Seeing the Wood for the Trees aka Strategic Context

When I get called-in to work with SMEs and Start-ups as a trouble-shooter, I invariably get told, in some detail, what they think the problems are. But often, what I am getting told, is what the symptoms of the problems are.

In a way, I need to adopt an approach that is like the diagnostic approach that a doctor needs to undertake to find out the cause of some illness. There is a need to get to the root cause of the problem. Investigating the symptoms is useful, and confirms what they are, but it is not always going to give the solution to the problem.

There is a fine balance between investigating a problem to the extent that it is understood, and what I would call ‘tunnelling’ – digging in too deep and getting lost in the detail.

Once a problem has been understood enough, it’s wise to look up and see what the solution is likely to look like. It gives a much better chance of finding a viable solution and getting people on-board quickly. And looking for the solution needs to be within context: the context of the real Business Strategy.

When I ask, “what is your overall strategy?”, I have sometimes got trite answers such as: “read the documents” or “of what relevance is that?”. The reality is, that in a fast-moving world, any historical ‘strategic’ documentation can be out of date quickly, particularly if it was originally done primarily for ‘marketing’ or investment purposes and has not been updated.

Asking directors and senior managers what their Business Strategy is, can also be very insightful.

One of the main purposes of a Business Strategy is to provide a simple, high level road map of what the company stands for and where it is going.

If the senior management of a company can only refer to and read from documents to relate that strategy, it indicates some potential issues: the strategy is not what they are following, the strategy is too complex to articulate and/ or follow, or it is too detailed to actually be useful as a strategy.

Another factor is the different directions that directors follow. I’ve listened to more than a few directors describe pretty much different strategies – within the same organisations!

Problem solving requires: understanding the problem, understanding the Strategic Context of the problem, and finding the solution(s) within that context.

There’s a great statement I once heard, “don’t just fix the problem right, fix the right problem”.

This diagram shows the umbrella concept of Strategic Context. Focus on what’s underneath the umbrella, not outside of it.

If you don’t know what your strategic umbrella is, how do you know whether your problem is inside it or outside of it?

This may all sound a little complex and long-winded to do. However, it’s far from it: the effort spent in establishing or re-establishing your Strategic Context can be minimal compared to going down one or more irrelevant ‘blind-alleys’ or, in the case of some companies, going out of business.

Another important aspect of having a Business Strategy, is making sure that it is relevant – and good Corporate Governance should ensure that it is kept relevant.

The mind-map shows the areas that are necessary to establish good Strategic Context.


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The Sixth Discipline ?

Many of us are familiar with the book, the 5th Discipline by Peter Senge.

In summary his 5 disciplines are:

• 1st. Personal Mastery – as an artist would approach a work of art
• 2nd. Mental Models – deeply ingrained assumptions of mental images that influence how we understand the world and how we take action
• 3rd. Building Shared Vision – when there is genuine vision, people excel because they want to
• 4th. Team Learning – engaging in true dialog with their minds open.
• 5th. Systems Thinking – the integrative discipline that links the four disciplines above, is used to analyse patterns in an organization by looking at it in a holistic way.

I advocate that there is another, a 6th Discipline, Keeping Relaxed – conducting business in a non-stressed, relaxed, calm yet incisive manner, re-setting your Mental-Models for relaxation.

Some other terms used for being stressed are ‘tense’ or ‘wound-up’ and these accurately reflect the state you need to move out of.

Most people can only do this using time – and this is often too slow in a business environment. Mindfulness has become popular because it is a useful tool for decreasing the amount of time it takes to de-stress, unwind, de-tense, re-focus or release. For some people this comes relatively easily, for others they need guidance, tools and techniques to help them.

Being relaxed is a more difficult state to attain than most people recognise. When you ask someone when they relax best they will often say over a bottle of wine on the beach etc. That is more than relaxed, it’s chilled out. But this happens rarely when they are at work.

Here, I mean relaxation as being non-aggressive, non-stressed, calm, able to think straight, un-flustered, yet sharp and able to focus.

Being relaxed is a state, and as such you can move into or out of it. And many people move out of it far quicker than they can move into it!

Often the only way of determining if you are relaxed is to know what non-relaxed is and then find the opposite of that feeling, but not many people are equipped with the tools to do that.

Ask somebody who is stressed to relax and you’ll get the I am %$&*ing relaxed! At the other end of the scale, some people may be lucky enough to have jobs where they can be chilled-out at work.

For those that find it difficult to move into a relaxed state of Mindfulness, I advocate using some innovative new tools and techniques. Threnergy – Mindful Connectivity, provides a set of Mental-Models, reference tools, for calming mind and body, to help move into and keep in a relaxed state.

Stoicism in Everyday Life

For me stoicism used to conjure up images of people in sackcloth living very frugal lives. It wasn’t until I read a recent book on stoicism that I realised that it provides some particularly useful tools.

Influence is one of them. In modern stoic philosophy there are three types of influence:

– Things you can’t influence – therefore you would be wasting your time if you try to change them. For example – the weather isn’t something you can change unless you have some really special powers!

– Things you can directly influence and change, and where you should focus much of your energy on what you can do.

– The third category is a relatively new one in stoic circles; things you can partially influence and partially not influence. And this is the inspirational aspect.

If you try and change things you cannot influence, then you are necessarily setting goals around external objectives.

For example, I’m going to win this match, fight, run etc. Because these are external goals, you cannot influence those elements that are outside of your control, you can only influence the goals that are within your control.

The subtlety here is to set yourself internal objectives rather than external objectives. You only try to control what you can control. So instead of trying to win you try to do the best you can and set sub-objectives to help achieve those internal objectives.

In other words, focus on what you can do yourself and not on what others are doing or what is happening around you that you have no chance of changing.

This book has a great modern take on Stoicism:

A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy
by William B Irvine

I have made a mind map summary of my notes. If you’d like the full copy let me know and I’ll post it.

Corporate Governance in Smaller Companies

I am doing some collaborative work with a group of talented individuals applying Corporate Governance to the work I am already conducting on Strategic Technology Product Analysis and Planning.

Many smaller companies do not have a Corporate Governance Policy, yet it is an overarching view and definition of what the business really is, how it will operate and ultimately how successful it will be.

There are five Golden Rules of Corporate Governance:

  • Ethics: a clearly ethical basis to the business
  • Align Business Goals: appropriate goals, arrived at through the creation of a suitable stakeholder decision making model
  • Strategic management: an effective strategy process which incorporates stakeholder value
  • Organisation: an organisation suitably structured to effect good corporate governance
  • Reporting: reporting systems structured to provide transparency and accountability

What is really important is that management actually takes the time to think. To think about each of these rules, to believe in them and to enact them. It is far easier for investors to understand a business and how it will operate if these rules are adopted and conscientiously applied.

Equally important is how these rules are documented and how they are kept alive. One very useful tool is a Mindmap. This can be used to not only help define the corporate governance policy but also to use it as a dashboard to monitor it on an ongoing basis. It is important to have a holistic view of the business. Each part of the Corporate Governance Map can be drilled down into to provide more detail as required, to see where any issues are.

One of our specialist services is to map out Corporate Governance for you and with you, to put in place procedures to keep this a current and useful management tool.

For more information please visit our respective websites:

What Does a Pluralist Look Like?

The Established Way

The aspiration of many couples in the UK is to own their own house, have 2 kids, a car, holiday twice a year and enjoy whatever life offers them. Sometime this can include work. Other times it doesn’t. The life choices here have generally been: get educated, get a decent job, find a loving partner, buy a house, have a family, and get a car or two to run around in. Enjoyment is what you can do after you have earned enough to pay the mortgage and the various loans you owe to the bank and the credit card companies. All too often you have used someone else’s money to pay for the little rays of enjoyment … and so the debt black hole just gets deeper and deeper.

Steady State

For years we are content with the simple, but rich rewards such a life gives us. And for many people this path is both satisfying and rewarding enough to carry on with once the mortgage and loans have been paid-off or the kids have flown-the-coop. 

However, there are more and more of us out there that simply don’t swallow the established, ‘vanilla’ game plan. We just know that there is something else out there: a better, more fulfilling way of life. For some, the choices are obvious, for others it’s a gut feel and they need to test the waters to find out what it is that will satisfy that change-lust.

The point at which the ‘established’ way of life really gets questioned, is when you or somebody close to you has a life changing event, be it; empty nesting, separation, redundancy, retirement, or your company sale. 

For me, it was a major car accident on my way home from an overseas trip. It made me realise that all the lobster and wine I was pampering myself with on my business trips to Boston were just my way of bribing myself to keep my nose to the grind-stone. If I kept going that way, I’d die early – either from too much wine or lobster, or a fatal car crash! 

What bribes are you paying yourself to put up with the status-quo?

All Change?

I realised there and then that I had to do something to change the path I was following. But how do you change your path? How can you climb the walls that border it or find a gap to escape through?

Being an analyst, I decide to research the subject. 

The best way I have to describe the process is that it’s like a square-slide puzzle, where you have to shift the numbers around until you get them into their proper numerical sequence. 

Fortunately there are some relatively straight forward ways of figuring out how you can go about this, solving the ‘finding a new path’ puzzle. Here are a handy dozen of them.

1. Start a Life Journal – an electronic or paper journal where you write the following points down and review them on a regular basis.

2. Establish the Big Picture – define what the 10 most important facets of your life are, and write them down. 

3. Prioritise what is important to you now and what you think will be important to you in 5 years, 10 years and even 15 years time.

4. Write a paragraph on what each of those goals actually means to you. 

5. What are the big things you going to have to do to get to those goals? 

6. Where are you in terms of achieving those goals: 1, 3, 7, 10? (on a scale of 0-10). It’s zero if you haven’t started yet! How are you going to test the waters? How are you going to get started shifting from the zeros? 

7. What do you need to do to shift your achievements along your chosen goal paths?

8. What are the 10 values you want to keep to – to keep you ‘honest’?

9. Who best epitomises those values? Those people are your value role models – your references. Tell your journal why there are. Find out what they did, that you like, and how they did it.

10. Accept that if you want to change, you will have to change how you do things.

11. What is the one, next thing you have to change to catalyse your change?

12. Find where you are going to meet like minded people. Those that have chosen a similar path. People you can discuss things with on a peer to peer basis. Maybe even a few of the role models you are seeking? Maybe you need to just bounce a few hypotheses around and see where they lead you? How are you going to do that?

If a lot, or all of this makes sense to you, you are on your way to being a Pluralist

There are others just like you and me out there. Others with the same issues and similar aspirations. People you can share your ideas with. People who can and will share their ideas with you.