October, 2012 | Published by Anecdote - Putting Stories to Work.
We spend a lot of time here at Anecdote thinking, writing and talking about strategy and we consider ourselves fortunate to work with so many great companies helping them make their strategy stick.
But, like the mechanic who drives a beaten up old car that he always has trouble starting, we probably don't spend quite enough time working on our own strategy. Until recently that is.
We just finished the process of creating our new strategy, and we've been 'drinking our own champagne', using our own methods and techniques to not only improve what we do, but to also refine and improve our products and offerings to better meet the needs of our clients.
We're put a lot of energy and effort into this and there's a real sense of renewed focus, enthusiasm and commitment to helping to make strategies stick and ultimately meeting our purpose to "help restore humanity to organisations".
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Strategic clarity: The micro version
We recently completed a project for an insurance company to improve strategic clarity across the organisation. It's aim was to ensure all employees understood the strategy and could make day-to-day decisions that help bring it to life. We helped them to turn their strategy into a strategic story and then taught their leaders how to confidently and authentically tell the story to their people. This project helped achieve strategic clarity at the macro level.
Organisations also faced the challenge of strategic clarity at a micro level - the level where we would like every person to be crystal clear about their role. Often this isn't the case however. Corporate Leadership Council research shows that clarifying performance expectations is the second biggest driver of staff performance. So its worth getting right.
If you face this challenge with your people, there is a simple technique that can make a big difference. Sit down with your employee and give them a blank sheet of paper. Take one yourself. Take 15 minutes to write down the key tasks of the person and which ones are most important. You do this separately.
The next step is to put the lists together and identify the similarities and differences. You then have the basis for a very effective conversation about the person's role.
If you have never done this before, try it. You might be very surprised how different your veiws are about the role. It's a great, simple technique for getting strategic clarity at a micro level.
Shawn has just finished writing (the ink is barely dry) a new paper about how your business success, now more than ever, depends how deeply your strategy is understood and embraced. You can download a free copy of the paper ’Will your strategy stick?‘ from our website. We'd love to hear your thoughts.
While we're on the subject of downloads, we just reached an important milestone. Our popular eBook 'The Ultimate Guide to Anecdote Circles' — a handbook for collecting organisational stories — has now been downloaded more than 15,000 times. Wow! We're very humbled by this response. Haven't seen or read it yet? It's also available as a free download from our website.
We recently spent three days locked in a darkened room, working on our new strategy.
As we worked through all the components required to create a great strategy (who we are, what we stood for, where we wanted to go, the bold moves to get there etc.) we did your typical SWOT analysis. This is nothing unusual in a strategy process. However, I hadn't done a SWOT analysis in awhile, and going through it made me realise that, with a very small change, this tool can be greatly improved.
A SWOT analysis is a strategic planning method used to evaluate the Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats involved in a project or in a business. It involves outlining the objective of the business or project and identifying the internal and external factors that are favourable and unfavourable to achieve that objective. It is designed to generate meaningful information for each category, to ultimately help find your competitive advantage.
Now, the usual process is to start with your strengths, then your weaknesses (or limitations), then the opportunities to improve and finally the threats to achieving your goals. But for me, this order isn't the best way of doing this analysis.
When we did it, all the positive energy and hope for the future that we generated in the strengths and opportunities sections almost evaporated by finishing on the threats we faced to make our new strategy happen. You could feel a noticeable 'slump' in the room by finishing on the negative. We got some great stuff out of it, don't get me wrong, but the order just left people flat and in a rather negative place, that didn't contribute to us believing we could achieve our strategy.
So, my suggestion is to use a reverse SWOT; a TOWS. Start with your threats, then your opportunities, weaknesses come third and then you finish looking at your strengths. I think this way, you still get all the benefits of the analysis, but you build energy, increase motivation and belief you can achieve your vision by finishing on the strengths you have.
Michael Watkins, author of The First 90 Days: Critical Success Strategies for New Leaders at All Levels, advocates the exact same approach, but for a different reason. Writing in a Harvard Business Review blog post, Watkins argues; "it should be done as TOWS and not as SWOT". He says by doing it this way; "Teams were able to have focused, productive discussions about what was going on in the external environment, and to rapidly identify emerging threats and opportunities. This provided a solid foundation for talking about weaknesses and strengths. Do we have weaknesses that leave us vulnerable to emerging threats? Do we have (or can we acquire) strengths that enable us to pursue emerging opportunities?". The change in order actually makes the conversation more meaningful and gives you a better analysis.
So, next time you use this tool try changing the order you do the sections in. I wouldn't recommend calling it a TOWS, just call it a reverse SWOT and see what difference this approach makes.
Is it collaboration when you’re sent the yearly performance review spreadsheet and instructed to assess your staff’s performance? Absolutely not; it’s an act of co-ordination. Everyone is working separately to achieve the overall goal of conducting the performance reviews. Only a modicum of trust is required (trust in the system) to get the job done.
So, is it collaboration when you meet with your team to work out the performance review process? Not quite. Here we are co-operating with our colleagues to deliver a task that we all know needs to be done. When we co-operate there is often a medium level of trust involved (trust in each other’s competencies and character), the value of the activity tends not to accrue directly to the participants co-operating and, in most cases, someone else is driving you to do it. 
So what is collaboration then? It’s when a group of people come together, driven by mutual self–interest, to constructively explore new possibilities and create something that they couldn’t do on their own. Imagine you’re absolutely passionate about the role that performance reviews play in company effectiveness. You team up with two colleagues to re-conceptualise how performance reviews should be done for maximum impact. You trust each other implicitly and share all your good ideas in the effort to create an outstanding result. You and your colleagues share the recognition and praise equally for the innovative work.
The important factor is mutual self-interest. When people create things they really want to create, and it is also good for the company, it energises and engages people like nothing else. Just ask Google, who have institutionalised collaboration by giving every engineer 20 per cent of their work week to spend on any project that takes their fancy.
Today most commentators conflate co-ordination, co-operation and collaboration under the single banner of ‘collaboration’. All three types of working together are important, but creating environments where collaboration (as we have defined it) happens creates a spark that will truly transform an organisation. The important skill is knowing when to collaborate, co-operate and co-ordinate.
When is the best time to collaborate?
When thinking about good times to collaborate, it’s useful to start with a simple model that helps us understand the nature of the types of issues we might encounter in an enterprise. Here I’ve illustrated the Cynefin (pronounced cun-ev-in) framework which categorises organisational activity into four domains :
Simple: this is when there is a clear relationship between cause and effect. When you do X you always get Y, and no matter how many times you do X you get the same Y result. Organising the performance reviews is a good example. You can predict with confidence the end result of the activity. In these cases co-ordination can be used to great effect.
Complicated: this is when there is still a relationship between cause and effect but you have to put effort in working out that relationship and there is often a range of possible answers. This is the realm of experts who put in the effort working out these cause-and-effect relationships. Co-operation is effective in this domain because there is often a clear end goal in mind but you need the combined forces of a range of people to achieve it.
Complex: this domain is characterised by causes and effects that are so intertwined and intricate that things only make sense in hindsight. You hear people saying: “Ah, the reason that happened was because ...”, but if you rewind the tape of what just happened and play it again, you get a different outcome; rewind and play again, and yet another outcome. This phenomenon occurs because in complex situations everything is so interconnected that a small change in one part of the system can have inordinate impact somewhere else, and vice versa. The system is unpredictable in detail, yet we can discern patterns. Designing and implementing a new performance management approach is complex because, regardless of how much analysis we do before putting it into practice, we won’t know how it’s going to work in detail. It is in these complex situations that collaboration comes to the fore.
Collaboration works well for complex situations because the style of working collaboratively matches the nature of the issues that complex situations pose. Complexity is unpredictable, and collaborating is adaptable; complexity is messy – it’s difficult to work out the question, let alone the answer – and collaborating involves bringing together a diversity of people and talents to improvise and test possible approaches, all learning as you go. Complexity offers unique and novel conundrums, and collaboration draws on a deep foundation of trust to that fosters creativity and delivers innovations.
The last domain of the Cynefin framework is chaos. This is where it’s impossible to discern a relationship between cause and effect. The best approach in this domain is simply to take action. Paradoxically it really doesn’t matter which group style is used here, as any way of working will either create opportunities in the complex space where collaboration can take effect, or push the situation into the simple domain where a co-ordination approach is effective.
With the Cynefin framework as a guide, we can better align the type of group work with the nature of the issue at hand. Collaboration is not the best approach in every situation and let’s not fall into the trap of thinking of it as a panacea. Sometimes it’s simply more effective to issue a direction to get the job done when the job is simple or complicated. It’s when things are truly complex that collaboration is most effective, and the reality is that the world is becoming more connected, faster moving and therefore more complex by the minute. Collaboration will have a growing role to play in every organisation.
 Economist Intelligence Unit (2008). The role of trust in business collaboration.
 Snowden, D. J. and M. E. Boone (2007): "A Leader's Framework for Decision Making." Harvard Business Review November.
Last chance to register for our Influencing change workshop in Auckland, NZ
It’s now only a few days until Kevin will be in Auckland running our ‘Influencing change with the natural power of stories’ workshop. It's being held at the Rydges Hotel on the 1st November.
This workshop is for leaders who need to make change happen and want to learn how to use stories to diagnose what’s really going on, trigger new stories that inspire action and design initiatives that really engage employees in acting their way into a new way of thinking.
By the end of the workshop participants will be able to:
collect stories to see what’s really happening in your company
conduct sense making workshops to create insight and inspire action
communicate the direction and intent of the change program with stories