From ‘Art of War’ to ‘Walls of Greatness’

By Twalib Ebrahim

A strategic plan is one of the best ways for organisations to define, clarify and map out the direction that they would like to take. It also offers a good framework for making decisions on where to allocate resources for the best outcomes and impact that the organization is seeking to achieve. At the heart of the strategic plan is the strategy that the organization will employ to achieve these outcomes and impact.

Strategy has its roots in the ‘Art of War’ and this is because many business development processes borrow heavily from military history. Doing business is looked at as going to war with an enemy who is trying to take more market share than you. This military background is also where leadership theories are heavily rooted and they guide you on how to move your troops so as to take as much share of the market as possible. The key focus of strategic planning therefore becomes the need to see what problems need to be solved and which issues tackled to make us stronger to win over the ‘enemy’.

I have always been concerned about this deficit way of looking at the world as I feel the world is an abundant place with enough for all of us. So you can imagine my excitement when I came across Appreciative Inquiry (AI), a way of looking at the world from an abundance perspective. I came across AI when I was part of a team of facilitators sourced from 19 countries across Africa delivering a transformative leadership development programme called InterAction, an initiative of The British Council.

During the preparation process of implementing InterAction, we realized the great need that exists of enabling Africa change its image (both within and in its interactions with the rest of the world) from being perceived quite rudely as a begging-bowl continent, to a place where amazing things do happen! To enable us to do this we worked with Appreciative Inquiry which challenges us to start by celebrating what we have done well before looking at what more we could achieve. To do this the idea of building a Wall of Greatness was hatched. Participants were invited to bring in artifacts (pictures, small items, and anything else that we can put up on a wall) to celebrate the countries we are coming from. Immediately we started to build these Walls and share our reasons for bringing these artifacts, I started to feel the transformation happening and participants sharing how they were now looking at their own world differently, not from a deficit perspective but from a mindset of a World full of possibilities! Africa was now a beautiful place full of resources and made up of energetic and resilient group of diverse people! Transformation was happening right in front of our eyes!

Having seen the power of Appreciative Inquiry (AI) in leadership I felt that it could also enrich the work we were already doing in Strategic Planning. This process begins with a situation analysis which has traditionally mainly been done through a SWOT & PESTLE analysis. The challenge is that using these tools could go either way based on people’s mindset! With many clients that we had encountered, I felt they were already quite cynical about their organization as well as their own capability to take it ‘out of the rut’ that they were in.

I decided to leverage on the basic tenet of AI which shows us that an organization will grow in whichever direction that people in the organization focus their attention. If all the attention is focused on problems, then identifying problems and dealing with them is what the organization will do best, this of course limits the organisation to just overcoming its problems and not seeing what more it could become. Identifying problems only can spiral into a vicious cycle culminating in a climate of finger-pointing and looking for who is to blame.

On the other hand focusing attention on the successes the organisation has had and identifying strengths and capabilities that this is demonstrating unleashes its positive core. Following this with a look at how much better we can become (turning the problems and deficits we have into what we want to see as well as stretching our ambition to cater for what we can become) opens up possibilities for the organization to become the best that it can be.

I remember one of the first places we implemented AI was when working with an organisation that had invited our DEPOT facilitation team to enable them develop their strategic plan. My challenge was that they were going through a very difficult time and their perspective of the future was just not encouraging them to put in the effort to turn things around.

In the first meeting I started by asking them, ‘what’s great about this organization?’ There was silence in the room and eventually one person spoke up – ‘Do you know why you are here?’ I asked him to remind me. He said ‘You are here to solve our problems! ‘I said – ‘To my understanding that’s not why I’m here, I’m here to help you get things better.’ He retorted ‘Isn’t that the same thing!’ I said – ‘No! If I come here to solve your problems then that will be so heavy it will also infect me and get me down the way it has done to you. By coming to help you get things better gives me a different starting point.’ I had achieved my purpose which was to jolt their mindsets! I shared with them more about Appreciative Inquiry (the theory of Appreciative Inquiry was developed by David Cooperrider and Suresh Srivastva in a paper they published in 1986).

The definition we work with is that Appreciative Inquiry is the co-evolutionary search for the best in people, their organisations and the relevant world around them (David Cooperrider & Diana Whitney 2005, p.3). By working with Appreciative Inquiry (AI) as the change management approach, we start by identifying what is working well and analyzing why it is working well so that we can do more of it. This is the first D in the AI 4D cycle, DISCOVER, looking at ‘what gives life to the organisation when it is working at its best’ and inviting us to appreciate and identify processes that work well so we can leverage on them. The next step is to DREAM what might be and what the world is calling for that we as an organisation can offer. It enables us to envision the results we want to see and how well things could work. The third D is DESIGN that looks at what should be the ideal and requires us to co-construct this future through planning and prioritizing. Finally is DEPLOY which involves looking at how to empower, learn, adjust and improvise so as to sustain the change.

The 4-D Model was developed by Suresh Srivastva, Ron Fry, and David Cooperrider in 1990 (Appreciative Inquiry Commons – AI History and Timeline. See David Cooperider’s website for more information on these stages).

Our strategic plan development process takes a different view from the traditional ‘Art of War’ perspective and is based on ‘Walls of Greatness’. It is greatly influenced by Appreciative Inquiry (AI) which enables us to look at an organisation as an amazing living system that needs to thrive in an ecosystem, and not a problem to be solved. Walls of greatness come in always two’s, one for celebrating our achievements of the past and the next one envisioning what we could achieve in the future.

Working with Mike Eldon in subsequent workshops we realized that building the Walls of Greatness is great, though sometimes it does get dominated by one or two perspectives only when looking at successes and envisioning results. Regularly people would identify financials as the areas of success and better working conditions for people as the key focus for the future. Mike had also been greatly involved in Performance Management development programmes at this time and he then brought in the Balanced Scorecard framework into the Walls of Greatness. The Balance Scorecard framework looks at the organization from the four perspectives of Clients/Products/Brand, Our People, Systems and Processes, and Financial Sustainability.

Now the process felt more robust since by building the ‘Walls of Greatness’ as the Situation Analysis tool that supersedes the SWOT and PESTLE analysis we are able to keep a positive frame by incorporating Appreciative Inquiry. The Balanced scorecard adds breadth and depth as we critically analyse the organization and situation it is in to get a powerful snapshot from all four perspectives. This would then be used to review the vision, mission and values to get the overall strategic direction. A process of defining the Key Result Areas (or Critical Success Factors) and Goals frames the fundamental strategic components of the strategic plan. The final step is developing the more operational elements of Strategic Objectives, Activities, Indicators (measures which track strategic performance & the targets that show the desired level of performance), who is Responsible, and Time Frames.

This process gives the people in the organisation a sense of direction through the vision and marshals them around a common mission. It creates standards and accountability and how people should act and behave through the values. The process enables organizations to take stock of their successes so far and extract from this their key strengths, competencies and capabilities. This gives a good foundation and confidence to be aware of and tackle future opportunities and challenges. It gives the organization an opportunity to map out what resources will be needed to move into this future, and enables the organization to limit or avoid time spent on crisis management where they’re just reacting to unexpected changes that they failed to anticipate and/or prepare for.

Our advice though is that even though the strategic plan that has been developed is a great tool for long-term planning with milestones identified to also cater for the short and medium term, we need to point out that the organization’s present understanding of the future is built on the anlaysis of the current and past situation and it may be reliable enough to ensure that the stated long-range plan can be achieved. However we also need to recognize that many elements in the future are unknown and that the organization needs to be flexible while still working toward achieving the strategic plan’s stated vision. We must therefore work with this strategic plan not as a static roadmap but as a living document that must be revisited on a regular timetable as determined by the organization within the Appreciative Inquiry framework of Discovery, Dream, Design and Deploy.

This process provides a good opportunity to exercise leadership, quoting Peter Drucker, ‘the ageless essence of leadership is to create an alignment of strengths that makes a system’s weakness irrelevant’

Twalib Ebrahim is a consultant and facilitator with The DEPOT

Simple does not mean simplistic

By Twalib Ebrahim

As facilitators we are brought in to tackle organizational challenges facing our clients, as such we believe we are responsible to make things better for the staff and organisation as a whole. So to be effective as a facilitator, you need to run programmes that truly make a positive impact for the client organisation! This means that as facilitators we need to design and implement initiatives and interventions that tackles real problems and makes better the lives of the people who we are contracted to help.

There are two challenges that I have observed in this work that we do as facilitators. The first one is that some facilitators look for simplistic quick-fix solutions, which are at many times just Band-Aids instead of the needed surgery solutions! The second one is that other facilitators look for complex and complicated interventions, which are sometimes designed to confuse clients and justify the expensive charges that they invoice!

So how have we done it? Our interventions are designed to make a sustainable change in the organisations that contract us. We use conceptual frameworks that are based on enabling the individuals in the organization to reflect on themselves and their impact on the team and organization. We then inspire them to make conscious effort on improving this for the good of the organization as a whole. It starts from where most other interventions end, where the individual’s leadership is called upon to take appropriate responsibility to tackle issues that are facing the organization.

In many other interventions, a problem is identified and the appropriate action to tackle it is chosen– for example we have a problem in offering good customer service, so we train our staff and put in place those feedback tablets for customers to tell us how they have been treated. From this feedback we then re-train or look for other technology to assist, for example we decide that maybe an ATM machine will be better! In the short term this works, but in the long run we are just treating the symptoms and not the cause of the problem.

Let’s look at an example. When consulting for a bank, they asked us to help in the re-training of the customer service staff since the first training run by another consultant did not seem to have as much impact as they hoped. We ran an experiential learning workshop that started by first breaking the ice and getting participants to be more relaxed with each other and the facilitators. After creating the right environment, we got down to some genuine conversations which enabled the participants to share with us quite openly – ‘How do I treat the customer well when I am not even treated well by my boss?‘  On asking the “boss” she said ‘how do I treat them well when I am going to face it rough on my appraisal if I don’t get the numbers down? These numbers include over-time hours, number of clients attended to per hour, and so on. So I have to push my people and when they are not hitting the numbers then I can’t afford to be nice!’

In essence the client wanted one result (great customer service) but they were pushing hard on another totally different outcome (lower overtime hours – as opposed to taking the time to treat customers well, more customers attended to in a day – as opposed to each customer is treated so well that they rate the experience as excellent!). When strategies are limited primarily to simple quick fix interventions and technological solutions to tackle a specific problem, only the specific problem is resolved. The challenge is that the specific problem may be a symptom of a deeper challenge facing the organisation, and these root causes do develop into other major problems!

The other challenge in the customer service improvement example was that the client had come to us quite late in the process, if they had come earlier they would have saved a lot of money, and we would have made a bigger impact! On reflection we realized the disadvantage our facilitation practice faces is that people look at what we are doing and say – that is too simple! Will it work? Does it really have a long term impact?

What we do is simple, yes, but it is not simplistic! Before making an intervention we invest quite a bit of time to first diagnose the problem, go underneath and see what is driving it or underlying the challenge, and then go even deeper to what is the root cause of the problem. Once you have identified these three levels you then start from the root cause and say ‘what intervention is needed to tackle the root cause of the issue?’ We have realized that at the heart of the problem is a need for the concerned people to undertake a personal awareness and reflection exercise. They first must take cognizance of the fact that they are part of the problem and need to take responsibility. They need to take the first action of changing the way they are doing things, and how they are interacting with the people that they work with. They must take the time to have genuine conversations, to listen empathetically, and to act with integrity. The second step is to then look at what systems and processes need to change and how will these people change them. Finally it is to see what are the interventions they are going to make that will bring about the sustainable change in the problem as well as in the systems that it sits in.’

So when people say what we are doing is simple they only see the intervention that we are facilitating. It could be a quick activity with a rope, or getting them to close their eyes and tackle a task. This is followed up by a facilitated discussion that always unpacks the root cause of the challenge and people are even anxiously proposing solutions. Sometimes the team leader comes to us and says, ‘I don’t know what has happened! My people are speaking so openly and are willingly coming up with solutions on how to tackle the challenge!’ It almost looks magical, and some clients have even attributed this to the venue! ‘This place is magical! I must bring my people here more often!’ We have realized it’s also because we don’t charge obscene amounts of money for facilitation. For example if you look at the budget for teambuilding interventions that we facilitate, the venue always takes the ‘lion’s’ share! No wonder they attribute the magic to the venue!

We try to explain to clients that when addressing an issue in the organization, we must first start by diagnosing it comprehensively before planning any intervention. We start by looking at the symptoms of the problem and what are its immediate causes, this is what we see happening and is quite explicit. We then look at what could be contributing to what we are seeing or what the client is experiencing and these are the underlying and root causes of what is driving the problem.

Our facilitation interventions have been effective because we design and implement interventions that solve complex organisational problems going beyond the surface level into the deeper dimensions of the problem! Quoting Dr. Monica Sharma who designed the Conscious Full Spectrum Response model, ‘It is an art to simplify without being simplistic especially in the midst of complexity.’

So looking at the problem and just coming up with a solution may not tackle the root causes of your issue. For example if your challenge is in the customer service example we looked at earlier, before we even consider bringing in quick fix solutions like ‘train them on customer service tips, or bring in technology to tackle it’, we need to address the root causes, which could be that ‘the staff attending to customers are themselves aggrieved and their needs must be addressed first before asking them to offer better customer service’. They may be getting treated unfairly and yet we are asking them to ‘smile’ and ‘be more helpful to the customer!’

Our facilitation intervention makes a difference because we create a context whereby participants feel that they can freely share their concerns, and they will be heard without any repercussion. To achieve this we spend time to coach and guide the team leaders so that they speak and act in way that develops this confidence in the staff. In turn the staff is invited to share in a respectful and caring way so that the leaders can hear them in a better way. Through expertly facilitated discussions people really start to have genuine conversations, real issues are surfaced and tackled!

We are like the proverbial Swan, gliding gracefully above the water yet paddling wildly beneath the surface! We make it look easy, it is not. It takes many hours of training and development of facilitation skills and competencies, supported by coaching and mentoring. The developing facilitator really gets to understand what facilitation actually means, and differentiate it from entertainer, animator, guest speaker, or even trainer.

Truly effective facilitation is about running sustainable interventions that cater for the short-term goal of tackling issues that affect the viability of the business, but also the long-term objective of strengthening the organization to face future unforeseen challenges and opportunities. It’s about interventions that are innovative in developing interdependence through fostering expression of individual and collective wisdom. All this while still making it look simple, but it is not simplistic!

 Twalib Ebrahim is a consultant and facilitator with The DEPOT for more than 21years

Have a Good Time Doing Good Things

A talk on Engage with Mike Eldon

Mike Eldon talks about the inspiration by his late son Dan to bring the DEPOT to life.

Engage provides a platform for ordinary and extraordinary people to Inform. Inspire. Influence.