Monthly Archives: November 2013

What are you trying to solve for? —A story

It was a sunny Tuesday morning. Sharon, the Executive Director of a large non-profit pulled her car into the parking lot of her favorite coffee stop. She had trouble sleeping last night. Sharon had recently been promoted to her role and she was consumed with the conversation that took place at last night’s board meeting. She had been in her new role for less than a week. The former Executive Director (who was also her mentor) had recently retired –capping a life-long career at an organization he helped to create. He was an “institution” at the place and in many people’s eyes she was following a legend. The anxiety was related to what was immediately ahead of her. Along with Executive Director leaving, the board of directors were experiencing change. Several long-term appointees, who had been close to the former Executive Director, were replaced. Sharon was impressed with their credentials; but did not really know them. However, she realized that the board conversation was changing –different in what she had experienced in the past. Last night’s meeting began with usual review of agenda items — more operations of the organization, but shifted towards the end with the new board members asking more about the future direction of the organization. The board meeting ended with Sharon being tasked to create a 3 Year Plan for the organization. Although, the organization had a plan, it had not been updated in two years and was sitting on the shelf in her office. Although Sharon had been part of the previous strategic planning committee, she really couldn’t remember much of what was in it. Sharon was beginning to feel anxious.

However, the anxiety stemmed not so much from her own confidence with her new position, but in the circumstances that existed in the community and the consequences for her organization. She did not know where to begin. She too had questions and with her mind racing, she decided to grab her coffee, find a table in the back of the shop and jot down some of her thoughts. She took out her notes from last night’s board meeting and began reviewing them. Sharon began by reviewing the list of questions and many were very specific. How are we doing on our budget? Who on the staff needs training? What are the fundraising events planned for the next month. How was the renovation on the new property going? There were so many, she was having trouble getting her hands around them. Although, she thought she had secured some private space in the corner of the coffee shop, Sharon looked up and saw her neighbor and good friend Larry. “Hi Sharon” he said. “You look like you are deep in thought” Sharon replied “I have a lot on my mind –the new job and all. I need to brief my staff on last night’s board meeting later this morning, and I am trying to collect my thoughts. Larry, you are a seasoned executive, help me here! I have been asked to create a three year plan for our organization. There are so many things at stake here; I don’t know where to begin. I don’t want to go into my staff meeting this morning and look like I don’t know what I am doing. Strategic Planning is not my thing.” I don’t have all the answers, at this point just a list of questions and issues we need to address. “Sharon” Larry replied, “In the beginning that is all you should have, but that is not the place to start.” Great Larry, that helps – here is my list, where do I start?” Sharon said. Larry chuckled and replied, “Sharon, forget the list. “If it could answer one question for me, you would be off to a great start.”

“And what would that question be Larry?”

“You mentioned, that you tossed and turned al night…thinking about the board meeting. So Sharon, what is keeping you awake at night?”
One of the most common (and some say overused) phrases in business today is “what’s keeping you awake at night?” Yet we see how hard it is for people to articulate it. Try this …We have a similar but different question. It builds on the idea, yet puts it into the context of action. What would happen if you began every single meeting with the question “What are we trying to solve for? Would people begin to “think” differently? What would the conversation be like in your organization? What if we took it a step further and asked people to clearly articulate in a way that everyone understood it? What if we took another step and asked them to commit it to writing. Would the direction of the meeting be differently?
We do notice a difference in the people who have adopted this approach. They are able to jumpstart the thinking process by being able to clearly identify, articulate and align to the significance of what is at stake. In other words they gain agreement on what they are trying to solve for FIRST. This is there starting point!
Not knowing where to start is the most fundamental flaw in strategic thinking. Not being deliberate and disciplined about what you are trying to solve for at the highest strategic level dooms you to failure. We have seen it time and time again in all sorts of organizations. People are often slow out of the gate to get started, there is a lack of clarity on where to go first. People feel overwhelmed and misaligned from the outset. It takes forever to get started.

Strategic Thinking: Do the Opposite! Asking the right questions is what really drives change in an organization.

In the 1990’s one of the highest rated program in the U.S. was Seinfeld. The premise of this program was Jerry Seinfeld and his friends going through everyday life, talking about situations that many of us can relate to.  The personalities of the offbeat characters who make up Jerry’s social circle contribute to the fun. In one classic episode entitled The Opposite, Jerry’s theory that every instinct his friend George has is wrong. George decides to try the opposite, and that proves successful – finds a girlfriend, gets a great job and a nice apartment to live in — all not probable if he had followed his original instinct.  Obvious the sitcom does not always portray real life, but it I entertaining to think about.

So many times we focus on the answers to our questions and we miss the importance of asking the right questions.  If you approach that completely OPPOSITE – flipping the old way of thinking upside down — finding the right questions will definitely lead you to the right solution. Strategic thinking helps drive change in an organization only when the right questions are addressed.  Over the years, we have worked to identify which questions are most relevant.  Whether it is working with a large fortune 500 company or a small non-profit, we have seen the power of asking the RIGHT questions. Think about any situation you have been in …. How many time have you and your teammates jumped to solutions?  Have you ever heard the old saying “we have a solution looking for a problem”? If you approach that completely opposite – flipping the old way of thinking upside down — finding the right questions will definitely lead you to the right solution. Our Strategic Thinking Framework just does that, me and my colleague Jack Mastrianni have worked years to perfect this.  We use an hourglass to graphically display the questions. Next—Why the Hourglass -stay Tuned!