Using Big Pictures to engage people in strategy

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.


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