In our 'Defining and articulating your vision, mission and values' guide we explored some of the ways in which technology can now assist in establishing a strategic conversation within your institution. These largely revolved around the power and potential of harnessing social software to help disseminate ideas and suggestions and to facilitate discussion about them across the entire institution.
How about encouraging members of your senior management team to maintain their own blogs? This is an approach which is now common in many organisations, particularly in the private sector, where the chief executive and other directors publish their thoughts and musings on a range of subjects broadly relevant to their role and the organisation they lead.
The style and tone of these blogs is deliberately informal and designed to give the rest of the organisation (and those outside it) a glimpse of the human face of senior management. It is an opportunity to highlight some of the broader pressures and challenges the institution faces and the factors which are influencing strategic decision making at the highest level.
As such it can play an important role in establishing some of the background ‘mood music’ against which decisions must be made.
Most blogs also provide the facility for readers to also submit their own thoughts and comments in relation to posts they have read, providing an opportunity for all staff to bring their thoughts and ideas to the attention of management.
Wikis and online collaborative tools
The collaborative nature of the wiki makes it the ideal vehicle for publishing early drafts and allowing a large number of people to comment on them or make changes, all within a secure, controlled environment. Wikis give people the opportunity to not only leave comments, but to actually make changes or additions to the content directly, whilst also preserving audit trails and logs of changes.
The content of a wiki and/or editing rights to it can also be restricted to particular groups or individuals making it possible to keep any discussions accessible to members of the institution only.
Alternatively, increasing numbers of institutions are beginning to take advantage of ‘free’ access to online collaborative environments such as Google Docs which enables individuals to collaborate on the same document and can provide a shared workspace which transcends organisational barriers.
Using Google Docs for collaborative strategic planning
Wakefield College, a leading FE college situated in the north of England helped overcome their previous ‘silo mentality’ to strategic planning by giving each of their academy directors additional responsibility for a cross-college area, for example, enterprise, advanced level programmes etc. This forced them to think about working right across the organisation and to collaborate with colleagues accordingly.
GoogleDocs provided the vehicle which would allow that collaboration to take place. Academy directors identified their three key priorities for their cross-college area of responsibility and two specific actions under each priority.
These were then represented as a grid in Google Docs. Each academy director and service area manager then used Google Docs to identify how they would contribute to the achievement of each priority and its associated actions, resulting in a matrix of priorities and specific actions from right across the College. This ensured a shared understanding of where each strategy was aiming to take the organisation and also that actions were formally logged and factored into plans.
This approach was also adopted at a headline level with the college’s strategic priorities to enable each academy/service area to easily see how they could best contribute to the achievement of strategic priorities without duplication and without missed opportunities for synergy. The use of such web 2.0 technology gave the college an easily accessible method of enabling everyone to access to each other's plans to ensure that they were all travelling in the same direction.
It’s been really well received with staff appreciating how this access to what other areas in college were aiming to achieve enabled them to plan in a more informed way.
Most people are now familiar with popular publicly available services such as Facebook or LinkedIn. However, it is also possible to establish your own private social networks which provide most of the functionality of these public sites, but for a closed, invited membership only.
Such technology provides another informal and dynamic forum for debate with members either responding to discussion topics started by others or starting their own subjects themselves.
Members’ profiles can also act as a form of ‘expertise index’ allowing staff to identify people within the organisation who may have the skills or knowledge they need but who are not known to them personally. Informal groupings of staff can be established regardless of their place in the organisation chart to achieve a desired outcome.
Other techniques and approaches
We should not however assume that adopting new technology is the only way to establish an effective ‘strategic conversation’ within your institution. In truth a range of approaches are likely to be required and whilst some will be willing to rush enthusiastically down the IT route, others may wish to continue to rely on more traditional approaches.
Workshops, focus groups and senior management ‘surgery sessions’ are all tried and tested approaches which place a value on personal, face-to-face communication. They are, of course, more resource-intensive and less scalable than some of the more technology-orientated approaches listed above, but do have the merit of producing freer, richer discussion.
They also provide the opportunity to forge personal links and relationships which can be far harder to achieve in an online world.
Workshops needn’t revolve around leaden presentations, ‘death by PowerPoint’ and illegible flipchart notes. Use the opportunity to get creative and inject some fun and enthusiasm into the proceedings.
Explore some of the ideas included within our creative thinking resources and planning participatory workshop guide to encourage fresh new perspectives and to invigorate debate or consider the potential for using metaphors and stories to communicate new visions of what might be possible.
A good framework for innovative ways of thinking and assumption-busting can be found in the work of Michael Michalko. His book, ‘Cracking Creativity’, provides a rich source of approaches to thinking differently. His Thinkpak is a practical tool for getting groups to experiment with their ideas.
Signs of success
So how can you tell when you have succeeded in establishing a vibrant and constructive ‘strategic conversation’ within your organisation? Well, if you can point to examples of some of the following patterns of behaviour it is likely that you are heading in the right direction:
- Active and vibrant discussion within the various online spaces provided
- Staff starting their own discussion topics and contributing with their own ideas rather than just responding to others
- Discussion within teams (ie, at team meetings) about elements of the strategic plan
- Requests for members of the senior management team to attend team meetings to discuss elements of strategic activity
- Discussion about how the process of strategic planning and activity is conducted, not just about the contents of its current iteration
- Proposals (for funding, additional staffing etc) clearly demonstrate their relevance to agreed strategic objectives.
See also our guide on 'Planning a participatory workshop.'
To inspire you to be creative about how you view things, here’s a list from ‘The Order of Things: an Archaeology of the Human Sciences’ (1970, Tavistock Publications Ltd) by the French philosopher Michel Foucault. It is a scheme of classifying animals taken from a Chinese encyclopedia.
- Belonging to the emperor
- Sucking pigs
- Stray dogs
- Included in the present classification
- Drawn with a very fine camel hair brush
- Et cetera
- Having just broken the water pitcher
- That from a way off look like flies
Foucault uses this to make an important point. The impossibility of the scheme comes not from any of the individual categories (some of the animals are fictitious but they are separately identified as such) what seems impossible to our way of thinking is simply that somebody put A, B, C down the side and linked them together. Why not try putting the administrator drawn with a fine camel hair brush next to one that’s just broken the water pitcher and see where it takes us?
To help you start thinking creatively:
Metaphors and stories
Metaphors and stories
Although much of our transmission of knowledge is through text and print, our history of cultural transmission has largely been through the spoken word. There are two constructs that we have used since humankind first learned to communicate as vehicles for that cultural transmission – metaphor and story. These are powerful tools that you can use to articulate the aspects of your project and to help develop your ideas.
Often, particularly at the outset of a project, we struggle to articulate what our real hopes, aspirations and intentions are – what Lakoff and Johnson describe in ‘Metaphors We Live By’ as the objectivist myth. This difficulty is exacerbated by our modern western system of thinking that attempts to deal with uncertainty by identifying concrete targets and milestones, often too early in a project when thinking is incomplete.
Our approach to project planning emphasises the inherent risks and time wasting that ensues from this approach and advocates the concept of the sliding planning window. At the other extreme we intuitively know what we are trying to achieve but have a deep insecurity coming from our incapacity to articulate and validate our intuition. Metaphor can help us clarify our imperfect ideas:
"Metaphor is one of the most important tools for trying to comprehend partially what cannot be comprehended totally: our feelings, aesthetic experiences, moral practices, and spiritual awareness. These endeavours of the imagination are not devoid of rationality; since they use metaphor, they employ an imaginative rationality."
LAKOFF & JOHNSON, ‘METAPHORS WE LIVE BY
This ‘imaginative rationality’ based on our imaginative thoughts gives us an alternative to both objectivist and subjectivist points of view that is based on experience. We can take an experiential approach to developing our ideas that encompasses both what we know and what we learn during the course of the project.
"With the experientialist myth, understanding emerges from interaction, from constant negotiation with the environment and other people."
LAKOFF & JOHNSON, ‘METAPHORS WE LIVE BY
We can use metaphor to develop our thinking at the broad level of the project to inform the brief. For example consider the project as a journey – a journey with a known direction (at the outset) but perhaps with an unknown destination. We can also use metaphor as a way of understanding components of the project. What is important here is the need to focus not merely on how things will look but how they will work.
By considering a range of other settings such as your building as a factory, garage, hospital, or department store you may gain new insights into its structure, design, and processes. Edinburgh’s Telford College and Glasgow Caledonian University both used this method for their new build projects.
Telford College had its hub designed by people who specialised in designing catering outlets in shopping malls. Glasgow Caledonian has used metaphors within its interior design for the Saltire Centre the ground floor being a city and market place, the first floor which has three entrances and exits being an airport departure lounge and other quieter floors using domestic garden and living room metaphors.
We should also think about making the metaphor a reality in as many interesting and engaging ways as possible. One underused ambient factor is sound; for example, to strengthen the metaphors used in the Saltire Centre at Glasgow Caledonian sounds are used at the entrance to each area to give clues to users about the nature of the space – as you enter the quiet living room on the top floor of the building a voice above your head quietly says – ssssshh.
InQbate was a Centre for Excellence in Teaching and Learning (CETL) and a joint initiative between the Universities of Sussex and Brighton. InQbate developed innovative teaching and learning in creativity; in generating ideas the initiative looked at performance space. The model for the space design was a combination between the black box model of the theatre and the white cube model of a gallery to create a white box which gave flexibility and visual impact.
They also drew on the idea of a magician’s cabinet, with walls that moved in unpredictable ways and changing colours to try and make it an exciting place that fascinates people. In 2010 the InQbate Creativity Zone at Sussex came under the management of the Attenborough Centre for the Creative Arts (ACCA) at Sussex. The corresponding space at Brighton operates as The Creativity Centre.
Biology has much to offer in the understanding of systems and processes that may support innovative thinking about your building. ‘It’s Alive’ by Christopher Meyer & Stan Davis covers ideas on the convergence of information technology, biology, and business and Brand’s book ‘How Buildings Learn’ touches on concepts of evolution and natural selection in the context of buildings – those perfectly formed and incapable of adapting, for example, are unlikely to survive for long.
Stories are vehicles for combining metaphors (and analogies) that you develop into engaging descriptions of the project and how it will work. It is worth considering, for example, writing a ‘day in the life’ account for each type of user of your new building that shows how they will make use of it.
SCAMMPERR/Thinkpak - experimenting with ideas
A good framework for innovative ways of thinking and assumption-busting can be found in the work of Michael Michalko. His book, ‘Cracking Creativity’, provides a rich source of approaches to thinking differently and his Thinkpak is a practical tool for getting groups to experiment with their ideas. Thinkpak goes way beyond brainstorming by providing a structure for idea generation and development.
The Thinkpak is a pack of 56 cards to support groups based around the SCAMMPERR structure that Michalko has devised for looking at topics from a wide range of different angles. SCAMMPERR is an acronym for the nine principles that Michalko offers for creative work:
- Substitute something
- Combine it with something else
- Adapt something to it
- Magnify or add to it
- Modify it
- Put it to some other use
- Eliminate something
- Rearrange it
- Reverse it
For example when defining a new facility it’s a good idea to start from what you know – say you are designing a new laboratory – and ask what other functions could we use this space for (combine it with something else). Could it also be used as a small cinema in the evenings? What could we take away? For example, some institutions have designed labs that can be easily adapted for use by any of the sciences, rather than design a discipline-specific lab.
The Thinkpak provides a powerful framework for individuals or groups to develop new ideas or new approaches to old ones. As well as the cards themselves, the Thinkpak booklet has a range of initial strategies to prepare for idea generation and selection. The Thinkpak could be a very useful resource, at least at the outset, to break out of old mindsets.