20 Connected Dots

Exploring the 'types' of dots across an organization

Blog Post
April 9, 2024

We “clock in” each morning, diving into our vast networks of people and information, and spend a good part of our day trying to navigate across the (barely visible) threads that connect the network. We do this, of course, because it’s the only way we know, to work together. The only way to build things bigger than ourselves. But it’s not easy. Searching for docs. Responding to slack messages. Enduring over-attended meetings. These are our coping mechanisms.

Compound this with the extra isolation of working remotely or in distributed settings, and the challenges to connect are amplified. In the office, proximity had provided a focus, at least. Now we are asked to build (and maintain) our own relationships across people (company-wide) and across information (in open, shared repositories). This is how we collaborate today. But the cognitive load is high. And our virtual walls feel real: we work in “silos”, or get stuck on “islands”, handle tickets from a single “desk”, trying to connect via “channels” of non-stop chatter. 

It feels like this is a puzzle we are individually asked to solve: building connections across people and information, that are persistent over time. While it’s true that these connections unlock our productivity and our effectiveness, the barriers and impediments to connecting are significant - overwhelming at times. Sometimes we give up trying, and choose to just get comfortable in our silo, on our island, or at our desk.

“Getting connected” widens our visibility, which yields better communication, which produces better collaboration. Unconnected, we can’t see those complementary adjacencies - the people and information that make our efforts more impactful, more efficient, more fun. Unconnected, we sense that our work will cause effects elsewhere, and that we will be affected by work elsewhere. But we just don’t know.

The connections we need span our teams, our departments, our divisions, our companies, our ecosystems, even to our customers, and other stakeholders. They are the connections that open the gates that allow value to flow.

These connections must be built from all directions (e.g. bottom-up and top-down) at the same time. Coherence emerges from complexity when patterns and relationships form between people and groups that have agency. With this agency, we seek aligned autonomy.

And in this way, new connections produce new structure. Structure drives increased coherence. Coherence tames complexity.

This is the problem of connecting strategy to execution.

Why connect? To improve our visibility and understanding of:

  • Alignment  - rowing in the same direction, instead of pulling at odds with each other
  • Flow - minimizing handoffs and bottlenecks and dependencies
  • Effectiveness - collectively adding value down the stream
  • Efficiency - delivering value down the stream, at a good pace
  • Causality - when this thing changes, what effect does it have?

But it doesn’t come for free. Weaving this rich web of connections adds structure across the organization. Structure that must be understood, and maintained.

What would we gain from adding structure to our strategy development?

For starters, we improve the visibility of the strategy. This, in turn, creates the opportunity for better communication, which drives better alignment. A key ingredient for this? A common language across the enterprise, so that this visibility and improved communications actually leads to a shared understanding.

How can we build better connections, to move from chaos to coherence?

  1. Establish better connections between nodes of people, to produce a coherent organization.
  2. Establish better connections to customers, to produce coherent value hypotheses for our business
  3. Establish better connections between assets, to produce coherent offers for the market.
  4. Establish better connections across information as we learn, to produce coherent flow in our creation of value.

Connecting strategy to execution. Connected through what? What are the nodes? What are the paths or edges?

Here we propose a set of items (unconnected today, for the most part), that (if connected) can open up greater insight and greater operational agility.

What kinds of nodes become the elements in this web of connections for strategy development? What’s in there?

There are information gaps in there. The web can be seen as a menu for conversation. It sparks questions. It sharpens our focus, to help navigate uncertainty.

There are frameworks in there. Frameworks are thinking models. Elements of these frameworks are more powerful when connected and shared, with a taxonomy to support communication. Words matter. Borrow some words and ideas to accelerate your internal conversations. 

There are diagnoses in there. Strategic connections should be built in response to a known challenge in some area. Explore the uncertainty and leave bread crumbs to form possible paths.

There are descriptions of change in there. Change is hard. Change is needed. Changes fall like dominoes. Domino arrays are a form of structure, leveraging gravity and position. What’s our gravity and position?

There are ideas in there. Ideas that need exploration. Ideas that have already been explored. Ideas that worked. Ideas that didn’t. Insights from all of them, feeding organizational learning.

There are alternate routes in there. Enterprise agility implies that you can change and pivot. When you do make a pivot (or choose to change course), it has a ripple effect. How can you see this?

Here are 20 examples of the nodes we’ve been digging into, which are examples of strategic pieces worthy of richer connections. 

Organizational Units

These are the departments and divisions that make up your organizational design. It’s where local context and decision authority are encapsulated. And critically, all units can build strategy, not just those at the top of the hierarchy.

Strategic Challenges

Strategy gurus like Richard Rumelt argue that strategic conversations must start with a well articulated challenge. Capture the challenge, with the kernel issue or the crux of the problem, and encapsulate the diagnosis. 

Beliefs

Sense-making drives our opinions of the world around us. These opinions should be challenged as we learn and as new evidence surfaces. Capture beliefs and core assumptions to support the hard work of creating shared visions.

Strategic Choices

Another strategy guru, Roger Martin, stresses the importance of making fundamental choices like “Where to Play” (in your market) and “How to Win” (against competition), and cascading those choices into investment in business capabilities. Capture these as choices, with a history of the debate.

Business Capabilities

This shapes the anatomy diagram of the living enterprise. No two look the same, but they are born with the same organs and limbs. We can shift resources to the areas that are sick or need strengthening, but only if we know what they are, and where to find them in the organizational design.

“Customer”

If all organizational units create value (and they should), then someone is consuming or realizing that value. That’s your “customer”. That’s who you serve. External customers get the most attention, but internal customers deserve the same focus, in strategy conversations. 

“Jobs-to-be-Done”

Instead of asking “customers” what they “need”, study what they do: their jobs to be done. Capture the problem space with a well-defined framework like this, to set the table for your exploration of value. After that, create a separate view of the “customer journey” to see how easy it is to “hire” you for the job.

Value Stick

Use a framework to explore value creation, like the “value stick” from Felix Oberholzer-Gee’s “Better, Simpler Strategy”. Capture opportunities for value creation, relative to “where you’re playing” and “jobs” you want to be hired for. Explore how pricing, employee compensation, and supplier rates shifts the value realization across distinct stakeholders. Build a backlog of “value driver” change ideas.

Customer Forces

No matter what value you create and deliver for the company, in your corner of it, you should be “easy to do business with” and minimize friction on a path to that value. Capture the forces of inertia, habit, pull, and push across your “customer” journey, to bring a go-to-market mindset to your value delivery. Build a backlog of “friction remover” change ideas.

Value Map

Your “customers” always have other options, including “doing nothing” (i.e. ignoring the value you try to create). Sometimes you face real competition. Encapsulate your understanding of the competitors, and evaluate your value drivers relative to these competitive benchmarks. Strategic bets will be asymmetric bets. You will be making tradeoffs. You can’t do it all.

Horizons

Businesses, products, and generically speaking, your “offers” will become less potent over time. Anticipating this trajectory, as a lifecycle, is critical for strategic planning. What comes next, after what’s good now has faded? You need to be simultaneously crushing it today, and getting ready to crush (different) things tomorrow. This is hard to do.

Scenarios

The future is unknowable, but we can explore different possibilities. Developing a set of possible futures, varying across key factors, and then comparing risks and opportunities, helps maintain divergent thinking. Capture these scenarios, pick one to run with, then revisit the scenarios as the world changes. Maybe option B will look better in a year.

Strategic Intent

Figuring out “how to win” involves choosing a path, or direction, but not building a detailed plan. Not yet at least. This path can be captured as intent, which is different than a vision, or desired outcome. It expresses the general nature of the changes (or investments) you want to pursue, instead of (or at the expense of) other viable sets of changes. From this path (or program, or focus area), specific initiatives and plans will be created, but later, not now.

Levers

With a path set, what “levers can you pull” to move that direction? What would appear on this path (outcomes) and how can you cause those effects? More importantly, how strong is the ability to drive the effect with those causes? This is more than identifying a connection, it’s evaluating the strength of a connection.

Decisions

Making strategic choices is complicated. Decision making is better with some support and structure, and good connections can help. Decide how to decide, as an organization, then use connections across this web to find the best choices, communicate the rationale for a choice, and monitor a choice to see if it’s panning out.

Strategic Portfolios

We don’t want to put all our eggs in one basket. Treat the set of strategic choices as a collection, to better manage risk and reward. Rationalize both the size and composition of the portfolio. Balance it against competing drivers of value or worth. Monitor the effectiveness of the individual elements and the portfolio as a whole. Pursue redundant options and small experiments when uncertainty gets scary. You can manage portfolios of investments, of products, of assets, and even of policies or practices.

Hypotheses

Strategy is guesswork. That’s okay, but express your strategic choices in a form that acknowledges the uncertainty. Then connect them to the efforts to “buy” information to make it a more educated guess. If you drive discovery via experiments or research or both, capture the questions along with the emerging answers. Then validate the original hypothesis - and that’s an insight!

Timeboxes

Carve up the calendar into a cadence. Use this to support synchronization and coordination needs, by connecting things temporally. Plus it brings repeatability and urgency to your practices, in a healthy way. Set expectations for learning against this backdrop, and don’t let a timebox complete without a new nugget of insight.

Loops

To produce that nugget, capture the questions you face, the guesses you are making, and the approach to buying the information you need to answer it. Tie that to a timeframe, produce timely insights, and you can close the loop on your learning needs. To outlearn the competition, you need faster, shorter loops. Bring loops into the conversation to put the emphasis on strategic feedback.

Teams

On the front lines (or at the “coalface”), teams build plans and do the work that yields the ground truth. This is the execution that we want to see influenced by the strategy. We capture information about the teams themselves, their goals, and their progress, to connect strategic choices to strategic outcomes.

If we begin to capture strategic elements like these, how can we draw meaningful connections between them?

There will be a variety of connection types:

Structural connections:

  • X Is Parent of Y  (to establish hierarchy)
  • A Funds B  (to follow the money)
  • C Feeds D  (to define the flow)
  • F Contains G  (to show composition)
  • W Owns Z  (to clarify accountability)

Behavioral connections:

  • X Impacts Y  (to suggest strong causality)
  • C Affects D  (to suggest weaker causality)
  • F Blocks G  (to highlight an impediment or flow stoppage)
  • W Depends on Z  (to mark a dependency)
  • A Supports B  (to show alignment)
  • M Constrains N  (to set expectations)

Information connections:

  • X Measures Y  (to connect instrumentation to observation)
  • W Clarifies Z  (to suggest refinement)
  • A Explores B  (to frame inquiry)

Loose connections:

  • C Mentions D  (to help others navigate)
  • P Links to Q  (to support learning, etc.)

At the end of the day, our organizations spend most of their energy thinking about performance, changes, and the money to fuel them both.

High performing teams execute plans - to run the business. High performing teams also execute plans to change the business, in ways large and small. Leaders fuel performance (and change) by putting money (resources) in the right place at the right time with the right focus. 

Can you see all this happening in real time? Can others easily see your efforts and your good work on this, in real time?

This task has gotten harder as our environments have grown more complex. Algorithms can help, but they need some structure to thrive and assist.

When we connect the dots, strategy can take a big leap forward, and become more impactful.

What's your dream strategy view?

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