SEARCH for a topic on this site by typing in the above box.

Tom Devane is a consultant, author, and co-author of provocative bestselling books on achieving extraordinary results using methods that systematically engage people in organizations and communities.
This form does not yet contain any fields.




    The Change Handbook

    Over 60 methods that engage groups quickly and produce extraordinary results.




    Barnes & Noble


     - - - - - - - - -


    Integrating Lean Six Sigma and High Performance Organizations

    A leader's guide to blending technical and people aspects of performance improvement.


    Barnes & Noble

    Wiley & Sons



    White paper on Positive Deviance




    Archives (by topic and month)

    Entries in Strategy (9)


    City Slickers Meets the World of Strategic Planning โ€“ Part 1, the JUST ONE THING Challenge

    After a presentation I recently made at a strategic planning conference a sr vp from a high tech manufacturing firm came to me and shared a story about change at his organization.  It was a sad story.  He lamented to me that his senior management team had been very astute in the early detection of the last two direction shifts in their market niche, which was a great accomplishment.  And they put these new directions into their formal strategic plan.  

    But he said because the company’s new strategy couldn’t be translated quickly enough to the desk top and shop floor levels, they missed out in the marketplace.  Big time.  He’s in a very competitive industry where his top two competitors beat them in both cases, causing his company to play a very expensive game of catch-up as they scrambled to capture what used to be their market share, and then try capture even more.


    He said he’d talked with numerous consultants who were all too happy to give him 50 things to do to avoid this scenario from repeating itself in the future – and, he added, with a pretty hefty price tag.  So he wanted to ask me at this conference, what is the ONE thing that I thought could provide the highest leverage translating strategy to execution.  When I started to answer he anticipated my response and cut me off, saying, “ Yeah, yeah, I know you’re going to say there’s more than just on thing to do, but I’m asking you to dig back into all your experiences… with successes and with failures… and give me what you think is the highest leverage approach that will apply in most cases.”


    I had to admit it was a great question that made me think.  After clearing my mind of the image in the movie City Slickers where ornery trail boss Jack Palance (Curly) challenges Billy Crystal to come up with the ONE THING that’s most important to him, I knocked the trail dust off my PowerPoint clicker and said to the vp, “Okay, here it is.  Once we get past the obvious fundamentals like having a tight strategy-to-structure connection, over-communicating the strategy, tying it into the company’s formal performance appraisal process, etc. here’s that One Thing for phenomenal leverage.  And I’ve found this has great portability from industry to industry, and from organization to organization…




    City Slickers Meets the World of Strategic Planning โ€“ Part 2, the Response

    It’s actively engaging employees in the cascading of goals from the top of the organization to the front-lines. 

    Why is this so powerful?  By getting a larger group of people involved you’ll get more energy.  Information will flow faster.  And by challenging the people to connect the strategy to their daily work, they can ask better questions to really understand the strategy, and then come up with creative ways to support it.  And they then own these tactics to implement the new strategy, because the helped create them. 
    I’ve found groups are best to accomplish this – instead of just having a series of one-on-ones with people from the top of the organization to the bottom – because conversation flows more freely in groups, people can build on each other’s ideas, and diverse perspectives generate a more robust solution because people are thinking together.




    Here are three ways to do this. You can follow general formats of previously proven templates, like the Balanced Scorecard where people set goals in support of the new strategy, in a cascading fashion from organizational top to bottom, for the four categories, of Customer, Process, Learning & Growth, and Financial.   Diverse companies such as Mobil Oil, Philips Electronics, CIGNA Property & Casualty have successfully used this process in the past. You can also follow a cascading path from top to bottom of the organization based on a semi-structured set of conversations.  Group events like World Café, Learning Maps (in which pictures and structured questions stimulate group conversations), and Open Space can get you there.  Organizations like Hewlett-Packard, Pepsico, and NASA Goddard Space Flight Center have used conversation-based approached. 

    Or, you might feel your organization has very unique needs, and decide to design a customized strategy roll-out engagement plan. You might want to start from scratch, or take a look at existing templates and develop a hybrid that you feel meet your unique needs.  Such sessions can be fun, highly creative inducing, and quite financially rewarding for the company.   A wide variety of organizations have gone the “custom design” route to connect strategy to execution.


    image credit: istockphoto


    City Slickers Meets the World of Strategic Planning โ€“ Part 3, a Reprieve of the Just ONE THING Limitation

    The sr vp nodded, seemed to like the answer, and then said, “Okay, you’ve told me what needs to be done, now what’s the ONE THING that will maximize my likelihood of success for this engagement-based cascading approach?”

    I silently thought, Great!  Here’s my chance to add at least one more Thing to that previously lonely item of one advice tidbit for strategy roll-out.

    I replied, You’ll greatly increase the likelihood of your success if you set up one or more teams to plan to roll-out the cascade, support its implementation, and follow-up on its effectiveness.  Teams can provide an ongoing energy, consistency of purpose, and mutual accountability for moving forward that it’s hard to duplicate with just a single, or handful of  talented individual operating independently.  Having a team involved from the start also sets the stage, and helps introduce and model the expected behaviors that this roll-out will be a group activity, that it involves more than just the current inner circle of execs.



    Don’t just assemble a group of people and call them a team.  Set up conditions for the team to grow together, and capitalize on their diverse perspectives.  Actually carve out some time for the team to get acquainted, do some planning, set some goals, and go through some team-building efforts.  You’ll get a higher quality product in the end than if you just periodically gather the same bunch of people in a room to “work on that strategy cascading thing.”

    Even though it’s a top-down driven strategy roll-out, on the team consider having a few people from lower levels in the organization.  They’ll be able to provide some practical perspectives, on “what will play in Peoria” or whatever parts of the organization they live and work in.  And the groups they represent will really appreciate that they were included, and this can pay substantial dividends in the strategy execution phase.

    From Day 1, help the team create a feedback-rich environment.  From personal experience, and from Carl Larsen’s research with over 6,000 team members, one of the toughest things teams have to deal with is providing and being open to feedback, so the team can grow and perform at its highest potential.  But luckily it’s also one of the most easily addressed -- if it’s addressed early.

    *         *        *


    Pretty cool questions from that vp, thought I’d share them with everybody in the last three posts.  Would love to hear your thoughts on what’s worked for you in cascading strategy throughout your organization.  What’s been your experience?

     Photo credit: istockphoto


    Four Tips for Building Powerful Visions that Get Acted Upon

    An organization’s vision can be a tremendously powerful lever for performance.  That is, when it’s crafted well.
    What gives vision statements a bad name is when a small, select group of executives go off-site to a fun resort and come up with a one- to four-sentence summary of what they talked about and ultimately agreed upon.  And then they laminate it on wallet-sized cards and put up posters of it in each conference room, fully expecting employees to resonate with it, and fall in line completely behind it.  
    I’ve seen this process fail time after time.  And it’s raised a level of cynicism and inaction in organizations on every continent, in every imaginable industry.
    So exactly what does it take to build a vision that’s a powerful engine for organizational performance?  Let’s start by taking a look at what I mean by vision.  An organizational vision describes an unprecedented, highly optimistic desired future state or remarkable achievement.  A vision should help energize people, inspire them to help achieve it, and focus their efforts.  
    An example was when Colin Marshall, then president of British Airways (while many passengers and travel agents alleged that BA stood for “bloody awful”) declared that the company would become the world’s premier airline.  And the airline employees made extraordinary improvements.
    Here are four tips to help you boost the impact of your organization’s vision.
    1.  Consciously consider the context you’re operating in, in a group setting.  Sure, you want to set those stretch targets, and be uninhibited by current obstacles in your path.  And you SHOULD want to set those stretch targets.  But don’t make the mistake of failing to formally take a look at the context around you, or you might miss some great opportunities.  Ask questions like, “Is there an industry ecosystem that we’re part of that’s evolving, whose characteristics we need to consider in OUR evolution?”  “What are our organization’s awesome strengths that we need to capitalize on going forward?”  “Are there elements of our current obstacles that we could turn to our advantage?”  “How do we want to shape – not just react to – the industry we’re a part of and the greater world around us?”
    And I’ve also found it helpful to consider these questions, and have associated conversations, in a group setting with leaders from various disciplines in the organization.  It’s like everyone has a piece of the jigsaw puzzle, and being in one room helps get the puzzle assembled quickly.  The back and forth that goes on in such conversations helps strengthen everyone’s understanding of the situation, and helps build a common, shared understanding of the challenges and opportunities ahead.  Without the collective, public conversations that people can build on, all we have are individual thoughts inside people's heads.  Because these internal thoughts are not connected with other thoughts, and top leaders aren't sure if there's agreement on the critical issues, the organization loses a great deal of leverage in building an effective vision.
    2.  Engage people’s creative side, not just their analytical side.  The vision development work should not just be performed in a sterile, analytical, serious environment.  Use pictures and images in creative ways to prompt, and deepen conversations.  Use stories and metaphors as conversational stepping stones to get from the current state to a better future one.  
    Keep in mind that there’s a lot of science behind the notion that people having fun can more easily step outside their day-to-day concerns and be innovative.  So by all means, create an environment for lightheartedness, experimentation, non-judgment, and fun.  In his book Serious Play, innovation thought leader Michael Schrage contends that, “You can’t be a serious innovator unless you are willing and able to play.”  
    3.  Quickly link the vision to a strategy, goals, and execution plan.  Don’t just let the vision sit there.  The vision only tells what remarkable impact you want to have on the world.  To keep that vision from being merely an hallucination, you’ll need to say how you plan to make it happen, and set up measurable goals and action plans to drive activity at all levels of the organization.  
    While all this linking doesn’t need to all be done in one session, top leaders should at least agree on a timetable – in the near future – where there will be a follow-up strategy, goals, and execution plans developed.
    4.  Design and plan for the vision’s communication and roll-out.  A great vision that resides only on conference room wall posters and laminated wallet cards never did any company any good.  It has to be in people’s heads and hearts also.  
    To do this, there needs to be a plan to disseminate the content of the vision, as well as some of the assumptions and background conversations that helped shaped the vision.  These will be necessary for people to understand the vision, talk about it with others in the organization, and get energized about trying to achieve it.
    The good news is that many of the stories, metaphors, and images that were used to help develop the vision (step 2 above) may be quite useful in communicating it to the workforce.
    The above provide some practical tips for building a truly powerful vision that an organization can get energized for, and then achieve.



    How to Magnify the Impact of Your Visioning and Strategy Development Sessions with One Little Pre-step

    Before you get together with the top leaders in the corporation to craft a vision and subsequent strategy, let’s think for a moment about how you could magnify the impact of those sessions.  One powerful thing to do to is to call top leaders, and those with additional valuable perspectives, into a session where they explore assumptions and see if those assumptions are still valid as the organization moves into the future.  
    These assumptions could be explicit or tacit.  They could be about topics like the overall market, target niches, the competition, regulation, or internal capabilities.  Anything that could have a significant impact on the organization’s future could be fair game.
    A reasonable person might ask, “But how do you get a diverse group of people in a room and talk about high-leverage assumptions without heated disagreements breaking out, and the overall conversation deteriorating?”  The answer is that we set up the session so this doesn’t happen.  
    We use a method for groups getting together called “Dialogue” where we state up front that we’re not looking for decisions or mass agreement in key issues.  We’re simply looking to collect people’s thoughts and their potential implications, in a non-threatening environment, where even the most shy and timid people can express their view of the situation.  And by stating up front that we’re not looking for decisions or unanimous agreements, we take the pressure off people so they can express their true opinions and thoughts on an issue that impacts the organization.  We state that we’re just collecting pieces of data that can be use later in analyses, debates, and decisions for moving forward.
    By having such a pre-visioning/pre-strategy Dialogue session, we can often gather information that may not have been previously available, because a soft-spoken person wouldn’t speak up.  And we also find that in a group setting people collectively build on each other’s thoughts, and often come up with a new, better thought based on back and forth conversations and the subtle nuances of the individual thoughts presented.  In many organizations these have proven to be extremely valuable inputs for visioning and strategic planning sessions.
    Here are some other norms we state up front going into a Dialogue session.  We ask people to:
    • Suspend their judgments and their “certainties”
    • Respectfully explore others’ assumptions through questions
    • Disclose their key assumptions and how they arrived at them
    • Respect foreign-sounding points of view
    • Ask questions they don’t have answers for, and be prepared to be surprised and learn something they hadn’t known before.
    Dialogue is a versatile group method that can be used in many situations in addition to visioning and strategy development like we’ve covered here.  A short Dialogue blog provides some additional information on the method.