Strategy as Problem Solving: An Example from a Large Technology Organization.

By Craig London, Guest Contributor

I am a technology project manager for a major financial-services company (MajFin). I’d like to share how I took the concept of “strategy as problem solving” and applied it to my own organization’s strategic problems.

As I endeavored to take a strategic perspective, I found my question keying on this challenge: how do we create a strategy that both identifies the critical problems to be solved and creates a strategic journey to solving them? I came to see this in the following terms:


Critical Problems to be Solved

In MajFin, we have a large group that we call the Operate Team. It is dedicated to supporting the production environment, the large and complex computer systems that run the day-to-day business. The Operate team tends to be dissatisfied with the work they deliver. Too, many people perceived that customer satisfaction was also low.

I thought about how to define the situation. There were many symptoms and three of them seemed very important. They were (in priority order):

  • Unappreciated. The Operate Team members often worked very long, and sometimes irregular, hours in resolving critical system issues. Team members often feel that their contribution isn’t valued.
  • Reactive. Much, if not most, of the work performed by the Operate Team is in reaction to some problem or event. While everyone is glad to see the problem fixed, there is often discussion as to why the group can’t anticipate more problems.
  • Opaque. Due to the nature of that work, the amount of work performed by the Operate Team can be very difficult to measure. The Operate Team’s work is largely unseen by most in the broader organization.

These symptoms were important to us and worthy of problem solving effort. I felt they are not just the result of some inaccurate perception or lack of understanding about the work being performed by the Operate team. Perceptions could be changed through better communications between the Operate Team and the broader organization; key problems needed solutions and this meant that there needed to be a strategy.

Defining the Strategy Pillars and the Strategy Implementation

The critical problems led directly to defining the strategy pillars:


Based on the problems identified, the translation from “problems” to “strategies” became clear. Unappreciated is transformed into value added, reactive to proactive, opaque to transparent. I had been told that strategy was a specialized kind of problem solving. This personal realization made it relevant.

As I looked at how I had initially ordered the problem, I saw I was focusing on the most salient part of the story (the customer did not appreciate the efforts of the Operate Team). What I had done was focus on the most painful symptom, the Operate Team was unappreciated. Naturally, I saw the highest strategic priority being “value added.” But, as I looked deeper, I saw that there was a “strategy story” that with the flow of elements as shown in this graphic.

I began to grasp the issue: our opaqueness (the work being performed is both unseen and poorly understood) was creating a reactive organizational response and behavior. This, in turn, creates the overall feeling of being unappreciated. This was my first cut. I needed to think about things not in terms of their emotional impact on me and the Operate Team, but rather in terms of X causes Y.

Once I drew the graphics, the approach seemed obvious. Keep in mind that my situation at MajFin is like many other complex operating environments: there are many moving parts and everyone is busy focusing on all those moving parts. It is hard to find a good perspective, and hard to focus.


The key lesson: Understand the linkages between visible symptoms and root causes. While I want to move to “value added” as quickly as possible, it became clear that I need to focus on the leading indicators. My most important strategic objective, Value Added, cannot be achieved without obtaining the benefits from the other two predecessor goals.

As we charter this as an initiative, it has become clear that we need to identify basic incremental metrics starting with the Transparency Pillar. We will deliver those benefits incrementally. As we demonstrate progress, we expect more support that will lead to the Operate Team’s “value add.”

Do you work in a complex environment? How do you gain a strategic perspective?

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Five Mental Anchors that Impede Your Strategic Initiative

anchor LSIMental anchors are reference points that people use in decision making. As an example, people tend to be loss avoiders when making decisions because they are anchoring to the things they already have.

Anchoring to the past or present allows the status quo to perpetuate. Strategic initiatives, by definition, are programs that intend to be transformative. Consider then, the challenge of cultural change is this:  how do we change the reference points? How might we loosen up the anchors to the present and strengthen the anchors of the future?

Here are strategic initiative leadership five actions you can take:

Identify those beliefs that have become distorted. Here is an example: IBM’s Lew Gerstner faced a challenge with a corporate value called “respect for the individual.” When originally formulated by IBM’s founder (Thomas Watson), the idea of respect for the individual was simply that: show respect to others, and expect it in return. Over time this worthy idea devolved to create a culture of entitlement, with no accountability. Your organization likely has distorted beliefs that take away the focus on strategic imperatives. What are they?

Be sensitive to habits and routines. Every established organization has them. Sometimes they are quite useful, but in too-many cases, they are inertia that blocks progress.

Frame decisions as “carriers of future value.” Decisions are made in the present, but affect the future. Stated differently, a decision to perpetuate the status quo has a different value than a decision to invest. Since all resources become obsolete, a decision to carry on with the status quo may actually have negative value.

Be open minded. Imagine the decisions, thoughts, and feelings of others. In particular, I find it helpful to imagine a “next generation” in the organization, and how they would view the significance of my strategic initiative.

Be careful about announcing anchors for schedule and benefits. People want dates, budgets, and results. Whatever they first hear will become an anchor and set an expectation. Obviously, think it through and consider the presence of risks in the program. Too, be wary of accepting due dates and expectations; analyze their feasibility and if you don’t agree, make it part of your issues management approach.

What are some other anchors?

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Five Must-Know Patterns of Disruption

Disruptive patternStrategic initiatives are tools for achieving industry leadership positions, or for defending leadership positions. Strategic initiatives are game-changing programs. In this article, I explore some concepts that will challenge your assumptions, and make you a better strategic thinker.

1. You’re either an incumbent or a disruptor

Over history, very few institutions have held together. Those that have sustained have had to adapt: churches, governments, militaries, etc. Technological change and social change and environmental change are just a few of the causes of this disruption. Given that, I offer these propositions:

  • A mature organization is usually an incumbent, and is vulnerable to disruption.
  • Any organization has the potential to disrupt other organizations.

2. Incumbents are disrupted when their attention is elsewhere

Distractions are a problem. I’m reminded of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings Trilogy. Sauron’s evil eye scans across all that can be seen. A small party (Frodo, Samwise, and Gollum) are sneaking right into the heart of Sauron’s power. Sauron’s eye occasionally notices them, but events elsewhere distract the eye. In the end, Sauron is destroyed – disrupted – by the small halflings. They were noticeable, but the incumbent power did not pay attention. Here are three more examples:

  • Kodak invented digital photography, but was unable to exploit it as it kept focus on traditional film-based technologies
  • Xerox invented many of the technologies that are now common in personal computers, but failed to exploit
  • Microsoft missed opportunities that were later exploited by Google, Facebook, and others

Stated differently, lack of attention to small existing forces allows disruption to sneak into your incumbency.

3. Disruptive innovators have open minds and open objectives

Innovation happens when a “hub” brings together disparate knowledge networks. Christopher Columbus’ time in Lisbon during the 1480s was critical to capturing all of the necessary elements of a strategy to sail west across the Great Sea to open new trade routes.

Thus, an important idea of disruption is that there is an unpredictable, serendipitous nature to it. It occurs at the micro level, when an individual (actually, it is more commonly two or more individuals) notice something interesting. That interesting thing sparks an insight.

Here is what does not work:

  • Predefined and narrow objectives for deliverables.
  • Keeping people in silos
  • Asking the same questions (or even worse, asking no questions)

 4. A disruption life cycle exists

Steven Sinofsy points out that disruption has a lifecycle pattern:

In the first phase, the potential disruptor introduces a new point of view for achieving a task: it is generally a simpler stripped down product that might be at a lower price point. Although incumbents generally notice the new entrant, they offer only a tepid reaction. I should point out that we only know something is truly disruptive in retrospect.

In the second phase, the incumbent now notices the product but continues to compete in uninspired ways, claiming “here’s how and why we’re better.” The disruptor gains strength, and competes on more dimensions (for example, more than price). It is now an established competitor with a unique and evolving value proposition.

The third phase is one of a new equilibrium. The incumbent and disruptor have parity.

The end game, which may take many years, is where one of the parties retreats and/or one or both parties enter into a new “blue ocean” space to practice a new kind of disruption.

5. The strategic initiative leader and team have important responsibilities

Too often, strategic initiative leaders function as program managers tracking and following up on the projects and the deliverables, and communicating to the stakeholders. Sometimes they are even more aloof, simply acting as executive sponsors.

A strategic initiative leader needs to keep the incumbency-disruptor question high in awareness: which one are we? Another important question is one of patterns: are we seeing small put salient signals? Are we ignoring important things?

And, of course, the leader can’t do it all by himself or herself. The team of people who are in tune with the situation and who fell empower is also an important part of the pattern of disruption. We don’t know when disruption will strike.

Do you agree that disruption has patterns? Do you agree that the strategic initiative teams and leaders need to be alert for small signals?

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Beginners Guide: Competent Strategic Initiatives

Do you want to become more competent in the arts of strategic initiative leadership?

I distinguish competency as a concept that holds a middle ground between being a novice and being an expert. Novices are still trying to learn basic concepts and are typically preoccupied with discovering best practices. A competent person can perform in a way that requires no “hand holding” by a senior person; they can structure and energize the strategic initiative with a sense of grounded confidence. Competent people understand the importance of the context, and pay little attention to best practices (because best practices typically only exist in the eyes of novices or people who want to see you something). Experts are those who push the boundaries of the filed (for example, write books or invent new ways of doing things).

The “conscious competency” model of learning says that we are first unconsciously incompetent: we don’t know what we don’t know. Then, we become consciously incompetent: we know that we don’t know. Then we are consciously competent: we know that we know something. (Confidence is an important element of the strategist’s perspective.) The ultimate stage is unconscious competence: we know so well that we don’t have to think about it.

That model is lacking for strategy work. The below model from Will Taylor is a better model, because it sets up a “learning journey.”

Will Taylor’s Five Stage Model

Taylor points out that

“one is inevitably ignorant of many things one does not know (i.e., we revisit ‘unconscious incompetence’ repeatedly or continually; i.e., ‘consciousness of unconscious incompetence’). Repeatedly, we are continuously rediscovering ‘beginner’s mind’.

Leaders of strategic initiatives always start out with some kind of useful knowledge. It might be in the industry, with project management techniques, or with strategy. They need to replace erroneous knowledge and add new knowledge as the move the strategic initiative forward. Many people are unconsciously incompetent. They don’t know strategy, they don’t know that a strategic initiative is a distinctive kind of program, they don’t know how benefits differ from deliverables, and they don’t know the tools of program management.

Here’s the applied part for leaders of strategic initiatives. Taylor writes,

“We revisit conscious incompetence, making discoveries in the holes in our knowledge and skills, becoming discouraged, which fuels incentive to proceed (when it does not defeat). We perpetually learn, inviting ongoing tutelage, mentoring and self-study (ongoing conscious competence). We continually challenge our ‘unconscious competence’ in the face of complacency, areas of ignorance, unconscious errors, and the changing world and knowledge base.”

Notice on the far right side the presence of “discouragement.” Most learning models don’t admit that people do get discouraged and revert to their old ways.  It’s a predictable milestone on the learning journey. And it’s an important leadership idea: the leader will occasionally feel discouraged, but so will the team members.

Will Taylor Learning Model(Courtesy of Will Taylor, Chair, Department of Homeopathic Medicine, National College of Natural Medicine, Portland, Oregon, USA, March 2007. Please reference the diagram accordingly if you use it.) The source of the graphic and Will Taylor quotation is here.

The amount of things you need to know, and master, might seem a little overwhelming. This blog (in addition to my seminars) provides some excellent starting points for you. If you think you are missing some of the basics, here are a few articles and links:

The definition of a strategic initiative

  • Launching a Strategic Initiative? Here are Three Good Practices (follow this link)
  • The Purpose of a Strategic Initiative (follow this link)
  • Four Things Strategic Initiative Leaders Need to Know About Requirements (follow this link)

I encourage you to explore the many articles on this site. They will help you better understand strategic initiatives, program management and leadership. You’ll tools for turning vision into action.

Reflective Competence

The eye-catching part of the Will Taylor model is the large colored circle, titled reflective competence. As contrasted with formal, text-book oriented learning, reflection involves the learner mentally reviewing his or her experiences. Your reflection should be on these three areas:

  • Knowledge-in-action. How well did you apply knowledge? Perhaps, you failed to retain the knowledge to begin with, so you floundered.
  • Reflection-in-action. Were you aware of your own thinking?
  • Reflection-on-action. Did you apply the knowledge optimally? How might you do it differently the next time?

You can’t know everything there is to know, nor can your team members or sponsors. Yet, you’ve got to start with what you know: do you have “right knowing?” Examine your actions: are practicing “right doing,” with a conscious regard for harmonizing your actions with competent knowledge?

This article gives you a way to look at your own learning journey. How will you use it as an improvement tool?

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Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity, & Ambiguity (VUCA)

A leader of a strategic initiative confided to me that she was frustrated with her strategic initiative program’s progress.  “How can we quickly execute our strategy in this fog of organizational change in our business environment?” she asked. I explained that the she could unpack the “fog of change” into the four VUCA components. By understanding each component, she could apply strategic thinking and gain traction.

Volatility – Volatility refers to the propensity for changing from one state to another.  We are all familiar with fog, which is simply water in gaseous form.  We use the term volatile for hydrocarbons like gasoline, which can quickly evaporate from liquid to gaseous phases at room temperature (basically, gasoline is boiling off, and we could easily reverse the process by lowering the temperature to condense it from gas back to liquid). Under certain conditions, volatile materials can dangerously explode, changing rapidly from stable to disordered. This provides another implication that volatile conditions are dangerous conditions.

Another example of volatility is found in financial markets, and it the concept of volatility expresses the rate and amount of change from buying to selling and the changing interest (in terms of numbers of contracts/shares) in any given market.

The interesting thing about volatility is that even though it might represent danger, it can also represent opportunity. Let’s return to the financial market situation: many market traders make excellent money by trading on volatility (making an informed bet on the movement of a financial instrument) such as trading options on a company that is making a scheduled earnings announcement.  The point is this: volatility is a good if you are seeking opportunities and bad if you like predictability.

Uncertainty – Uncertainty refers to the lack of specific information, which can be found by answering specific questions.  Asking “What is the probability that it will rain today?” is a question that is an attempt to characterize uncertainty.

Complexity – Complexity refers to the number of components, the relationships between the components.  The normal layperson’s usage of the complexity tends to oversimplify the scope of practical problems facing leaders in organizations. I encourage you to examine Dave Snowden’s Cynefin framework (see nearby image copied from Wikipedia). In that framework, complexity is the relationship between cause and effect. It can only be perceived in retrospect, but not in advance. In this condition, the organization uses an agile approach of probe, sense, and respond.  Complexity differs from “complicated.” A complicated issue can be understood by analysis and investigation beforehand.

I wrote this article on pathfinding to provide tips for dealing with complexity in strategic initiatives.

Ambiguity – The Latin prefix “ambi-“refers to multiple or non-fixed, such as its use in the words ambiance and ambidextrous. Ambiguous language is language that can be interpreted differently. Ambiguity is a cause of stress for many people (especially those who work in well-structured organizations) as the disorder implied by ambiguity is not comfortable. People tend to avoid, ignore, or minimize ambiguity.

I wrote this article to provide more understanding on the specifics and contrast of ambiguity and uncertainty.

Coping With (Not Mastering) VUCA

My advice for leading in a high-VUCA environment is this:

  • First, detach. Step back from the program and get a sense of what is going on.  If you are feeling the stress of urgency for results, put that aside. Strive for a sense of lightness; this program is but one of many things that will define your legacy (and you may discover that what seems so significant now will be unmemorable and unremarkable in a year).  Ambiguity, in particular, can be a stressor; don’t let it get the better of you.
  • Second, get a sense of the performance gaps and relationships of all the elements. You don’t need to deep-dive into analysis. Keep the questions you ask high level: Why did the organization select this strategic initiative? Who are the beneficiaries of it?  Remember that you are looking at a fog, so keep with that metaphor: where is the fog dense and where is it light?
  • Third, work your way through each of the VUCA elements. As I implied earlier, identifying ambiguity is a good place to start.  The fog metaphor and volatility are naturally aligned as fog (water vapor) is simply a dynamic change of phase from liquid to gas (and back again).
  • Fourth, engage your team to help you with this. Lead with questions.

I have found that my stress goes down when I realize that VUCA is simply inherent in the situation. My job is to cope, help others, and make progress.  I try – as much as I can – to develop perspective that is characterized by maturity and wisdom. I try to see different points of views and be prepared to be surprised.

A Final Thought: is VUCA Prime: Helpful or Nonsense?

There are a number of authors and bloggers who are now pushing a concept called VUCA Prime.  It is a simple and catchy idea, but I believe its simplification is ultimately counterproductive to the challenges of leading a strategic initiative.

Here is the VUCA Prime Model:

  • Volatility is replaced with vision
  • Uncertainty is replaced with understanding
  • Complexity is replaced by clarity
  • Ambiguity is replaced by agility.

I certainly believe that vision, understanding, clarity, and agility are admirable and useful ideas.  But making this clever substitution fails to address the core challenges of the fog of leading in an environment of volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity. Here’s an example for volatility:

Let’s assume that a military commander (I’m picturing the trench warfare of WWI) peering into the fog, knowing that the enemy lines are out there.  This commander has a vision of being victorious, so he orders his troops to attack.  His vision of victory doesn’t protect his troops, who are slaughtered by the entrenched enemy.

I can make a similar case for complexity and ambiguity.  We can pretend they don’t exist, but that doesn’t change reality. Uncertainty (because it deals with answers to explicit questions) can be replaced by understanding.  Ask questions and find the answers or estimates.

Thus, by my score card, VUCA Prime misses on 3 out of 4 factors.  A 25% percent validation is pretty weak!

How have you used VUCA concepts?

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Four Recommendations for Effective Program Governance

Governance quoteThe discussion of program governance is high on the list of learner expectations in my Leading Strategic Initiatives seminar. “What’s healthy governance practice?” I’m asked, “Where do I start?”

Since I’ve been writing this blog for several years, it might be wise to revisit the definition of strategic initiative and clarify the role of program management. Strategic initiatives are not the same things as goals or objectives; they are endeavors that close a performance gap. All strategic initiatives are programs, but not all programs are strategic initiatives.

Since a strategic initiative is (by definition) a particular kind of program, program management becomes a vital competency for the execution of strategic initiatives. Programs are often confused with large projects or with multiple projects. Rather, programs provide a kind of synergy (in the way of benefits) that separately-managed projects cannot provide.

Governance is a word that lacks a precise definition, and some people confuse it with government.  I believe that when you examine the bureaucratic actions recommended by some program management gurus and practitioners, you end up with a simple idea: program governance is about making decisions. From this, you can make a simple assertion that good design of governance leads to good decisions.

Three Common Mistakes in Design of Program Governance

I’d like to quickly mention three common mistakes that I have seen in program governance. They imply the need for thoughtfulness in design of program governance:

  • Overlooking the importance of strategic alignment.  To this, I add there is a bigger problem that organizations don’t have good strategy, and substitute goals for strategy.
  • Not distinguishing management from reporting. I say this because many program managers (or portfolio managers, for that matter) only collect and “roll up” project data for submission to higher management levels.
  • Drawing a program organizational chart and calling it the “program governance structure”

Four Recommendations

Here are four principles of program governance design, starting with the simpler ideas.

People respect what you inspect

This is a simple principle. As a strategic initiative leader, I need to convey what is important and do that by taking time to look at and discuss the “things” that I know are important.

Too often, program managers focus on metrics that are easy to collect or are familiar.  All of us know that when the CEO comes to our site for a visit, there is a lot of energy on cleaning up the physical environment. That’s nice, of course, as mess and clutter is can be a sign of laziness and sloth. A strategic initiative is a program to close a performance gap. What are the leading indicators and small wins that influence the closing? Are you looking for them or are you distracted by housekeeping chores?

Allow for mistakes

Smart people want some discretion and latitude in the program. They don’t want bureaucratic rules. They want to get things done.  Thus, governance needs keep decisions decentralized.

Yet, people are human and they make mistakes. So the important point of design for governance is to recognize that mistakes will occur and be ready to keep them from escalating into bigger ones.

Obviously, you want to avoid mistakes. For that you need to encourage people to stay aware for the presence of mistakes, and – this is crucial – make sure they avoid making the mistake worse. For example, covering up mistakes seldom works. Blaming others tends to make for a toxic culture.

You want to selectively impose policy

A natural tendency for some program managers is toward consistency and control of all elements of the program. This can be stifling for the strategy, as understandably will not want to give up something or change something that they think is important to their success and to the enterprise’s success.

The key question for any program policies is, “Does this policy make sense with respect to the strategy? Alternatively, the question is, “Are the benefits worth the cost.”

To be able to answer that question well you need to have a sense of focus and leverage. You can’t ask for control and consistency everywhere; there’s little value to be added. You have to think and act strategically.

Design so that the organization is concentrating on the decisive aspects of the strategy

It might be best to use an example. Domino’s Pizza had a strategy of countering social media complaints, reinvigorating its brand, and upping revenues depended upon reinventing its core product (the pizza) through one simple goal: making a defensible claim that it had the best-tasting pizza in independently conducted taste tests. That claim was the decisive aspect of its strategy, and would determine if Domino’s strategy would succeed.

The program governance structure for this strategic initiative was very informal.  There were not formal executive briefings with project updates. The program design reflected is strategic focus on careful design of experiments and rapid consumer feedback.

Conclusion: Strike a balance

Program governance usually comes down to striking a balance among conflicting needs and goals, which arise in various areas for many reasons.

The higher level needs are to balance business needs (How are we changing revenue or cost structures to create value?) and risk management (How can we preserve value?)

As a program manager, I have two highest-level responsibilities. One is to the sponsoring organization and is practiced through the disciplines of strategic alignment. The other is to the projects that make up my program. Good governance is an effective balance of those two responsibilities

Do you agree with the claim that good design of governance leads to good decisions? What else should be considered as essential to program governance?

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Six Strategic Thinking Skills: Developing the Proactiveness Habit

6rs tool for habitsFew argue that culture is a key factor in the execution of strategy. Culture has many definitions, and one way to understand it is that it is a set of thousands of individual habitual responses. They are also collective, and that’s what we see in culture. My commonsense approach is this: By changing individual habits and behaviors, we can nudge new collective behaviors; that is, culture.

One of the more popular tools in my workshops has been the “6Rs” tool (see the nearby graphic) for building better habits.

I’ll first illustrate them with an example (and I’ll touch on the theory behind it at the end of the article).

A manager came to me saying, “I’ve been told that I’m too tactical and often get lost in the weeds. How can I do better at seeing the big picture?”

Reflect (as is and to be) – We started by looking for one habit to work on.  I suggested that we look at her behaviors in meetings with her colleagues, which frequently included cross functional members and occasionally executives. The habit to break was one at the start of the meeting: She came to the meeting with a laptop or device and usually spent the time using the device prior to the start of the meeting, and often through the meeting as well.

Even though she was in a meeting, she (and the others) found themselves acting like “loners.” There was little sense of connection or community; the meeting was just a microcosm of the “silos” of specialization and complexity in the company. Information sharing was a perfunctory exchange of status and action items. I asked, “Do you feel like you miss opportunities to learn about the big picture in your meetings? If you knew the other people better, couldn’t you be more proactive?”  She agreed that both statements applied to her.

The habit we wanted to change her personal engagement in meetings. More specifically, it was to focus on the other individuals and not on the devices. She would have to start making more conversation before, during, and after in the meetings. To be a better strategic thinker, one needs to move beyond “small talk” and “chit-chat” into more substantive matters. I’m talking about really getting to know the people and the organizations they represent.

The habit to develop is one of asking more exploratory questions: “Jim, what do others in your department think about this project? Is it going to make their jobs easier or harder?”

Recognize (the need) – It takes work to change habits. This next R deals with the benefits of making a change. For this “R” you need to determine: Are the rewards worth it? How might your life be better?

Re-label (your reactions)Habits are a response to a stimulus. Let’s assume that you would call yourself a “chocaholic” – a lover of chocolate. I offer a beautiful piece of chocolate to you. Do you have an impulsive urge to take it? Do you give it thought, or just do it?

Back to my example: my client recognized that when the meeting room was “screens up,” meaning that people were focused on laptops and devices. Should we assume the behavior as a sign of that they were busy with urgent matters and didn’t want to be interrupted? More likely, it meant that they were just bored. She developed three guiding maxims that helped her re-label her philosophy:

  • Strategy is inherently ambiguous
  • Perfectionism leads to avoidance of opportunity
  • Engagement is empowering.

She decided that she would re-characterize her presence in meetings as an opportunity to capture new ideas and meet important stakeholders.

Refocus (on new behaviors) – Focusing your attention is vitally important. For this task, she decided that she would sit next to new people (especially executives), shake hands, and ask questions that reflected a sincere curiosity about the other person, their department, and the business situation.

Revalue (in real time) – This step is training your mind to adopt a new and different set of values that are more aligned with your goals.  People who hold the big picture and think strategically have an investment mindset that recognizes opportunities.

To do this step requires meta-cognition; the awareness of your own thinking.

RespondThis final R is the practice of consciously (and consistently) behaving differently. Through repetition, you are forming new habits.


Here is another example of the 6Rs. The topic is introducing Agile Project Management principles and agile thinking. Each of the below bullets corresponds to the 6R model:

  • We need to make the customer the hero
  • We have to listen to the customer
  • The new situation is high customer involvement
  • More frequent meetings
  • Hold daily meetings
  • We value meetings

A Few Comments on Theory

Habits are reflexive memories; that is, a habit is learned and it is an automatic response to a stimulus. Recall the chocolate example above. Not everyone responds this way. Neurologically, habit is governed by a brain structure called the basal ganglia, which is located in the center of the brain.  Conscious thought is found in the prefrontal cortex. The pre-frontal cortex can over-ride the impulses of the basal ganglia; but, that requires mental energy, as you might guess.

Do you agree that changing individual habits can result in changed organizational culture?

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What’s the #Strategy? Let Me Tell You a #Story

Dominos Delivery VehicleMore #Storytelling Tips for Your #StrategicInitiative

A strategic initiative leader is a story teller. The story being told looks into the future; it is a prospective story about stakeholders receiving a stream of future benefits.

My audiences continue to tell me that they find the chief story teller role a new and compelling idea. I’ve provided a number of practical ideas in earlier articles (click on the “How to Improve Your Story Telling Chops” category on the right). In this article, I provide a tool for helping others to engage with the bigger picture.

Heroic Narratives and Romantic Narratives

There are two basic kinds of narrative*. In the heroic narrative, the central struggle is for discovery of a “new self.” The heroic narrative is most applicable for strategic situations where you are looking for growth: new business models, entrepreneurial opportunity.  In this narrative, the hero heads off on a quest, often accompanied by a team of fellow travelers. They travel into the unknown and experience personal changes through the journey. For more, see my earlier article on the heroic quest and the call for action.

In the romantic narrative, the central struggle is for a rediscovery of the “purer self.” The basic structure is for the romantic narrative structure is resembles a religious awakening: Our organization was once pure and filled with wisdom, grace, energies, and fruits of our founders. Over time, we became alienated from those values and it is necessary to atone for falling away. Even more importantly, our task is to return to our original (presumably true and natural) selves.

Let’s stop and put that in more concrete and less mythic terms.  Successful organizations, over time, necessarily get more complex as a result of growth. With complexity comes specialization, bureaucracy, entitlement, and impersonal relations. It’s not surprising, then, that “back to basics” is a frequent theme of strategic initiatives.

The romantic narrative is most appropriate for a situation involving a turnaround or reconfiguration of the existing organization. Here you invoke the legacy of the organization. Here are two examples:

  • Domino’s has its first delivery vehicle (a Volkswagen Beetle) in the lobby of its HQ. It was an important icon of tradition in its Pizza Turnaround video. (For more discussion of this as a case study, see this article.)
  • Louis Gerstner Jr wrote of his efforts in turning around IBM, “Our strategic moves had much to do with returning IBM to its roots as a research-driven builder of large systems and infrastructure.” (See his book, Even Elephants Can Learn to Dance, page 257)

As I explained in this article, it is useful to constructing a timeline that displays the major events in the organization. The strategic initiative is a turning point.

Anticipating Your Audience’s Three Needs

As you think about the narrative, you need to consider the audience’s response.  Is there a need to clarify the vision and direction of the company, and the role of audience? I had a project with IBM during the 1990s where our work product was a training course to explain the process and new responsibilities of its new product development process. In this situation, we strove to use clear language and to show the expected transitions from the old process to the new process. This communication style is called a “plain narrative.

The Domino’s Pizza Turnaround video was intended to stimulate interest in its new product. This is an example of a “tempered narrative,” although it also had telling elements of the grand narrative

Finally, a “grand narrative” is intended as more emotional and motivational message. Again, I’ll use IBM’s turnaround, which included an initiative to centralize all advertising and marketing. The first commercial in 1994 had the theme of “Solutions for a Small World” that featured an international cast that included Czech nuns and old Parisians speaking in their native language. Louis Gerstner explained that it served to signal that

“we were staying together as a world-class integrator” and it “signaled that we were a very different company – able to change and make bold decisions, just as we had done with the decision to consolidate; able to move quickly; able to take risks and do innovative things; and we were more accessible.” (See Even Giants Can Learn to Dance, page 92).

How have you used narrative ideas in your leadership?

* Acknowledgement: The ideas here originated in an academic paper by David Barry and Michael Elmes, Strategy Retold: Towards a Narrative View of Strategic Discourse.

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Benefits of Being a Visible Expert

In earlier articles, I’ve explained that a strategic initiative is a kind of program that is amenable to the tools of program management. (However, not all programs are strategic initiatives.) One of the most important functions of programs is to create and deliver a stream of benefits to stakeholders. Benefits can be of two types: economic benefits and emotive benefits.

In this article, I want to briefly list (in prioritized order) benefits that flow to stakeholders through exposure to visible experts. A visible expert is an individual with pronounced visibility in their subject matter as evidenced by writing books, articles, keynote speaking, and etc. They have an earned reputation as an expert. Here is the list*:

    • We learn just from working with them
    • They introduce new solutions we had not considered
    • They solve problems more quickly
    • The solve the most complicated problems
    • They help increase our credibility
    • They reduce our risk

Leaders of strategic initiatives have big jobs in closing organizational performance gaps. They have a big challenge in the benefits realization piece, especially articulating and delivering emotive benefits. You can use the above list as a way to probe for and deliver things that will enhance your credibility.

How have you become a visible expert or used one? Are you working toward becoming a visible expert? How do you provide benefits realization?

* The source of this list was research done by Hinge Research Institute and published in their eBook: The Visible Expert: How to Create Industry Stars. And why every professional firm should care.

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Strategy is Not Long-Range Planning, Vision, Mission, or Values

This is NOT StrategyA while back, a seminar participant, who was a senior administrator in local government, showed me a nice 1-page statement that was his organization’s “strategy,” his term for a statement of mission, vision, and values describing the borough’s desire to be a preferred place to live and work. I asked him some questions:


Me: Let’s assume that you showed this statement to the top administrator at a neighboring borough. What would she say?
Him: That’s a nice statement. Our strategy document expresses similar ideas.
Me: Are you in competition for attracting industry and jobs to your borough, and would not the neighboring locale want to have the same industry and jobs?
Him: Yes they would.
Me: So, you are in rivalry with the adjoining borough?
Him: Yes.
Me: But, does this document give guidance to you and your employees on how use your resources?
Him: No it doesn’t. We really don’t have a strategy.

He was holding a list of aspirations and guiding values.  His locale was in a competitive situation. It was substituting a nicely-worded poster for the hard assessment of its situation. His borough had many resources, but it wasn’t using those resources strategically.

Here’s a practical test: You have a strategy if your competitors saw your strategy, would they be worried? If you truly have a strategy, the rival will be worried. They won’t fear your aspirations.

An equally-matched rival should fear your strategy, but won’t fear your aspirations!

Aspirations, for most people and most organizations, are cheery statements that provide a sense of energy and closure. They’re comfortable.

Strategy is Not Long-Range Planning

People often fail to distinguish strategy from long-range planning. The result is “bad strategy;” the appearance that a strategy is present when there is none.

Long-range planning is an effort that is focused far into the future, often years. Long-range planners tend to focus mostly on internally-focused plans to accomplish agreed-on goals. Long-term planning is used to project budgets and so forth into the future. Long-range planners assume that the external environment is relatively stable; therefore, the future is predictable. Waves of change are ignored.

Strategy is different in that strategists believe that the organization must be responsive to a dynamic, changing environment. Strategists are skeptics of someone who assumptions that the environment is stable or the future is predictable. Strategy involves ambiguity. That ambiguity starts with picking signals out of the context, and defining a clear core challenge.

As I have written previously, a strategic initiative is a response to performance gap. It’s purpose is to close it.  A leader of a strategic initiative needs to watch out for the “fluff” of attractive artifacts and documents.

Strategy is “hard work” in the sense that tolerating ambiguity is uncomfortable. Maybe it’s more fun to create multicolored poster or a polished brochure?

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