Top Chef Yields Innovative Ideas

By Jeri Denniston, Chief Marketing Strategist, Denner Group International

Takeaways: Innovative ideas come from unrelated areas. Chefs stretch their creative thinking to invent unusual and flavorful dishes. Consumer Trend Canvas stimulates innovative solutions.

Top Chef yields innovative ideas

As I watched a recent TV episode of Top Chef, I thought about how two chefs in particular stretched themselves pairing unusual ingredients from Asian and European cooking to make innovative and flavorful seafood dishes of lobster, clams, and oysters. It made me wonder how we might apply similar concepts to generate innovative ideas with our work with clients.

During this particular competition, the four remaining chefs had to be innovative in their use of ingredients, spices, textures, and flavors when preparing a main dish for four executive chef judges. Of the four contestants, one was eliminated, and the other three went into the final round in Mexico.

Each time the chefs competed, they were given one or more ingredients that must be the featured item in the dishes they prepare. They usually had less than an hour to decide what ingredients and spices to add, how to cook the main protein, and what sauce if any to include. This time also included plating the entrée and then presenting it to the judges.

This particular episode made me think…what can we do to help our clients think more creatively and stretch themselves in their problem-solving? Do the same planning models and tools work for this purpose or can those be adapted to help our clients dig deeper into the issues that are the heart of their challenges? Is there a tool to help them develop innovative ideas to solve critical issues?

Using Trend Canvas to Generate Innovative Ideas

We had the opportunity to test this in a planning project with a large spiritual organization. On the first day of planning, we introduced the Consumer Trend Canvas from Breaking the group into teams of four or five, we had each team use the Consumer Trend Canvas to analyze a critical issue and come up with some innovative solutions.

The beauty of the Consumer Trend Canvas is that it forces you to look outside the organization at what’s driving the changes that affect that particular issue. It also has you look at the basic consumer needs tied to that issue, and the emerging consumer expectations. After reviewing those three areas, you begin to think more creatively about how to address those changes as they apply to the issue you’re tackling. This creates interesting possibilities – innovative ideas – that might not have bubbled to the surface without using the Consumer Trend Canvas.

For this organization, one of the issues was member retention. They were no longer relevant, and consequently, they weren’t attracting younger members or retaining current, aging members. The average age of members was over 70! Without attracting new, younger members, the organization would eventually cease to exist.

We had each team chart their issue, three key challenges, and one to three innovative solutions on a flip chart. Then they shared their solutions with the entire group. This gave the group a list of innovative ideas to pursue further in order to resolve their top critical issues.

We had them prioritize the ideas down to one key idea for each issue. Then we included those ideas as action items under the strategies they came up with on the second day of the planning retreat. This resulted in a manageable list of action steps to pursue to move the organization forward towards its desired outcomes.

Doing this early in the planning session helped them to start thinking creatively as they continued through the rest of the weekend’s planning exercises. It forced them to look outside the organization at global trends that were impacting them now or could do so in the future.

The group successfully completed all the elements of a strategic plan during the two-day retreat. They have written the plan and are now in the process of executing it. In May, we’ll review their progress to see what they have accomplished in their first year of implementation.

What are you doing to be more innovative in your planning and problem resolution? Have you discovered new tools to help you think more creatively and uncover the deeper gold beneath the surface?

Getting Through the Peaks and Valleys of life

Jeri Denniston, Chief Marketing Strategist, Denner Group International

Takeaways: Peaks and Valleys are normal and natural in life and work. Create a sensible vision using all five senses and then follow it to move out of the Valleys. When in a valley, ask yourself: “What is the truth about this reality?” To stay longer at the Peak, find ways to be of greater service to others and more loving to your family and friends.

As I was re-reading Dr. Spencer Johnson’s book, Peaks and Valleys: Making Good and Bad Times Work for You, I reflected on where we are in our work and life journey. We haven’t achieved as much as I had hoped we would have by now. For example, we aren’t living our dream of two-month long sailing trips twice a year on our own boat or through chartering.

Male Gambel's QuailThen I looked at what we have achieved: we have a less stressful life. We have wonderful friends whom we see and talk with often. We are living close to nature, albeit not the nature I had imagined. But we are surrounded by bunnies, lovely Gambel’s quail, roadrunners, dogs, cattle and horses. The high mountain desert does have its seasons. The air quality is clear and the night skies are amazing. The surrounding red rock formations are stunning. We can actually see the thousands of stars which we couldn’t see in San Diego.

Could things be better? Sure! But that’s the future we can still create for ourselves. Johnson’s book reminded me that life is full of Peaks and Valleys. It’s how we manage our journey through the Valleys that makes it possible to enjoy more time on the Peaks.

One of the gems I was reminded of is that we create our own reality. So if we only focus on the negatives while we’re in the Valleys, we stay there longer. I’m reminded of another book, “Before You Think Another Thought”, by Dr. Bruce I. Doyle, III. In it he says that our thoughts are energy. Every thought we have is sent out into the universe and becomes a reality for us. So if we only think negative thoughts about how difficult or unfair life is or how unhappy we are with our current job or life circumstances, then we continue to create that reality. If, on the other hand, we stop to think “what is the lesson to be learned here” or “how might this reality be different,” we are taking stock of our situation and facing the truth of that reality.

That opens up the mind for more creative thinking about how we might change our circumstances to create a better reality. We start “doing” what we need to do to create that better reality, and before we know it, we are on a Peak again. Until we take responsibility for our current situation, and face the truth of how we got there, we aren’t ready to think differently in order to DO the work that will create the change.

Tget Peaks and Valleys on Amazonhese are powerful concepts to keep in mind. Here are some additional tips I garnered from the Peaks and Valleys book:

  • Create and follow your Sensible Vision using all 5 senses. This creates the Peaks in your life (you need to be able to see, hear, feel, taste and smell this vision – feel it in your bones)
  • Manage your way through Valleys to stay longer on the Peaks
  • Make reality your friend. Face your truths and fears.
  • When you’re in a Valley, ask yourself, “What is the truth in this?”
  • When in a Valley, imagine what you might see when you’re on a Peak (what might be possible and different when you reach the Peak?)
  • You need to feel and live the Peaks and Valleys. These are normal parts of everyday life and work
  • Your Valleys are opportunities to grow and learn

And here’s the final nugget of truth:
“You get out of a Valley sooner when you manage to get outside yourself: at work, by being of greater service, and in life, by being more loving.”

I plan to re-read this book at least once a year from now on, especially when I find myself going through or stuck in a Valley. It’s a good reminder of what I need to do to get through that Valley to the Peak that lies ahead.

Keys to improve your strategic thinking

By Jeri Denniston, Chief Marketing Strategist, Denner Group International  April 2014

Takeaways: Improve your strategic thinking to stay on top of your game. Surround yourself with people who think differently in order to broaden your perspective.

It’s easy to get lost in routine and forget about constantly improving your game. One of the ways to do this is to constantly improve your thinking. According to Shaun Rein, author of Three Keys to Improving Your Strategic Thinking, published on, the easy thing is to only read and listen to people who think like you. But by doing that, you surround yourself with a group of “yes” people and you don’t gain the necessary insights from contrary thinkers.

In his article, Rein lists three keys to improve your strategic thinking. These are:
1)    Constantly question your own opinions. Don’t always assume your opinion is right. Listen to others and be open to consider another viewpoint. Read the opinions of those who criticize your viewpoint to see if what they say has merit. You may be surprised and find a nugget of truth that might change your opinion.

2)    Don’t just read articles by these contrarians; surround yourself with people who think differently. Whether you are a leader in a large organization, the head honcho, or an entrepreneur, it’s important to gather trusted advisors and staff who offer differing opinions about world views, marketplace opportunities, and business prospects. Choose people from seemingly disparate fields for periodic discussions around a specific theme or focus, such as the state of China’s economy.

3)    Finally, he says, it’s important to recharge your brain and your body regularly. We know the importance of taking time every day to exercise, as well as take extended vacations away from the office, computers, and your smart phone. Rein suggests taking a trip somewhere where the people are different – a different culture and language. Even doing simple things like volunteering weekly at a soup kitchen will force you to re-think your life’s priorities and recharge your brain.

Regardless of our level in an organization, as leaders it’s important that we challenge our own thinking and status quo. Otherwise, we end up in a rut and we limit our own potential.

Why is Business Planning So Difficult?

By Eric A Denniston, Managing Director, Denner Group International 2-20-2-13

Takeaways: Business planning requires strategic thinking and analytical thinking skills. It’s important to understand the difference between the two. Best practices include having clarity about where your business is going, keeping the planning process simple, and involving your staff in the planning.

Nearly all small businesses struggle greatly with most everything having tPlanning mazeo do with planning for their business. The most obvious obstacles are the basic resources of a small business: time and money. I have no doubt that the two most overlooked obstacles to business planning are the lack of management commitment to planning and the lack of skills in planning. Planning skills are not a subject generally taught in school at any level but perhaps graduate degrees and beyond which mystifies me.

So much really good material has been produced about best practices in business planning but it’s not emphasized enough. If you, dear reader, agree with me, read on. If not, you may be among the few who are well-practiced in the disciplines, skills and arts of business planning.

Discipline and Concentration Required

Most small business owners, naturally, wear many hats. This has the effect of preventing one from devoting the discipline and concentration to actually doing the planning, and much more importantly, to establishing the processes and structures to support the execution of those plans. So, what can business owners and managers do to effectively and efficiently introduce profitable planning activities to their organization?

First, I suggest you recognize that planning skills are learned mostly through practice.  However, in addition to courses at your local colleges, a great resource is a local or online consultant that can also more easily tailor some instruction to your needs.

Second, also recognize there is a learning curve that might delay your progress in planning. This you can overcome by hiring a consultant to facilitate some planning sessions for you. The big advantage here is that you can learn along the way. A good consultant trains and coaches you through the planning process so you and your staff can build the skills your organization needs.

Third, become serious about having discipline in your planning programs. Keep it simple at first, but plan on building your programs to an optimal level for your organization. When you set schedules for planning meetings, stick to them. If you don’t, you are telegraphing to your staff that planning really is not that important to you as the owner or manager. And insist on attendance at the meetings. Make it part of staff evaluations to participate in planning meetings.

Best practices to implement immediately

> Gain clarity on the distinction between strategic planning and operational planning. Strategic planning is creating a Vision and a Mission, defining the values that guide the organization’s behavior, and determining what positioning the business wants to have in the eyes of the customer, not in your eyes. Strategic planning is also about laying the general route of the journey the business is on to reach its vision, defining the key success measures you will use to know you are still on track. It is about having clarity on where the business is today and what its strength and weaknesses are. It is about defining the core strategies you will follow and the key action items to implement to achieve the vision. And finally, it is about constantly scanning the external future environment your business operates in to better address the changes you’ll have to make in the future on your way to your vision.

By contrast, operational planning is concerned with the tactical issues of running a business. Budgets, meeting schedules, action plans to support the strategies, setting policies, defining roles and tasks, outlining market segments and pricing, hiring, firing, advertising, etc., all are part of your operating or business plan.

Recognize then, that you should have two separate plans – a strategic plan and a business or operating plan. And develop them in separate sessions, with the strategic plan first. Also, more importantly, recognize that each planning process actually involves thinking very differently. This is a distinction that schools should teach.


Most of our schooling is in how to think analytically or tactically, therefore, we are under-prepared to think strategically or systemically. This means we need to make sure we build up our strategic thinking skills. Much has been written about this so you can search the internet for books, articles and courses on this. But, you can also learn while you do the work, which often is the most productive way to do it. Consulting firms like ours help you do just that.

> Another best practice is to keep it simple. Just the idea of a planning session will make most business owner and managers roll their eyes as they think of how of their employee’s time is tied up in doing this. A carefully laid out plan that accounts for how your business and employees must operate is an important factor in efficient planning. The skills a consultant brings can help enormously. Don’t be afraid to ask for help. I have yet to find an entrepreneur who did it all himself or herself. They found good help along the way so don’t be bashful about asking for help.

> A third best practice in keeping it simple is to use a framework tool that I know works in all sizes of organizations. Called the EABC model for planning developed by the Haines Centre for Strategic Management, this model has you answer five questions in this specific order:

  1. What are your desired outcomes –  your future desired state?
  2. How will you know you are on track to reach them?
  3. What is your current state, which can easily be achieved with a SWOT analysis?
  4. What do you need to do to bridge the gap from where you are today to your future desired state? and
  5. What will be occurring in the future that will affect your achieving your future desired state?

If you would like a free copy of this model, please visit our website to download a copy.

Best practices in planning also include an understanding of the time required to draft a plan. And don’t forget, the time to establish the structures and processes to make sure the plan(s) are implemented or executed. Too often, once a plan is drafted, nothing happens because this crucial step is overlooked or ignored. We actually recommend a brief,initial “Plan to Plan” session to set the stage for success before you implement. This allows you to identify the personnel, financial and time resources required to truly achieve a successful planning program.

If you are conducting your first strategic planning process, I recommend two full days in an environment that eliminates distractions. A retreat is a good idea, but what is important is not being distracted. A good, experienced facilitator can make this happen in one day but what will be missing is some training for the staff on the planning and implementing processes and structures required.

Also, be inclusive with your staff. Let them know what is going on and be prepared to involve and engage them in the planning process. Again, an experienced facilitator can be very valuable in coaching you on how to engage staff, keep them informed, and on what to engage them in.

To wrap up, let’s remind ourselves of some key practices in planning.

  • Set a schedule and stick to it.
  • Be inclusive and keep people informed.
  • Build planning skills any way you can.
  • Understand the distinction between strategic planning and operational planning and do them separately using the appropriate way of thinking.
  • Establish the structures and processes to ensure your plans are executed and measured efficiently.

To speed up or simply make the planning happen, don’t be bashful in asking for help. A few hundred or thousand dollars for a consultant’s help could mean 10 to 100 times return on your investment, and likely more engaged and productive employees in your organization.

What is Strategic Management?

By Eric A Denniston, Managing Director, Denner Group International 2-20-2013

Takeaways: Strategic management encompasses planning, culture change, operational flexibility, stakeholder involvement, and periodic future environmental scans. Planning and change are two key roles of every leader.

Strategic Management encompasses several areas in managing and leading an organization. Planning certainly is part of the process. Without a well developed strategic plan to act as a road map of where you’re headed, you’re just shooting in the dark hoping one of the shots will hit the mark. And the plan must start with a future vision, mission and values. These will provide a compass for identifying the future direction of the organization, the organizational culture you want to create, and an understanding by Antique Compass - a key to strategic managementyour employees, stakeholders and customers of what you do and why you’re in business.

So you’ve created a 3-year or 5-year strategic plan. Are you done until the time rolls around to dust it off and update it three years from now? Hardly! The plan is a living document. Every year you update the plan and add another year. That way you are continuously working on your strategic plan while you work on the day-to-day activities that need to get done to move the business forward.

Your 2010- 2013 plan you create this year becomes your 2011-2014 next year and so on. Then you have every division and department in the organization create 1-year business plans that support the 3-year strategic plan. We call this the Parallel Involvement Process, for which there are many tools. Each division’s goals and objectives are the same ones identified in the strategic plan, but the actions and initiatives they are accountable for will be different from department to department. That way you ensure that each department and everyone within the department is doing their part to ensure the strategic plan is implemented.

But strategic management doesn’t stop there. It also includes attention to your people. After all, it’s the people in the organization who make it work. Involving them in the planning and implementation is critical to ensuring you have buy-in and stay-in for your planning process. Each person’s performance review should be tied directly to how he or she contributes to achieving the objectives and values identified in the strategic plan. This also helps you create the kind of culture you want in the organization.

Ultimately, strategic management is about change…creating and leading organization-wide change. This needs to be accomplished in a successful manner so everyone understands how they contribute to implementing the change. As a leader, two of your key responsibilities are planning and change. Understanding how to lead and manage the change process, and what structures and processes to put in place to ensure a successful implementation, are all part of strategic management.

Millenials Play by Different Rules

By Eric A Denniston, Managing Director, Denner Group International  6-26-2012

Takeaways: Millenials could be the “next greatest” generation like the Baby Boomers. Generational issues exist around trust, independence, competition, rebellion, individualism, collaboration, a sense of community and “optimistic, team minded players.

I have written before about Systems, or Strategic, Thinking as a management tool that has gained substantial ground over the past 20 years or so throughout all kinds of organizations. Led by companies like General Electric and Toyota, applied by non-profits, government organizations and the military, the discipline of Systems Thinking is helping to improve performance globally. I have also illustrated the impressive positive effects the skilled application of Systems Thinking has on the long-term performance of those organizations that incorporate it into their culture in order to align daily actions with strategic initiatives.

Among the processes that have proven to be valuable in sustaining that alignment between daily actions and strategic initiatives is that of continuously scanning our external environment. Many organizations perform that scanning activity within the framework of a SWOT analysis, delving into an organization’s Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats. This SWOT exercise is valuable because it provides important insight into key aspects of an organization that support the development of strategic objectives and actions.

I have found, however, that a SWOT analysis is lacking in one key respect:  it tends to keep us rooted in thinking about today and the trends that have recently affected our organization. Using a SWOT analysis means you are scanning past results that have been affected by trends of the past and, therefore, cannot influence any future outcomes. If we are to be thinking strategically and with a more systemic discipline, we need to root our thinking in the future, on issues whose outcomes we can influence because we can plan for them.

More specifically, it is important to focus on the horizon window we are working on for our strategic objectives and our overall strategic plan, such as the typical three or five-year plan. Through a mentor of mine, Stephen Haines, I have learned some valuable techniques to maintain a forward-thinking process to scan the environment using a “future-rooted” framework.

One element of that framework is to scan future trends in the context of sociodemographic issues. These issues can have a profound influence on how we manage employees in our organizations. How we hire and train them, how we guide their growth, and how we coach and guide our managers to read and adapt to developing sociodemographic trends that are cultural in nature. Scanning these trends that in the future will be affecting our organization should take into account the traditional issues of age groups in our workplace, education levels and career trends, skill levels, compensation trends, hiring costs, etc. But there are other issues, perhaps a bit more subtle, but nonetheless just as valuable.

Generational Issues Abound

I just mentioned cultural trends because I recently read a transcript of a commencement address delivered by noted demographer, Neil Howe, at the University of Mary Washington on May 12, 2012. In his address he makes a point of outlining with great clarity how each generation tends to impose a sense of “Because this worked for me in my generation, it will work for you in yours.”

He points out how various recent generations have both adopted and rejected some of their parents’ attitudes and preferences and gives his take on why, today in particular, it is important to recognize that there is a good chance that today’s college grads could very well be the next “greatest generation” like the one that begat we Baby Boomers. Mr. Howe talks clearly about generational issues of trust, independence, competition, rebellion, individualism, collaboration, a sense of community and “optimistic, team minded players”.

Think about this for a minute. Today’s managers in every organization are challenged by young employees whose sense of interaction and communication is driven by current technological and social trends.  More often than not the resulting behaviors between managers and employees are in conflict without any guidance for resolution to improve overall performance. This conflict is rooted in what Mr. Howe is talking about – older generations being more than a little unaccepting that younger generations have a brain, too. They are likely better educated than the older generation in the sense that they have been exposed to more and different things simply because of the internet and improved global communications.

We Baby Boomers and Gen-X’ers should feel compelled to make some changes in ourselves to leverage the talents of the younger generation, rather than continue this generational habit of attempting to impose our approaches and mindsets on theirs. You might consider how this applies to serving your clients, too!

I recommend everyone read Mr. Howe’s commencement address, From Millenials to Baby Boomers, and see what we can do to change ourselves to help create that next “greatest generation”. And help them learn Systems Thinking too, of course.

You can read Mr. Howe’s commencement address at this link, which in turn came to me from John Mauldin, a respected investment counselor, whose newsletter convinces me that he, too, is a skilled systems thinker. I also encourage you to share this address with every college age person you know.

Systems Thinking Best Practices in Tablet Initiative

By Eric A Denniston, Managing Director, Denner Group International  4-8-2012

Part B – THINK

As we move into the THINKING stage of this exercise, let’s consider what the thought styles should be. How you think is really important in achieving results. We are engaged in a project that is intended to have a lasting effect on the enterprise and thus must include strategic, or systems, thinking. Systems Thinking best practices show us the importance of defining the content of the project, the thinking processes such as facilitated meetings, and the structures, such as clear rules for meetings and engaging cross-functional groups in meetings to have more timely information exchanges.

This should include working hard on defining the various desired outcomes, for each stakeholder (yes, each is asking “What is in it for me?”). We should carefully consider who those stakeholders are: warehouse managers and floor staff, our IT department, our IT warehouse planning outcomesvendors, our prospective tablet vendors, our sales and purchasing departments, our supply chain managers, our asset management office, our strategic management office, our marketing firm, our process specialists, our HR department, our attorneys and our PR firm. This list is offered as an example and will vary depending on your firm and your products, so we’ll flesh this out in more detail later.

Unintended consequences can occur

Let’s dive in to what can happen if we don’t include some of these stakeholders in the process to recognize the value of this level of diligence. Waste Management is cited in Information Week as having deployed a pilot program of tablets to 20 of its trucks. The day before the pilot program went live, their telecom carrier sent one of those now normal automatic updates to the mobile devices modifying the operating system.  The update caused “the on-board (I presume on-board the trucks) charging system to no longer work with the tablets, so they would run out of power on the road”. 

Can you now see the unintended consequence of having hundreds or thousands of tablets working incorrectly due to an automatic update from any of the vendors involved in the tablet? You may have in-house custom apps, third party apps, the OS vendor, the hardware/firmware vendor and accessory vendors (charging systems!) that need to be considered and included in planning and executing the project.

Ignoring them can be detrimental to your tablet initiative project.