The work is the strategy, the strategy is the work

If the work you care about and prioritise isn’t delivering at least one of your strategic goals, then what you have isn’t a strategy. It’s just an aspiration. If you want to know what the real strategy is, look at the work. 

Corporate body language

I’m sometimes invited to help develop strategies for clients, but more often than not the request is really to help make the strategy happen. Sometimes this is proactive; change is needed to meet a new challenge, and savvy leaders are looking for the most effective ways to engage people in the strategic direction. Sometimes it’s reactive; the strategy has been in place for a while, but progress is slow or non-existent. The status quo hangs on stubbornly while the strategy is gathering dust on a shelf.

To address this, the first thing I do is assess that strategy by looking at two things. 

Firstly, I look at the goals, objectives and values of the organisation. These are the things most leaders will show you if you ask them to describe their strategy. It’s the thing they’ll create when they want to set a direction for their company. At this point, I’m not planning to question the strategy. That’s not why I’ve been engaged. All I’m trying to do is understand the stated intent.

Secondly, I look at the existing portfolio of work. Not on paper, but with the teams doing the work. I look at the initiatives in flight, the prioritisation and the effort allocated to each. This doesn’t just tell me about the status quo. It tells me about the real strategy. The things the leaders actually care about. The delivery teams are rarely pursuing these initiatives despite the leaders. They’re pursuing them because of the leaders.

This is “corporate body language”, and it’s why Peter Drucker famously said that “culture eats strategy for breakfast”.

The quote is familiar enough to have become a cliche, but I’d suggest it’s slightly misleading. In my opinion, culture doesn’t eat strategy for breakfast. It’s more a case that many leaders are in denial about what their true strategy really is.

Actions speak louder than words

It’s the leaders who decide what gets done. It is they who define the priorities. If the teams under them aren’t working on tasks that make the written strategy happen, then that isn’t the strategy at all. The real strategy is defined by the work in progress.

When this disconnect happens, communicating the future strategy won’t fix the problem. In fact, it can make the problem even worse. The people doing the real work get pulled in two directions. Firstly they’ll desperately try to understand and enact the communicated strategy. Secondly, they’ll be working hard to please the stakeholders and leaders by satisfying the immediate demands. 

If the two don’t align, paralysis sets in and either nothing gets done, or worse still it gets repeatedly done and then undone. Any sense of clear, meaningful purpose is lost and motivation evaporates. 

This is the worst possible outcome. It’s better to have no strategy and simply react to events than to have a paper based strategy that isn’t reflected in the work. If you are going to have a strategy, then the work is a fundamental part of that strategy. Everything you do as a leader should align to that strategy. In other words, you need to make sure your “corporate body language” matches what you’re saying.

Change the work, change the world

This shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone familiar with true strategy that makes a difference. If that’s you, then you already know that a strategy is much more than just a mission statement and the goals and objectives that go with it. A strategy includes the approach to be taken, and the methods of execution. A strategy isn’t real until it manifests itself in actual changes to the portfolio of work. Conversely, and maybe even more importantly, a strategy isn’t real until it reflects the work.

So, returning to the original request at the start of this post, how do you make the strategy happen? The answer, contrary to popular belief, isn’t just communication. The answer is collaboration. You need to get together with the people doing the work, and collaborate with them to make the strategy and the work match. To do this, both will have to change. 

This is challenging to do and that’s why people tend to avoid it. On one hand, some of the aspirational elements of the strategy might not survive the process. On the other hand, work that people have invested serious personal time into might have to be abandoned. It’s a potentially painful process, but it’s worth it. If you can work together on this and reach consensus, what you then have is a strategy that’s happening.

And one final point. This isn’t something you do once, or even infrequently. This is a regular activity. As the work progresses, discoveries will be made, lessons will be learned and the world will change. This process of alignment needs to happen all the time. It needs to become a core part of your ways of working.

If you can do this then culture won’t eat your strategy for breakfast, because your strategy will be the culture.

Luckily, I’ve previously written a blog post about an approach that does exactly this. It’s called continuous evolution and you can read more about it here:

Continuous Evolution, Part 1: An agile strategy for an unpredictable world

Most people have experienced OKRs in at least one organisation, and many claim they don’t work. In reality that thing they experienced wasn’t really OKRs. Here’s how to do it right.

Horses with stripes

“If you claim to dislike horses because they’re too stripey, it’s probably not horses that you hate” – Jon Ayre

Most people have experienced OKRs (Objectives and Key Results) in at least one organisation, and many claim they don’t work. On looking at what these people don’t like about OKRs, I’ve found a very common pattern. In reality that thing they experienced wasn’t really OKRs. It may have been called OKRs but more often than not, it was one of two existing things that serve very different purposes. 

The first imposter is the KPI process (Key Performance Indicators), which although useful and valuable, isn’t OKRs. I’ll explain why in the next section. The second imposter is traditional performance management. Other than sharing the term “objectives”, this is a very different beast with very different aims. So, what I was witnessing was a dislike of other processes, and not of OKRs. In fact, I’ve encountered very few people who’ve used OKRs in the way I recommend they should be used.

This blog post lays out how OKRs should be done if you want to get the real benefits of the approach.

OKRs – an alternative to KPIs

Organisations emerging from the industrial revolution have traditionally been organised into hierarchies, made efficient through the separation of concerns. These organisations often measure their effectiveness using well recognised KPIs (key performance indicators), such as cost and time. This approach proved useful for companies operating in stable business sectors that had reached a high level of maturity.

The internet, however, has created significant market disruption. The rate of change across many businesses is still rapid, and promises to remain so for the foreseeable future. To respond to this ever-changing environment, a new way of setting targets and prioritising work has emerged that removes the need to micromanage every task and function. Made popular by Google, this technique is generally referred to as OKRs (Objectives and Key Results). Unlike the more static KPI approach, it adopts a rapid review cycle and a focus on group responsibility.

OKRs are about delivering change, not on maintaining the status quo, and should be used accordingly. They provide a non-hierarchical way to drive successful outcomes.

Essentially, the OKR approach aims to achieve three outcomes:

  1. Align task execution directly to company strategy
    When the tasks being performed by a team or individual are far removed from the strategy that gave rise to those tasks, the reason is lost. All too often, teams successfully complete these tasks but somehow manage to completely miss the strategic point. By linking tasks directly to core company goals, OKRs help to ensure that the “doers” understand the purpose and value of their efforts.
  2. Create transparency
    Where teams and departments operate in isolation from one another, and when their work is hidden from the rest of the organisation, duplication of effort proliferates and waste is high. The OKR approach endeavours to create transparency so that unintended duplication can be avoided.
  3. Encourage collaboration
    There is little incentive to collaborate when overall goals are divided and cascaded down to teams, and then divided further to individuals. By creating objectives at the team level, rather than measuring the success of each individual, collaboration can be encouraged rather than discouraged.

Goals – setting the strategic direction

The starting point for the OKR approach is the set of core goals for the organisation. These goals typically manifest as a handful of statements that embody the overall purpose and intent of the organisation; they are high level, direction setting, and likely to create an element of conflict when taken as a set.

For example, a company might have as two of its goals, ‘be profitable’ and ‘be ethical’. There are many ways to be unprofitably ethical and many ways to be unethically profitable. Taken together, however, the number of options available to the company is reduced. Thus, through a small number of well-defined goals, a company can create a clear strategic direction.

Constraints may, at first glance, seem to limit innovation and progress; in practice, they help to focus attention on the changes that best align with the strategic direction of the company, thus facilitating faster and more effective decision making.

Goals are long-lasting (at least a year, and generally longer), and they form the first layer in the OKR hierarchy; there is only one more layer.

Objectives – a call to action

The real driving force behind the OKR approach is the objectives themselves. Objectives are the things you’re going to achieve; they are time-based (typically to be concluded within one or two quarters), qualitative in nature (not quantitative) and aspirational (but achievable). 

Thus, an objective should clearly state an outcome, rather than an action or deliverable. “Build an application” is not an objective, but “Ensure our customers are engaging more regularly with our service” might be. This may seem like a small distinction, but it has a big effect; by focusing on outcomes you empower teams to use their skill and judgement to deliver success, rather than just complete tasks.

Each objective must link back to one of your goals, whilst conflicting with none of the others. If an objective seems to link to more than one goal, it is likely that you have combined more than one outcome into a single objective. This is not advisable as there will be a conflict of focus when attempting to deliver the objective.

Objectives form the second and final layer in the OKR hierarchy. Objectives should not have sub-objectives, nor should they be cascaded to sub-teams to create further related objectives. It should, therefore, be clear that objectives need to be assigned to multidisciplinary, empowered teams and not distributed to individuals. Anyone who is needed to make the objective successful should consider themselves part of that team.

Key results – measuring success

If the intent is to deliver successful outcomes, then there needs to be a way of measuring that success. All too often, progress is measured in terms of tasks completed or widgets delivered; this is not the purpose of key results. Each objective should have at least one key result by which its success is measured.

A well defined key result is numerical in nature, defines a specific target (either relative to a current baseline or absolute), and measures an outcome rather than the tasks undertaken to achieve that outcome. Additionally, care should be taken to select key results for which you can “move the needle” within the timescale of the objective. If you’re not going to see any movement in the measurement over the next quarter or two, then it is not going to be an effective way of guiding your actions and refining your approach.

Examples of key results might include “50% of new users return within 2 weeks” or “Churn rate < 2% this quarter”. An example of a poorly defined key result might be “20% more prospects contacted” as it measures the level of activity and not its success.

Putting it into practice

It is easy to overcomplicate the OKR approach and so the following sections put the theory into practice in the simplest possible way. This ensures that any embellishment or refinement required to suit a particular organisation still results in a straightforward and repeatable approach that can easily be understood and remembered by everyone involved.  

Agreeing on the goals

If you don’t already have a well-defined set of organisational goals, the simplest way to set goals is to bring together the organisation’s key decision makers and work through the following process with them:

  1. Ask each participant to describe on sticky notes the purpose of the organisation (they can suggest more than one). Participants should not confer with one another – it is important that each expresses their own independent views.
  2. As you post all the suggestions onto the wall, sort them into common themes. Usually, you will find a high degree of commonality – if not, you will need to spend some time working with the group to bring them to a common understanding of their purpose.
  3. Each of these groups forms one of your goals. Don’t wordsmith the goals in the room; use a simple shorthand for now and allow the facilitator to do the wordsmithing based on the session as a whole.
  4. Don’t spend too long discussing these goals once you have them. Further clarity will often arise relating to the goals once the objectives have been defined. Treat the OKR approach as an iterative one.

Setting the objectives

Now that you have your goals, it’s time to start defining some objectives to achieve those goals. This activity should be performed by the key decision makers in the room to set their own objectives, and potentially those of their teams, but it is also advisable to perform this activity with various groups across the organisation and encourage a culture of objective setting based on the overall goals. One way of doing this is as follows:

  1. Based on activities already underway, and on ideas emerging from the goals, each participant should define objectives that have a personal stake in and post these under the goal to which they relate. Remember, objectives should be achievable within the next quarter or half. 
  2. Remove duplication by grouping identical or similar objectives together, and reconsider objectives that align to multiple goals to make sure they aren’t multiple objectives combined into initiatives.
  3. Eliminate objectives that conflict with any of the other goals (or reshape them to avoid conflict). This is an important step!
  4. For each objective identify who will make up the team that will deliver that objective.

Defining the key results

The team that is responsible for delivering the objective should also define the key results against which it will be measured; this ensures that they are bought into the achievability of the objective and thus motivated to complete it. The number of key results is arbitrary, but in practice there should be between one and five for manageability. For each key result make sure:

  1. It is numeric in nature.
  2. It can be measured (no matter how approximately).
  3. A baseline can be established (so that improvement can be seen).
  4. It can be affected within the timescale of the objective (typically quarterly).

Establishing a cadence

Establishing, monitoring and renewing OKRs is an iterative process, and once you have defined and assigned your objectives you need to establish a cadence for reviewing them. A typical cadence is as follows:

  1. Plan quarterly
    Review all your current objectives, remove those that are no longer relevant or that have been completed, and create new ones for the next quarter. Some of these new objectives are likely to evolve out of previous objectives allowing you to take your success to the next level, or change tack in response to unexpected results.
  2. Amend monthly
    The whole point of OKRs is to continuously improve based on your findings. It is therefore worth revisiting your objectives on a monthly basis to see if any are flawed and need to be adjusted to improve your chances of success. 
  3. Report weekly
    Measuring your key results on a weekly basis and reporting on progress improves transparency across teams, and also allows you to test-and-learn as you progress. It is easier to know which actions produced which results if you measure at a granular level, rather than only on completion of the objective.

It is then up to the assigned teams how they deliver, and the tasks they perform to achieve that delivery, but as objectives are short lived, explorative and iterative in nature, agile techniques are usually well suited to their delivery. This is because OKRs are about change and improvement – for existing processes where change is not needed or prioritised, existing techniques should still be used to measure their success and efficiency.

Over to you

OKRs are simple in nature, but any change, no matter how small, is always hard to embed in a lasting way. This is because old habits are hard to break, and so it is essential that during the early stages of introduction, you revisit the rules for objectives and key results in this document and make sure you are applying them consistently. Otherwise, it is highly likely that you will drift back towards an existing KPI based approach. Three of the common mistakes made are:

  1. Cascading objectives so that teams can create “subordinate” objectives of their own.
  2. Measuring tasks completed rather than outcomes achieved.
  3. Giving every objective to everyone, rather than assigning them to responsible and empowered teams.

These are the three cardinal sins of OKRs. Avoid these and you should be okay.


If you’re involved in design (and even if you’re not) you probably know about the Double Diamond process. But, is that the end of the story? This article expands the perspective and completes the model by taking you from ambition to market in a repeatable entrepreneurial cycle.

Divergence and convergence

Back in 1996, Hungarian-American linguist Béla H. Bánáthy made obvious something that was hiding in plain sight, and as a linguist he expressed it in beautifully simple terms. He described the thinking process in terms of two key phases, the first being divergence and the second convergence. During divergence we consider a situation and create a range of choices arising from that situation. Convergence then follows and we narrow those choices down to a single decision point.

For example, you’ve bought a new painting for your home, and now it needs to be displayed. Maybe you already have a space for it, but more likely, you now examine your rooms and build up in your mind a list of places where it would look great. This is divergence.

Next, you imagine the painting in each of these places. Perhaps you get a friend or partner to hold it up so that you can get a feel for how it’ll look. Slowly you narrow down the field of options until you’re left with just one – the perfect spot. This is convergence.

Divergence involves expanding your understanding and increasing your options without judgement. To judge and reject too early is to do so without adequate knowledge. Far too many great ideas end up on the cutting room floor (or voted down in “brainstorming” sessions) because they’re unfamiliar or poorly understood. This is why divergence has to be allowed to happen before any attempt is made at convergence.

Convergence is reduction of options through elimination, and most importantly elimination through experimentation rather than through opinion or “gut feel”. You’d be amazed at just how many “obvious” things turn out to be wrong when put to the test in the real world. For example, we all know that warm water freezes faster than cold water, don’t we. That’s so obvious we really don’t need to waste time testing it? It’s a safe assumption, right? If you agree, I recommend you read up on the Mpemba Effect – a timely reminder that there is no such thing as a safe assumption.

A tale of two diamonds

Divergence followed by convergence can be pictured as a diamond, starting from a single decision point, and expanding out like a tree, growing freely. Once the tree is fully grown its branches are then pruned back until only the strongest remains. This is your new decision point from which you grow your next tree.

You can apply this pattern to most situations that require thought and an outcome. Choosing a holiday; picking a route to work; designing a new mode of transport; even painting that picture. In just two words, Béla brought to life the idea that problem solving was not a linear process that created certainty out of chaos, but instead a journey that created chaos in order to get to the next point of certainty.

This is a concept that appeals to the creative mindset, and so it comes as no surprise that the British Design Council took this concept and popularised it in the form of the Double Diamond design process model.

The Double Diamond design process model – Image by Digi-ark (via Wikipedia)

As the name suggests, the model sees the design process as two consecutive divergence-convergence activities, the first consisting of discover and define, and the second of develop and deliver. The first phase allows you to discover a problem domain to gain insight, and then narrow down that insight to define the problem to be solved. The second uses that problem definition to develop a range of potential solutions, tested for viability, and then deliver these solutions to an audience and use their feedback to converge on a single preferred solution.

The double diamond model has become almost ubiquitous in the world of design, and there may well be as many renderings of the illustration above as there are designers. However, as I mentioned earlier, the divergence-convergence model can be applied to most situations requiring thought and therefore to most meaningful undertakings. It was only a matter of time before the Double Diamond concept was extended.

Two’s company, three’s a crowd

It’s at this point in our story that the Triple Diamond Model enters the fray. There are many versions of this model and they all vary in the terminology used, but the one thing the majority have in common is the direction in which they extend the model. The new diamond is placed in front of the Double Diamond model and its two stages are often referred to as “opportunity” and “strategy”. 

The intention of this extra diamond is to reflect the process that gets us to the awareness that there is a particular problem worth solving. First explore the market to find a range of opportunities (divergence), then formulate a strategy that targets the first of these opportunities in the form of a proposition (convergence). In the world of software development, this is where the product strategy emerges.

Some would say this is just taking a good model and ruining it with unnecessary embellishment. It’s a common pattern with models that people spend too little time understanding them before adding complexity to cover aspects already encompassed by the original concept. A minimalist’s nightmare.

Others would suggest that the Double Diamond is specific to one particular viewpoint, and requires extension to cover a broader range of perspectives. I’m an advocate for the second view – the double diamond is an excellent start, but it’s not the full story. The real question is how far does that story stretch? Is three diamonds enough? Four? Is there even a limit?

For those of you who hate spoilers, look away now. For the rest of you, (the impatient ones), the answer is five.

A matter of perspective

To understand the Double Diamond we have to see it in context, and to do this we need to expand our perspective to encompass the full process from start to finish. Designers often (rightly) complain that they are not engaged early enough in the process, and this in itself is a recognition that there is a broader activity to which they could contribute. The same is true for most participants in the creative process. Each sees the process from the perspective of when they are first approached to the point where their role ends. Beyond those points things become more vague and tend to get condensed into “the step before” and “the step after”. What might, from a local perspective, seem like brief steps, are actually a chain of events spanning weeks or even months of investigation and insight.

Also, when considering processes, it is popular to think in terms of straight lines and trends (a beginning, a middle and an end; a start point and a destination). However, many things in life are cyclic, and only look like linear trends if we observe them for a limited duration. Proper understanding requires context. The context for the Double Diamond process is product development, and this is part of a loop I like to refer to as the “Entrepreneurial Cycle”.

The Entrepreneurial Cycle

As can be seen, this cycle involves five points of focus, and it is from this that the limit of five diamonds is derived. To get from one point to another requires divergence to understand and create options followed by convergence to get to the decision point. But first a quick summary of how the cycle operates.

An entrepreneur operating in a given market observes that market and perceives threats and opportunities emerging as that market evolves. This observation gives rise to an ambition and ambition leads to the development of a range of strategies from which one is chosen. This strategy gives rise to a proposition which in turn is developed into a product that can be deployed into the market. If this product is successful, it will inevitably change the market, leading to new threats and opportunities, and so the cycle repeats itself.

The biggest lesson to draw from this is not just that product development is a cycle, but that the act of developing products feeds the cycle and keeps it going. The very act of introducing a new product into the market changes that market, and so a wise entrepreneur recognises the need to keep moving. In essence, the market for which your product was developed no longer exists once your product is successful.

Turning the wheel

Let’s take a simple example to bring the Entrepreneurial Cycle to life. A company providing an online service has seen a plethora of challengers enter their market. Customer churn is high and brand loyalty is low. Although they’re seeing as much customer gain as loss (and thus maintaining market share), the cost of maintaining this share is becoming uneconomical.

They believe their service is superior and embark on a venture to radically improve customer retention and brand loyalty. They have established their ambition.

They also observe other apparently similar industries adopting subscription models and believe this might be a way to achieve this retention. This approach now forms the basis of their strategy.

The information available to them shows that a monthly subscription model providing customers great value for money through unlimited access to services has improved retention in other industry sectors. They also believe that by adding benefits and exclusive rewards to this model they will achieve the levels of customer retention they desire. Their proposition is starting to take shape.

They now look into their customer base and decide a single subscription won’t work for everyone, so they define a tiered model and develop this into a set of subscriptions options from which the customer can choose (silver, gold and platinum). Each has a different level of service and associated offers, and comes with different levels of customer support ranging from online chat through to personal concierge service. They set out to develop these products and launch them onto the market in place of their current offerings.

If, as they hope, this is a successful venture, they will retain their current customer base and continue to acquire additional market share through the high churn the industry is experiencing. However, the model is easy to duplicate and their competitors will no doubt adapt by introducing similar, or potentially better, products. They will need to prepare in advance to react to this change in the market if they are to stay ahead of the game.

And what if they’re wrong? That’s a significant amount of effort and investment to waste on an unsuccessful venture, not to mention the potential reputational damage. This is the danger of linear thinking.

Diamonds are forever

To address this, each stage in the Entrepreneurial Cycle needs to exploit the elegant wisdom of Béla H. Bánáthy. The earlier diagram, however, fails to convey this. It’s drawn in a way that implies movement from one state to the next is a linear, predictable activity, and the example above includes elements of this linear thinking style. It should be clear from the example that the decision making involves a lot of assumptions and gut feel decisions. There is little room for uncertainty or verification.

So now we need to overlay this cycle with the diamond model to make it more complete and add some rigour to the process of investigation and decision making. For ease of drawing, I’ve stretched it out horizontally, but please remember it’s cyclic:

Convergence and divergence applied to the Entrepreneurial Cycle

And for those who prefer text to visuals, here is a further breakdown of each of the five stages of the Entrepreneurial Cycle described in terms of convergence followed by divergence::

  • Market to Ambition
    Before doing anything you need situational awareness. To achieve this you must observe the market in which you’re operating to understand how it’s evolving and to identify the threats and opportunities. You might even want to draw a map of your territory to better understand it. From a diversification perspective, we’ve developed the Business Evolution Map. For a more personalised picture, you might want to try creating a Wardley Map. Once you understand the space in which you’re operating you can identify the most attractive opportunity (or the most immediate threat) and target an outcome that addresses it. The way this outcome will be achieved is not yet known, but there is now an ambition to achieve it. You have an intended destination.
  • Ambition to Strategy
    Now you know the outcome you want but not how to make it happen. What you need to do is find a course of action that will get you there. The best way to do this is to explore the routes (the strategies) available to you to get to your intended destination. Exploration doesn’t just involve conceiving of the routes – it includes testing out your assumptions in some small way to see how feasible they are. This testing of assumptions is essential if you are to successfully orientate on the strategy most likely to succeed. Never underestimate your ability to choose the wrong thing based on familiarity when you lack the evidence to make a value based decision.
  • Strategy to Proposition
    To turn the intent of your strategy into something with real business potential you need to do some targeted research. What is the true value of the idea (the size of the prize) and what will need to change in your business and in the relationship with your customer to make it real? Once you understand this, you can shape your intent into a proposition that includes a viable business and service model. And always remember, research is not just a numbers game; it’s a hands-on activity where assumptions need to be tested and hypotheses proved.
  • Proposition to Product
    The first diamond from the Double Diamond Process, in which you discover the needs of the users involved in your proposition, and define the product required to fulfil those needs.
  • Product to Market
    The second diamond from the Double Diamond Process, in which you design the product and deliver it to the market, iterating on your design as you go based on user feedback and early indicators of success from the market.

In summary

  • Product development is a cycle, not a straight line journey to done
    The very act of introducing a new product to the market causes a ripple effect of change. Competitors will respond, either through emulation of your change or innovation to defend against it. Customer expectations will also change. What was once fresh and exciting will become commonplace as familiarity potentially breeds contempt. The cycle is self-sustaining.
  • It starts before an idea has formed or a problem has been identified
    Limited perspective often leads people involved in the process to believe they are closer to the beginning than that really are. A new idea rarely emerges from nothing overnight. It is the product of an extended process stretching back weeks or even months.
  • Divergence expands understanding without judgement
    It is tempting, when researching a situation, to filter the information you’re receiving and reject concepts that don’t fit your current understanding of the domain. All too often, the real solution (and definitely the innovative solution) lies in the unknown. This is why suspending judgement is essential to successful divergence.
  • Convergence chooses an answer by eliminating that which doesn’t work
    Good convergence requires you to try things out; to test every assumption before deciding. It’s a hands-on activity, not an academic exercise. Nor is it a democratic process. Voting as a way to choose might be quick, but it relies on gut feel and prior assumptions. To do convergence you need practitioners to try things out and you need decision makers who act on the evidence of those experiments, not the security of familiar ideas.

And finally, if you take only one thing away from this article, make it this: 

Limited or untested knowledge leads to bad decisions. To discover what you don’t know, diverge without judgement. To find the answer that works, converge through experimentation.

During your career you’re likely to have seen your company’s strategy depicted as a mountain to be climbed, with a sequence of intermediate milestones marking the way to the goal, or summit.

It’s easy to be sceptical of this metaphor, as it essentially compares business leaders sitting in air-conditioned boardrooms to climbers battling altitude, frostbite and avalanches. However, in this — the third article in my series re-examining common metaphors in business — I’m going to argue that enacting strategy successfully is like mountaineering, only in ways I’d never before appreciated or understood.

Into Thin Air

Figure 1: A classical depiction of strategic transformation as mountain climbing

Since reading various books about mountain climbing, I’ve come to conclude that the issue isn’t necessarily with the metaphor itself, but rather with a basic lack of understanding of how mountains are climbed in real life. Visualising progress as a straight and certain route from the base to the summit is absurd for a number of reasons.

For one, the mountain is constantly changing. There are no direct paths or shortcuts to the summit — just as the most successful strategies are full of unexpected setbacks, obstacles, dead-ends and improvisations. 

Although no two strategies are the same, one aspect reliably reoccurs: they are about trying to achieve something new and valuable. By reaching the strategic goal, the company is transformed, for the better. The most analogous climb in history therefore is the first attempt on the summit of Everest by George Mallory in 1924. The tallest mountain in the world was then known as the ‘Third Pole’, and after failing to reach either the North or South Poles first, the British Empire was determined to claim this victory as their own, to remind the world of their pre-eminence.

When Mallory’s team arrived in the Himalayas, close to nothing was known about the mountain or its environs in the western world. Yet Mallory and his companions intuitively grasped the concept of ‘test and learn’, and before the summit was even attempted, they launched two lengthy reconnaissance missions. The lessons learned from these difficult (even deadly) rehearsals helped them devise new principles that are still followed by mountain climbers to this day. For example, the team pioneered the use of bottled oxygen to mitigate the effects of altitude, helped develop new clothing fabrics, and established a sequence of high camps on the mountainside at which to gradually acclimate.

Mallory’s attempt on Everest has another, more unfortunate similarity with the vast majority of strategic transformations —it failed. Or should I say, it might have failed. The question of whether he was the first to reach the summit of Everest is one of the great unsolved mysteries. When the clouds briefly parted on the morning of the final ascent, Mallory and his climbing partner were spotted less than 800 feet below the peak, climbing confidently. Then the clouds rolled in, and they were never seen alive again.

The Three Decision-Making Zones of Mount Everest

The principles and practice of mountaineering established by Mallory and his team demonstrate how an experimental approach to problem-solving is the best way to achieve transformative, long-term goals. However, the true power of metaphorically associating strategy with mountain climbing was revealed to me by this article, written by a team of academics who’d climbed Everest themselves.

Writing in the Harvard Business Review, the authors argue that the three distinct physical zones on Everest relate to optimal patterns of decision-making in successful businesses.

Figure 2: The Three Decision-Making Zones of Everest

Reaching Base Camp

The majority of decisions fall into the first category — the Base Camp — which is a predictable and stable environment, featuring lots of infrastructure, at which a relatively low number of calls need to be made. As such, tried-and-tested processes can be applied with confidence, and decisions reached through consensus.

When you’re at Base Camp…You’re in the realm of Business As Usual (BAU) decision-making, which is typically done by committee. The impacts of your decisions are widespread but incremental, and a single decision can apply for months if not years. At best, your decisions gradually improve things by degree. At worst, you end up creating frozen, stifling and dehumanising bureaucracies.

Navigating the Icefall

When challenges can’t be adequately addressed by Base Camp thinking, they cascade into the second category — the Icefall.

The Icefall on Everest is essentially a glacier moving down the mountain at the speed of 3–4 feet a day. Large gaps (or crevasses) open underfoot quickly and unexpectedly, whilst above towers of ice (or seracs) can collapse without warning. The environment is so unstable only ‘Rule of Thumb’ guidelines apply. When passing through the Icefall, there’s a sharp increase in the number of judgements that need to be made, which shifts the decision-making process from consensus to commitment. In other words, when navigating this part of the mountain ‘the first climber on the rope calls the shots’.

When you’re in the Icefall…You’re using loosely defined ‘pattern fit’ decision-making to keep the strategy moving. You’ll hear such statements as “we only pursue markets that give us a 15% margin or more”, or more simply “we don’t do that here”. These clear (if blunt) rules reduce the noise of unlimited options and help the organisation focus on what’s important. The concept of ‘the first climber on the rope’ works best when organisations are trying to establish a new offering or capability. That is, it’s vital you place your trust in those individuals capable of (dis)proving the value of an opportunity. If you force them to comply with heavy-duty governance, and/or seek consensus from the wider business at every step, they will fail.

The Summit

In certain circumstances, the organisation will need to make decisions in the third category — the Summit (or ‘Death Zone’) — terrain so unfamiliar and bewildering that normal rules no longer apply.

The summit is dangerous for two main reasons. The first is the threat of sudden, deadly blizzards or avalanches that can wipe climbers off the mountain. In the business world, the closest analogy is a significant shock that hits the brand out of nowhere. The massive outage of Facebook’s ecosystem (the day before damaging ‘whistleblower’ testimony) springs to mind, as does the recent controversial attack on free speech at the aptly named Base Camp.

The summit is also dangerous because above 8,000m (Everest is 8849m tall) the air is so thin the body begins to die. Climbers become hypoxic, sleep-deprived, dehydrated, and under-nourished. This leads to muddled thinking, with the simplest actions hard if not impossible to complete. In these extreme conditions, all decisions are critical at exactly the same moment as your ability to make them is compromised.

You’re in the Death Zone when… The people within your organisation are burned out. When individuals and teams suffer the ill effects of sustained, chronic work-related stress, they run out of energy, impairing their ability to make good decisions. If burn out becomes endemic, the first priority is to navigate the organisation as quickly as possible out of the Death Zone. The very worst thing to do is to succumb to ‘Summit Fever’ – becoming so narrowly focussed on a strategic goal that you recklessly continue towards the unattainable, at all costs – and with typically disastrous consequences

Coming Down the Mountain

Whilst writing this article, I’ve changed my mind about the link between mountain climbing and strategy. When applied correctly, the metaphor effectively describes iterative, experimental approaches to strategic transformation — and it’s also hugely useful when categorising different approaches to decision-making within organisations.

In these ways, climbing a mountain is a decent metaphor for strategic thinking and the importance of working together to pursue organisational goals. However, in the aftermath of this difficult year, I predict there’ll be a reckoning with what ‘reaching the summit of the mountain’ actually represents in the context of our professional lives. The idea that the best career gains are made by working long hours during the evening and weekend is being openly ridiculed. Instead, many leading organisations are announcing their commitment to rethinking how and where and when their employees work, and governments are introducing legislation on the ‘Right to Disconnect’. 

Put simply, companies that proactively help their colleagues cultivate and sustain a healthy work/life balance will leap ahead of their competition in the post-pandemic world. To behave otherwise would mean risking the loss of their best people in fluid and competitive labour markets. After all, talent is the oxygen that sustains any successful organisation. Trusting and empowering your best people will help your company meet volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity with confidence. Organisations need these capabilities more than ever if they are to reach the roof of the world.

Youtopia Solutions is a rapidly growing Accounting firm in Milton Keynes, UK, established in 2017. Throughout the company’s life, Youtopia has faced strong headwinds around profit margins, cash flow, and balancing the acquisition of new clients with staff capacity. The resilience built as a result has helped them successfully navigate the choppy waters of the pandemic.

The two founders, David Adderson and Katherine Robertson, engaged Equal Experts to help them create a strategic plan beyond Covid. Considering Youtopia’s unique challenges and opportunities, the resulting Strategy Day was organised around the ‘Future Backwards’ technique. This article shares both the results, and some tips on how to get the most out of your own ‘Future Backwards’ workshop.

Introducing ‘Future Backwards’

‘Future Backwards’ was created by Dave Snowden and Tony Quinlan – the minds behind Cynefin. The technique foregrounds the idea that ‘Strategy’ isn’t about predicting the future to any degree of accuracy – because that’s impossible. Rather, it’s about leaders imagining, from the safety of their own boardroom, a range of scenarios for their business, whilst acknowledging that decisions made along the way could point their organisation in very different directions. Ultimately, the technique helps leaders create a set of coordinated, effective actions, aimed at seizing the best opportunities, and/or overcoming the worst obstacles.  

The ‘Future Backwards’ technique can be effective in a number of ways. For one, when asked to imagine the future, people tend to extrapolate from the present. That means they get bogged down in the assumptions and biases that underpin today’s reality, rather than truly allowing themselves to think freely. Working backwards, whilst unfamiliar, helps break this pattern of thinking. The technique also allows leaders to better comprehend their role in proactively guiding their organisation towards desirable outcomes, and away from undesirable ones.

During the Strategy Day at Youtopia, the leadership team was asked to reflect on their hopes for the business, in order to answer the question: “If we want these good things to happen, what do we need to do now to make them more likely?” (and conversely “if we really don’t want bad things to happen, what can we do now to avoid them?”). 

Understanding Now

The first part of the workshop involved having the Youtopia leadership team describe the current state of play for their business.  

Tip: As this section of the workshop is essentially a team retrospective, I used a modified version of the ‘Sailboat’ technique, asking the participants to build their thinking around three prompts:

  1. Wind in our sails – What’s helping the business succeed?
  2. Anchors in the sand – What’s slowing the business down?
  3. Rocks in the water – What risks and obstacles are ahead?

Next, the team thought backwards from the current state, by mapping out the key events and decisions that had led them to their present situation, in order – starting with the most recent first. This is demanding work, as thinking backwards doesn’t come naturally to any of us, but is an essential part of the process.

Tip: Guiding this section are two ‘Golden Rules’:

  1. No causality – the sticky notes don’t need to capture cause and effect at this stage
  2. No storyline – the path to the current state doesn’t have to fit neatly into a linear narrative, because that’s not how time works

Tip: Starting the workshop in this way achieves a number of useful outcomes simultaneously. The participants get used to writing and sticking notes, for one. For another, whilst the first exercise is helpfully anchored in the leaders’ lived reality, it’s also a rehearsal for the next, more imaginative stages of the workshop. That means that by the time you arrive at those parts of the Strategy Day, the participants are both comfortable and familiar with the technique. 

The Highway to Hell

The next session involved the team mapping out the first of two distinct futures (with ‘future’ defined as no more than three years hence). This was the ‘Hell’ scenario – or, the worst-case scenario for the business.

Tip: To help start things off, use theMiracle Questionfrom Solution-Focused Brief Therapy: “You go to sleep and wake up in three years’ time, in your Hell scenario. What would it look like, sound like, feel like? How would you know you’re in Hell? What traps would you have fallen into?”

Once the ‘Hell’ scenario was outlined, the team worked on mapping various ‘highways to hell’ – the decisions taken and the events endured that would lead them to their most dire scenario.  

This part of the process was hugely revealing, as it served to remind the leadership team that, in the vast majority of cases, it was up to them to make (or avoid) decisions that would otherwise hasten their journey into ‘Hell’. 

Tip: Watch out for participants being tempted to plan forwards from their Current State to the ‘Hell’ scenario. This is forbidden! Instead, remind the group that they shouldn’t waste their creative juices trying to create a storyline from left to right, or ensuring causal links between sticky notes. The mapping can extend beyond (or before) the current state if that’s what’s required – and they can always move sticky notes around if they get mixed up. There can be more than one highway to hell, organised by theme. The only essential component is that each highway is compiled backwards – this preceded by that, preceded by that.  

Stairway to Heaven

Next, the team discussed a heavenly future – or, the best-case scenario for Youtopia – and how they might get there. Their exploration encompassed a variety of dimensions – what ‘Heaven’ would mean to staff and clients; how growing the client base might affect staff numbers; how certain positive outcomes, such as growing the company’s reputation and reach, could be achieved; and more. 

Into the Multiverse

From the key themes that emerged during the different parts of the Strategy Day, I created a range of thematic scenarios.

Tip: The perfect number of scenarios is four – two doesn’t represent enough choice, and when there’s three, everyone chooses the one in the middle! And always ensure one scenario represents ‘Hell’ – that is, what to avoid, at all costs.

The different scenarios provided leadership with a clear view of what they were trying to achieve, what they wanted to avoid, and the trade-offs therein. On this understanding, the team were then able to have the right strategic conversation about how they might intentionally build Youtopia’s ‘stairway to heaven’. This anchored the subsequent discussion of next steps, and resulted in the formulation of an ambitious action plan. 

Final Thoughts

At Youtopia, the ‘Future Backwards’ technique helped the leadership team achieve some valuable breakthroughs, including a renewed focus on why they’d established the business in the first place: to create a fun, curious culture for staff who provide expert, personalised advice to clients, augmented by leading-edge digital tools. 

At the end of the day the team were able to have a positive yet emotional discussion of burnout – the root cause of many aspects of their ‘Hell’. Many organisations are having crucial conversations with their staff about work/life balance, whilst many others are realising that failing to attend to symptoms of burnout can lead to significant reputational damage, and even a mass exodus of talent

Many challenges associated with burnout are to be found amongst early-stage companies such as Youtopia, with the co-founders admitting to often working until very late at night and over the weekends since the start of the pandemic to help their clients through stressful and uncertain times. A robust discussion of how to avoid many of the hellish consequences of burnout ensued, including a commitment to try different tactics that would help the team optimise their time at work, whilst continuing to provide high quality, personalised advice to their clients.

Further Reading

To hear more on Equal Experts’ position on burnout, watch this video.

To learn more about how HMRC’s culture continued to thrive during the pandemic, read this article.