of the best possible path forward. The unintended side effect of this method is increased engagement and participation by a larger population of the organization, as it will represent a far wider range of opinions and inputs. Confirmation bias generates resentment and can underscore the division and disconnectedness between management and the rest of the team.

When making your plan, remember that the best laid plans are those that explore the greatest range of opportunities to succeed.

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Take time for why

- 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.

Like many people I know, I use the holiday break to think about the things I would like to accomplish in the coming year. Through the years, I’ve done this in many different ways, all with varying degrees of success. As I started my list this year, I wanted to be sure to incorporate some of the lessons learned over the course of the last year and it got me thinking. When it comes to considering what I am going to do in 2016, I have to ask myself – am I spending too little time on why and too much time on what? 1449770716108

Being tactical is important. It’s how we get things done. But many times we jump to this step too early. The by-product of becoming tactical too early can be an endless stream of to-dos and Gantt charts, CPM schedules and planning diagrams with a relational / orbital hierarchy that is impossible to decipher. I concede that making to-do lists can be rewarding – and in “quick win” scenarios they are a simple way to accomplish many things expeditiously. However, when thinking about more long-term goals or considering the sustainability of your efforts, to-do lists just don’t cut it.

In the past, I have been part of (not led) sessions that generate outcome documents that are basically a SWOT analysis (a matrix of strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats) with some sort of “action plan” or “to do” list attached to it. To me, this does not represent a strategic plan. The SWOT is a form of analysis, to be sure. And, as indicated above, there are “quick win” environments where those type of lists work. However, the following is generally what happens if the above is used as a strategic plan.

The organization using the framework will experience a high level of productivity as they work through the list. They will even be able to tie their efforts back to elements of the SWOT analysis, due to the data collected by that analysis being discrete and parsed out into specific emphasis areas. But, as the list nears completion, or the more complex tasks in the analysis are reached, productivity has a tendency to dramatically fall off. When this happens, morale will suffer, and management will be put in a position where communicating next steps will be difficult, if not impossible.

But why is this? The main reason is that the SWOT/To-Do framework is all tactical. There is no data generated on the purpose of the task – the “why”. The why is the source – it speaks to the mission and vision of your organization. If there is no “why” to tie your efforts back to, sustainability of your organization’s operation momentum will experience a high level of volatility.

I know these conversations are hard. Being strategic seems like “fluff” or “soft” to many. This truly is not the case. Taking the time to build a strategic framework with the “why” considerations built in leads to greater overall fulfillment from all walks of staff, and creates more robust, better developed, and more fulfilling action plans. If your only definition of "why" is growth, your strategy may need further development to be holistic.

When I look at what I want to accomplish in 2016, I always start with why I want to do it. It saves me time in planning how I will allocate my own resources. Actions will be more sustainable if they are aligned with motivations. Quick wins will grow into more complex and larger outcome strategic goals. Making time for why ultimately leads to better starting points, better decisions, and better results.

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Never delegate understanding

- 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 title of this blog is a tenet attributed to Charles Eames (pictured below on the right), an architect and designer who practiced in the middle of the 20th century. I came across this in some research while I was working with an organization that had engaged me for strategic planning. It resonated with me.

The leadership team for this organization had been moving toward less “doing” and more “managing” in an operational sense. By delegating some of their tasks to committees and staff members, the leadership team expected it would be able to focus on being more strategic and less task-oriented. But the results, so far, had not proved this was occurring. Charles-and-Ray-Eames-documentary-1

In concept, it seemed simple enough – leadership had been completing task list “X” and generating outcome “Y”. So, why, when task list “X” was given to committee members and staff, was outcome “Z” being generated?

The leadership team had left out a critical component in their shift. They had not explained the reasoning or motivations behind task list “X”. They were the original authors of those tasks, so all the components were created by the leadership team and intrinsic to completing those tasks. They were not only known variables, but also fully understood components essential to generating outcome “Y”. The people who defined and understood those tasks were, at that time, the ones executing them. 

When task list “X” was transferred outside of the leadership team, the institutional knowledge, investiture, engagement, and background was not transferred with it. The team did not have the same knowledge, underlying motivations, or access to originating or contributing factors. They knew what they were expected to do, but did not understand why certain pieces were required to generate outcome “Y”. For them, outcome “Z” was no different than outcome “Y” and they were frustrated to hear that the leadership team was not happy with their result.

When I came across Eames' quote, it helped me understand what I felt would benefit the leadership team in realigning their team with the desired outcome. As much as we may try as leaders, there are many instances where we must carry the mission on behalf of our teams - at the very least philosophically - to allow it to permeate to the entire organization and to allow team members to unburden themselves from having to interpret what the mission means in their specific segment, freeing them up to maximize the potential of their role in the organization.

Team members often range from being fully invested to simply desiring to execute the tasks that are given to them. Both extremes and the range in between are all valid, but leaders should never delegate the full weight of mission and vision to their committees or staff members or leave it to them to holistically interpret them for themselves.

You or your leadership team understand the mission of what you are trying to accomplish; in this example, it’s the difference between getting to outcome “Y” or outcome “Z”. To allow your team to be successful, you can never fully offload the responsibility for understanding that to your team members. It isn't fair to you, or to them.

To the extent you are able to do that is by assigning accountability for achieving the desired outcome and helping the team understand how their efforts are supporting the mission and vision. Those two things work in a symbiotic fashion, fully dependent on each other for success.

The recommendation I made to the organization at the time was that the leadership team should always remain stewards of the mission and vision of the organization, and being able to answer the question “why?” They can let their team determine a tactical plan rooted in the strategy set at the leadership level.

The above framework allowed for an environment where outcome “Y” was achieved and the leaders were able to shift toward more strategic management while committees and staff met the expectations set out for them with a high level of engagement and success.

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Irony and Mr. Heisenberg

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.

A German physicist named Werner Heisenberg introduced a principal called the “observer effect” in the early part of the 20th century. The principle states that the act of observation or measurement actually changes what is being observed. An example of this would be if you wanted to determine (observe) if a pie was hot, you might stick your finger into the filling to determine the temperature. This observation changes the pie - it has a hole where you put your finger into it – but you have gathered the data you sought. Bundesarchiv_Bild183-R57262,_Werner_Heisenberg

There are several cycles in organizational development – the entrepreneurial phase, the management phase, the reorganization / recreative phase. Every successful organization goes through these cycles as they become fully integrated.

As you work to strategically manage development through these cycles, it is important to consider the observer effect. Certain organizational development cycles are more suited to different types of individuals – the most effective way to capitalize on the effect is to determine the best way to impact the organization as a function of what phase it is in.

This is where the leadership differentiates itself from management as a construct. In order to move through these cycles effectively and create sustainable growth (not only in size, but in capacity / capability), the C-suite must capitalize on the opportunity to show leadership by hiring or repurposing human resources to maximize the potential of the organization.

Related to the observer effect, there is another construct in quantum mechanics called the uncertainty principle. First published by Heisenberg in 1927, the principle basically states that in a pair of related variables or inequalities, the more information you are able to determine about one of these variables, the less you are able to determine about the other.

This is different than observer effect in key ways, but equally important. As you consider the cycles above, there may be a tendency in the C-suite to focus on specific types of employee profiles. For example, in the management cycle, there may be a tendency to target non-conformists because they may be considered outliers in this phase. The effect of this might be that lower performing conformist employees may be hired to produce more consistent results, while these high performing non-conformists are driven out.

It is difficult to look at both things at once with equal emphasis, but the entire cycle needs to be taken into account. While management might focus on these outliers as problem areas, the uncertainty principle would urge balance between these individuals and those who conform within that phase of the cycle, looking at the entire system in a holistic sense. These non-conformists may actually be the key to significant growth in other phases of organizational development.

In this case, it is actually possible to ruin things by trying to fix them; what you thought you were measuring got thrown off by trying to measure it – short-term corrections vs. long-term sustainability. It’s ironic, but the point is sound – while you are looking at one metric, you might become so focused on it that you may lose track of another. The most common example I have seen regarding this is the shift between wanting the best talent and wanting to produce the best results. Sometimes those things can be extraordinarily difficult to balance.

Transformative leadership can make itself evident in many ways as it relates to management. By calibrating the correct amount of nondestructive “observer effect” and by balancing all facets of the uncertainty principle as they relate to human or other resources in your organization, you can truly build a balanced system with dynamic capabilities. This translates to a culture of transparency, innovation, and respect for the diverse strengths and talents of employees, management, and engagement with your organizational mission, vision, and core values.

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Never stop inventing

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.

Throughout my childhood, the fact that I knew the United States was able to get to space via the space shuttle gave me comfort that we were still leading the world in manned space exploration. When the last shuttle landed in 2011, I felt like a part of what defined us as a country came to a close. I like to think of us as innovators, a nation full of individuals unafraid of risk, who set to work on doing impossible things and always seem to accomplish them.

When commencing organizational strategy or design, I think it is essential to keep this type of thinking in mind. There is a commonly used process for working through the steps in modern organizational frameworking or “design thinking”. This process is outlined below and may be helpful to catalyze the spirit of invention summarized above. The process is taught at the Stanford University Institute of Design, and I have used it as a process with many organizations I have worked with:

Dr._von_Braun's_Sketch_of_the_Space_Station_8883912_original

  1. Empathize. When you are planning, I cannot stress enough the importance of this. In order to achieve any sort of sustainability, you must employ techniques that take into account the stakeholders involved – as many voices as will create positive leverage for what you are trying to accomplish. The time when it was standard practice for the leader of an organization to set the singular vision of the organization with little or no input has passed, in both a generational and a practical sense.
  2. Define. Clarity is key to strategic successes. You must have a well-defined set of problems in order for your team to understand what they are trying to accomplish. Being unclear about your mission or objectives is a sure-fire way to be ineffective in the execution stage.
  3. Ideate. The synthesis of ideas or invention of new mechanisms, processes, or strategies is where solutions start to present themselves. As I have discussed previously, many people have a tendency to be very tactical; this stage is an opportunity to counterpoint this.
  4. Prototype. This is the formative stage of the process. The ideas from step 3 are built into a framework to address the outcomes of step 2. It starts to iterate and aggregate. You are starting to put together different plans, using the best of what you have created so far.
  5. Test. Using the plans put together in stage 4, it is time to bring the work product (so far) back to the users. These key stakeholders then have the opportunity to test, hack, or “break” the work product. Once these tests complete a cycle, you are able to decide what works, what does not, and either continue to prototype or implement the plans on a wider scale.

1280px-Skylab_(SL-4)Why did I start with the space program at the beginning of this blog? Because I see the five steps above as a framework for us to re-establish ourselves as the inventors we once were. Projects such as Skylab, the Shuttle, the Apollo missions - were rooted in our ability as individuals to invent, define, create, test, and achieve.

I have attached a sketch of what was to become Skylab (as well as a photo of the finished product), an example of how design thinking expanded our ability to explore space. The lab was actually built from the pieces of a modified Saturn V rocket, and how that came to be involved a process I imagine to have been very similar to that listed above.

Always remember that the energy within your organization is subject to the approach you take in improving what you do: for yourself, for your clients, and for your employees. The landing of that last shuttle mission may have closed a chapter of our national story, but it is incumbent on each of us to keep this spirit alive in the things we do as part of our organizations each day. Never stop inventing.

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Put your ding in the universe

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.

There are countless blog posts about Steve Jobs. They speak to his work, his personality, his life, the statements he made and the products he created. There is a photo of him in his living room (I’ve included it in this post) where he is sitting on his floor with some tea, a single tiffany lamp, a stereo, and some very large speakers. This photo serves as an important reminder to me – in fact, it’s the wallpaper on my iPhone. I think that his approach to design and how he turned Apple around are critical lessons in strategy.

In the mid-to-late 1990s, Apple was headed for insolvency - too many products, not enough differentiation, poor design, and a mismatch between their target market and their offerings as a company. Then they invited their former CEO back and things changed. Mr. Jobs instilled two simple rules as a basic mission statement for his new regime – do not produce inferior products and only produce very few types of things that are very well executed.

This singularity of purpose and clarity of mission allowed Apple to rally and ultimately turn the company around. It made employees of Apple realize that they were still capable of innovation, still capable to creating “insanely” great products that were met with great enthusiasm upon their introduction. It also started the upward trajectory of Apple becoming the most valuable company in the world - with the most consistently sought-after products in recent memory.

Jobs-final

So, why do I keep that photo on my iPhone? Because it reminds me that trying to do too much, or do too many things without being able to do them well, is often worse than not doing them at all. That lacking a singular clarity of purpose can have disastrous results.

When I work with organizations, groups tend to error toward generating a large amount of tactical items. No surprise here – that is consistent with the need for us to want to work something to completion – to “finish” something. But the photo reminds me that putting my pen down and thinking through why I am doing something – developing a strategy or considering other aspects of what I am working on rather than just the end result – is as important as completing a task. Why am I doing this? Am I doing too many things? Is there redundancy? Is there excess? Has quality suffered at the hand of quantity?

But why does the photo make me think in those terms? I look at the lack of frills in the photo and contrast it with how a similar space in my house looks. Is what I have better, or is it just more? A very well crafted lamp. Something to sit on. A very decent stereo. Space to think. I look at the things in the photograph and it is clear that an active decision was made specific to each piece; he seems to have made sure they are the highest quality, and that each serves a singular purpose. No redundancy. No excess.

One of my favorite lines is something Steve Jobs said about putting a “ding in the universe." I think it’s something we all should aspire to do. When putting a strategy together for you or for your organization, I think the lessons I learned from looking at that old photo are applicable at any scale:

  1. Formulate a clear mission and stick to it.
  2. Do a few things well instead of many things adequately.
  3. Do not produce inferior work product.
  4. Never stop innovating; stay hungry, stay foolish. (Jobs borrowed this line from the Whole Earth Catalog.)
  5. Do not waste your time on something that is no longer relevant, useful, or applicable.

I think by following these simple guidelines, we can move from the mundane to the aspirational and transformative, find new engagement and passion in our work, and grow our efforts in ways no one may be expecting.

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 Contact: joe@ingenuitycompany.com

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Halt and catch fire

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.

Halt and Catch Fire (HCF) is a command given to a computer to cause the processor to have an unrecoverable error and require a full restart. I do a fair amount of research into the concepts behind technology and software development and its corresponding history and genealogy. It is interesting to me for a number of reasons, not the least of which is how it runs parallel to emerging concepts in strategy and organizational design thinking.

Gmail, one of Google’s flagship products, was developed during something called 20 percent time. This is the use of 20 percent of employees' time at work to develop projects based on individual interests or strengths that are related to core business practices in some fashion. Although this is a concept often attributed to Google, it started and was utilized much earlier, at places like HP, Lockheed, 3M, and Westinghouse.

1cf41fdd512dfe87638af3156cb9ed0aWestinghouse, which is now known mostly for kitchen appliances, did a substantial amount of work for the space program in the 1960s. Westinghouse gave engineers dedicated project work, but also allowed 10-15 percent of their time as “free inventing” time. A product of this “free inventing” time was the magnetic space boot, developed by an engineer who was not working on the space program equipment in any way but had an interest and found personal satisfaction in solving this specific problem -- developing a boot that worked better than the existing versions at that time.

I like to think there are two types of interaction with strategic processes as they relate to specific outcomes. There is hedonic strategy, or strategy that deals in the idealistic or visionary strategies that result in dynamic and large scale, transformative outcomes. Then there is utilitarian strategy, which deals in more structured and smaller scale change. I find a mix of these two results in the best, most balanced outcomes – a mix of the aspirational and the Spartan.

The two concepts introduced above are intrinsically linked in my mind, and are mutualistic. When people within organizations find satisfaction in what they are doing, they become more invested in it. Often that means providing a framework for innovation, inventiveness, and flexibility. The space boot was a by-product of the fulfillment of a hedonic work dimension created by “free inventing” time. Gmail was also. So were Post-It notes. The Sony PlayStation. Even the now ubiquitous “Like” button was created in this type of “free invention” time.

Oddly, HCF is not a real instruction – and the “catch fire” was a reference to the cessation of the computer’s ability to function, for emphasis. Though the actual percentage may vary, if you remove artificial HCF barriers by creating the ability for individuals to create projects, processes, and tactical artifacts for your company that illustrate its unique abilities and talents, something new and unexpected will likely emerge (and the time could potentially pay for itself and more, beyond the dividends in employee satisfaction).

By creating an environment to achieve satisfaction in a strategic sense, you will likely have more fulfilled employees, balanced levels of engagement, and growth in more sustainable ways. And you may even find yourself in a position to offer new goods or services that you would not have previously imagined.

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The value in values

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.

In business school, we learn a lot about creating value for customers. You would think that would be enough – create a killer product and customers will come. If that is so -- and so many of us work so hard to create great and innovative products -- why do more than 50 percent of businesses fail in a year or less? Are those business owners misguided about their own product? Do they not understand their customer base or market segment?

My theory is that those questions are not at the root of the problem. They may be symptoms and in some cases cause the failure of the enterprise, but I think it’s something more intrinsic to the foundation of what makes a company successful.

When I talk about values, I think about the values of the companies I work for and how important those are to me. I think about the ways they are perceived outside of the company. I think about how employees, reports, and colleagues engage with those values.

When we started the Ingenuity Company, my partner and I spent (and still spend) a lot of time talking about the type of company we want to be. We discuss things that have happened to us, both positive and negative, and how we wish to replicate or avoid those practices as our company grows. We feel that this time is important; it allows us to think about the sustainability of our company in the long term, which is rooted in the value system we use to collaborate with new and existing clients.

For example, when we talk about offering services that are meant as transformational, we look inward first. What can we offer our clients that are built on our skills, knowledge, and abilities? Why would they want to work with us? How do we self-actualize in a way that allows us to adapt, be flexible, and provide the best possible service? Since our company is built on these types of values, we feel we are able to add value and build lasting and productive working relationships with our clients.

More broadly, I feel that any company that wishes to succeed can do so more fully by defining its own distinct set of values. I have worked with organizations that do not spend time developing their values structure, or feel that this type of exercise is not a worthwhile effort. These organizations tend to lose their way when adversity strikes, as they do not have those core principals to support them. This may seem daunting, but I think some simple questions can start this conversation and grow from there:

        What do we stand for as a company?

        What is something we will never do as a company?

        What is success defined as?

        What are we really good at?

        What makes us better than our competition?

        Who can we collaborate with - that will make both of our organizations better?

Knowing who you are as an organization and what things are at your unshakable core creates a business ecosystem that allows there to be belief as well as profitability. This belief, by you in what you stand for, and by your clients in their trust in you, will make your company what it is. This trust is the foundation for innovating in more robust and purposeful ways.

When I think about those 50 percent of businesses that fail, I always wonder if they took the time to ask themselves questions about who they were or how they were going to stay where they were once they got there. It’s easy to lose your way when you don’t take time to fully understand where you are going or why.

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Give and take

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.

I have always taken special notice of how different managers communicate with their reports. Managers run the gamut of styles, from command and control to leaving their team with complete freedom. How you choose to engage your reports will always have an enormous impact on how they respond and function in their roles.

When my team and I identify tasks for us to complete as part of a work plan, there are several strategic considerations to bear in mind – these early decisions can make or break the dynamics of the workflow and have a direct impact and bearing on the success rate of collaboration-based work.

The following is a brief compilation of considerations that may lead to greater team optimization and more open and transparent teamwork:

  1. Have a preliminary team meeting introducing the project and intended outcomes. Ask team members what they would like to work on to contribute to the success of the project, soliciting input from them, but not deciding at that time what tasks they will undertake. Also ask them what part they feel they would least like to work on.
  2. Following the meeting, develop a matrix of tasks to be performed by team members on one axis and team members of the other, and assign two tasks to each team members; one that they felt they would most enjoy and another they felt was less desirable. This is the first step in establishing a strong team communication dynamic – I will explain. Let’s call task “a” the desirable task and task “b” is the less desirable task.
  3. Schedule a follow-up meeting where you establish the hard metrics for the project, present the project schedule, and talk about roles. When you present roles to team members, a suggested approach is as follows:

             “David, I would like you to complete task ‘a’ and task ‘b’.”

Repeat for each team member, while presenting an overall picture of your work plan, using the matrix as your guide on how to move forward successfully, how tasks are distributed and how they are interdependent, and what each team member will be working on.

The strategy in this approach is multi-faceted. First, you have asked each team member what they would like to work on and what area they may need to improve. This allows the team member to focus on something they enjoy, while also focusing on development in an area that may need work.

When people are asked to work on things they wouldn’t necessarily choose or may need improvement in, they tend to communicate more – by asking questions, by seeking out teammates, or by calling consultants to help them work to solve the task at hand. Pairing tasks like this also allows team members to switch to something they really enjoy when/if their frustration level rises.

There is another layer of this strategy though – the way it is presented. When you ask someone “would you like to”, it is a “taking” question – meaning that you are leaving it to the report to determine if they are qualified to complete the task or in a position to self select; it abdicates responsibility on the management side, which actually can “take” the feeling of empowerment or confidence from the employee or report. It may feel like “giving” to the manager, but what it may transmit is that the manager is not truly invested in the project or the employee’s growth.

In step 1 above, the manager is asking what they would like to work on, but, in step 3, he or she is changing the dynamic to “giving” – meaning that by indicating that the manager is confident in the employee’s ability to complete the task. They are "giving" empowerment and building confidence by reframing to send the message: “I know you are capable of completing these tasks”. Often, the direct report is looking for direction so they can be effective - it is the manager's job to provide that direction.

Subtle changes can alter the course of a project. Sometimes these small changes can alter the dynamics of ownership, individual and team development, communication, and empowerment within teams and build the confidence, qualifications, and collaborative abilities of team members. 

Why being disruptive is a good thing

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 theory of disruptive innovation has been around since around 1995; coined by a Harvard Business Review article by Clayton Christensen, a Harvard Business School professor. The theory states that “firms that introduce rudimentary products can eventually overrun the established players by systematically improving the products until they meet the needs of mainstream customers.” (HBR, May 2015)

When I work with organizations, I notice there is dichotomy that seems to emerge more often than not. There is a general acknowledgement that a change in strategy is needed. But the next step is where is gets complicated; once the types of changes indicated are moved from strategies toward implementation, there is a pull to move back toward old systems, usually those already in place.

That makes sense from a human perspective; change is hard, and perhaps the existing way isn’t so bad. But look at the metrics – if growth or innovation has stopped, the time has come to do something new.

The word “disruptive” itself has a visceral impact. And please understand - only in very specific and rare instances would I advocate for an extreme shift in organizational strategy. If you look at Christensen’s definition, it is clear that the disruption he is referring to is incremental and iterative.

In most cases, new systems should build on old ones - most organizations don’t generally change what they are doing or how they do it wholesale. Working within existing frameworks and making the right changes will lead to a positive disruption, culminating in a shift in the product or service that the organization offers. This, in turn, provides a competitive advantage or market offering that has done the following:

  • Illustrated the obsolesence of the existing internal system or external offering
  • Reshaped or “disrupted” the marketplace (this can be internal or external) to respond the new product, process or service as the accepted standard bearer
  • Demonstrated to the customer base (or to internal employees) that the company is committed to innovation and/or providing relevant services or products

Understanding that the above outcomes lead to a greater chance of long-term success and growth, leadership can start to build confidence around small shifts from existing processes or strategies.

I have witnessed, on many occasions, the resistance to disruptive strategy first-hand. It , often manifests itself as skepticism, with questions like “How do you know this will work?” The short answer is that you don’t. That’s why phrases like “We will wait and see what happens” start to be introduced into the lexicon of the conversation about strategy. This is the pull-back talking; the aversion to risk rearing up and urging everyone to make the safe play.

There may be no way of knowing for sure that something will work, but success can be inherently embedded into the idea of adapting disruptive innovation into a strategy framework. Successfully addressing risk aversion starts by identifying small things to change, in small, manageable groups or segments. Then test these changes. If they seem to work, try the next set. Test those. Start to introduce and recognize interdependencies in the changes and build on those successes.

Successful strategic planning is evidenced by the positive change it creates, including overcoming adversity that you may find in trying to implement it. But being disruptive, a little at a time, constructs a sound and reasonable strategy, with clear objectives, built on data, that will allow your organization to outpace your competition.

I'll take door No. 2

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 “Monty Hall” problem has always fascinated me. It’s a probability puzzle based on "Let’s Make a Deal", a game show from the golden age of game shows. Basically it involves the following:

Suppose you're on a game show, and you're given the choice of three doors: Behind one door is a car; behind the others, goats. You pick a door, say No. 1, and the host, who knows what's behind the doors, opens another door, say No. 3, which has a goat. He then says to you, "Do you want to pick door No. 2?" Is it to your advantage to switch your choice? (Parade Magazine, vos Savant, 1990)

The answer is yes. I’ll leave it to you to research why this is the case, but for the purposes of talking about strategy, I want to focus on one aspect of the solution to this problem – the assumption that most people make seems reasonable (not to switch), but it proves out as incorrect. The expectation of a certain result generated by the assumption you have made (not to switch) is flawed, therefore you arrive at the wrong answer.

When working within strategy frameworks, this is a common problem. Assumptions are always made, leading to expectations based on those assumptions. What “feels right”. The flaw in this is that these assumptions are often not based on preset user group expectations, namely, alignment with mission or set strategic objectives in a leveraged way. Assumptions in this setting also tend not to rely on substantiating data. That leads to additional problems – assumptions always need to be tested.

The expectation of getting a car in the example above is rooted in the assumption that staying with the same door is the success tactic. In this case the expectation is correct, but the lack of data or rigor in analyzing the assumption leads to failure.

Clearly define your expectations. Then work with the stakeholders to develop the assumptions based on a set rigor and minimum defined definition of what a legitimate contributing presumption would be to lead to overall success. Again, it is never wise to “go with your gut” unless there is data that can be used to substantiate that feeling.

John Henry is the legend of a steel driver who challenged a mechanical steel drill to a race to the finish. It’s generally accepted as the origin of the modern "man vs. machine" debate. The expectation in this case was that the machine would readily beat John in the race. This was based on the assumption that the drill was clearly superior; there was no way a man could beat a machine in this contest. But, again, this did not prove out. That John Henry had some quality that the machine did not was not taken into consideration when the expectation was set. The expectation was set incorrectly, because the assumptions leading up to the expected outcome proved to be incorrect.

In defining the expectations or intended outcomes for your organization, work with the key stakeholders in advance to filter and refine assumptions before you start the planning process. It helps to eliminate biases and creates an ecosystem conducive to the production of successful structural assumptions as a baseline to build a framework from. This is another pillar of defining strategy, goals, and engagement around meaningful tactical steps to fulfill the mission and vision of your organization.

It is important to bear in mind and to take into consideration – sometimes there are internal factors, like in the case of John Henry, that will overcome seemingly overwhelming opposition – and – sometimes something as simple as switching the choice of a door can increase your chances of success significantly.

Organizational strategy : The Un-Markets

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.

Though I am generally fine with abstractions, there is one that consistently gets called into question when I hear it. The “markets”. I understand that there is no other way to quantify the meaning of this word (as it is used) in a better way. The barrier for me is that it is spoken about the same way you might talk about “the force” from Star Wars, which has likely led to some of the problems we have had throughout the financial crisis and still exists in many forms of modern economics today.

Economics and strategy are almost interchangeable in certain contexts and segmentations of their definitions. They both attempt to quantify organizational data, identify trends, and synthesize potential outcomes in meaningful ways. But there is a key difference and the extent of that difference is where I find things difficult to reconcile.

The markets are not a nebulous force; they are the product of direct and immediate human interaction. Decisions. Markets are actually a loose form of what strategists call groupthink, where the search for a common equilibrium point nullifies rational discourse by minimizing critical thinking to avoid conflict and insulates criteria around a set of discrete factors, free from external circumstances or stimuli. This represents a dangerous decoupling of accountability from decision making and critical analysis.

Groupthink is something I desperately try to keep groups from falling into when I facilitate planning sessions. Critical disagreement generally leads to more dynamic, robust outcomes. It also builds a high degree of ownership and engagement from the full group, as no opinions or viewpoints have been unnecessarily suppressed and a true equilibrium point has been identified.

Some economists have a habit of (and will freely admit to) creating a thought ecosystem that divorces itself from many factors that could improve the way we look at “markets” in the same way we look at organizations. They have to – the complexity of the market ecosystem demands it. But maybe we can build an analogy based on looking at an organization the way an economist might.

Let’s redefine the idea of an organization for a moment as a “market”. Successful “markets” would be ones that had a clear operational structure, mechanisms for addressing adverse circumstances or conflict, and ways of including the “right” information in a proactive rather than reactive way. In theory, it should take more than one person making a statement on TV to sway the success or failure of that “market”, meaning no one person should be able to bias the equilibrium point of a decision to that degree that it is altered substantially. No market crashes based on adverse selection, bad information, or panic sell-offs.

For me, a successful organization is represented by characteristics such as a willingness to take into consideration the maximum amount of relevant external factors, the use of true critical and non-biased analytics, inclusion of empathy toward the non-tangible, and providing a forum for all stakeholders to include their contribution in a collaborative way.

Please don’t think I have anything against economists. I really don’t. I happen to really like reading about the work of economists and enjoy their take on the way our world operates. But when it comes to strategy, it is important to remember that there are different ways agreement (equilibrium) is reached in an organization.

Based on the above, you could almost make the argument that the antecedent of strategy is how our economy works. That isn’t really true; but it is important to take into account the volatility of our financial system and how decisions play a part in market conditions; there are lessons to be learned there on how we operate our own businesses successfully and how functional systems interact based on the decisions we make. So, tracking back to abstractions again – the force may be strong with your organization, but remember – even in Star Wars it took a strategic plan to defeat the dark side.

Disagreeing Isn’t always the smarter thing to do

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.

I was reading an article in an online publication recently centered on the “death of strategy”. I tried to stay as objective as possible, as my natural tendency is to reject the premise and move onto something else. What kept me engaged this time was a trend I see more and more in articles, in meetings, and online – disagreement as a mechanism to convey “smarts” about a specific subject.

My reaction is probably rooted in the flash-fad, click-bait ecosystem that we are trending toward at the moment. Click-bait, for those who don’t know, are those links with strange photos that demand attention at the bottom of many of the news sites we all visit…”Bad news for so and so…” or “Grocery stores fear him…” or the ever-present “iPhone Killer!” Our growing desensitization has caused an escalation in what it takes to maintain someone’s attention about a new product, subject, or bit of information, and so, from this, click-baiting was born.

Let’s go back to the “iPhone Killer!” click-bait for a moment. We are so intent on destroying the previous thing, or negating an old concept or offering as the only way to stress the benefit of the new concept or offering, that we have forgotten how to evolve an old concept or idea into a new one, or at least keep the parts that work well so we can build on them for the next generation. You don’t need to kill the iPhone to make the next phone or establish the next phone is better - even if it is better. There is room in the marketplace for multiple devices, all tailored to specific consumer preferences.

When I read that strategy was dead, I really wanted to know why that person felt that way. As I was reading, I found the author spent more time trying to disentangle them from what I would consider best practices in the strategy world than they did explaining what the next generation of strategic planning is. Making an argument should be for something, not simply pointing to something else and saying that it is wrong.

When you are working with a group, and that group has an established mission, vision, and series of objectives, being critical is essential to success. Being critical is structurally different than disagreeing in a few key ways:

  1. Being critical is constructive; feedback is meant to generate a positive outcome based on prior work.
  2. Being critical is assembling; that is it a rigorous and structured analysis of what is currently in place.
  3. Being critical is not emotional; it is rooted in objective, evidence-based reactions to data.
  4. Being critical should appeal to the analytical nature of re-design or implementation; not a knee-jerk headline or something designed to create a false sense of urgency.
  5. Being critical is based on a reason or reasons, with development beyond a visceral reaction to a concept.

Strategic planning is not dead and I saw no reason in the article to make me think that it was. I do believe that it is evolving based on the changing needs of those who choose to engage it as their process in finding greater organizational success. There is no “strategic planning killer!” on the horizon. Planning for an organization is not ever meant to be sensational – it is meant as an iterative process that aggregates and creates a solid framework for evolution, innovation, growth, and is able to adapt and react to the stresses of change. Disagreeing with something just for the sake of disagreeing doesn’t make your argument more valid; sometimes it only uncovers how little you understand about what it truly is.

Lessons from MTV

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 my favorite music videos as a kid was Dire Strait’s “Money for Nothing”. Although I didn’t know it at the time, the lyrics of the song at the time were controversial, and Mark Knopfler actually modeled them on something he overheard at a hardware store.

The song is written from the perspective of someone who feels that they are at a position of disadvantage in some way and feels the person in the video he is watching hasn’t really worked for what they have. At the time, I really didn’t pay much attention to the socioeconomic ramifications of the lyrics, but when I saw the video pop up on YouTube recently when I was hunting for something else, something struck me.

The idea of adverse selection is nothing new. When working in the business ecosystem there will always be information asymmetry.

This is when one party has more information than the other and that party takes advantage of those who do not have the same information in some way to their detriment.

Even if this action is unintentional, the perceived after-effect is the same. The person who does not have the information ultimately finds out (too late to do anything about it) and trust is diminished.

In the case of the video, the protagonist feels that the members of the band have not necessarily worked for what they have and that his job installing “microwave ovens” is much harder. I would argue that is not necessarily the case.

Yes, there are instances where someone has ascended to a position without working as hard as someone else, but, most of the time, individuals all generally work pretty hard to get where they are. So, what does this have to do with organizational strategy? Perspective.

The gentleman in the song says he “should have learned to play the guitar.” That’s a difficult thing to do. It’s hard work. So is delivering custom kitchens and color TVs.

In an organization, it is critical to respect the roles and responsibilities of every person in the workforce and how much effort can go into seemingly simple tasks. Acknowledgment of the holistic team structure allows for better collaborative efforts, increased transparency and communication, and respect for team members at all levels.

Asymmetry of information leads to another critical problem – moral hazard. If someone on a team is willing to take a risk because they feel another team member will have to shoulder the burden of the after-effects, moral hazard has occurred. When your organization talks about how they communicate within (and with clients) this is of critical importance.

Establishing credibility by being honest and transparent about internal processes focuses energy on making the team better as a whole, which allows employees to believe in the organization they work for. In turn this creates a culture of trust and empowerment, rather than one that separates the “haves” and the “have-nots”.

If someone in your organization thinks that someone else is getting their “money for nothing,” it might be time to consider how your organization can be more transparent.

These can be simple changes – something such as inviting different sectors of the company to learn more about each other through training or working collaboratively on internal projects that combine the strengths of their skills in some way.

It might go a long way to not only improve morale, but it may start to eliminate some of the barriers between two groups within your organization that each work very hard doing very different things.

You, Inc.

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.

I had lunch with a good friend of mine last week. He and I spend a lot of time talking about how the workplace is evolving and different strategies for how to respond to these evolutions.

The catalyst of this particular conversation was that my friend wanted to know when an appropriate time to pick up his dry cleaning would be – it had been at the cleaners for weeks and he just hadn’t found time.

This led us to a very interesting conversation about strategy, and how the way we all interface with our daily lives might be more closely aligned with running a successful business than the traditional view of what the idyllic view of day-to-day life truly is.

As our society has evolved, we have developed a tendency to move away from the 8-to-5 employment model in favor of a more flexible schedule centered around what is conducive to effectively completing work, but in different timeframes. Employers are becoming more and more flexible, realizing that productivity and job accountability actually goes up when employees feel like they have more control over when the hours they work occur.

But my friend and I were not simply talking about flex time at work. What we were really talking about is how he and I both look at our schedules and tasks for the week as if it were a business.

For me, scheduling tasks on Sunday is critical. I set and check personal and work appointments for the week, making sure that I am able to balance everything. Scheduling time for family is a critical piece of this – if you are a “workaholic” you know exactly what I am talking about. Paying bills, reading, catching up on email. Everything gets a look – it has to in order for there to be enough time to get to everything effectively and do it as well as possible. If I simply “wing it”, everything is generally a mess by late Tuesday morning.

The business of “You, Inc.” is open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. The strategy on how to make You, Inc. a successful business relies heavily on balance, setting goals, and being disciplined about executing what you set out to do on a day-to-day, week-to-week basis. This will aggregate into systematic and sustainable success.

Let’s get back to my friends dry cleaning conundrum. I think the answer is that “it depends.”

Each person should take time to define what is appropriate for their own case and what will allow them to be effective with their jobs and their daily lives. What I have found is that many “alpha”-type people have a tendency to put off things like picking up dry cleaning, getting haircuts, and getting their cars in for service because they “can’t find time” to do these things.

But think about it this way – if these things were part of your job, would you find time to do them? Of course you would.

Running a successful business has a lot to do with using holistic strategies. For me and for my friend, this means that sometimes we have to get our dry cleaning at 3 p.m. on a Wednesday, because we happened to be in that part of town and it would be hard to get it otherwise.

Sometimes it means we have to finish a proposal at 4:30 a.m. on a Sunday because that’s when we feel most productive. It’s prioritizing personal tasks along with professional ones that lead to better overall success.

The business of You, Inc. is ongoing and always in development. By thinking about things holistically, you can ultimately improve the ability to be successful in all that you do by incorporating a little bit of strategy.

Finding value in the value proposition

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 challenging aspects of becoming successful as an organization is effectively transmitting your value proposition to your target audience. Many organizations expect that consumers will just “get” that what they are selling is valuable. I mean, you think it’s valuable, so how could anyone feel differently?

There are just too many factors in the modern world that makes this simple and pure view of the expected realization of value unrealistic. First, the way products and services are recommended is not the same as it was 30 years ago. The glory days of “Where’s the Beef?” and “Don’t Squeeze the Charmin” are long gone. Modern consumers base their decisions on peer recommendation, due in no small part to the advent of blogs and social media. We are all citizens of the world now, and our decision making process has evolved to reflect that.

I’m going to take apart the basic structure of the value proposition to help define the way each part works together to build a statement or series of statements that provides for a sustainable competitive advantage.

The first question to be answered is “For?” Who is your audience? Do you fully understand the marketplace? What are the barriers to entry? Rigor should be invoked here – you need to make sure you have provided as much alignment as possible between what the market is open to consuming and what you are providing.

Once you have that defined, it’s time to ask the next question – “Who Seek…” What problem are you trying to solve? You have to be able to define what issue you are trying to address. If you’ve defined your audience well, this step should narrow your focus even further. Products or services that are too broad or seek to please everyone, except in rare instances, lack the traction to build marketshare.

This is where the pivot in the process occurs. What are you providing? You’ve defined whom. You’ve defined what. Now it’s your turn to offer the solution. A strong, clear statement indicating what you are trying to address makes the peer-to-peer viral spread of information more viable. Being vague only sends the message that you do not clearly understand what you are trying to accomplish or what the solution you are trying to provide.

But what if someone else has something similar? Using a statement that starts “Unlike Competitors…” signals that you have something new or different. A new solution. A different solution. This is where you really start to illustrate the value of your offering. It also acknowledges that you are aware of the characteristics of existing offerings, which only adds credibility to your statement of value.

The last part of the value proposition is where you affirm that what you are claiming is true by offering substantiating information. Our society is skeptical, and offering an answer to the question “You can believe us because…” is critical to establishing the final part of your argument. In peer-to-peer interactions, this is sometimes the most critical part of the value proposition to be conveyed. Establishing trust with your intended audience gives them the added confidence that you stand behind your value proposition.

If consumers were able to see the immediate value in our offerings, we would have no need to advertise them. Establishing a clear value proposition builds a robust conduit to not only purposefully transmit the value of what we are providing to the consumer, but creates a better understanding of the value of what we are selling as a producer.

Optimism and Organizations: More than hugs and high fives

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.

A phrase that is relatively new to me is “hugs and high fives.” It was used in the context of someone speaking about how they perceive strategic goal setting within their company. While it’s easy to discount the importance of the softer elements of strategy and the human side of an organization, empathy and providing a support system for employees is a critical element to building a successful, holistic organization.

There are a number of things directly impacted by employee morale, and they have been well documented. What I would like to talk a little about is optimism and how the cycle of accomplishing the tactical actions of your organization are intrinsic to one another.

When I work with different groups, there is a natural tendency to jump to the tactical. Strategy is esoteric and ethereal from a certain perspective – results are what business demands! But to think about how your organization moves to a tactical level to the extent that it is an antiseptic process misses a key part of what strategy is all about. This moves beyond stretch goals – now we are truly talking about how the planning ecosystem functions.

When you set goals, they should be optimistic. They should be realistic, but they should be aspirational. These goals are used to identify objectives and the tactics or means to satisfy these objectives. This process acts as a mechanism for filtering and rigorously “stress testing” your goals. By taking goals and defining objectives from these goals, you are defining a pathway toward successful tactical implementation.

The tactical action plan you define for your objectives will be defined by how dynamic your goals are. This is fundamentally why optimism at this level is important. Let’s track through an example to help illustrate my point:

Goal 1: Increase productivity to 105%.

The above does not reflect optimism - it simply states what you want to do. It may not provide a motivation for employees to work toward the goal. In fact, it may actually make employees feel that the only important factor is the bottom line. This is what I mean by antiseptic. There is no animus embedded. It’s simply what the company wants to do. Good enough? I think we can do better.

Restated Goal 1: Provide an employee incentive program tied to reaching a productivity level 5-10% beyond prior year’s performance.

The above reemphasizes the employee as the beneficiary of the increase in productivity. It also allows a larger range for growth (10% rather than 5%), as the growth is tied to the incentive in a graduated way. Both goals lead to the same objective, an increase in productivity, but have very different starting points. And, from this objective, the different goals will lead to different tactical action plans. These plans can then be referenced back against the original goal and tested for sustainability and effectiveness. It is meant to be an iterative cycle that continually improves itself.

Being empathetic to employees and setting goals with them in mind moves strategy and goals from “hugs and high fives” to true holistic ownership of the organization’s mission. This in turn leads to goals and tactics that cycle into continual institutional investment in greater employee retention, higher engagement in projects and outcomes, and increased productivity.

Stretch goals and New Year's resolutions

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.

Every year I fall victim to the same overexuberance that accompanies resolution-setting for the New Year. A list of goals is developed and implementation ensues. Generally speaking, most of the goals are met and a few are deferred, revised, or abandoned. Progress is made. The part I struggle with most is making sure I am setting the right goals, for a number of reasons.

But how can a goal be wrong? To contrast what would obviously be an example of a bad goal (something akin to setting a goal of increasing pollution in the ocean), let’s define what would constitute considered or well-formed goals.

There are generally two types of goals: 1) a standard goal, which is defined as a goal that is able to be reached with a standard amount of effort or resource allocation, 2) a stretch goal, which is a goal that is considered very difficult given current circumstances and will require additional effort or resources to successfully achieve.

The benefit of setting standard goals is that they are clearly achievable. It is mostly a matter of putting in the time and effort to reach the goal set forth, using some form of tactical solution (see the post I did on the Snickers bar). But standard goals are not always the best goals to populate your resolutions list with, because you may not be pushing yourself to the level of success you could.

Quick wins are gratifying, but they do not build long-term engagement. After a few cycles of goals that are easily met, high performing individuals will move their baseline performance expectations up, which may lead to boredom and an atrophy of motivation if more difficult tasks are not put in place. This is where stretch goals come in to play.

By setting goals that are more difficult or even seem impossible at first, the stakes are much higher. These goals are tough, but much more satisfying in the long term. As demands increase, the expectation for performance increases, and so does the reward for accomplishing them.

Stretch goals stimulate innovation in a way that other goals may not. To accomplish a task, new processes or effort structures develop and individuals think differently about how they allocate their personal resources to maximize their impact.

When working through a project that involves stretch goals, there are a few things to remember about the process itself that makes reaching these goals different than standard goals:

  1. Higher expectations may create fear of criticism or failure in individuals or in yourself. You must eliminate this fear. Failure is expected in some form when seeking to reach a higher level of output. Welcome failures as an opportunity to improve and learn and move forward more intelligently. They truly are learning experiences.
  2. Make sure that you provide support for yourself (or your team) and give yourself time to work through mental barriers that may arise. Stretch goals are hard – hard enough sometimes to make us want to disengage or quit – but giving yourself permission to ask for help or work through an adversarial stance or mentality will ultimately improve your ability to execute the task.

As 2015 gains traction, I would encourage you (or your organization) to set a mix of different types of goals to make 2015 the most productive and innovative year you can. Overexuberance is OK as long as you find the appropriate outlet for it; setting the right goals will allow you to channel this energy in a meaningful, purposeful, and productive way.

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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