1. People want meaning not money People who spend money on others are happier – around the world.  Giving is a universal human driver.  “Pro-social spending and happiness” is a study conducted by Elizabeth Dunn, Lara Aknin and Michael Norton in February 2014.  Research shows that people with more money are somewhat happier than those […]

On November 28 I met with a mix of IABC UK members and guests to discuss the challenges and issues raised by Fake News. Facilitated by the superb and provocative Ezri Carlebach people heard from five speakers for five minutes each. Spin and misinformation Jane Mitchell, is a specialist on business ethics, and she talked […]

Common challenges you’ve probably noticed

Digital development is demanding change in the way businesses are run and how they interact with their audiences and their employees. No matter what sector you’re in, you’re likely to be facing at least one of these challenges:

  • Teams have less face-time as people share, work and interact more remotely.
  • Employees and customers are enjoying new relationships with employers and brands as we move to self-serving models: this creates the need to rethink communication and engagement with employees and how we structure customer service roles.
  • Employees want more opportunities to work with their employers to give back to society and the communities they serve.
  • Organisations want more agile approaches with empowered employees who understand both company strategy and customer needs.


A solution starts with a conversation

Solving these issues requires processes that connect leaders, managers, project teams and front-line staff.

The traditional top down approach is hopelessly inadequate, especially in large organisations. A cascade approach is too slow when there are multiple levels of management and a complex organisational structure. “Top down” also contradicts the message that organisations need to empower their people to take more responsibility for the delivery of satisfaction and productivity.

Achieving that kind of collaboration across an organisation puts a premium on the need for quality conversations – conversations that help people work out how they can support strategic direction. The kind of conversation that encourages people to challenge, work out what they need to do to support change, and feel a high degree of ownership of the outcomes of the conversation.


Exploring the visualisation of strategy

Couravel has been using Big Pictures to help leaders define strategy and then to help teams engage with strategy. The power of visual representation of strategic and market issues is well proven. It was first written about in the Sears case study in the Harvard Business Review which introduced the Service-Profit Chain. At Sears, groups came to a better understanding of the marketplace and what they needed to do to support competitiveness by addressing questions posed by a visual representation of the High Street.

To explore its relevance today we asked 15 leaders from different businesses how developments in technology would affect their business in the next five years. Using ICA’s Technology of Participation (ToP) Consensus Workshop approach, they grouped their answers into seven main themes:

  • Collaborative working
  • Liberating structures
  • Empowered customers
  • Dynamic skill sets
  • Disruptive markets
  • New world of risks
  • Big data.


Transformation challenges to address

We then invited them to draw these themes and use their insights and imagination to create a synthesis picture in real time.

The textual list below presents information related to transformational challenges, while the picture conveys the same information visually:

  • Always on and changing working patterns – timing and geography no longer blockages
  • Feedback is instant and we have to respond instantly
  • Enable paradigm shift in service design and operation – focus on understanding and improvement
  • Creating new skills to cope with technology change
  • Using data to inform decisions
  • Defining and mitigating new risks caused by over-reliance on technology
  • Identifying and responding to new competitive challenges



What this gives the organisation is a visual representation of Digital Transformation and what it needs to do to navigate change.

To involve people in a conversation about how to respond to these challenges, the visual route represents an engaging starting point because it:

  • Invites people to interpret what is going on
  • Is easier to access (you do not need to understand jargon like “paradigm shift”)
  • Provides information more quickly
  • Leads to a less critical and more curious audience (lists invite a more critical, sceptical response).

Conversations around the visual

What is more important than the visual are the conversations around it; and they must be well facilitated. The visual becomes the focus for a conversation whereas questions draw people out.

For example, questions we used following the ORID framework of ICA’s ToP Focussed Conversation method include:

  • What can you see in the picture? What else? (Objective)
  • How do you feel about what you can see? Anything surprising, confusing? (Reflective)
  • Where do you see yourself fitting? (Reflective)
  • What could this picture mean for how we work with each other and our colleagues in other teams? (Interpretative)
  • What risks do you think technology creates for us? (Interpretative)
  • How might we be able to mitigate these risks? (Interpretative)
  • How could we use new capabilities to provide better services for our customers? (Interpretative)
  • What does that mean we need to do differently? (Decisional)

Using pictures to lead the conversation around Digital Transformation

This led to some penny-dropping moments for people involved in the leadership of change. For example:

  • It is increasingly difficult to define and think in terms of “visions” as these rapidly become outdated in the face of global and disruptive competition.
  • Consultants working with clients are experiencing their own journey of change through the digital landscape and the relationship between client and consultant needs to shift from the expert to the consultative model (i.e. where facilitators operate most effectively)
  • This is also true of the relationship between customers and suppliers generally, but the changes are complex. In some respects, the relationship becomes more transactional and customers interface with technology to get what they want. This scenario sees people losing jobs as machines and robots take them over. But in other respects, the roles become more demanding and complex as the relationship becomes more akin to partnering: when customers want help it is because the technology cannot address more complex challenges (notice the bridge between suppliers and clients that is itself on wheels and constantly changing)
  • The value of tangible, visual outcomes that can engage people more because they are visual, different and not prescriptive and that can convey some of the nuances and challenges of change (notice the trolls waiting to sabotage change work)
  • The widespread application for approaches like this (see below).


Rethinking how we think about change

We need to rethink the process of change. If we want people to let go of past practices we have to pay more attention to the way individuals respond to change. To encourage people to collaborate to define new practices, here are a few “must haves”:

  • Fun
  • Novelty
  • Laughter
  • Celebration of past achievements
  • Reflection time
  • Generating our own ideas
  • Feeling valued and connected


Using the Technology of Participation facilitation approach and visual thinking tools such as Big Pictures, we can create the kind of approach to collaboration needed to support transformation.

This approach is valuable in most change situations including:

  • Introduction of new technology
  • Mergers and acquisitions
  • New strategy
  • New strategy communication
  • Brand evolution or launch/relaunch
  • Design of new organisational processes
  • Defining cultures, behaviours and values

Visuals and support provided by David Gifford.

Storytelling is often seen as a communication tool to be used by leaders to influence an audience. But this misses one of the most powerful dimensions of stories – they are things that people, as social animals, have always shared and used to communicate deeper meaning. The sharing of stories has a powerful ability to […]

Technology will disrupt all our businesses in the next 5 years, and play a key role in changing how people work together. We used the pilot of our Leading the Big Conversation workshop to explore what it means for different organisations.

Participants from Accenture, ABRSM, BAE Systems, Defra, and Oxfam agreed:

  • Machines will take over many roles but people will remain at the centre of successful organisations
  • We will all need to acquire new skills to cope with new technology and its capabilities
  • Some will struggle to keep up with smarter working patterns and the cultures required to support them while traditional work/life balances will suffer
  • But the speed of innovation and the shift from hierarchy to network structures will also liberate people
  • Customers will benefit and new service relationships evolve
  • Competition will become fiercer, arrive from global sources and to stay competitive we will have to keep automating work
  • Risk management will require rethinking as threats to reputation and security multiply
  • Big data will transform what we do but we do not know how

The group translated this into a Big Picture and then used this to explore what it meant for them. As it was a pilot we collected lots of feedback on the impact of the process and implications for using it within their organisations. Feedback included:

  • “This approach is powerful”
  • 100% strongly agree that they appreciate the value of conversation as an approach to change
  • 100% agree today has been a good use of my time
  • “Fantastic day!”
  • “Feel a real sense of achievement.”

Here is a short video that captures the day.

I was helped by David Gifford who did his usual fantastic job of interpreting people’s ideas and scribbles into a coherent whole. I am also hugely indebted to the strategic facilitator and supporter of numerous colleagues Michael Ambjorn

Michael helped put the short video together and provides strategic facilitation and other services.



I was in Hanover today testing the appetite in Germany for The Big Conversation approach. We were slightly worried because some members of the client’s leadership team had expressed concern about whether the approach would ‘land’ here.

We had groups involved in testing work in progress on the current visual – a Big Picture of the Group’s strategy. So we talked them through the concept, the draft visual and they gave us 1 1/2 hours of feedback.

Reactions? They loved it! They thought it a great way of bringing strategy to life and involving teams in thinking about its implications for them.

By coincidence I ended up sitting next to one of the clients leadership team on the flight home. I told him the reaction and he was not surprised. He had shown some colleagues in Germany the UK version of the story and they had loved it too. So, rest assured – the Big Picture/Big Conversation approach does travel and works in cultures where some may fear more traditional business attitudes may prevail.

Leaders often talk about the need to align people behind goals and the challenge of doing so, and yet frequently adopt conventional top down approaches focused on “key messages” that just don’t work when change is so rapid and people expect more adult to adult approaches. A more impactful approach that resonates needs to relate to the way people naturally communicate. Organisations need to use conversational approaches that include core narratives and weave discussion about everyday challenges into more strategic conversations about higher purpose and longer-term goals.

For example TUI Travel, BAE Systems, Vodafone and TNT Express have all transformed understanding of strategy by inviting teams to discuss their priorities and actions in the context of a bigger picture. Ernst Young, Rolls Royce, RBS, Aviva, Cisco, Lilly and Royal Dutch Shell are all publicly talking about their use of narrative to help give people greater contextual understanding, to share goals and to improve collaboration.

Strategic conversations

A strategic conversation connects people to an organizational narrative. It is a conversation in which people talk about what they do in the context of a bigger picture; one that enables them to explore purpose, strategy, dilemmas, problems and solutions. It is a meaningful exchange that gives the opportunity to challenge and to think through what a team, or a group of people from different teams, aims to achieve in the context of bigger goals, and the best way to do so.

A strategic conversation is an intervention that prompts people to talk about forces for change, leadership intentions and their own intentions in response to local issues and challenges. Having conversations like these moves an organisation in the direction it aims to go. The theory underpinning this approach comes from social constructionism and, in particular, the work of David Cooperrider considered the father of Appreciative Inquiry – an approach to change that sees organisations as human living systems where asking questions and encouraging focused conversations which are not prescribed can help raise energy and change.

Different approaches work better in different situations and for different organisations, but here are 10 core principles that underpin any approach to help colleagues have more meaningful strategic conversations.

1. Provide clarity of purpose and vision

An organisation needs to be able to tell its stakeholders and its people what it stands for. For example:

  • Disney’s vision is to make people happy
  • Twitter wants to give everyone the power to create and share ideas and information instantly, without barriers.

These are more than marketing devised straplines to differentiate. These statements capture at a deeper level why an organisation exists: what it is for. This is important to give meaning to the people who work there for whom this purpose should be explicit and something that gets talked about constantly. For customers and other stakeholders, the purpose may be more implicit, but nevertheless it is important to confirm why the organisation is relevant for them.

The purpose needs to drive the business and sit at the heart of every strategic conversation. Even though it may not get mentioned in the course of the conversation, it still acts as a guiding light against which proposals, ideas, activities, behaviours and plans can always be tested by the simple question: is this aligned with our purpose?


Other famous statements include:

Nike: “To bring inspiration and innovation to every athlete in the world.”

Google: To organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful

Amazon: “Our vision is to be earth’s most customer centric company; to build a place where people can come to find and discover anything they might want to buy online.”

2. Develop shared goals at top

This sounds like a statement of the obvious but the reality is that many organisations talk about wanting to align people behind their vision or purpose while leaders do not themselves share a set of common goals, or are not seen to.

Unless the top team can develop and convey commitment to coherent goals that they all share, and are seen to share, it is futile to expect other people, starting with their direct teams, to do so. The strategic conversation process must always include the top team for if there is any sense that there is a lack of shared goals from the top, energy and commitment for the process will drain away.

In larger businesses, this extends to the wider leadership cadre – typically the direct reports to the executive committee. Winning the buy-in of this group to the value of the conversation process, and providing them with the confidence and skills to lead their own conversations, is critical. For example, BAE Systems encouraged all members of its senior group to attend conversations led by their leaders before leading their own. In this way, the top group not only worked through a better and shared understanding of their strategic aims but also learned the value of a process that encouraged open dialogue and the exploration of how different teams support the strategy.

3. Encourage a focus on strengths and celebrate what the organisation does well

Our brains respond positively when we are told what we are good at and we focus on things that we do well. This builds self-esteem and releases dopamine in the brain that reduces threat and makes it easier for us to collaborate and create. Important elements in strategic conversations are current strengths, and historical successes, and it is the appreciation of these that carries an emotional punch for people.

Many will overlook the importance of this. They will avoid, for example, historical brands or reference to past (e.g. pre-merger) organisations. This is a mistake – even if brands or companies may no longer trade, their legacy may mean a lot to the people who still work in the business. Erasing them from the story just damages the impact of the narrative; celebrating past successes acknowledges what they meant to people and displays a sensitivity to, and confidence in, the history of the organisation.

Focusing on current strengths allows people to think about how we can build on them and is more likely to raise energy. Typically, conversations at work tend to focus almost exclusively on the issues and problems to address. The power of a positive focus can be demonstrated by making relatively minor shifts in the style in which conversations are led. For example, starting with some of the things that have gone well in recent weeks; key achievements of the business or people in it; positive customer or other feedback, etc.

4. Build conversation skills and curiosity

Good strategic conversations are really an enquiry into why things are the way they are and how they can be better. The kinds of questions to stimulate these can include:

  • What are we here to achieve?
  • What do we believe in?
  • What works and what does not?
  • Why does it or why doesn’t it work?
  • What can we learn from that?
  • How can we change the way we work?
  • How will we know if we are getting better?
  • What would our customer say if he or she was here?

What is implicit in this approach is the assumption that we all have a perspective on the world that is relevant and we each have an equal right to express that perspective. Sceptics may discount this because some people bring more to the team and its work than others. Of course, they do. But it is still the case that every person in the organisation shapes how it works and what it achieves. A spirit of enquiry helps all members to contribute to an exploration of what can be better and the team needs to ask itself these questions to reach alignment and that “aha” moment to connect what’s important day to day with the strategy and purpose

5. Focus on the Future

Strategic conversations need to focus on where we are going. They may and often do begin with where we have come from, what makes us proud and what are our successes. But a strategic conversation is primarily future focused – it is about where we want to get to and how are we going to get there.

The pace of change today often makes this difficult because people and teams need to react to what is happening around them as new competitors appear, customers defect, and new initiatives are launched. But a strategic conversation needs to be more proactive and to look at the things teams can do to influence events and to take more control of their environment.

For one recent client, this was at the heart of their strategic conversations and drove the process from the top down with the desire to look at the things that people could take control of and influence to ensure their work patterns and outcomes supported the achievement of the longer-terms aims of the business.

6. Adopt an external perspective

One of the great challenges a strategic conversation brings is its focus on the external and internal organisational drivers for change. Typically, these are

  • The needs or actions of customers, competitors, or regulators,
  • The outcome of social or technological trends
  • The impact of organizational change

Normally they are a combination of all the above. A good strategic conversation builds peoples’ awareness of these opportunities and challenges that lie well outside the team and provides a platform for people to reflect on them, perhaps to vent and then to think about options for supporting the response to them.

This is important not only because it acts as a reminder of how change is always necessary but also because it is the hallmark of a healthy organisation – and the ability to be able to monitor the external environment and make changes is what makes organisations sustainable. Increasingly the need to do this at local levels, quickly, marks out the higher performing organisations from the ones that get left behind.

7. Tolerate ambiguity and build resilience

We all crave certainty but modern businesses operate in a climate of huge uncertainty. We do not know if we will win that next contract or not, what resources we may have, when we will have a change of leader and who it will be, what political, environmental or technological forces will shape the economy and our livelihood, and so on.

Building resilience involves acknowledging that change happens and that it is not always good; indeed, it involves cultivating the expectation that life will always present us with challenges. Leaders face the choice of being open about these challenges or not, and they often choose not to for fear that such discussion will be unsettling or de-motivating.

In my experience people respond positively to invitations to discuss the implications of what a future decision may mean for the business, even though the people involved lack the power to influence the decision. The reality is that people talk about this all the time and strategic conversations provide the opportunity to talk openly about uncertainty and responding to it. And during conversations about the impact of change a clear purpose is helpful to keep people focused on what they want and what they are there to do.

For example HM Revenue and Customs over the years has transformed its estate reducing the number of offices. Although this uncertainty hung over the business it encouraged its local leaders to get involved in conversations about what the future may hold for them. They were not “comfortable” conversations but they were important. They helped people express their feelings and more importantly they helped them exercise some control over the way they managed and responded to change. It enabled people to think and talk about their personal concerns and to talk about how to lead their teams to maintain service to the taxpayer during uncertainty.

8. Be clear on outcomes and share responsibility

Strategic conversations are an opportunity for people to focus on the outcomes of their work that move the business forward in the right direction, and identify what does not. Clarity of outcomes makes it easier for teams to work smarter and to build trust based on achievement and delivery.

But strategic conversations are also about sharing responsibility for outcomes. On a pragmatic day-to-day basis, more and more uncertainty permeates our working lives. The future is less predictable and keeping people focused depends less on telling people what to do and more on working with them on what needs to be achieved. A strategic conversation is an opportunity to acknowledge uncertainty and share responsibility for managing it throughout the business. It is a mistake to think that as a leader or manager one can shoulder the entire burden. A strategic conversation shares responsibility and asks the team to think about what can be resolved and what needs to remain unclear.

9. Encourage discovery and emergent thinking

But equally, and alongside, the need for clarity of outcomes, strategic conversations provide an opportunity to explore new ideas and thinking about what teams and individuals can do to achieve outcomes in new ways.

To gain this insight and to create new ways of working a strategic conversation can help and encourage people to discover the direction of travel for themselves in a way that makes sense for them. It’s essentially about letting go but in the context of a clear framework.

This can be challenging for managers and the people who work for them, and it is one of the reasons why leading a strategic conversation is normally best done after people have participated in one themselves and have experienced the role they need to play as a conversation leader by being a participant first.

10. Build relationships

We need social relationships at work and outside, and neuroscience is demonstrating that these needs are as basic as our need for food and water (see for instance Matt Lieberman’s “superpower” talk at the RSA). When we are threatened, we want to connect more to groups. Global competition, digital transformation, changing work patterns, rising customer expectations and disruptive competition are all creating huge “threats” across industry.

We need to help people connect over strategic conversations that enable them to tackle these challenging problems together and to share perspectives to enrich their own and to come up with more informed action plans. These conversations help us to connect with each other at meaningful levels to build relationships that are important for our own health and for the good of our organizations.

Strategic conversations are here to stay. We no longer have the luxury to manage people in traditional ways. Success depends upon our ability to empower people, which requires a different level of awareness of the big picture and buy in to strategic priorities and common goals.


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.