Tuesday, April 1

A Magical Technique for Unearthing Your (Often Hidden) Priorities

Recently, I conducted a board strategic planning retreat for an international client that had ambitious plans for the future at the same time its board members had identified some critical issues that they believed had to be addressed first.  In fact, they had a long “laundry list” of issues, some of which were of strategic importance, others that belonged on a staff member’s to-do list.
Here is the break-through exercise that I used with them, which you can use in any number of similar situations—and it is guaranteed to rock your view of what’s truly most important for your organization’s future.  Every time I’ve used it, I am in awe of how simple it is and what profound insights it yields.
Step 1. Give every participant three 5x8 cards and ask them to write the three most important issues facing the organization, one per card.  Collect the cards and spread them out on a wall or even the floor so they can all be seen.
Step 2. Ask all participants to get up and, without talking, first group the cards by similarity—clustering together cards that essentially address the same issue.  Then, without speaking, instruct them to organize the clusters in order of importance from left to right. If one participant moves a cluster to a place that you disagree with, you may move it to where you believe it belongs—all without exchanging a word.
Step 3. When it seems they are content with their clusters and the order in which they’ve placed them, you may ask them to return to their seats.  Discuss the clusters to determine what each includes.  There should be no more than five or six clusters. Ask the group to give each cluster a title (or you can do this).
Step 4. Write on a chalkboard, whiteboard, or wall-mounted flip chart paper the titles of each cluster.  It’s even more effective if you can put them in a circle, like the numbers on a clock.  Next, tell them they are going to consider how each of the issues relates to each of the others.  Select one to start, and direct the group to determine if the greater influence between it and each of the others flows away from it to the other (in which case you will draw a line with an arrow pointing from that issue to the other) or if the influence of the other issue is greater on the original issue (in which case you draw a line with an arrow pointing from the other issue toward the issue you’re considering).  You will continue on around asking the relationship between that issue and every other one, having an arrow that shows the direction of influence between it and each of the others.  There can be no arrows that point in both directions; they must decide which has the greater influence on the other.
Step 5. When you’ve completed the relationship with that first issue and each of the others, do the same exercise with the second issue, the third, etc. until you have an arrow drawn between every key strategic issue and all of the others.  The exercise goes faster and faster with each round, because there are fewer relationships that remain unanalyzed. 
Step 6. Determine which issue has the greatest number of arrows flowing FROM it to other issues.  This is the core issue that leaders must address.  The issue with the second greatest number of arrows coming from it is your second most important strategic issue, etc.
What this exercise does that other processes don’t is override “elephants in the room.”  For instance, the board I’m referencing in this blog discovered as a result of this exercise that the strategic issue they had originally ranked as least important (governance) turned out to be the key to all of the others, as every arrow pointed from it to each of the other issues.  This opened a floodgate of discussion about the board itself, its role and composition, upon which all other issues depended.  Once the board “saw” the truth, they broke through the barrier that had prevented them from addressing their own issues and have commenced taking the steps needed to become the board that can address the other substantive goals they identified earlier.

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