Releasing the hidden languages of strategy

By John Higgins and Chris Nichols with Philippa Hardman

Over the last decade we’ve been uncovering the hidden imagery and vocabulary that shapes the course of the strategy conversations. We have discovered that unless these factors are brought out into plain view, they will tend to derail even the most skilled and best intentioned of strategy making processes.

These can become enshrined in the very way things are seen, the way sense is made. They become enmeshed in power systems and structures and can determine is said and heard, who is involved and who is excluded. Bringing this hidden world into plain sight is vital if we are to work intelligently to encourage diversity of inclusion and thought, and if we genuinely aspire to make it possible to speak truth to power in the strategic arena.

A real-life story will help bring this to life.

Tom was still new in his post as GM of a UK FinTech company – an innovative and fast-growth player in the open banking technology market. Appointed as part of a recent private equity acquisition, he set about harnessing the energy of his wider leadership team in refocusing the strategy to address investor requirements towards building a global growth platform. Tom wanted to find a way to involve his top 100 people, to build on their experience and insights in making the strategy as well as in acting on it. Strangely, however, he found he was having difficulty getting his most senior colleagues to agree how to do this.

Sharon, the CFO, saw no need to involve anyone beyond the executive team. Bob, the Chief of Technology was prepared to widen the conversation but mainly to involve some external consultants: “I can’t see why we wouldn’t bring in some experts,” he said. “It’s blinkered to think we’ll find all the right answers ourselves”. David, Head of People, seemed to want to involve a much wider group across the firm, to get employee buy-in and tap the knowledge of their, largely millennial, younger workforce. This idea in particular had led to conflict. There had been a massive row between David and Sharon: “it’s a business, not a democracy”, the CFO had said, “and there’s no such thing as millennials”.

Tom had tried to get some agreement on the issue again and again, in team meetings and one to ones. Everyone seemed firm in their position. Tom was coming to the conclusion that this was an intractable a personality clash and that he’d never get them to agree. If necessary, he’d make the strategy himself with the two lead investors.

Drawing out the hidden language

In situations like this we very often ask the team involved to draw a picture. The instruction is simple. Using one pen or pencil and a piece of A4 paper, draw what ever comes to mind when you think about the word “strategy”. No words, just a picture. You have three minutes.

Then we get people to place their pictures on the floor or table, and to walk around to view what they’ve all done. We ask them to group the pictures into any clusters that seem to make sense, placing together pictures that seem to have themes in common. And then we talk about the clusters.

These drawings lay bare the assumptions about what strategy is and how to get it.

The five hidden voices

We have been doing this for well over a decade now, and have seen literally thousands of images.  The groups will always arrange the pictures into a handful of familiar clusters. These clusters reveal the hidden language of strategy that is in play in every boardroom or executive team.

  • The most common cluster of images are all about journeys. People draw roads and railway tracks, meandering paths up mountains and boats between islands – and what really stands out is that journey is always from a rainy present to a sunny future. The hidden voice, the assumption, is that the present is inadequate and is something to be discarded – which of course sets up a dismissive relationship between future and present, cutting an organization off from what is good about its present and the seeds of the future that it already contains. The hidden voice also says we know where we are going, and that the future is a better place.
  • The second cluster is full of images of a heroic quest. Here there are Trolls hiding under bridges who need to be thwarted, dreadful mountains to climb and chasms of doom to be walked through. Suffering and the testing through fire is a living part of our modern business culture, whose roots can be seen to go all the way back to the myths and legends of pre-history (for more on this go to The Golden Bough by James Frazer). The hidden voices here tell us that strategy is going to be a struggle, it must be led by the brave and that some people are going to need protection from the tough realities.
  • Thirdly come the pictures of battles. People draw boxing rings, medieval knights charging against each other and tug-of-war contests. These are battles with clear winners and losers, where the objective is to overcome (even annihilate) the opponent. In these pictures the approach to strategy exists apart from any wider environmental context and victory is total. Swathes of human needs and experience, such as the need to belong and connect, are therefore banished from the strategic conversation
  • Fourthly come the jigsaw puzzles and Rubik’s cubes. This is strategy as an exercise in finding the right answer. However much the cliché of VUCA gets used and the need to embrace uncertainty is advocated, deep within people is a belief that there is a right answer to be found. Maybe it comes from our education system with its multiple choice and case study approach to learning, but our workplaces are filled with people at all levels who want to be right – and judged to be right by their peers, which John Maynard Keynes identified as a major institutional failing (in his case with reference to the Bankers of the 1930s)
  • Our fifth cluster, and by some way the rarest, is the mess. This shows up as colourful explosions or balls of unspooled wool. Strategy is seen as emergent, close to Henri Mintzberg’s metaphor as strategy as weeds growing in the wild, rather than hothouse flowers. For us this also speaks to mystic schools of thought such as Sufism or certain parts of Christianity, where the world is understood as being a mystery when seen from our current standpoint. What this metaphor allows for is the presence of doubt in a strategy process 

What happened at FinTech Partners?

We used the picture drawing method at the start of a day long strategy conversation with Tom’s executive team. We’d agreed with Tom that this would be the start of the day, and he was up for the experiment.

  • Tom’s picture was a straight race track with a finish line and a cup on a podium.
  • Sharon’s was a line drawing of an Olympic rowing eight
  • Bob drew an elaborate jigsaw puzzle, each part showing a challenge to be addressed to add up to the whole
  • David drew groups of people, connected by lines, each group with a light bulb flashing above them

Sharing the images was the first real conversation this team had ever had about what strategy means for each of them and how they would get it. During the day they realised that they’d seen the world through fundamentally different perspectives.

Tom’s view of the world was driven by outcomes – crossing the line first was how he judged his purpose and his success. Sharon wanted coherence and discipline, and believed that this was only really possible within a tight knit highly trained team. Bob saw a complicated operation, required cool heads and the intellectual power of experts. David saw the solution in bringing the people of the organisation together in new ways.

They were all right, of course. Each of them had a perfectly defensible view of how to get to their strategy, but none of them was in itself complete. In reality, creating a winning strategic intention at FinTech Partners would need all of these positions – an ambition, the knowledge of experts, mobilising people to overcome all manner of obstacles along the way, a leadership team working well together. Simply by seeing each other’s pictures a lightbulb came on – there was a tangible ah-ha! We were able to work with them to design a rigorous and sufficiently inclusive strategy process that included people inside and outside the firm appropriately, and got to plenty of new insights and actions. Above all, staff felt thoroughly involved and enjoyed the energy their involvement. “I never realised how willing to join in our staff are”, Tom said, “the excitement about creating this strategy was quite amazing – and the enthusiasm for making this work is palpable”.

Working with what is

We take these drawings so seriously because they never fail to bring out into the open people’s deeply held beliefs about what strategy is that are very rarely given the opportunity to be seen and so developed. If you deny this reality, and the opportunity to work with it, then you create a world of fake-belief, as Robert Kegan & Lisa Lahey amongst others speak about.

Every time you try to have a business planning conversation, or a discussion about engaging people in a strategy process, you encounter the implications of these unrecognised and unexamined beliefs. One person is preparing a journey to lead everyone to the sun-lit uplands, whilst another is arming for battle and a third is about to play a nice game of chess.

A strategy process that is cut-off from the reality of the myths and metaphors of the people who work in an organization is unlikely to come fully to life. It will most likely become mired in misunderstanding and mistrust based on these differences and be resolved only through an aggressive policy of ‘strategy through diktat’.

This ‘strategy through diktat’ might well work in the short term, but it will inevitably crush innovation, initiative and human development. No strategy can survive in a shifting world with the people who actually implement it becoming the eyes and ears of the organisation, continually testing and learning as the strategic intention meets the market place. People can’t be ordered to be insightful. It takes an invitation to join in and an approach to strategy that shows that leaders actually want to listen and learn. No one can build strategic engagement on lies and ignorance.

Our work with the hidden language of strategy helps executive teams to see where their underlying ways of seeing the world might get in the way of being able to work together to provide the strategic leadership that can both ignite enthusiasm and open the windows to see more of the world. Until the team is able to be good strategic thinkers together, they can’t invite others in. Once they can, they increase the strategic strength of the organisation exponentially, because they harness the full cognitive capability of the organisation to move their ambitions for bold to brilliant.

Steps to put this article into action

  1. Surfacing the assumptions about strategy. Drawing pictures works well, but you can also do this by listening carefully to the language people use – the imagery is there too.
  2. Acknowledge the value of all of the positions. These are all valid and valuable views. But none of them owns a monopoly on making good strategy. Respect and work with all of the views – this is part of harnessing the power of difference.
  3. Send out honest invitations to participate – corrupt invitations, corrupt absolutely. Invite people to join in, but only invite people to explore questions that are genuinely open for exploring.
  4. Recognise power and authority. Participative strategy has to be legitimised by those who hold power and authority. Your power doesn’t go away because you’ve invited others to join in. Use it wisely!
  5. Participation is not a democracy. Make clear that the invitation is to help with exploration and learning. In the end the executive team will make the final call, but it will do so more fully informed and the organisation will have been more fully involved in bringing this about.
  6. Keep the learning alive. It’s a shifting world. Once you’ve engaged people in a strategic conversation, make use of this asset frequently. People will provide great strategic intelligence if they know its welcome and expected and will be valued.