Connecting people

The need to connect people with Purpose and Strategy is becoming more pressing as the pace of technology change, globalization and the disruption of markets increases.

CEOs and their leadership teams want people aligned and engaged in a way that educates and motivates them so that they can take the initiative to respond as needed without waiting for directions. To do that requires equipping people with an understanding of competitive challenges, what customers want and expect and a clear view of the business priorities. It also requires doing this in a way that energises people to respond in appropriate ways. People not only need to be able to work out what needs doing but should also feel inspired, empowered and motivated to act accordingly.

Gallup, a company that has led on research establishing correlations between employee engagement and performance, has demonstrated that engaging employees can make a difference1. Jim Harter, Chief Scientist of Workplace Management and Well-Being at Gallup highlights the importance of making connections between purpose and people:

“Engaged workers have bought into what the organization is about and are trying to make a difference. This is why they’re usually the most productive workers.”

But the importance of connecting people with purpose and strategy is not just driven by the commercial need to stay competitive in fast moving times. Employees increasingly want to know what their company stands for and why they should care about its success and growth. A recent survey of recruitment and retention issues (again from Gallup) highlighted how the importance of purpose has risen versus more traditional factors such as reward2.

Stakeholders too want organisations to be authentic – so that the experience of dealing with the organisation matches the promises it makes through its marketing and other communications. Stengel’s recent work on top performing brands demonstrated the importance of a shared higher purpose that sustains brands by delivering consistency between promise and delivery3.

The importance of “narrative”

The importance of an organizational narrative to help in this process has been recognized by people such as David MacLeod and Nita Clark in their “Engaging for Success” report for the UK Government4. They described a narrative as one of the important drivers of employee engagement:

The narrative is a clearly expressed story about what the purpose of an organisation is, why it has the broad vision it has, and how an individual contributes to that purpose.

According to CEB5 a narrative typically covers key purpose, values, vision, and strategy; and, to support these aims, the brand, desired customer experience and culture. It can also include the external factors that drive the need for change and the history of the company that represents an important legacy for many employees.

Approaches to sharing the narrative


There are many different approaches to how to “socialize” the narrative – that is, how to bring it to life for people so that they get it and understand what they need to do to support its delivery. Organizations use different platforms as the basis for sharing their narratives. Central to all these platforms is the intention of encouraging conversations to link the bigger narrative to what that means for individuals and teams. The table below summarises some of the more frequently used approaches, what they involve, their relative strengths and critical things to think about if using the approach:But as MacLeod and Clarke suggest what is important is the link or “line of sight” between what an organisation is trying to achieve and its interpretation and internalization at an individual level, which makes the way the narrative is shared critical to its value.

Platform What it can involve Strengths Critical things to think about
Big Picture; Big Conversation A large visual metaphor (a road, bridge, football stadium, islands, etc.) that outlines key elements of the narrative (vision, values, market forces, etc.).

Numerous conversations using the Picture as the prompt to discuss what this means for local teams

Use of visual makes translation easy; so conversations take place in local languages discussing local issues but using one global metaphor

A big picture links complex themes (strategies, values, initiatives)

Impact and efficiency – the brain processes visual information 60,000 times faster than the time it takes to decode text

Maintaining focus on creating empowering conversations; focus on getting the “right” picture distracts from equipping people to lead conversations well

Equipping managers and/or facilitators to lead conversations

Getting the leadership team behind the initial drafts is important to build ownership from the top

Establishing the right visual tone for the audience to avoid patronising people

Storytelling Can involve the development of a core narrative for an organization and/or the development of storytelling skills for leaders and managers. Stories are memorable, understandable, can operate at an emotional and rational level, and are less prescriptive inviting the listener to interpret the story to make meaning for them at a more personal level

As a result stories can be more persuasive as people reach their own insights and make their own meaning

Selection of a bank of core stories that will resonate

Development of the skills of leaders and managers to create their own stories

Brand Articulation of the brand essence: a promise that represents what we offer customers (and employees)

Use of this to drive conversations and workshops that help people understand the value of the brand and their role in supporting it

Links strategic conversations strongly to customer and other stakeholder benefits

Supports the alignment of customer experience to brand promise

Helps strengthen corporate reputation by increasing understanding of delivery roles

Can be more difficult to apply in B2C and product brand situations where brand essence is based on less tangible differentiators

Requires acceptance of brand as a key competitive advantage which is more difficult to establish in public, third and some professional sectors

Values Similar to brand as a platform but based on enduring organizational values

Identification of enduring tenets to capture “what we stand for”

Summarises underlying assumptions about what it means to work here

Appeals at a more meaningful level to a deeper purpose: why people work here and why it is worth working here

Highly flexible to enable people to adapt values to their own situations, teams and experiences

Naturally leads to questions and discussions about how we deliver the value

Challenge of engaging people: how to align personal and organizational values

Can feel like a leadership construct imposed on others after executive away days

Are there worthwhile values that underpin how the business works?

Large group interventions A completely different approach that is far more emergent inviting people to contribute to the definition of what we are here to do and what our future should look like. LGIs represent a distinct discipline in organisation development and encompass such approaches as Open Space, Future Search, Search Conference, etc. These real time change methodologies can be used to engage groups in developing their narratives Emergent and more real, engaging and empowering

Bottom up rather than top down

Generates higher levels of ownership and commitment

Aligns individual stories and values with organisational story and values

Fast and operate in real time; rather than relying on project teams or sub-groups decisions are taken within group conversations

This approach requires sufficient leadership confidence to be ready to adopt the proposals and ideas that come from anywhere in the organisation

Getting the right people in the room

Lack of certainty can be challenging for leaders and participants who typically take time to understand that the outcomes are not pre-determined nor constrained in the way more top down approaches are

Customer experience This focuses on how the customer experiences interactions with the organisation and the impact this has on the customer. The use of a customer journey tool encourages people to put themselves in the customers’ shoes and see the world through their eyes. Key “moments of truth” and other opportunities to improve the customer experience support action planning or further work with other parts of the business Encourages people to analyse how different parts of their organisation interact to create the customer experience

Breaks down silos and builds cross-departmental co-operation

Puts emphasis on external perspective rather than an internal and introspective analysis

Fosters a growth and service mindset

Understanding the customers’ perspective both in terms of how they encounter the business and how they feel about those encounters

Creating opportunities for people to work laterally to influence change following participation in these conversations

Encouraging an openness and climate for people to be self-critical and constructive

Gamification Creating business games and scenarios that simulate challenges that the business faces

Using these to engage people in conversations that increase their awareness and understanding of the dilemmas involved in growing the organisation

Using these conversations to inform local planning and prioritisation

Encourages the development of organisation awareness to reduce silo thinking and encourage cross-fertilisation and co-operation

Provides insights into executive decision-making

Promotes deeper awareness of the trade-offs and compromises that are sometimes necessary

Engages people in meaningful value discussions

Creating scenarios that are engaging, realistic and challenging

Positioning the game as a learning experience and translating that learning to the real work

Game design that provides realism, fun and competition

This is not an exhaustive list. Other platforms include Lego SeriousPlay and drama based approaches. Nor is the list above mutually exclusive. Big pictures support storytelling and vice versa; brand workshops can encompass customer experience analysis and planning; gamification frequently highlights ethical dilemmas at the heart of values based planning.


1. Gallup; How Employee Engagement drives Growth; June 2013

2. Gallup; How Millennials Want to Work and Live; 2016

3. Jim Stengel; Grow; 2011;

4. David MacLeod and Nita Clarke; Engaging for Success; 2009

5. CEB; How Firms Build their Corporate Narratives; September 2016




This article aims to help people think through the scope of the conversation they may want to have to define Purpose for their organisation, or part of it. It provides a guideline for helping to think about the most appropriate way to frame the inquiry. It also provides links to other resources, articles and books that may be helpful.

This follows an earlier post that addressed why being clear about organisational Purpose is important: the Importance of Connecting People to Purpose.

Individual vs. Organisational Purpose

This is about organizational as opposed to personal purpose. For an exploration of the latter, the article in Harvard Business Review by Nick Craig and Scott Snook is a good place to start. They provide a process for helping individuals, working with trusted colleagues or friends, to ask themselves some fundamental questions from which to draw insights. For a perspective on how individual and organizational purpose can be combined Dan Pontefract provides some good stories and approaches in his work on the Purpose Effect.

Creating your process

In order to generate a relevant, inspiring and sustainable Purpose it is critical that the design and ownership of the process sits with the group who’s Purpose is the focus of the work. Hence the first phase in the generic process below involves contracting with this team, before the discovery and engagement work.

The team will want to focus on questions like what data to collect, who to involve, what questions to ask people, how to bring data together, how to communicate outcomes and so on. They also need to think about and shape the subsequent stages to ensure high levels of ownership for this and the eventual outcome.

Step1: Contracting

Step 2: Discovery

Step 3: Engagement

The process iterates backwards and forwards, and the players in different stages need to interact if not overlap. Put more simply, key influencers need to play a role in all phases.



The first phase involves contracting with leadership at an appropriate level for the Purpose Inquiry. This might be the Board of a Corporation, the executive leadership of a transformation project, the functional team in a support role, the lead team of a project bid, etc. Key outcomes include clarity about the reasons why this will help the business – the business and benefits case looking at hard results such as financial gains and soft benefits such as improved reputation with customers. This is also an opportunity to brainstorm the North Star that works for this team and to outline who and how to involve others in this work.

What is important during Contracting

It is critical to get the right group of people together which essentially means the leadership. Contracting is not just between this group and an internal or external facilitator, but also between these team members as they agree what they want, and between this team and the rest of the organisation and the “system” within which it operates. Effective delivery will be defined and shaped by the leadership group working together and providing a consistent narrative.

Key outcomes from Contracting

At least three important outcomes from this step are:

  1. “North Star” – draft summary of Purpose
  2. Business and benefit case explaining why this is important
  3. Scope and approach to this work; who else to involve and how to keep focused on intentions

Activities and issues to consider during Contracting

  • Explore readiness for change so that the team is confident that it is up for a significant shift in direction if the need emerges
  • Establish transparency of process so that the leadership team have complete ownership, including the option to stop the work
  • Insist on self-analysis of data so that internal or external consultants manage the process not the content emerging
  • Ask questions that encourage self-disclosure and learning to give leaders insights into what gives their work meaning, for themselves and for their clients
  • Identify and tackle dilemmas and political agendas that always surface: such as the relative merits of top down and bottom up approaches, the merits of an outside in and an inside out perspective to data collection, whether to explore the whole or just part of the system
  • Agree clear outcomes and measures so that the team knows how to expect this work to deliver value, so that it can measure progress and so the team can learn from the work’s successes and shortcomings


What is important during Discovery

Discovery is an exploration of what stakeholders value – from employees and their managers to customers, partners and regulators. The essence of defining Purpose is to synthesise this feedback, drawing out themes that resonate across stakeholders and using processes (visuals, stories) to build on words to articulate Purpose.

Discovery implies both an exploration and a journey. The Purpose is “out there” and the work is to identify, enrich, focus, describe and communicate that Purpose.

Key outcomes from the Discovery step

  • Perspectives from all significant stakeholders on the role of the group
  • Synthesis of these perspectives
  • Creative articulation of Purpose
  • Engagement plan for invoving people in translating Purpose

Activities to consider during the Discovery step

  • Ensure all influential stakeholders feature in both the data gathering and the engagement planning
  • Agree what data is required – for a discovery process around purpose the essence of the inquiry is about what the organization exists to do in the eyes of different stakeholders and to explore what the organization means to different stakeholder groups
  • Embrace diversity so that many different perspectives are heard
  • Think rationally and emotionally – Purposes provide direction and inspire so it is important not to overlook the emotional value that can be delivered by a well researched Purpose appropriate to key stakeholders
  • Agree what data collection methods will best uncover insights for different groups – approaches can include interviews, focus groups, story boards, free form drawing, observation, document review, etc.



What is important during Engagement

Engagement emphasises that the effective delivery of Purpose is the responsibility of all people in the organisation and some outside it. However well defined the Purpose, if these people do not get it and how they relate to the Purpose, then it will remain words and aspirations on a page.

Line managers are pivotal in engaging people providing the face to face link between the organisation and the customer facing teams. Their involvement in the process begins in the discovery stage and is major during engagement. Ultimately it is the line managers who help others bring purpose and strategy to life making it relevant to different teams and helping people to connect their roles to the bigger picture.

Key outputs and outcomes from the Engagement phase


  • Communication materials (e.g video, social media platforms)
  • Face to face conversations to translate Purpose at local levels (e.g. conferences, workshops, team meetings)
  • Alignment between teams and throughout organisation on common goals
  • Inspiration – making greater meaning for people on the nature of their work


Activities and issues to consider during Engagement

  • Help people connect everyday work to higher Purpose
  • Who is going to lead conversations – will this be led by local managers, by a special team of facilitators, by leadership – or by a combination of these
  • Maintain an external focus on what people do for others
  • Involvement of all groups internally and clear communication through multiple channels to external stakeholders
  • Clear outcomes and measures against each group of stakeholders
  • Measurement processes to start early (establishing baselines) and to continue to learn what is and is not working and to help sustain the engagement



Final thoughts

Rather than looking for rules or experts to answer questions about how to build a sustainable process, the approach above represents a more sustainable approach that views developing purpose as a discovery process with a number of different steps and ongoing feedback loops to collect and interpret data.

For more information on the importance of connecting people to Purpose go to:

For more information about recent clients’ experiences of sustaining Purpose go to:

For more information about how to use the Big Conversation as an approach to communicating Purpose and Strategy go to:



Creating a strong sense of Purpose provides a major competitive advantage for an organisation. This is about why Purpose is so important for engagement with employees and other stakeholders, and it illustrates the growing evidence base supporting this argument.

What is organisational purpose?

Strategy is concerned with what an organisation wants to achieve, Purpose is longer-lasting and is about why the organisation exists in the first place and what matters in its work. Purpose defines why a business exists, informs investment decisions, aids prioritization and provides meaning for what an organization does for its employees, customers and other stakeholders.

Why is it important?

“He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how.”

Friedrich Nietzsche

People recognise how important a sense of Purpose is in their everyday lives. It quite literally helps people get out of bed in the morning, maintain focus on a goal and carries us through setbacks and tough times.

Purpose is important for organisations. Increasingly people look for deeper meaning as to why they should work for their employer, and customers and shareholders are increasingly concerned to engage with companies and brands that appeal beyond a transactional reward.

The pace of change and disruption is increasing, and the expectations of stakeholders and customers are become more demanding. Employees need to be aligned and engaged in a way that educates and motivates them so that they can take the initiative to respond as needed without waiting for directions.

Purpose has been likened to a North Star, providing a guiding light through troubled times when other factors threaten to divert direction. It gives an organisaation resilience to stay focused on its goals despite challenges raised by competitors, crises and other disturbances. Purpose helps provide context and rationale when numerous change programmes ask people to change ways of working and disrupt teams.


The evidence

Below are a list of and links to resources that highlight the importance of Purpose grouped under different headings.

Becoming more competitive:

  • “Built to Last: Successful Habits of Visionary Companies” (1994) by Collins and Porras had a profound impact. The authors, contrasting the performance of “great” performing companies against industry rivals, empathized the importance of core purpose and core values alongside audacious goals and vivid descriptions of the future as the hallmark of great companies.
  • The value of a strong brand, underpinned by a brand essence akin to a clear core purpose, has become accepted and measurable – half of Collins and Porras’ original list are in Interbrand’s 2015 most valuable brands (alongside what were yet to exist or nascent companies such as Google, Apple, Microsoft, Intel, Cisco and Facebook).
  • In recent years the importance of Purpose as a force for alignment and engagement was acknowledged by the Engaging for Success (MacLeod) Report, commissioned by the Secretary of State for Business in 2008. The report identified a number of positive business benefits flowing from employee engagement, and critically that improvements in engagement led to improvements in business performance. The first core enabler identified by the MacLeod Report is the existence of a strong strategic narrative:

LEADERSHIP provides a strong strategic narrative, which has widespread ownership and commitment from managers and employees at all levels. The narrative is a clearly expressed story about what the purpose of an organisation is, why it has the broad vision it has, and how an individual contributes to that purpose.

Engaging for Success; the MacLeod Report to Government 2009

Inspiring people to action:

  • Simon Sinek’s “How great leaders inspire action” (filmed in September 2009) remains amongst the top viewed Ted Talks (over 28m in 2016). His subsequent book “Start with Why” outlines the argument that purpose driven leaders and companies inspire others to action.
  • In a similar vein Dan Pink’s 2011 thesis outlined in “Drive: the surprising truth about what motivates people” identifies autonomy, mastery and purpose as keys to motivation. His Ted Talk also features in the top 20 all time playlist (15m views in 2016) and this link to his Royal Society of Arts summary provides an engaging visual illustration of his main ideas

Attracting and retaining talent:

  • Gallup, one of the organisations at the forefront of employee engagement measurement over the last 20 years, analysed the views of Milennials (20 – 36 year olds; born 1980 – 1996). Exploring what people want from work, Gallup identified six major shifts foremost of which is away from a focus on reward towards a focus on Purpose:

“Milennials don’t just work for a paycheck – they want a purpose. For milennials work must have meaning. They want to work for organizations with mission and purpose.”

Gallup, How Millenials Want to Work and Live, 2016

  • The Energy Project showed that organisations with a clear sense of Purpose are three times more likely to stay with their organisations in their 2013 Quality of Life at Work report

Engaging people to deliver results:

  • Building on the “Engaging for Success” report, Tanith Dodge the HR Director at Marks and Spencer plc. oversaw the “Nailing the Evidence” paper (2012). Drawing on academic research, consultant surveys and case studies her team established positive correlations between effective engagement and: growth and profitability; customer service; productivity; wellbeing and health and safety; employee retention; and lower turnover and absence.

Finally for a document that provides a comprehensive overview of why Purpose comes before profit, see the Big Innovation Centre’s May 2016 interim report on The Purposeful Company.

“Purpose is key to corporate and economic success. Great companies are enabled by the pursuit of clearly defined visionary corporate purposes, which set out how the company will better peoples’ lives.”

In summary:

  • A clear Purpose helps align and focus effort and provide meaning for what the business does
  • Purpose goes beyond profit and focuses on what an organisation does to better the lives of its customers and stakeholders
  • Companies with clear and well-communicated Purposes have shown significant long-term performance
  • One reason is that Purpose is a key driver of employee engagement which correlates with a range of performance benefits
  • For younger people, Purpose appears to be more important than ever, suggesting that for the long-term success of the business attracting and retaining talent will increasingly rely on the clarity and visibility of Vodafone’s Purpose
  • Establishing shared purpose remains a key challenge for leadership and management, and a potential differentiator for successful businesses.



Big Pictures portray company strategies and are designed to help individuals and teams have conversations about what the strategy means for them. Some high profile examples like the “New Day on Retail Street” by Sears Roebuck or the “Big Conversation” by TUI Travel [add new link] demonstrate the impact they can have.

Despite this, organisations still seem shy of using pictures as a platform to engage people in strategic discussions. Concerns that “it would not work here” or that pictures trivialize the strategic intent get in the way. So here are seven reasons to help persuade colleagues why it makes sense to use Big Pictures to communicate strategy.

1. Pictures are more efficient

Pictures can communicate complex information quickly. The use of graphics increases comprehension, and recollection and retention. The rise in popularity of infographics is based on this and some have claimed (3M) that visuals are processed 60,000 times faster than text. Communicating strategic concepts and the links between different themes in the strategy can be achieved more efficiently using visual metaphors. The Tube map conveys the efficiency of visuals: imagine trying to convey the content of this map using words!


2. Pictures are more memorable

Numerous experiments over the last 30 years have demonstrated the “picture superiority effect” – concepts that are learned by viewing pictures are more easily and frequently recalled than are concepts that are learned by viewing their written word form counterparts. Professor Allan Paivio found that people’s memory for images far exceeded their recollection for words. 10% could remember the word “circle” 3 days later while 65% of those shown an image of a circle remembered it after 3 days.


3. Pictures complement story telling

As pictures are used to tell more complex stories they adopt the properties of narratives. Typically a Big Picture will cover the history of the organisation, the drivers for change, key themes in the plans for change, and the vision for the future. This narrative sits behind most organisational strategies and recollection is increasingly helpful as people continue to link their roles with the bigger picture of the strategy. Consider the illustration of the nativity scene and the Ten Commandments. How many people can remember the Ten Commandments? How many can tell the nativity story? Big Pictures help convey a narrative around the strategy that is easier to relate to than a series of bullets. This engages more circuits in our brains, including those associated with emotions. So while a list of bullets tends to trigger a more critical reaction in which we critique and challenge the content, Big Pictures trigger a more curious reaction that brings people in to the conversation and encourages them to link their stories with the bigger company story.


4. Pictures invite participation, debate and dialogue



Unlike formal cascade approaches to the communication and discussion of strategy, the use of pictures to convey key themes, avoiding technical language and jargon can be much more accessible and more democratic. Using a picture to invite people to have a conversation about the strategy and how it relates to the team involved encourages more people to talk up and debate where they see themselves in the picture and the implications of the strategy for their role.



5. Pictures affect emotion and decision-making



Pictures can be powerful at generating an emotional reaction. Scientists have shown that even simple exposure to the colour red can heighten our pulse and breathing rates.

When people lose parts of their brain associated with emotions they find it more difficult to make decisions even though their rational and analytical powers are unaffected. So imagery is important not only because it can convey ideas quickly and make them memorable, but also because it operates at an emotional level. This, alongside rational facts and evidence, can help us reflect and decide on courses of action or priorities that may be important.


6. Pictures work across borders

Using a picture as the platform for a conversation removes language and translation issues from conveying the core messages. Pictures cross borders so that we can have in-depth, creative and heated discussions about the strategy in our own languages but using a common visual platform that conveys one core story globally.


7. Picture development helps test and create alignment, and build buy-in

The process of developing the picture that captures the strategy is iterative and can help the leadership and the wider organisation engage in a co-creative process to define what will make us successful in the longer-term. Increasingly companies are looking to approaches that enable them to respond quickly to fast moving markets and competitive threats. Separating out the formulation of strategy from the execution is increasingly impossible. On the ground speed and agility is paramount and engaged employees who have a clear sense of the overall narrative and understand what it means for them will increasingly become the differentiator of success.

Graphics and visuals are increasingly used to communicate. We see it in the success of picture-sharing sites like Facebook, Instagram and Tumblr; the imagery in newspapers; the ubiquitous infographic and even a study of science textbooks over 50 years has identified a major shift from text to pictures.

The technology may be new, but it is only reflecting how we like to communicate. Our brains like pictures as we can probably all remember from our early reading efforts – this reflects the way our brains work. We’ve been using pictures for 30,000 plus years while text has only been around for 4,000 years. Pictures serve an important role in helping us convey, assimilate and use information.

Have you used visuals or Big Pictures to communicate strategy? What success have you had with the approach?

Lessons from “high stakes” facilitation

Here are some reflections on a “high stakes” (for me) event that I ran recently working with John Hovell, who leads on Organisation Development for BAE Systems Group. We led the 2015 NTL Community Day – a large group gathering for some of the UK’s leading change experts and master facilitators.

NTL Institute is an American non-profit behavioural psychology centre founded by Kurt Lewin (one of the pioneers of organisation development who led thinking on Group Dynamics and pioneered Field Theory and action research) and which produced or influenced notable “gurus” such as Douglas McGregor (Theory X and Y), Chris Agyris (Ladder of Inference and Double Loop Learning) and Warren Bennis (Leadership).

I was pretty apprehensive – there is something particularly nerve-wracking about “performing” in front of experts trying to do what they have built their successful careers around. But John and I did a good job and got lots of positive feedback, and I wanted to capture the learning points.

To summarise these at the start:

  • Design around the needs of participants. Whatever the hosts’ intentions, involve participants to reflect their needs too
  • Ensure transparency of design and make intentions explicit
  • Take chances to accommodate participants’ wishes because the pay-off in energy and input justifies the uncomfortable feeling of lack of control
  • Balance content (i.e. input) with experience (i.e. the chance to discuss or work with the content). So many corporate events overlook this, yet the brain is limited in how it processes and 20 minutes content followed by reflection creates much more effective learning
  • Go “off piste” if the participants want it – let them shape the agenda and if they do not agree run parallel events within the larger forum
  • Use modern technology to maximize participation in design, connecting and knowledge sharing – but make sure the tools are right and their purpose is clear

Participative design

First and foremost is the principle of seeing the meeting as something that the participants’ own. The facilitators just happen to be their agents for the process. This is true of most if not all facilitation work but an insight that gets lost on some facilitators and those that they are helping. This is an important point to stress so that everyone understands that responsibility for a successful day (or event, or meeting) is shared. Shared responsibility leads to higher engagement, more valuable meetings discussing issues of real concern and more flexible agendas.

Our vision was to create a day designed by the community for the community. Modern technology makes this so much easier. Using Googledocs and Slack (a cloud based collaboration tool) we could involve over six months nearly 100 members of the community in a very transparent way. The technology enabled the creation of a self-selecting virtual design team and helped invite community-wide responses to emerging ideas. Everyone provided input on purpose, and creative ideas, then the design team reviewed the creative design ideas and proposed a process, and then the whole community again provided commentary and further suggestions. In addition to participative design the process means people can arrive (if they want) fully up to speed with goals and agenda, and it sets the tone or the spirit – so as the day progresses the design does too.

Chris Rimmer (whose experience includes IT management for one of the UK’s largest hedge funds) helped in this and between us we entered this in “Discovery” mode – we were not sure how well it would work. One of the big challenges early on was getting people comfortable using the technology and if we had the time again we would have spent more time helping people understand its capability. Some people leap in but others need encouragement and prompting. More conventional methods (email) need to be used alongside the new tools.

Be transparent and obvious in design

We wanted an energizing and relevant connecting activity. It sat in the agenda without anyone specifying what it would look like! I spent a long-time worrying about this. In the end we came back to basics.

Two goals were 1) to define the spirit of NTL and 2) to connect people. So we started in cohort groups (people who knew each other well) to do some reminiscing and story telling about their experiences together, and then we re-grouped into cross-cohort groups to extract themes from the stories that captured the spirit of NTL. My learning from this was to be obvious. The goal is to define the spirit so ask people to answer that question. To connect people help them both re-connect to old friends and meet new ones.

The learning is to be transparent about intention and not to overcomplicate the design as it adds little and just serves to increase the risk of confusing people.

Take chances

The unconference format (let participants decide the topics they work on) is increasingly familiar but still rarely used for larger corporate events. Yet it is such an obvious approach in the right circumstances (in our case generating ideas and sharing information and issues between participants). We learned some useful pragmatic lessons about how to set this up and the participants welcomed the chance to vote with their feet on where to put their energy.

Theory and practice; input and experience

We asked Julie Beedon (founder of the VISTA network and one of the UK’s leading experts on Large Group Interventions) to do a short input on Polarity Management, which is a fantastic tool for helping organisations and teams navigate the challenges of competing objectives. Then we used the framework to get people debating around two familiar issues in change management: 1) what is more important – theory or practice; and 2) how to balance youth vs. wisdom? I think it was helpful to immediately take the framework and apply it in the real world – even though it was a bit chaotic it got people engaged and showed them how to use the polarity management ‘tool’ on real issues.

Flexibility and Energy

At one point we had two conflicting agendas. Some wanted to explore and experience the use of practical energizers while others wanted to continue discussions on their topics.

We had the space to do both. Those who wanted the “lighter” activity around the illustration of some energizing activities had a session with Steve Chapman who is one of the leading thinkers and practitioners on innovation and Martin Horton who specialised in Armed Forces leadership development. Those who wanted the discussions went “next door” to break into relevant topics of interest.

We did not know this was going to happen – we had the good fortune of having the people in the room that could let us go “off-piste” and the flexibility to accommodate differing needs.

The lesson, which could apply to many large group meetings or gatherings in the corporate world, is to use the available resources to meet the needs of the participants. Overall energy and commitment remains high as a result.

Multiple channels

Another technology lesson – give people the opportunity to connect virtually both during the meeting and afterwards. I was skeptical until I saw the value of being able to make requests, convene special interest groups, share information and contacts etc. etc. on the day. We encouraged people to download What’s App before the day and they used it for the session and after.

Reviewing this I realise that that these lessons seem simple, which feels right. Some will think that these lessons only apply to a community type session. I think if we took these on board our corporate leadership, management, employee and customer conferences would be much more effective. But you need a brave host to relinquish control.

My thanks go first and foremost to Mee-Yan Cheung Judge who made NTL what it is in the UK and to:

Julie Beedon

Paul Brand

Tim Burridge

Jenny Charteris

Cindy Chaney

Steve Churst

Alison France

Griff Griffiths

Martin Horton

John Hovell

Dawn Jarvis

Sian Richards

Chris Rimmer

Gwen Stirling


Building a sense of purpose

How to focus on purpose

I am always being asked how we can ensure the Big Conversation process leads to sustainable change rather than being a one-off process. So we have just completed a review that explored – with the benefit of hindsight – what helps leaders sustain conversations about core purpose and strategy within their businesses? 8 companies employing over 133,000 employees took part, all of which had launched initiatives to communicate strategy and translate it at local levels.

We found that some organisations set up cycles of local conversations so that teams regularly discussed the Big Picture and what it means for them, while others cascaded once and did not revisit the strategy. We tried to identify what made the difference.

The feedback identified five insights into what helps drive sustainable change in the context of using the Big Conversation process. I suspect the lessons apply to change efforts more generally.

Inspire the CEO

It’s an obvious point to say that the CEO has to buy in and support the change process but this is more nuanced. What we found was that in the organisations where the conversations thrived the CEO had experiences early on that inspired them. For example one CEO found that he had more meaningful conversations with groups of employees as he piloted the process. He became an evangelist because he found he learned a lot and then encouraged his team and their managers to see the strategy communication process as a learning opportunity. Another one’s initial cynicism shifted because the senior leadership team’s debate highlighted different perspectives on direction. He wanted people at other levels to have similar quality conversations and as a result started asking more questions about progress and maintenance of the process.

Build the business case

It’s also obvious that people find clear direction and purpose useful (and actually our brains need it if we are going to perform at our best). But a constant re-focus on purpose and strategy is difficult to maintain because leadership teams lose interest; they tend to think that once it is communicated then the job is done. But we found this is only the start. What it takes to keep people focused is a compelling business case for the investment in time on the “bigger picture” and hard data to track progress. For example we found that one company tracked positive differences in awareness and understanding created by teams having regular conversations. This same company collected customer feedback suggesting that customers noticed this difference, so the process established a link between better understanding of strategy and customer satisfaction.

Focus on tangibles: what we do and how we work

Conversations were more helpful when the focus was not on the strategy but on “what it means for us”. When people just focused on strategy, conversations lacked immediacy and relevance. When people talked about how they could improve relationships and what this might involve conversations became more helpful and energised. But it can be difficult to engage people in this conversation if it comes over as criticism. We found conversation leaders that had more success over the long-term asked questions like:

  • What will things look like round here if we are delivering our strategy?
  • How would that change how we work?

Listen don’t tell

One company has now institutionalised the process of talking about strategy. What used to be the Big Conversation has become the Little Conversation because, 3 years in, all the benefit is perceived to take place at the team level. Regular cycles of conversation revisit priorities and ‘issues to address’ to support the business strategy. The HR Director says this happened because the company stopped trying to communicate strategy at people and started asking them what they thought was important. Data started coming back from the process that helped marketing, human resource, finance and operational teams develop new approaches to building the business (e.g. the design of more customer friendly bills, ideas for sharing information more effectively).

Invest in conversation leadership

In the company above the conversation leaders told the HR Director that the approach was wrong, and their feedback and involvement, she says, is what has helped sustain the process. Early on the company invested in helping the leaders explore how to run effective conversations. Investing in this support gave managers the confidence to turn the strategy communication process into two-way conversations focused on effective change. In another company this investment has taken the form of ensuring no one leads conversations about strategy until they have participated themselves. In another company HR and communications partnered with line managers in the early stages of the engagement process to help make sure the conversations remained two-way.

Simple rules to sustain conversations around purpose

It is anecdotal data but turning these observations into tangible lessons for the effective engagement of people around organisational purpose, some simple rules may be:

  • Get the CEO leading from the front, not taking a “hands off” or back seat role
  • Adjust mind-sets: rather than emphasising leaders role broadcast strategy, start thinking about how to deliver the strategy by leading conversations about it and listening to ideas and input
  • Keep leaders engaged by frequent feedback on progress and achievements, and ideas emerging
  • Focus on the short-term in the context of a longer-term vision
  • Discuss and debate tangible actions and behaviours
  • Give people autonomy to develop ideas and suggestions that will take the business forward
  • Support the development of conversation leadership skills


The use of Big Pictures as a strategic engagement tool was pioneered in the mid 1990s by the retail group Sears. The “learning maps” they developed with Root Learning became an important part of the service profit chain story that was covered in a seminal Harvard Business Review article.

Since then Big Pictures have become a recognised approach to engaging people in conversations about business direction and what that means at a local level. In other words, the Big Picture becomes a valuable tool to provide “line of sight” between what we do in our team with the business strategy. For advocates of employee engagement this is one way of providing a meaningful strategic narrative, something both David MacLeod and Dan Pink have emphasized as critical to success.

Big Pictures have a good track record. In one recent example employee understanding of business strategy went up by nearly 30% in four months, and in another 95% of people thought, as a result of using the picture, that “they now understand how they and their team contribute to the business strategy.”

The secret of the success of the approach is in the conversations people have about the business, conversations which are prompted by the visual. In the best examples these conversations are free from jargon, memorable, and open to all members of the team – the use of a visual levels the playing field and invites all to contribute.

However, the approach backfires – badly – when the visual is used as a substitute for a presentation about the business strategy. In these situations, when a leader talks at people using a visual to illustrate key points, the approach can come over as patronizing and simplistic. I suspect some organizations that could benefit from the process are put off by this fear; a fear based on a misunderstanding of the role of the picture and its power as a platform for energizing and empowering conversations.

To use the process well, here are some important things to do:

Engage the leadership group in the development of a shared strategic narrative

An effective picture is the product of a rich conversation within the leadership team (and beyond). That starting point is very important because it ensures alignment within leadership about their narrative and gives them an ownership stake in the resulting picture that they shape and develop together. This then becomes their picture that they want to support and use with colleagues. A lack of engagement with the leadership team will make it hard to develop a process that makes much difference later on.

Get the timing right

In these fast moving times it is increasingly difficult to predict the future. We need agile organizations where people understand the strategy and can execute quickly in line with it. This is one of the arguments for using an approach like the Big Picture. However, a lack of clarity about where the business is trying to get to and how it will get there in broad terms will disable the process. The picture can be used to help shape the articulation of strategy but is probably not a great tool to help define it – it is too early in the process. So get the timing right and use the picture process towards the end of the strategy development planning cycle.

Engage key sponsors

Sponsors are players in the organization system that have an influence on the success of a process like this. Beyond the leadership team some key sponsors that we have included in the development process have included:

  • Functional leadership teams
  • The middle management group as potential conversation leaders
  • Unions or employee representatives
  • Employees and front line, customer facing people
  • Customers
  • Suppliers

One of the important reasons for engaging with these sponsors relates to the nature of the change process. The Big Conversation is a systemic intervention that is designed to influence how different parts of the system work in partnership with each other. Integrating different perspectives from the start helps people see more clearly these relationships and encourages conversations about how we work with other teams in order to deliver the strategy. The conversation process itself may often work more effectively if different teams are bought together to debate what the strategy means to them.

Remember it is about a conversation not a picture

One of the recurring challenges in leading a process like this is to remind people continually that what matters are the conversations people have about strategy, not the picture. It is a problem because people engage with the picture and often lose sight of this when arguing about what should and should not be in the picture while it is being developed.

So this raises the key question: what do we want people to be talking about? Here the answer may relate to things like “what do we mean by good customer service”, or “how do we break down silos within the business?” But it is also here where the Big Conversation provides the opportunity for leadership to share some of the dilemmas and uncertainties the business faces. Do we focus on speed or quality of service? Do we celebrate individual or team achievements? Do we centralize or decentralize? All of these either/or questions have no solution – every business needs to try to get the best from both and navigate to an “and” solution where we aim for speed and quality, etc. The conversation process helps people in the business to discuss these issues at a level appropriate to what they do, in the context of the customers they work with.

Investment in facilitation

Encouraging good conversations throughout a business about how we deliver the strategy represent the Holy Grail for many leadership teams. These conversations cannot be controlled but they can be encouraged by good facilitation. Techniques may include training a group of champions to lead the process, equipping managers with detailed guidelines, preparing a set of open questions to prompt discussion, providing videos or other illustrations of what conversations we want people to have, or all of the above. It is ultimately the conversation and the impact that can have on peoples’ mindsets and behaviours that makes the difference.


Measuring success

In addition to obvious measures like shifts in peoples’ awareness, understanding and perspectives, the Big Conversation can be measured in terms of the themes, questions and feedback it generates. Ultimately in every successful application the word of mouth from conversation participants provides the compelling evidence of the success of the process. Capturing and tracking these, and the changing statistics re understanding etc. provides the organization with important evidence that builds confidence and the capability to continue proactive conversations with or without pictures to support them.

As an advocate of the Big Conversation process I would love to learn from other peoples’ experiences – good or bad.


Better conversations

In a world of increasing complexity and chaotic change, simple things can offer highly effective tools for managing change. My guess is that many people reading this constantly need to put structure around their plans – whether it is designing a presentation, workshop, conversation, interview or meeting – often at short notice.

ORID is a simple and versatile tool to help do this. ORID comes from the Technology of Participation (see the final paragraph below) and stands for objective, reflective, interpretative and decisional. It’s easy to remember because of the silent H, but it is anything but a “horrid” tool. For the last six months I have been using ORID to structure a wide range of different activities.

I was drawn to it because it is particularly helpful for providing context for a good conversation that enables people to reflect deeply. It helps probe beneath the surface and explore different perspectives – both rational and emotional. ORID stands for:

  • Objective: refers to experiential data – it is about facts and impressions, the things we sense: what people see, measure, observe, hear, and think. It is about information relevant to a theme, topic or issue.
  • Reflective: refers to how we react to that information – the images, emotions, and associations we make based upon our experiences.
  • Interpretative: about the meaning we make. What significance we ascribe to the experiences and emotions. This concerns the purpose we have, our values, connections we make between things and the ideas we have.
  • Decisional: about action – resolving the things we have discussed to a future direction and next steps.

Or, another way to remember this is, respectively: Senses, Heart, Head and Hands. ORID offers a better mnemonic.

A simple way to use the framework is to create a sequence of questions for people to address. For example, here are two very different scenarios and how ORID can be used:

  • 1.Developing a strategy or plan either large scale or for a specific project or component of a project
  • 2.Developing a intervention to help a team with a specific piece of work like trying to develop new values and behaviours
1. Developing strategy or project planning session 2. Analyzing values and behaviours to improve team working
Objective: What is the current situation? Who are the key players? What are the relative strengths and weaknesses? What are the expectations and targets? How will we measure success? How do you see inter-actions between team members? What are the key processes, arrangements and practices that shape how you work together?
Reflective: How do we feel about this? What is motivating and inspiring vs. what makes us anxious and scared? What is this like; what does this remind us of; when have we done something like this before? How do you feel about the way the team works together; what you like or don’t like?
Interpretative: What is going to be critical to success? What insights does this give us about how to move forward? What will be significant? What decisions do we have to make? How are we going to benefit and how will others? Who can we learn from? What is the purpose of the team? Do the values and behaviors help or impede the achievement of your purpose?
Decisional: What is the best way forward? What needs to be achieved by when? Who does what? How can we engage others? What’s the best way to communicate this? What changes you would like to see put in place?

Over the last few weeks I have found ORID can be helpful to:

  • Design the interview and workshop process for a leadership team that wanted to change the way they work with each other (see above)
  • Structure a focus group for a cross-generational group of managers exploring how leadership needs to change in the 21st century
  • Define the behaviours that the HR Directors of a large engineering business want to promote in their business
  • Put together an interview guide to help me and a potential client work out best possible next steps

The framework can also be used to structure a conversation or to help a group make sense of the conversation they are already having. People will come at topics from any one of the angles above where one participant might offer ideas for action, another talk about the facts as they see them, another may talk about their feelings and another may try to suggest focusing on what is important. Most of us have probably been in meetings where all of this is going on at the same time and having access to a structure to help organize inputs and the conversation is incredibly helpful.

ORID sits at the core of the Technology of Participation developed by the Institute of Cultural Affairs and represents the component parts of what they call a Focused Conversation. Building from this the Focused Conversation sits at the core of the Consensus Workshop approach, and in turn this represents the core of the Strategic Planning Process. So ORID is a core building block that is well worth knowing about.


Jamie Dimon, CEO of JPMorgan Chase, once said “I’d rather have a first-rate execution and second-rate strategy any time than a brilliant idea and mediocre management.” Business literature is full of the perils of effective execution.

Here are some “Dos and don’ts” derived from an Executive sub-group that spent last year planning then implementing a new corporate strategy. They may resonate for other organisations.


1. Do partner at senior levels during the planning phase

Each member of the sub-group partnered with a colleague who was not involved to keep them abreast of progress, discussions and decisions. This minimised surprises when proposals were put to the full Executive team and improved the quality of discussions. Furthermore the partnering process worked so well that they adopted the principle by extending “buddying” to important external stakeholders as the strategy was communicated more broadly

2. Do increase the transparency of decision making

Strategy is as much about choosing what not to do as it is about choosing the way forward. The strategy process involves lots of “what if” discussions and evaluation of possible options. The sub-group developed a series of criteria (e.g. time to market, risk, cost, exploitation of existing strengths, potential reach, etc) against which to evaluate options. Share the results of these conversations during execution to help people understand the context for the chosen way forward

3. Do clarify strategy and other relevant factors

The sub-group get involved on a number of occasions on debating the capability of the organisation and its leadership to accept and/or implement different courses of action. What should we do – constrain ourselves by what we think we can achieve or respond purely to market needs and opportunities? After a while this group decided it could not focus purely on responding to the outside world and distinguished between its strategy for the growth of the business and its strategy for execution. These run in parallel and are two sides of one coin. Implementation therefore gets built into the strategic planning process

4. Do free executive time for decision making and plan the process

This group achieved the development of a new strategy in circa 3 months despite attempts over the course of the previous five years that had not led to material changes. Key to this success was ensuring 6 members of the team freed themselves for the work by delegating more routine activities. Along with this the team mapped their process in an initial contracting meeting that helped increase visibility for what they were going to do, how they would make decisions and how they would work with each other

5. Do specify what will be critical for success

During its initial discussions the group asked itself what will be critical to the success of their work. They developed a list of critical success factors, which reflect high sensitivity to the need to plan for execution. These included:

  • Clear need for change that goes beyond just need to meet the numbers as our people will not be motivated by purely financial rationale
  • Involve stakeholders
  • Avoid bouncing or appearing to want to bounce colleagues into decisions
  • Give time for discussion and reflection; recognize iterative process
  • Clarity of terms (e.g. difference between vision and mission) to ensure we all understand what we are aiming to achieve
  • Liaison with key functions to ensure different perspectives reflected in planning to make better decisions and ease implementation

6. Don’t forget to communicate the case for change.

It took a series of meetings and compelling external data for the top team to persuade itself that fundamental change was required to respond to external trends driven by the changing use of technology and consumer expectations. Once they had agreed, “we need to change” they stopped talking about it and talked instead about planning their response. They had to keep reminding themselves that others lacked their perspective and that they needed to explain continually why change was necessary

7. Don’t expect strategy groups to facilitate themselves

Give Directors support in the form of facilitation to help make their job easier and do not over-engineer the process. Facilitation should be low key, supportive and ready to step in when required. Simple things like the effective use of flip charts, voting mechanisms, agenda management, and defined outcomes for meetings make all the difference between effective vs. ineffective meetings. Left to their own devices many groups meander and get stuck. Choose facilitators who will be able to challenge effectively.

8. Do build on strengths

One of the previous strategic discussions had faltered following a high level review by one of the UK’s major consulting firms. This report had majored on a series of negative observations about the business and its failure to grow to full potential, address operational weaknesses etc. By the time the consulting firm had finished its review it had alienated most members of the Board. Not because the observations were faulty but because the review failed to balance negative and positive perspectives; it paid too little attention to recognising and celebrating the successes and strengths of the organisation. Effective execution requires getting the buy-in of the leadership team. To achieve this it helps to emphasise achievements and strengths, and hopes and wishes for the future. Of course weaknesses and risks need to be addressed, but achieving balance in early feedback and planning is an important step in the process of moving forward and implementing change.

These experiences illustrate that for this team strategy and execution cannot be divorced in the way that Jamie Dimon seems to suggest. Effective strategic planning involves planning for implementation if it is going to be of value and bringing strategy to life begins during the initial conversations in the strategic planning process.


A strategic narrative is central to employee engagement according to David MacLeod and Nita Clarke, and the Engage for Success movement they shaped. It provides a clear vision to help create common purpose, and a clear direction aids decision-making and prioritizing. The narrative should also explain why you have your vision – a theme emphasised by Dan Pink, the author of Drive, who highlights the importance of creating a sense of meaning for people.

However, developing a clear strategic narrative is difficult – perhaps the most difficult of the four enablers of engagement according to a straw poll conducted at a recent Engage for Success event.*

Here are 10 tips that may be helpful if developing a narrative for your business.

  1. Answer the question of why you exist as an organisation; your “reason for being.” This provides a sense of meaning for people. It is rarely about money. Leadership should be wary, if they want to create an engaging climate, of framing their reason for being as purely financial. Involve a wider group in addressing this question asking how people think and feel about working for the business. Appreciative inquiry can be helpful as an approach exploring people’s high points at work, their wishes for the future and generating conversations about what motivates and inspires them about the business. Ask too how they think the business is different from others and what that means for them
  2. Map the history and key milestones: the story so far; successes and challenges you have overcome. Within the history of the business are thousands of stories and moments that matter to the people who helped to make them happen, or who got through the tough times during which important relationships were formed. Old brand names, products and locations will still resonate and establish links with these to the current business. Avoid the temptation to write the past out of the story
  3. Look at challenges and issues today that are outside your control. These could be technological, global, social, competitive or regulatory changes. Identify key forces that shape the environment within which the business operates and to which it needs to respond to survive and grow, or that create opportunities for new areas of growth
  4. Do the same for internal forces for change whether they are positive or negative. The narrative can include both internal strengths (e.g. teamwork, pride, customer focus) and weaknesses (e.g. unchecked inter-departmental rivalry, resistance to change, fear of the unknown)
  5. Rumfelt describes good strategy as the application of strength to promising opportunity. Di Fiore says it requires focusing on what to offer and what not to offer and being clear about your difference. Boil strategy down to ideas and phrases that are easy to understand, that build on strengths and that illustrate growth potential
  6. Describe the key things that need to happen in the short-term. For example: how you will meet customer needs, what innovations you will launch or develop, what will have changed in a year? What the short-term future looks like (the things you need to do to execute your strategy)
  7. What the longer-term future looks like (your vision; where you are headed and what that means for employees, customers and others). This is one of the toughest sets of questions to answer. Nevertheless it is worth pushing for answers and it helps to make the questions as tangible as possible. For example: how will a day in the life of a typical employee be different, how will customer meetings look different, what issues will the Board be discussing, who will be leading the company, what sort of people will have left and what sort of people will be working for the business now. Where will they work from, what will they spend their time doing, etc? In today’s disruptive times it is often impossible to be clear on answers to questions like these. Paradoxically, being specific on questions like this help leadership and others realise these questions cannot be answered with any certainty. While this creates anxiety it also helps all recognize that the future will emerge as a result of conversations internally and with customers and suppliers; and of course as a result of competitive or other external activities. The narrative now may contain alternative future possibilities and the process of debating these possibilities helps leadership define an umbrella vision that can cover all of them, some important “what if” questions to build into the story and some milestones that help people see the longer journey
  8. Think about the consequences of not changing or not going down this journey and build this into the narrative. It becomes another reason why you need to change
  9. Everyone in the organisaiton should be able to see themselves in the narrative, whether front line customer facing people, back office support, managers or leaders. This is an important test and if the narrative does not cover everyone new insertions may need to be made or “chapters” revised
  10. Remember the narrative is a start point not an end. Use the narrative as a platform for engagement giving employees the chance to join conversations about their futures and to help shape it.

The narrative is there to develop “a clearly expressed story about what the purpose of the organisation is, why it has the broad vision it has and how an individual contributes to that purpose.” (Engaging for Success; MacLeod and Clarke; page 75).

View your organisation as a social construct and see the narrative as a tool to help people explore. The narrative can help this process prompting the kinds of questions that lead people to debate what needs changing and why, and it becomes a tool to help deliver that future.

*Engagement through a Neuroscience Lens; April 29, 2015; Telegraph Media Group