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.
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.
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