It is one thing to figure out what is true in a solution for yourself. Being clear about the principles that matter is essential in holding on to what “done well” looks like, especially when working through complex and complicated work. While this is an absolutely necessary discovery, and critical to finding a good solution, it is only one part of the ultimate answer. There are some additional factors—some further layers of truth—that are essential to understand if you are ultimately going to build solutions that are successful. You need to be clear about what matters most, if you are to make what you deliver matter to your audience.
What we discussed last week was the idea of being clear about the truths of your particular solution. These are the core principles of what you are doing—and particularly why you are doing it—that provide focus and direction as you navigate through solving the problem and producing the most desirable result.
Knowing these principles gives you the ability to course correct as you navigate the unknown and explore the possible. When you are working through complex and fluid space, there are often many options and uncertainties. There are choices you can make, and consequences associated with each of them. Pulling different levers produces varied and sometimes unpredictable results. Cause and effect is often not clear, and making choices around one aspect of a solution can have impacts and unexpected consequences that shape how you need to respond to other aspects.
Having clarity around the truth of what you are building gives you a means of course correcting as you experiment. You can set out past your zone of comfort, experimenting and evaluating, because the principles that you have defined provide guiding clarity that you navigate back towards. You have a way of recognizing if the impacts and implications of choices are moving you forward in a positive direction, or tending away from where you ultimately want to be going.
That isn’t to say that forward direction is always going to be evident and you may have to persist with some possibilities and options for longer than feels comfortable before you can decide whether or not they are going to pay off. Ultimately, though, you have a means of checking on how you are doing, where you are going and whether you are making any progress.
In designing the Strategy Making program, I was very clear that an integral component of the on-going program needed to provide a means of creating and sustaining community. One of the major insights and unexpected—but delightful—insights of the pilot programs I delivered at the end of last year was the importance of connecting to others going through the workshop. The sharing that emerged was critical in exploring the content, solidifying concepts and gaining insights. Even through the program is about personal strategy, the sharing of understanding helped to significantly enhance the meaning and relevant of the program.
How to create a community component, though, was a different challenge. There are many different ways of accomplishing it. While this isn’t specifically a technology problem, the distributed nature of the program meant that technology needed to play a central role. An essential principle was that experiencing content personally and exploring that content with others should be seamless. A participant shouldn’t have to go somewhere else, with a separate login, in order to share and communicate. It also needed to be private and segregated. The signal of the program shouldn’t risk getting lost in the noise of someone else’s network, and participants should feel confident that what can be very personal insights is shared in an environment of trust.
Within the clarity that those principles offered, there was a great deal of exploration and experimentation. Different options had different trade-offs. There was no one perfect solution—at least I haven’t found it yet—but there were promising choices. By being clear about what was needed in a solution, it was easier to identify where compromise was possible and what the consequences of those compromises would mean. The solution that is being integrated into the program didn’t do everything the way I would optimally like it to, but I’m comfortable that the the core intent will be delivered, and that I’m able to design around the implications I have had to accept. The principles have held firm, and the component pieces have been assembled around that foundation.
Those same truths that define your essential principles have another purpose as well. Not only do they provide direction for you, but they signal your intention to others. They provide a signpost that allows other people to interpret what you are doing, where you are going, and whether it is a journey that seems promising to them. It allows them to make about whether what you are doing is something they want to sign up for—literally or metaphorically.
Think about that for a second, because it’s a critically important point that we often overlook. People have a choice about what they sign up for, and what they choose to reject, ignore or avoid. This is true whether you are developing a product or a service, and that might be mostly where your mind is going in this discussion so far. This is also true for your change program at work, or the new system that you are implementing. It is true about the cultural transformation your organization is undertaking. It is also true about the changes you are trying to make in your leadership, and how you show up to your team.
You might be wondering about how the choice to follow is relevant in some of these examples. Be clear that there is absolutely a choice, and one that is present in each of these decisions. Just because the discussion shifts to employees in an organization doesn’t mean that choice isn’t operative for this who work there. It is also not a choice that is solely framed by whether someone goes along on the journey or chooses to leave the organization, either. There are a much wider range of behaviours present, and there are many more choices about how people accept or reject the premise of an initiative and whether it is one they support and embrace.
People can certainly choose to embrace an organizational initiative. They can also reject it outright. They certainly might decide that the organization is not for them, and choose to leave. There are any number of other options available that don’t require acceptance of the principles of whatever initiative is being considered. They may passively ignore a program, comply only to the letter of what is required, engage in wilful compliance or even actively sabotage it. They can misinterpret what is expected of them, or choose to engage in behaviours that only outwardly look like compliance.
What is critical here is being clear about your intended audience. You need to know who they are, what they value, and how that aligns with what you are trying to accomplish. It is also absolutely essential to be clear about the fact that you won’t attract everyone, you won’t please everyone and there is no single set of principles and truths you can craft that everyone will universally embrace. Trying to address the largest population or the lowest common denominator is beyond pointless. Attempting to appeal to everyone risks actually serving no one well.
Principles, then, serve the role of helping people self-select whether what you are doing is something that they care about and want to embrace. In serving this role, it should be perfectly clear who the audience is that you are trying to attract. It should also be entirely obvious who your audience is not, and will not be served—or served well—by what you are trying to do.
This might feel incredibly uncomfortable. We often take on board an implicit belief that we are trying to please everyone and offend no one. Doing so is what results in trying to tell everyone what they want to hear. There are two essential strategies for doing this: being so generic and vague that everyone fills in their own details, or actually delivering a different message to different people and hoping no one notices the inconsistencies. In either instance, there will be a vast gulf between whatever you are saying and what you actually deliver.
Clarity of purpose, then, helps to reinforce clarity of audience. What you know have is two central focal points to navigate by: the principles of your solution, and the perspective of your audience. From here, it is possible to fully triangulate towards a solution that actually matters. Doing so is about not just delivering something that is true for you, but that is effective for your audience. That means making what you deliver as easy and accessible for that audience to take up, to use and to get value from as possible.
The insights that stem from that kind of clarity and focus—and the impact of placing that intention at the forefront of what you do—can be profound. In building Strategy Making, it has made all of the difference in designing something as relevant as possible for its intended audience. Early on in the design, I spent a significant amount of time—probably the equivalent of five days of work extended over several weeks—getting clear on who the program was for, what their wants and challenges were, and what they valued most in their work, their roles and their lives. The resulting worldview easily runs a couple of thousand words, in one of the more complex mind maps I’ve ever built.
Having produced it, though, it has been front-and-centre in everything else that I have done. The ideas within it certainly shaped the content of the program. They also determined the structure, the delivery approach, the exercises and the activities. How the program is marketed and promoted and the messages that are conveyed are intended to speak to that worldview. It goes far beyond that, though. The site that supports the program, the tools that are embedded within it, the automations that enable it and the communications that guide participation from the moment someone signs up are designed to make it as easy, as engaging and immersive as possible for someone to experience Strategy Making as a program.
What I really want to reinforce in all of this is that it is possible to venture into the unknown and be successful. You can go beyond the edge of what is safe and familiar, and still be able to navigate with some degree of confidence. It’s not always easy, it certainly isn’t comfortable, there will be doubts and frustrations and anxieties and fears. But if you are going to do challenging work successfully, and managing complexity and uncertainty, then you need to take the leap and venture into the void. Having clarity about purpose and audience is the beacon that makes this possible, and ensures that you make it out the other side with a solution that matters for those you are most directly trying to serve.