Archives for March 2011

Demystifying Organizational Strategy

“Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.”

— Albert Einstein

Carol Beatty, Queen's IRC FacilitatorPeople management professionals are often exhorted to become more knowledgeable about business strategy but many are discouraged by the jargon and the apparent complexity of the field. While it is true that a radical rethink of your organization’s strategy involves creativity and specialized skills, most regular strategic planning exercises do not require that level of sophistication. In this article, I will follow Einstein’s advice and aim to demystify the organizational strategy process by removing the jargon and boiling it down to five simple questions. Answer these questions and you will be able to meet the challenges of most strategic planning situations.

Your strategic planning group should set aside uninterrupted time to discuss and come to consensus on these simple questions:

  1. What business are we in and how are we doing now?
  2. What’s happening around us? Are there any serious dangers in staying where we are – i.e. sticking with the same business and strategy?
  3. If so, is there a better place for us to be?
  4. How do we get there?
  5. How will we know we have arrived?

Question 1: What business are we in and how are we doing now?

What business are we in? This question appears basic but your group may be surprised at how little agreement exists initially about your business definition. It is as though we live in the “same, different” organization. Moreover, if there are new participants at the table or if you have not had this discussion in some time, agreement on what business you are in is essential before proceeding further.

Start with your mission statement unless it is too lofty or theoretical. Or start by discussing the following sub-questions.

  1. What do we do?
  2. For whom?
  3. Where?
  4. How?
  5. What are the key success factors of this business? (What do we have to do extremely well to satisfy clients and succeed over the long term?

For example, at a recent strategic retreat of the Board of Directors of a Canadian not-for-profit organization, participants decided their business definition was:

We examine/evaluate the evidence on medical equipment and drugs to provide credible advice to decision-makers at various levels of Canadian health care. Guided by the priorities of these decision-makers, our reports, recommendations and tools are used to choose the right drugs and technologies and are consulted by health funders, providers, institutions and patients.

In order to deliver on this business definition, the retreat participants decided the following key success factors were critical: Trusted/Credible; Relevant/Useable; Independent; Timely; and Affordable.

How are we doing? There are many approaches to assessing organizational health. The simplest and fastest way is to take the key success factors that you have agreed upon and review how well the organization is delivering on each of them. If you are in a high-tech business, for example, one of the key success factors might be getting new products to market before the competition. If that’s the case, you need to measure how fast your organization invents, produces, and markets its new products compared to others in the industry. Each business will have different key success factors and so this assessment is based on having a thorough understanding of your own.

Another approach to organizational assessment is the Balanced Scorecard, which uses a number of categories to rate organizational health (these vary depending on the industry and sector). Or you could use industry or sector specific benchmarks that the leadership group considers relevant comparators. For example, in one municipality, benchmarks were established using the National Quality Institute’s Public Sector Criteria for excellence.

Finally a more thorough approach is to conduct an organizational audit. An audit involves a comprehensive review of all important operational and strategic areas of the organization. It can be conducted through questionnaires or interviews with stakeholders or undertaken by the leadership group. The categories for review can include: organizational structure, culture, leadership, managerial climate, human resources, communications, technology, financial, capital and other resources, market share and customers, intellectual capital, relationships, and key result areas.

The approach you use will depend on the time available and the comprehensiveness desired. If necessary a consultant can be hired to provide an objective and non-threatening way to obtain input from stakeholders, especially staff members.

Question 2: What’s happening around us? Are there any serious dangers in sticking with the same business and strategy?

A scan of the relevant environment, both internal and external, helps to identify whether there are serious dangers to the organization in staying where we are – i.e. sticking with the same business and the same strategy. What are the driving forces affecting the organization now and in the near future? If your group does not take them into account, flaws in thinking and logic can too easily sabotage the quality and implementation of the strategic plan. If this scan is considered too technical or time-consuming for internal members to undertake, a consultant can be hired to assist.

Figure One is a helpful pictorial representation of the most common strategic change drivers that you may want to consider in this part of your strategic planning process. Some may not be relevant to your organization; likewise some may be missing, depending on your industry and sector. Before committing a lot of time scanning widely, establish which areas you will pay most attention to. But beware, you may be blindsided by developments seemingly coming from nowhere you if your scan is too narrow.

Figure One – Scan of Strategic Change Drivers

After your group has decided on the most relevant areas to scan, answer the following questions:

  1. What are the major events, developments, and trends happening in this part of our environment that will have an impact on our organization? Which are most critical for us to deal with in the near future?
  2. What are the characteristics of our industry (commodity or high value? growing or declining? diversifying or consolidating?). Are these characteristics shifting? If so, what are the implications?

The answers to questions about the industry/sector and general environment will likely involve research. The choice of how to gather information for this assessment is a key one. If you measure the wrong things, you will miss opportunities and may be blindsided by problems that seem to come out of nowhere. Good sources of information can come from:

  • Commissioning formal reports
  • Researching via press, web, or other published data
  • Chartering a team/task force to do the research and produce a report
  • Engaging industry associations
  • Meeting with the employees who liaise directly with a specific group of interest
  • Inviting an expert or representative of the relevant industry group to speak at summits or meetings
  • Holding a regular environmental scan meeting
  • Putting yourself in the shoes of a specific group (such as customers or competitors) and imagining their responses to the questions
  • Doing a mind map with a cross-section of members of your organization to tap into their collective knowledge

After you have completed your scan, a SWOT (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats) matrix can be used as a tool to summarize your deliberations (see Figure Two below).

Finally your group should consider the second and most important part of our simple question. Namely, are there serious dangers in staying where we are and sticking with the same strategy? Is the business you are currently in a viable one in light of what’s happening in the environment? Is there a good fit between the present strategy and the environment? A changing environment might mean that your present business model and strategy are becoming problematic.

Figure Two: SWOT Matrix

Strengths Weaknesses
Opportunities Threats

Question 3: Is there a better place for us to be?

If you have concluded that you are in some danger or that there is a wonderful opportunity, either now or in the near future, and that a change in strategy is desirable, the next step is to agree upon changes in strategic direction. Do you need to make a radical change in the way you complete? Or do you need to modify our value proposition – a smaller change in direction? Do you want to change your mix of services/products/markets served in order to grow or at least stop decline? Or does your current strategy merely need tweaking?

This part of the strategic planning process is probably the most difficult and the one that requires the most creativity. Given all you know about our internal capabilities and challenges from the organizational assessment and all you know about the external environment right now, how can you create a sustainable advantage for your organization?

There are several approaches and tools that can help your group think through this part of the strategic plan, depending on how radical the change in strategic direction must be. The most radical is a change in generic strategy, or the way in which you compete for the loyalty of your customer/clients. Can you create more value by changing some aspects of our generic strategy? The generic strategies are :

  1. Winning through cost:
  2. Winning through great products or services:
  3. Winning through customer intimacy:
  4. Winning through choosing a profitable niche.

On the other hand, if you have a viable business model but find that your growth has stagnated, consider growing the business by choosing one of four following strategic changes:

  1. Same products/services, same markets. This strategy involves increasing our market share by taking business away from our competitors.
  2. Different products/services, same markets. This strategy involves creating new products or services adjacent to those we currently offer and marketing them to our current customers.
  3. Same products/services, different markets. This strategy involves entering new markets (for example, crossing international borders) with the same product/service mix.
  4. Different products/services, different markets. This strategy involves entering new markets with new products/services both at the same time.
  5. It should be noted that these strategies are listed in order of risk from least to most. Few organizations have been able to successfully implement the fourth strategic direction.

A third possibility, and one of the simplest strategic changes to make, is a decision to retrench to the core of the organization. This strategy is most appropriate if you have taken on too many products/services or have responded in an ad hoc manner to opportunities that have arisen. It is usually a problem for smaller or younger organizations that have struggled to survive and grow, although this situation can occur in huge conglomerates that have tried to manage a number of unrelated businesses. This strategic refocus involves deciding on which activities are both profitable and essential to the identity of the organization and ceasing to engage in those that do not meet these two tests.

After your group has come to consensus, summarize the strategic direction chosen as follows:

Our Strategic Direction:

In the next 3 years, we will focus on____________________________________________________________

in order to ______________________________________________________________

Our Strategic Goals:

The following are the stretch goals to reach this Strategic Direction. (No more than five)

Our Strategic Vision:

What will our organization look like when we achieve our Strategic Goals?

Question 4: How do we get there?

Having a vision and goals at a high level is good, but you will not arrive at the destination without more detailed planning. You must translate the broad strategic goals into specific objectives and action plans to be carried out in the near term. Without these, the entire strategic planning effort can turn into a mere theoretical exercise. The goals should be detailed into clear objectives that can be measured, assessed, and revised if necessary. The objectives are then assembled into action plans that include specific activities that must be undertaken, measurements that will be made, deadlines, persons responsible for carrying out the activities, and follow up that will be undertaken. Each of the strategic goals can be summarized by using the template offered in Figure Three (note that a separate template will be necessary for each goal).

After the goals have been detailed into objectives, each of the objectives should be detailed into action plans that specify key actions required to reach the objective, each with its own deadline, responsibility, resources required, and measures of achievement. Once this is accomplished, a formal written ‘strategic plan’ should summarize the decisions of the entire strategic planning process.

Figure Three: Turning Goals into Objectives

Strategic Goal 1:

Objectives Time Horizons for Completion Lead person or group responsible for completion
1. 2. Etc. Year 1:


Year 2:


Year 3:



Question 5: How will we know we have arrived?

A specific follow-up system should be developed to ensure that the plans will actually be fulfilled instead of being put on a shelf to gather dust. Devices such as a monthly executive review, reports due, and yearly strategic planning updates should be decided by your group before you finish your plan. Measures of progress and success should be planned and rigorously taken. Monitor progress regularly, with strategies revised and annual objectives developed yearly thereafter, based on the progress made and obstacles encountered.

Final Thoughts

These five simple questions can guide your organization through strategic planning in most situations. Remember, implementers often complain that senior managers have a short attention span and do not continue their interest and support throughout the implementation phase. The statistics on successful implementation of new strategies are not encouraging, so don’t assume your tasks are completed after the plan has been written and communicated. The unwavering support of your strategic planning group and senior executives will be necessary to see it through to a successful outcome.


Treacy & Wiersema, The Discipline of Market Leaders, 2000

Michael Porter, The Five Forces that shape Strategy, Harvard Business Review, January 2008

Reflections on the Human Resources Profession

Daphne FitzGerald has worked in the field of human resources (HR) for over 30 years. A dedicated HR professional, Daphne spent the majority of her corporate career at Zurich Financial Services. She currently operates two consulting businesses: BOARDrx Inc. and Capital G Consulting Inc. In May 2011, Daphne will assume the role of Chair of the Board of Ontario’s Human Resources Professionals Association (HRPA).

In December 2010, Queen’s IRC Research Associate, Alison Hill, spoke with Daphne to glean her insights on the HR profession in Canada and globally. Based on her breadth of experience and expertise, Daphne provides an optimistic outlook on the current and future state of the HR profession.

The Peer Circle: Holistic Surgery for the Infected Workplace

 Holistic Surgery for the Infected Workplace

Jean passed the talking piece to Kimberly. You could see her shoulders straighten, a deep intake of breath, a glance around the circle of her assembled colleagues. She was steeling herself to say what was difficult but necessary. Kimberly explained that, for her, the constant putting down of customers and negativity around workplace conditions was unacceptable and made it difficult to enjoy and take pride in her work. She asked that the team demonstrate professionalism toward clients and respect the fact that everyone ought to be able to come to work and expect a reasonably supportive environment.

Kimberly spoke to the middle of the Circle; a message not “pointed at” anyone but offered as her honest experience and request. As the talking piece moved around the room people, contributed their thoughts. Jim said that, while he appreciated Kimberly’s point of view, he felt that there were legitimate concerns about how the workplace was being managed and about the tools that were being provided to do the work. It was important to him that he be able to criticize some of the choices being made without being labeled a malcontent.

The Challenge

Protracted group conflict within a workplace is among the more daunting challenges that HR and conflict management professionals face. A peer or corporate circle is a creative response to conflicts that are driven largely by historic relationship and values differences. In this instance, the work group had a long history of conflict that was multiply determined. A number of conventional approaches had been employed with limited success.

Our firm was brought in to consult around an “out of the box” approach. We recommended a peer circle be convened based on the following observations:

  • Management identified a significant minority of disaffected people that was exerting a negative influence on others.
  • The issues were not limited to discrete relationships but represented cleavages among staff.
  • There was thought to be a restless “silent majority” whose interests were not being served by the status quo,

Assessment and Preparation

Two facilitators (Heather Swartz and I) interviewed each of the 25 staff, supervisors, and manager over the course of two days. From these interviews, we mapped out alliances and conflict contribution systems. Using this data and our impressions of participants’ communication skills and preparedness to take a stake in the outcome, we designed two Peer Circles that were to run for six hours on two consecutive days. We used the day between the interviews and the Circle sessions to determine the seating plans for each of the circles and design the room where the meetings were to be held.

The considerations that went into the seating plan were to:

  • provide support persons near key players (antagonists or protagonists) to encourage them to bring forward their concerns;
  • provide space between allies and enemies such that moderating points of view could be brought to bear, allowing the people most likely to be triggered within the circle to gain insight and perspective; and
  • create an overlap of those persons whose orientation appeared to be unconditionally constructive in both circles to provide a degree of continuity and thematic integrity (values that we felt needed to be nurtured in order to improve things) to the process.

The union — one of the larger ones within the transportation industry — shared management’s concerns about this workplace and was committed to working with them toward an improved environment. The facilitators briefed the Regional Representative about the process and invited him to participate. Because the process was a novel one for this organization, head office sent a senior human resources consultant to the session to participate.

The Circle was designed with facilitators occupying the 12 and 6 o’clock positions and the union representative and HR manager occupying the 3 and 9 o’clock positions. This meant that the conversation could not get too far off track before either the facilitators or HR or union representative had an opportunity to reframe or reorient conversation.

The facilitator located at 12 o’clock was the Host and assumed primary responsibility for the substantive agenda in the form of provocative questions. The Host could modify the questions, skip questions, or introduce new questions as he saw fit based upon where the conversation has been going and the group’s progress in dealing with the issues identified through the interview process.

The 6 o’clock facilitator, called the Guardian, had primary responsibility for the unfolding of the process and managing any impasses or key learnings that were achieved. Guardian used a bell, which she would sound if she wanted something to “sink in” or if things became very emotional, and she wanted to give people an opportunity to reflect before responding. Anyone within the circle could ask for the bell to be sounded; one of the ground rules was that when the bell sounded, there would be 20 seconds of silence observed.

The Process

The Host introduced the Circle process and suggested some ground-rules, adding any that the group wishes. He then opened the circle with an invocation (in this instance, a recorded piece of music). The first question was voiced and the talking piece was passed to one of those sitting next to the Host. Each person was asked to address the question. One was allowed to “pass” on occasion but everyone was encouraged to share their thoughts with the group at least every second time the piece came around. While someone held the talking piece, no one else spoke. This ensured that group members would all have a voice and that issues would be explored rather than debated within the circle.

Early on, the questions and the discussion generated was more at the surface level. As the group became more comfortable with itself, people began to share at a deeper level, and the questions encouraged this. From time to time, people within the circle chose to acknowledge the wisdom or courage that someone demonstrated by what they said. Some asked questions of the group to move the action forward or bring it back to an area that was not explored sufficiently.

The facilitators occasionally took the opportunity to offer the group a story from their experience or a piece of learning that they picked up along the way. Others did the same. The Host or the Guardian took the opportunity to sum up or reframe a comment to either achieving closure on a topic or moving forward the action. Refreshment breaks were provided every 90 minutes or so.

At a certain point, the group demonstrated that it arrived at a degree of consensus. At this point, one of the facilitators framed a decision ask the group if it was ready to move on. A straw poll was taken, and more discussion took place when necessary.

Generally, the process can run anywhere from a few hours to a day or more. In this instance, because it was a 24 / 7 operation, each session ran for about six hours, excluding lunch and breaks.


The process described above was the first in a series. It is a work in progress. A second Circle usually takes place 90 days or so after the first. The manager involved described the impact this way:

One of the biggest improvements is that the quieter staff members are speaking out now. Some employees have embraced the Circle Workshop experience and have followed through on their commitment. But some have not.

A follow-up session is critical…In my honest opinion, there are still a lot of issues between some staff that need to be resolved. In the first session, we only touched the first layer of the cake. I know the objective of the workshop is not to point figures or alienate someone, but people need to be honest if we want to move forward.

The union representative offered this:

I firmly believe the exercise has value and consider the services [of the facilitators] to be to the point and professional. I look forward to round 2 when a review of the impact of the first exercise is fully evaluated and measured.

What We Learned

The workplace is still having trouble. Factions remain. A number of those who were identified by management as disaffected decided to absent themselves from the process. There has been limited or no uptake among them.

It will take a determined effort by management and those who made commitments within the Circle to see the workplace renewed. We expect that, during the subsequent Circle(s), there will be more conversations that are difficult, with the need to confront differences in values and communication styles. The cooperative spirit evident during the circle may or may not take root.

There is now a very clear mandate provided to management by those in attendance that is supportive of more accountability for people’s communications and actions toward one another. The “silent majority” is speaking up more often for what they want and are being supportive of one another. Some of the worst behaviours have stopped or occur less frequently.

Some staff members are struggling with bullying behaviour and petty harassment that is difficult to “pin on” any one person. People are paying a price for the kind of change they want and it is not always pretty to watch. As with any change, there is a period when those who are invested in the status quo will fight to protect it. The Circle made this struggle overt and the conversation about it explicit.

To draw a comparison with a famous scientific experiment involving frogs and hot water, those “in the soup” are now aware of the temperature of the water and are making an effort to moderate the environment so that it can continue to sustain life and provide a degree of satisfaction for everyone. The story continues.

About the Author

Rick Russell, Queen's IRC Facilitator

Rick Russell has been working full time in the dispute resolution field for 23 years, first as the Ombudsman to McMaster University in Hamilton, then as a commercial mediator. In 1993, he co-founded Agree, a full service conflict management firm. Rick has a busy mediation and facilitation practice specializing in commercial, construction and workplace issues, as well as conflict management training, arbitration and partnering. He also works frequently in the area of workplace investigation and fact-finding, workplace assessment and restoration, conflict coaching and advanced conflict management training. Rick serves on the faculty of highly regarded programs at both University of Waterloo’s Conrad Grebel University College and Queen’s University’s Industrial Relations Centre (IRC). Rick has held leadership positions at the Ontario Bar Association ADR Section, and at the ADR Institute of Ontario. Rick’s speaking, training and facilitation practice includes international engagements in the USA, Barbados and Ethiopia. A graduate of McMaster University (History) and the University of Western Ontario’s Faculty of Law, Rick is an avid hiker, canoeist, nature photographer and writer. He lives in Dundas, Ontario with his wife Margaret and their four sons.

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