How do you mobilise a leadership team around a new way of thinking that will take the organisation to its goal? The process is the U Journey and the springboard is the Foundation Workshop. This article within a series on Theory U looks in more detail at what’s involved in the Explore phase. It all starts with the right preparation.
When you consider the future you would like to bring into being, what is the bedrock on which it rests? To use a construction metaphor, what kind of a building are you creating? How high can it go up, how long will it last and what will be the quality of experience for those building it and then living in it? A strong foundation is the basis of a confident step forward into the unknown frontier of the future you aspire to bring into being.
[Listen to audio version, read by David Hodes]
A Foundation of Purpose
The Foundation Workshop is designed to give you the best possible chance of delivering a platform for the future growth and development of your enterprise. It involves deep dialogue around the specific problems you are trying to solve, the collective definition of your goal and the program of work needed to move the whole organisation from where you are now to where you want to be in as effective a way as possible.
In addition, the workshop acts as a practice field for new ways of being amongst the team. It also explores innovative and productive ways of working with each other and, in the fullness of time, the broader parts of the organisation you each represent in your various roles. But before you can get to that point, you need some input. This comes from the generative interviews.
In two recent assignments, I conducted 18 and 30 interviews respectively, across the leadership teams and beyond. I get the interviews transcribed, then revisit them with a colleague. Independently, we mine the transcripts for hints and nuggets that can point to systemic issues. We edit only for clarity and to maintain anonymity, aiming to maintain the authentic vernacular of the organisation. The hope is that people speak freely, knowing their views are being heard and comfortable that the specifics will not be attributed to them.
The resulting ‘verbatims’ essentially produce a ‘book’ of between 50,000 and 70,000 words with the responses grouped thematically. This becomes a rich source for the project team to assess where their own experience is in line with their colleagues. Of course, it’s also eye-opening for the overall project sponsor. This collective wisdom leads to a shared truth about what’s really going on and plays a key part in generating the Goal Tree and Current Reality Tree, both component parts of the Logical Thinking Process.
“Talking ‘as if standing in the future’
looking back is transformative.”
Everyone is asked the same set of questions. But the answers go off in very different directions. That’s the point; these are generative interviews in which we want to stimulate thinking, bring issues to the surface and articulate the possibility of generating a future grounded in aspiration. This is the set of questions:
1. Please can you tell us something of your story and bring it into the room. Where were you born? What did your parents do? What have been the most significant turning points in your life? What did you study? What have been your career highlights to date?
2. Why is the success of your organisation important to you personally? What is it about your organisation that would inspire you to turn up as the best version of yourself?
In almost all cases, these first two questions initiate a kind of alchemy, turning ‘roles’ into human beings who approach their work from a particular viewpoint, informed by their personal and cultural background as much as by their work experience and training to date.
3. What’s it like to work at your organisation today and how is it different from the past, if at all? If it has changed, why is it different and how?
Some people will have been there only a few months whilst others will be near ‘lifers’. We don’t weight opinions based on ‘time in’, but the answers here highlight some key issues around change and the underlying narrative the team are telling themselves. The comments often point to elements of the culture that are taken for granted.
4. Can you tell us in your own words what the goal of your organisation is? What should it be? How would you measure it? Specifically, where’s it going to come from – whether stopping value leakage or bringing innovations to what we do?
This is a powerful question to get a sense of what the team is aiming at and whether or not there is alignment. Most people will confuse the fundamental goal with the necessary conditions required to achieve it. Others will confuse the goal with vision mission and values. Whilst there is quite often a lead-in with something about ‘making a profit for shareholders’, more often than not there is a jumbled confusion of ideas. The point is not to correct, but rather to listen deeply and understand what work needs to be done during the Foundation Workshop to bring this vital element of organisational performance into sharp focus.
5. What do you think are the three or four critical success factors needed to achieve that goal? In other words, what are the non-negotiable, high-level necessary conditions of achieving the goal you have articulated?
6. For each of those critical success factors, can you please describe how you see the gap between what your organisation is now and what it needs to be to deliver on the goal? In other words, what do you see as current reality of your organisation in each of those domains you have nominated as being critical for goal achievement?
Many people spontaneously start tearing down siloes at this point. They sometimes surprise themselves by the importance they assign to getting the right people—retaining them, training them. What they may have considered as platitudes if cloaked in corporate ‘brandspeak’ becomes readily apparent when they’re thinking deeply about how the organisation will achieve its goal.
7. What do you think are the causes of the difference between current reality and the full achievement of your necessary conditions?
8. If you drill down to root causes, why do you think the current reality persists?
9. What are the deep conflicts or dilemmas which prevent your organisation from realising its full potential?
10. What assumptions do you think we make individually and collectively that keep those conflicts or dilemmas in play?
This whole sequence of questions, 7 through 10, inevitably opens up a can of worms, but it’s vital to dig deep and uncover at the root, the causes of current underperformance relative to the aspirational goal, the conflicts that perpetuate them and the assumptions that hold those conflicts in place.
Almost invariably, an issue revolves around people not operating at the right level of work for their position. This may be because of poor planning, a perceived lack of resources or operating discipline—or even an addiction in the company culture to the adrenaline around fighting fires.
But these effects are themselves symptoms of a universal truth that has to do with the way that governance and performance metrics are set up to optimise the parts in the false belief that a collection of highly efficient parts makes for an effective whole.
11. Changing gear, can you tell us a little about your vision for your organisation over the next 3-5 years? What do you think we will look like with respect to people, process and technology? How will the culture be different to what it is now? Please talk to these questions as if you were standing in the future and everything you deemed necessary for the transformation had already happened. The richer the rendering of that future, the better.
The request to talk ‘as if standing in the future’ looking back is transformative. People often surprise themselves with their answers which can be almost poetic in their desire to create a better working organisation, with a richer purpose and happier people.
12. Can you please give us what you think it’s going to take to get to that future state? Who do we need to be as individuals? What kind of teams do we need to create? How are we going to manage and lead this transformation? What resources and capabilities do we need? What role does your organisation and the group play?
Now, together we’re sowing the seeds for what it’s really going to take to bring into being the desired state articulated in the previous question. This is rich building-block material for the Foundation Workshop.
13. What legacy would you like to leave at your organisation?
Again, people may surprise themselves here. A self-deprecating ‘I’ve never really thought about it’ often leads into surprisingly deep, even moving, answers.
14. Thank you so much. Are there any questions you have for us?
After all that, people usually want to know how other people have been responding. In broad terms, are their answers in line with everyone else. And what happens next.
It may sound like all large organisations are the same. In a way they are, in that you must address people, process, technology and more. But the specifics of each organisation lead to its own unique solution.
Laying the groundwork
To ensure the greatest likelihood of cohesion and success in the Foundation Workshop, you need to prepare. The choice of venue is key—ideally somewhere close to nature and filled with natural light. For deep, relaxed and productive thinking to occur, it is of the essence that the participants slow down dramatically from the frenetic pace of their regular work and job.
Every piece of communication must also be carefully considered. We are setting an intent that these few days together will open the way to dramatically better results. This is a marathon, not a sprint, and the team must be given the opportunity to have an extended period of doing the deep work commensurate with the size and horizon of their role. The invitation must set the tone that this is more than ‘just another offsite’. Pre-reading must be curated. This could include anything from engagement survey results, the business plan, existing strategic roadmaps and consultants’ reports. It is advisable to circulate the verbatims in advance, but not the logic trees, as they need significant explanation and can too easily be thought of as being definitive rather than stimulatory.
You may also want to have everyone take a culture survey (such as the OCAI) or some kind of personal assessment such as Strengthsfinder, DiSC or even the Big Five OCEAN. The results provide a way in for conversation around blind spots or other perceptions of the organisation. The message is that all this is real work—hard yakka that will lead to a resolution of the core business challenges. It’s going to be tough but energising and rewarding in a way that ‘business as usual’ rarely allows.
In the next article, we’ll look at what happens in the Foundation Workshop itself. Armed with the ‘book’ of verbatims and a hypothesis of the goal and the current reality (using the logic trees), we’re ready to make substantial progress on providing answers to all the questions posed by the generative interviews.
Download the generative interviews questions sheet.
There’s much more on Theory U in my own book, More Than Just Work, which distils my thinking about three decades of managing work into a manageable framework. It’s edited and proofed—and looks gorgeous—but my editor and I are calling it the ‘advanced reader’s copy’. Soon, I’ll incorporate a few suggestions from some early trusted readers and make some changes based on new ideas I’m discovering.
You can buy the book here (with free shipping anywhere in Australia). If you do so now, I’ll send you the next edition for FREE later this year, bundled with the ebook and audiobook versions.
[Background photo by Davide Ragusa on Unsplash]
“And so castles made of sand,
Fall in the sea eventually.”—Jimi Hendrix
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