Stronger Together: Celebrate the Strategy

Stronger Together: Celebrate the Strategy

Corporate strategy can seem a bit esoteric or heady. It’s time to make it real by connecting the dots between corporate strategy and your team’s day-to-day work. In my experience, executives underestimate the importance of strategy storytelling, crafting a powerful narrative about the organization’s future direction, and staying true to that message in big moments and everyday conversations.  

When we tie strategy to the mission and values, we reinforce their importance and create unending opportunities to align heads and hearts. Human resources directors know how valuable messaging is to building and sustaining a vibrant culture. In my experience, consistent strategy storytelling yields substantial gains for organizations. First, consistent messaging fosters comfort in times of ambiguity and helps a team navigate uncertainty. Second, strategy storytelling motivates people to lead, whatever their role.  

The Logan School’s mission and beliefs statements augment its strategy story. A deep belief in children’s innate capabilities propels this one-of-a-kind school to deliver a custom education for each child. The differentiation is in plain sight. 

In many organizations, exposure to mission and values clarification doesn’t occur until executive management—likewise, setting strategy. Organizations have an opportunity to optimize people management by creating opportunities for middle managers to develop their skills in mission, values, and strategy formulation.   

My recommendations: 

  • Craft a suite of messages to connect mission and values to strategy. 
  • Encourage managers and executives to use the messages consistently in day-to-day communications.  
  • Inspire your executive team to tie mission and values to your organization’s success measures.  
  • Build a leadership pipeline with hands-on experience in mission, values, and strategy.  
  • Lead by example in human resources. 

    Tying It All Together 

    A mission statement and core values ground us in who we are, while a strategy sets the future direction. All are essential to motivating, inspiring, and coalescing teams to achieve significant results. Human resources directors can serve as vigorous advocates for this robust suite of organizational statements.  

    Stronger Together: Optimize People Management through Mission, Values, and Strategy

    Stronger Together: Optimize People Management through Mission, Values, and Strategy

    Lessons from The Logan School 

    My work as a strategy consultant provides a unique vantage point on organizations and people management. I frequently find myself a keeper of secrets and a vessel for insights on topics spanning organizational design, culture, and communications.  

    Lets begin with a true story from my book Differentiated. Join me in The Logan School for Creative Learning lunchroom as I prepare to share the schools core ethos—the defining characteristics at the core of its mission, values, and strategy. Logan serves highly gifted students from kindergarten through the eighth grade.  

    I walked to the front of the lunchroom at The Logan School for Creative Learning and took my place next to the projectors image. I could see the skepticism and hopefulness, too, on those seventy-five faces. Some stood with crossed arms; others sat in kid-sized chairs, with elbows on their knees, listening with intention. The teachers and staff were as ready as they were going to be, justifiably worried that wed done nothing more than write a bit of lingo to sell the school.  

    By then, Id absorbed it all—the school tours, meetings with the board, stakeholder interviews, parent focus groups, visioning exercises, and EXPO. Those myriad experiences brought together head and heart, the intellectual and the emotional. Id intuited their feelings, heard their stories, witnessed their mission in action, and read the research reports. I trusted my iterative process to surface early ideas and potential insights and then test and reassess as additional information emerged until the insights were inescapable. 

    The Logan model had proven that these kids were capable of driving their education from a young age. Creative thinking affirmed the realization. Logan was clearly differentiated. 

    Faculty and staff erupted in applause at the end of our presentation, and some gave us a standing ovation. The heartfelt reaction was all the affirmation required. Logans mission, values, and strategy shared a powerful connection. 

    Amplify the Mission and Values 

    As you consider your organizations mission, it is essential to reflect on the core values. Exemplars like Johnson & Johnsons Credo, written in 1943, illustrate how a foundational statement brings continuity to organizational life and solidifies its promises. Heres an example from The Logan School. Its mission is to cultivate the curiosities of gifted children. It aligns with the schools core beliefs.

    Logan believes:

    • Students drive the learning experience.
    • Children are infinitely curious. Their learning experience should be similarly boundless.
    • The joy of learning is infectious and strengthens the power of community. 

    Recall that a mission is a statement of purpose. It answers the question, “What difference do we make in the lives of those we serve?” That question is compelling as your staff and customers seek to engage with purpose-driven organizations, and both expect accountability for mission impact. An organization’s values are statements of its ideals and beliefs. These are your organizational truths. 

    My recommendations:

    • Embed the mission and values into onboarding, hiring, and promoting. 
    • Ask your team for suggestions on how to bring the mission and values to life every day.
    • Incorporate the mission and values statements into job descriptions, quarterly check-ins, and performance reviews.
    • Add them to meeting agendas and group process guidelines. 

    A lot of purpose-driven leaders I talk to feel a disconnect between their mission statements and the day-to-day tasks of running an organization. The focus on changing the world gets lost in the meetings, finances, and bureaucracy. What happened to that burst of inspiration you felt while writing your mission statement?

    If you feel this way, you need Strategy Studio. A free membership will introduce you to the tools that helped The Logan School rediscover its unique passion for early education. Get started with your Explore Membership.     

    Cast Yourself in the Role of Your Customer

    Cast Yourself in the Role of Your Customer

    When you were a child, what was your favorite game of pretend? Did you pretend you were a dinosaur? Or an astronaut? Or maybe an adventurer on a magical quest?

    Whatever your favorite game of pretend was, you surely spent time immersing yourself in a world different from your own. All children do.  We do it because play and pretend are one of the main ways that humans learn about themselves and each other. They are crucial tools for developing insight and empathy.

    They are also tools that we need to bring back into our lives as adults and business professionals.

    To find exciting new options for our organizations, we need to understand our customers and our marketplaces in a new way. And we need to get beyond the same-old analysis that leads to tiny variations on the same old “insights.”

    We need to stop thinking about our customers and instead teach ourselves to think like our customers.

    One fun and high-impact way to do that is to return to the world of pretend. Specifically, we can use the tools that actors use to portray a character on stage.

    The discipline that trained actors use to create a character for the stage calls on both creativity and extreme focus. It is a remarkably useful process for deepening our understanding of our customer.

    The process starts with seeking to embody and become someone new.

    Theatre artists are trained to ask detailed questions about their characters and to answer those discovery questions in the first person. Instead of looking at a character in a play and asking what “they” are feeling or doing, theatre artists assume the character’s identity for a moment.

    Actors seek to step inside the character’s body and see the world through their eyes. They explore the “world of the play.” Then, from the point of view of the character, they ask:

    • If it were me in these circumstances, what might I be thinking and feeling and doing?

    • What are the factors in my history, environment, and needs that drive my actions and outlook?

    • What are the forces acting on me that are impacting my options and decisions?

    As they do this, good theatre artists seek to continue to dig deeper. They do not accept the first and most obvious answer. They keep looking for more profound and more unexpected levels of discovery.

    Actors use this mental exploration and a host of other physical and emotional techniques to achieve a state that theatre artists refer to as “living truthfully in imaginary circumstances.”

    The idea is highly relevant to business strategy. It is a focused process of ideation.

    Great organizations combine research and data with insight and imagination until they can fully understand their customers’ circumstances. They may not know every customer by name, but they know the “character” of their customers so well that they come to know the “truth” of their customer’s experience. 

    The exciting news is that this is a process we can do consciously and “on-demand.”  Fostering creative insights does not mean you need to sit around waiting for inspiration to hit you.

    All arts disciplines have processes that their practitioners use to encourage insight and skill development. There is still hard work involved, and you will run into stuck spots, dead ends, and frustrations the way you do in any meaningful human endeavor. But, there is a process to follow.

    And, if you stick with the process and allow yourself to take risks and fail along the way, you can often come out on the other end with exciting new insights and opportunities.

    The first part of the process starts with awareness and openness.

    Instead of beginning with a specific result in mind, simply explore. Allow yourself to start with mindful exploration.

    Take a walk or grab your journal and begin by asking yourself how your customer sees themselves and experiences their world. Challenge yourself to avoid asking yourself about how your customer sees your product or service. Instead, explore in a more open-ended and holistic way. You may be surprised and delighted by what you discover.  

    Imagine If…

    Imagine that you are the Executive Director of a Writing Studio in a small city.

    Suppose that in the past, you have identified your customers as middle-aged professionals who seek to develop their writing skills for a creative outlet and personal fulfillment, and your competitors as other organizations in your city that offer writing instruction.

    You may have even occasionally considered other creative and artistic classes as part of your competitor base and mused about how to attract more young people and more people from diverse populations to your studio.

    But your thinking is still stuck in an old model of looking at your customer from the outside-in. This will make it perilously easy to keep thinking about what you have already done and making many small (and possibly contradictory) tweaks to your offerings.

    It will be hard to generate the insights that lead to a genuinely fresh look at your obstacles and opportunities and develop a bold and compelling new strategy.

    It will be hard to differentiate.

    But you can open up new possibilities by taking a new approach.

    What If:

    • You began by creating a safe space to take risks and challenge your thinking to explore an imaginary future customer from the inside-out?

    • You pretended that you were an actor getting ready to play the part of your prospective customer in a play and had to get to know them deeply and intimately?

    • You had some handy questions to prompt you into thinking both deeply and differently?

    Let’s try it out.

    Instead of starting with the idea that our customers are “middle-aged professionals who seek to develop their writing skills for a creative outlet and personal fulfillment,”- let’s try creating a character of our customer.

    We are not trying to think about all our customers, or even most of our customers. We are taking a deep dive into one customer and paying with the idea of “becoming” that customer for a short while.

    We will walk through some questions. And as we do so, we will work on trusting our imagination to explore these questions without worry about getting the “right” answer. Some of our responses may come from research, internal organizational data, or what we know about existing customers, and some of them may come from pure conjecture and fantasy.

    That is OK. There are no correct answers, only ones that lead to exciting thoughts or opportunities.

    The process starts with the question of identity. From the customer’s point of view and stated in the first person, we may choose to ask:

    • What is my name?

    • What are my pronouns?

    • Who am I demographically? (age, gender, occupation, race, geography, etc.)

    • What cultural norms or expectations do I want to accommodate?

    • How do I want others to see me?

    • How do I see myself?

    • Is there a conflict in how I want others to see me and how I see myself? (For example, “I want others to see me as a polished, professional businesswoman, but I see myself as an underdog and harried mother of 3 who can barely keep it together.”)

    But we don’t stop here. We keep going.

    The next step is looking deeply into needs and obstacles. Remembering to answer questions in the first person from the customer’s perspective, we ask:

    • What do I want in my life, long-term?

    • When I wake up on the average Monday morning, what do I most want for that day?

    • Why do I want the things I want?

    • How must I get those things? (Does it need to look a certain way; do I need to get other things first etc.)

    • What do I usually do to get what?

    • What other things will I do to get what I want- how far will I go?

    • What are the practical obstacles in my way?

    • What are the internal obstacles in my way?

    • What cultural norms or prejudices must I navigate to get what I want?

    • How confident am I in my ability to get my wants and needs met?

    Finally, we want to ask ourselves about circumstances and events. From your customer/character’s point of view, ask yourself:

    • On a typical day, what am I doing?

    • On a typical day, what else must I do?

    • On a typical day, what outside forces are impacting me?

    • What special events or circumstances are going on to make this day (the day they seek your product or service) different from all the days before?

    While it takes some time, and you might not get great answers to every question or even understand how every question relates to your context and your customer, just walking through this process can open new ways of thinking.

    You may discover, for example, an entire change of organizational identity.

    Maybe you were a Writing Studio that serves middle-aged professionals who seek to develop their writing skills for a creative outlet and personal fulfillment.

    And perhaps you are becoming a Retreat Center for High Performing Executives who seek to recover from a mid-career crisis by developing their creative capacities and connecting with a community of visionary business leaders.

    Anything is possible.

    You can create whatever is possible for you by looking behind the curtain, casting yourself in the role of your customer, and stepping into your studio to explore deeply.

    Enjoy it. 

    And break a leg!  (For those of you who don’t yet know, that is theatre-speak for Good luck!)

    Pulling Back the Curtain on Customer Viewpoint

    Pulling Back the Curtain on Customer Viewpoint

    Here is a strategic riddle: What do peacock feathers, blue shoes, and mirrors have in common?   What springs to your mind?

    The good news is that it doesn’t matter what your answer is. Looking for the correct answer is more important than finding it. Just scanning your brain for possible answers to such an odd question opens you up to both creative and divergent thinking.

    Creative and divergent thinking are essential because they allow us to take a fresh look at our customers and our marketplace and differentiate our offerings in meaningful ways.  Getting your brain primed to think creatively can be a decisive first step in developing an ideal business strategy.

    In many instances, that priming can be as simple as a thought exercise of asking yourself a seemingly nonsensical question and taking the time to let yourself explore possible answers.

    We can also go further if we wish. We can change the associations we bring to the puzzle of meeting our customers’ needs.

    For example, when I asked you how blue shoes and peacock feathers and mirrors are related, I had a specific association in mind that may not have entered your mind.

    You see, in addition to being an entrepreneur, business strategist, and performance coach, I am also a theatre artist. I have spent tens of thousands of hours working as both an actor and theatrical director.

    And, while there is no correct answer to my question, there is an obvious one for many theatre artists.

    It is common superstition in the theatre that it is bad luck to bring these items on stage. It is thought that they will distract or derail the actors and hurt the performance. And while most actors don’t take the belief too seriously- it is still an association lurking under the surface to be brought to mind when the conditions are right. Theatre artists are a superstitious group. Our craft’s history and shared experiences have led to a host of specific habits and conscious and subconscious beliefs that drive our choices.

    Just like your customers.

    Your best customers probably have habits, beliefs, and ways of seeing the world you just haven’t considered. They may be making connections between things that you are missing.

    This is not happening because you or your organization is lazy or indifferent. Often, we work diligently to understand our customers. We need a new approach.

    We Need to Look Behind the Curtain

    The challenge with traditional approaches to creating organizational strategy is that we tend to be both too broad and too shallow in our thinking. We do not dive narrowly or deeply enough when working to understand the end-users of our product or service.

    Common approaches often lead us to think we are creating meaningful customer profiles and marketing messages while we are, in fact, not seeing things from the customer’s perspective.

    What is evident to them is often invisible to us.

    We delve into demographics and, perhaps, talk a bit about psychographics as though we are putting a few sprinkles on a cupcake.

    We rarely take the time to shed our preconceptions about who we think our customers are and why we believe they want or need our offerings.

    Simply put, we rarely develop a robust enough customer persona. This approach attracts bad luck to our ventures because our strategies are muddy, and our offerings are not sufficiently differentiated.

    But it is bad luck, not bad intention.

    We have not been given skills to use to tune into the hearts and minds of customers. To make matters more challenging, we can’t spend significant personal time with our customers to learn their viewport firsthand. In many instances, we might have never met them at all.

    And because we can never fully know all our customers and potential customers, particularly if we are developing new initiatives or offering services at scale, it can be difficult to tell if we have arrived at the “right answer.”

    This brings us back to the world of theatre. Actors, directors, and other theatre artists are taught to set aside “right answers” and instead look for discoveries. Even better, we are taught to discover truths about fictional people or historical characters we can never meet. We have tools to help us look for the “wow” insights and open up entirely new ways of understanding others and seeing our possibilities.

    We are even frequently asked to look for discoveries about characters who we might not condone. We are asked to metaphorically listen to characters we might feel morally or emotionally distanced from but still need to understand deeply. Not every actor gets to play an admirable hero; some stories require us to look unflinchingly into the mind of a villain.

    All this leads to a knack for seeing into what is obvious to others that were, at first, hidden from us.

    And the process is not complex or arcane. To facilitate unexpected discoveries and explore both comfortable and uncomfortable insights, theatre artists begin by simply asking detailed questions about the characters and how they fit into the world of the play.

    They don’t begin with how they, as an actor, would like to portray the character. Instead, they work to deeply understand the character’s experience and worldview and hone in on the unmet needs that may consciously or unconsciously drive the character’s actions.

    I believe that most business strategists want to do a great job delving into the minds and hearts of their customers. They have not been shown how to peer into the minds of their customers effectively.

    As business leaders, we must do the same.

    To uncover a meaningful view of our customers and drive a higher impact strategy, we need to start by subtracting rather than adding. Instead of sitting down and trying to organize everything we think we know about our customers, we can start with the opposite.  

    We can start by asking ourselves if we are making assumptions about our customers which are not valid. 

    We can ask: how do our customers see themselves? 

    Often our customers see themselves and their worlds through entirely different eyes. 

    Taking time to look for and weed-out, assumptions can open us to new and more actionable insights.

    I invite you to take some time this week to ponder what you think you know about your customer that might not be quite right. And then join me for our next blog, where we cast ourselves in the role of our customers and use the actor’s process to delve more deeply into their world.

    Secrets from a Facilitator: Planning an Effective Strategy Process: Understand Retreat Limitations

    Secrets from a Facilitator: Planning an Effective Strategy Process: Understand Retreat Limitations

    Understand retreat limitations

    Experience has taught me that organizations typically expect more of their annual retreat than the day or weekend can deliver. Everyone comes into the day with high hopes for team cohesion, fresh insights, a breakthrough idea or two, and a detailed plan for the year ahead. Retreats are the perfect forum for some group activities and not for others.

    • Retreats are effective for brainstorming, raising issues, building cohesion, and getting a general sense of your team’s feelings and perspectives on issues. They can surface possibilities and confirm realizations.
    • Retreats are not ideal for making big decisions. The nature of group dynamics involves improvisation, the need to take the ideas offered and move them forward. Your group will fluctuate between diverging views and converging realizations. That natural give-and-take, and the real-time nature of groups of humans processing information in real-time, means your group will likely be less effective than you might assume.

    Go into your retreat with a clear-eyed view of possible achievements and design a more comprehensive process to get you to success with follow-up tasks, plan drafts, and agreed-upon deadlines to complete the strategy process.

    Consider your facilitator

    A facilitator is a bit like a detective. We listen and look for clues. My goal is to ascertain whether my client’s desired outcomes are realistic and manage expectations to align with reality.

    Making the most of your process begins with clarifying expectations. An experienced facilitator can help you determine what’s feasible and essential to accomplish during the retreat and the overall process.  

    • What are the achievements? Where did your team gain traction? What goals remain unfinished? 
    • What must you achieve this year? The last year was unprecedented, and this year is unusual too.

    Given the new realities of post-pandemic growth, the right facilitator will make a big difference this year. Here’s to making the most of your retreat and planning process.

    Do you need a facilitator for your next strategy retreat? Karla Raines is available to take on a few, select engagements in 2021. Click here for inquiries.


    Secrets from a Facilitator – Clarify Expectations (Pt. 1)

    Secrets from a Facilitator – Clarify Expectations (Pt. 1)

    On CEO Blog Nation, Karla Raines lays out three master tips for facilitating effective strategy retreats. Make this year’s board retreat memorable. You can find these tips on our website or in “Secrets from a Facilitator: Planning an Effective Strategy Process.” 

    The first quarter of 2021 is in the rearview mirror, and you can see the year speeding up with each passing week. It’s time to prepare for your 2022 strategy process. The unprecedented nature of last year and the beginning of 2021 remind us that the usual approaches won’t do when complexity and uncertainty continue to shape the future. Who would have envisioned the GameStop mania or the Suez Canal freighter blockage?  

    I’ve facilitated hundreds of retreats and strategy processes over the years. My advice for 2021 

    1. Clarify expectations. 
    2. Understand retreat limitations. 
    3. Consider your facilitator.  

      Clarify expectations 

      I’ve seen it all—the rogue board members with conflicts of interest, the executive team members vying for the CEO’s job along with the interim, and a focus on the tactical disguised as the strategic. Group dynamics and process design can undermine or enhance success. The desired outcome? A consensus-based plan of action based on three to five strategic decisions.   

      I encourage you to optimize your approaches to people, processes, and products.  

      • People Take stock of your team. How ready is the group to make consensus-based decisions?  Are there underlying personal agendas that might interfere with group decision-making? Has the team composition changed? How has remote work impacted relationships? Does the group have a track record of success in strategic decision-making? The greater the need to align, the more time required for an effective group process, especially when high-stakes decisions are involved.

      • Process Take a look at your approach. An effective process yields the necessary decisions. Your first task in preparing for success is to get clear on the scope and scale of the decisions at hand. How clear is the group about the choices under consideration? Is everyone up-to-speed on the data? What are the strategic options at hand? Does the team agree upon the implications? Your team might benefit from an enhanced process to create a shared understanding of the data insights and prepare for effective strategy setting and planning

      • Product Give your classic framework a review. Your team may have a tried-and-true plan framework that is updated annually. Given the nature of change in 2020, now is the time to update the planning framework. For example, how well do you appreciate your customers as whole people? Their needs and expectations have likely changed notably, too, and you’ll want to update your assumptions. Now is the time to determine the pre-work required to understand the external context, competitors, and customers. It is also time to review and update your plan document to accelerate success into 2022.