Thinking differently produces new possibilities

Looking for inspiration recently, I turned to one of my favorite books, The Art of Possibility. Opening it up I came to a story about thinking differently. It was written by a health system’s Vice President who attended a presentation one of the authors, Boston Philharmonic Symphony Conductor Benjamin Zander, made to his company.

Art of PossibilityThe audience was told to reflect on someone no longer in their lives while Zander played Chopin. The Vice President thought about his father’s inability to tell him he loved him all the time he was growing up. This caused him to distance himself from his father as an adult. But during reflection he remembered a special moment when his father showed him his love, even though he couldn’t say it. Suddenly, his world changed.

The final paragraph in the letter he wrote points to the importance of thinking differently:
We keep looking so hard in life for the ‘specific message’, and yet we are blinded to the fact that the message is all around us and within us all the time. We just have to stop demanding that it be on OUR terms or conditions, and instead open ourselves to the possibility that what we seek may be in front of us all the time.

Be open to new possibilities

This made me recall a time early in my banking career when I put in a bid to my boss and his boss to create a brand new department with me as department manager. I had seen the need for a department that provided “creative services” to the executives since I was being asked to do those things already. This involved writing out flip chart presentations (yes, this was before PCs and PowerPoint), editing speeches, creating posters for executive presentations, and planning and producing marketing and operations conferences.

A few days earlier I had called my mother for advice on how to structure my proposal and presentation. She was my business adviser and mentor early in my career having had lots of experience working her way up the corporate ladder. At the time, she and several other high level executive women had formed their own consulting firm to help women gain the management skills to excel in a corporate environment run predominantly by men. Much of what they were teaching these women had to do with thinking differently about themselves, their work, and their career goals.

So armed with her advice, I wrote up my presentation and made the pitch as she had suggested. I remember being disappointed after my presentation because I didn’t get exactly what I proposed. I said as much to my boss. His response was, “Jeri, why are you so disappointed? You won! It may not be exactly how you proposed it, but you got the department and the new responsibility. Congratulations!”

Thinking differently creates new possibilitiesSimilar to the epiphany the VP had in the book, I too, gained a new perspective. I realized I needed to change my thinking. I did get the new opportunity and the promotion even though it didn’t look exactly as I had proposed and I didn’t get the title I wanted. But I was given a budget to manage and permission to hire two people. It was my first job directly managing my own staff, instead of the shared management responsibility of the department secretary whom I supervised with several other colleagues. The department head had his own private secretary. And now I was the only other person in the department with my own staff. Boy did that irk some of my co-workers!

The message I finally internalized was to recognize the win, and start thinking differently.  New possibilities emerge as a result.

You might be surprised at what you discover!

How Does Systems Thinking Improve Organizational Agility?

Systems Thinking offers simplicity, and therefore the possibility for agility both in the development and the implementation of strategies. Looking at an organization as a group of systems within a series of external systems is clearly a good start for creating agile strategies.

Further, applying a practiced evaluation of the organization by identifying INPUTS-THROUGHPUTS-OUTPUTS with a FEEDBACK LOOP, we can speed up the process of strategy development, and the creation of specific actions to implement the strategies.

Developing strategies and implementing them has been a focus of businesses for many decades and improving the processes is an ongoing conversation. In recent years, applying Agile concepts and techniques is getting more and more attention. It has even been questioned as to whether applying Agile techniques is even worthwhile. This has even been discussed on forums on startups with divergent conclusions on how effective this might be.

Using Agile techniques means that those strategies are more likely to be able to be adjusted quickly and effectively through their implementation. Systems Thinking brings a simple, reliable and repeatable rigor to strategy creation and implementation thereby offering a higher level of agility, admittedly a desirable attribute for reaching an organization’s desired outcomes more quickly and completely.

If Agility means getting things done faster, being more flexible in adjusting to changes, then Systems Thinking can help make these things occur. “Begin with the end in mind” as Stephen Covey said, is one key element both in Systems Thinking and in ensuring we are more easily able to keep focused on the long term while we adjust to the short term. This simple concept makes a huge difference to ensure we actually reach our objectives.

Fleshing out how Systems Thinking increases an organization’s strategic agility, we can consider the external environment, a natural factor in any system. The value of conducting a rigorous scan of the FUTURE environment of the organization lies largely in the relatively quick and easy identification of Opportunities and Threats. This effort results in intelligence that greatly enhances an organizations anticipation of what to capitalize on and what to prepare to overcome. Being more prepared certainly improves the organization’s Agility.

Agile Strategic Thinking Template

Using Systems Thinking, this template improves agile strategy creation and implementation

A tool we use for creating strategies is the framework “Agile Strategic Thinking Template” adapted from the Haines Centre for Strategic Management’s Systems Thinking Template  http://bit.ly/2aySbMD.

Managing the structures and processes created by the strategic initiatives is a challenge that grows in correlation to the size of the organization. Larger firms will naturally seek software to help with this and there are some out there.

Another tool we use for implementing and managing strategic initiatives is the Agile Strategy Manager SaaS at https://www.agilestrategymanager.com/strategy-framework.html .

Please share your thoughts and reasoning about why and how Systems Thinking improves the Agility of organizations in developing and executing strategic initiatives. Also, will you share with us any Systems Thinking tools you use that make organizations more Agile?

Applying lean agile techniques

The growing popularity in Lean Agile techniques compel us to reassess how we can use the various tools presented by these relatively recent additions to our “management toolboxes.”

In today’s world of nearly “instant” everything, we tend to drive decisions based on “gut feelings”, or simply in reaction to requests or directives. Too often we are forced to do this due to external forces we don’t control, regardless of the impact those decisions may have.

This approach can derail our intentions to reach longer-term strategic objectives.

Use lean agile techniques to drive sprint decisionsFor example, the Agile Strategy Execution Framework presented by ASM.com mentions two key processes that help drive more “agility” into achieving strategic success. Those are “Sprint Decisions” and “Group Retrospectives”.

Both of these processes utilize the collaboration of cross-functional groups in achieving their respective goals.

Systems Thinking supports lean agile techniques

It is valuable to note that ensuring the right type of “thinking” needs to be practiced throughout the framework model, and that means using “Systems Thinking”.  This “systemic”, or “holistic”, approach to applying this framework is part of the “secret sauce” to being effective and successful in reaching your strategic objectives.

If the term “Systems Thinking” sounds new to you, be assured it is not. Peter Drucker’s mentors in Vienna, Austria are considered to have shepherded Systems Thinking from the physical sciences into business management. Drucker then refined and articulated its applications. Many of the greatest organizations and businesses of today have been practicing Systems Thinking and teaching it for decades. For a brief overview, click here for an article about it.

Both the “Sprint Decisions” and “Group Retrospectives” outlined by ASM.com can benefit from the organization and facilitation techniques drawn from General Electric’s “Work Out” concepts. Whether teams are working on problems in design, process, operational, behavioral or cultural issues, their solutions will be more clearly articulated, more effectively measured and adjusted to with greater agility.

By working out issues in the collaborative, cross-functional teams, both deep dive activities and small bets can produce solutions that are better aligned with longer term objectives and create greater value for the customer and the business.

A lean agile techniques we use is what we call “Sprint Workouts.” These cross-functional team meetings are half to one or two full days in length. The meetings are focused on specific outcomes and support at least one strategic initiative whose results can be measured and communicated quickly and effectively. The stakeholders are clearly identified prior to the meeting and informed of the intent of the Sprint Workout. This produces buy-in and stay-in for quick solutions.

3 Tips: Making Strategic Planning Agile

Creating and managing change is in the pressure cooker! The 2001 introduction of the “Agile Manifesto” by a consortium of thought leaders of the software development industry has now spilled over into nearly, if not all, aspects of managing organizations of all types. This includes strategic planning.

First and foremost, let us accept that Strategic Planning is necessary and requires time, diligence and innovation. Nevertheless, there are tools you can use to make strategic planning agile, speeding up the planning process and achieving the same, and often better, results. Agile is one of those.

Here are three ways you can make Strategic Planning agile

  1. Run your planning retreat in a manner that includes breaking into teams that operate in SCRUMS. The teams, each led by a facilitator, follow the iterative process in a very compressed time frame of 15 to 45 minutes (see SCRUMS) to achieve relatively small, discreet goals. These group collaborations, when facilitated using some key Lean Six Sigma tools, will more rapidly create the results you need in assembling your Strategic Plan.
  2. Apply Systems, or Strategic, Thinking rigorously to maintain an “outcome-based”, or “future-oriented” focus on the planning and implementation of the strategic initiatives. This ensures you concentrate your thought processes and behaviors on evaluating the entire organization as a “living system,” and includes considering the overall environment the business operates in. This helps to make strategic planning agile.
  3. Create the structures, processes and culture that ensure everyone in the organization understands their role in making the business a success. This may include deploying a proven tool, like the Agile Strategy Manager, that aids you in tracking, managing and adjusting your desired goals as everyone does their job to reach them.

Agile Decision Making Framework makes Strategic Planning AgileUse a proven framework for planning. It helps drive the use of a common language for communicating, following, measuring and managing plans throughout the organization. Applying Systems Thinking also ensures the outcomes you identify are creating value for your customer. And don’t forget the importance of providing your people with the best tools available to track and report progress. This also helps to make your strategic planning agile.

Practicing “Agile” techniques, beginning with the Strategic Planning process, will permeate the Strategic Management process. Your organization’s various teams will implement the broader strategic initiatives and their respective tactical tasks. Keeping those tasks aligned with the organization’s strategic initiatives will help the teams adjust and innovate in a much more “Agile” manner.

Celebrating your and your people’s successes will be so much more impactful when everyone realizes that being AGILE and COMPREHENSIVE are not mutually exclusive endeavors.