Leadership Lesson #8: Look for how things naturally fit together

Systems Thinking

Author’s note: This is the eighth in a series of articles about the leadership lessons learned while hiking Usery Mountain with my 17-year-old son.  Read them all here.


Along the course of my hike, I came upon the rock formation in this picture. The way the pieces all fit together was striking.  It is so clear that the individual pieces are all part of the same whole.

I paused to examine this rock formation and wondered what wild and wicked weather had done this to the rock, presumably once a single, intact piece.

But more interesting than the force of nature that had caused the fractures was the pattern the individual pieces created and the clarity that they belonged together.

Individually these rocks would not nearly be as striking, as meaningful, as wonderful as they are together.

They belonged together.

While it is clear from this rock formation that all the pieces fit together – no, all the pieces belong together intrinsically, it not always so clear to see how all the pieces of our workplace puzzles fit together.

When you as a leader can – and do — spot the naturally occurring patterns in your teams and in your projects, you can capitalize on the effortlessness of nature.

:  The team that runs itself like a well-oiled machine.

:  The project partners that fit together like a hand and glove.

:  The products and market segments that belong together.

On the other hand, when we force things together that do not belong together organically, the road can be rough, vexed by friction and ill-fitting people, places and things.

You’ve probably experienced this.

It’s miserable.

And it is entirely preventable.

To prevent it requires paying attention, paying very careful attention.

It requires appreciating the simplicity and elegance of things that work well together.

It requires pattern recognition, environmental awareness and systems thinking.

When you can identify how sometimes seemingly disparate pieces can come together to create a complimentary whole that is greater than the sum of its parts, you can see new opportunities. You can practically predict the future. And when you can see new opportunities and predict the future you are well equipped to execute more strategically.

Slow down.

Notice the details.

Look for things that organically and naturally fit together.

Follow nature.

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    Having a clearly defined business strategy is at the top of the list of important priorities for most senior leaders. But overwhelmingly, that strategy does not trickle down to mid-level managers and individual contributors. In fact, research has shown that, on average, 95% of employees are not aware of or do not understand their company’s strategy.

    In a recently released study in the International Journal of Business Communication, researchers set out to learn if using visual models when communicating business strategy would make a difference in employees’ understanding and retention. They had a hunch it did make a difference, but an empirical study had never been conducted until now.

    Turns out, images (as opposed to a list of bullet points), make a big difference.

    Three key findings emerged from the study.

    1. A visual depiction of the strategy is far superior to a list of bullet points.

    The experiment in their research tested a list of bullet points against a visual metaphor (think “crossing a mountain” as business strategy with the mountain image used to depict the journey) and a temporal diagram (geometric shapes that show how processes interact with one another). Participants in the study paid more attention, were in greater agreement with, and retained information better when a visual representation of the strategy was used (that is, no bullet points!).

    2. The temporal diagram was slightly better than the metaphorical image.

    Findings were similar on several measures, but the temporal diagram scored significantly better when people’s comprehension of the strategy was checked. My guess is that the abstraction of the metaphor got in the way of a full and detailed understanding of the message. Employees might have been thinking more about the mountain than what the mountain stood for.

    3. The presenter was thought more highly of when visualization was used.

    Using a compelling visual model in communicating the strategy goes far beyond the message itself. What I find to be the most interesting result from the study is that the perception of the presenter was significantly higher when a visual representation (either metaphor or temporal) of the strategy was used instead of bullet points. That is, the presenter was rated as more prepared, more credible and more persuasive when visuals were used in communicating the business strategy. What corporate leader wouldn’t want to be perceived as more prepared, credible and persuasive?

    To be fair, it’s not easy to develop compelling visual representations of abstract concepts like strategy. But when the stakes are high and quarterly results are riding on your strategy, getting the implementation of the strategy right is of the utmost importance. Implementation begins with communication.

    >> Bullet points are easy.

    >> Text is lazy.

    >> Good design is priceless.

    Especially when your business strategy hangs in the balance.

    Want help with your strategy presentation? Contact Working Conversations today for a consultation.


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    Today as I was out for my early morning run, I came across this scene:


    Last night’s powerful thunderstorm created a new hurdle for me this morning. Literally. It reminded me of the hurdles we all face in all parts of our work and lives and how easily we can be stopped by them.

    Here’s a three step process for overcoming the next downed tree that blocks your path:

    1. Make a plan

    A bit of careful planning is the first step on getting past unexpected hurdles. It’s easy to react in the face of unanticipated roadblocks – and most of us do so much drama and theatrics. A few moments of planning will get you back in action more quickly than drama. What’s the next small action you can take to keep you on course? And then next one after that? Develop a list of action steps you can take that will each take less than 30 minutes. Small steps, repeated, are what get you to the finish line.

    2. Take action

    Now that you know what the steps are, take action. A plan without action is like a recipe without a chef. Use the plan, the recipe, and be in action. If you want to clear the hurdle rapidly, take massive action. Accomplishing some of the most immediate steps that you need to take to get past the hurdle will fuel your confidence level and you will be charged up to take on subsequent steps with gusto. Success breeds success.

    3. Get help

    Recognize that you can’t always surmount the hurdles on your own. Think realistically about the magnitude of the challenge, your resources, skills and knowledge, and the larger context in which this hurdle presents itself. Human beings are social animals and we get more done – and get it done better and faster – with the help of others. Do you need to hire a contractor, a constructor worker or a coach to help you past the hurdle? Get the assistance you need to powerfully overcome the hurdle and get back on course.
    This morning, as I ran around the lake, I climbed over the hurdle as did everyone I encountered. I didn’t see a single person who said, “Oh no. There’s a downed tree across the path. I’m giving up.”

    Not even close.

    >> A woman with a cane maneuvered over the tree trunk.

    >> A man lifted his dog (who was too big to get under it and too small to get over it) across.

    >> Cyclists dismounted and lifted their bikes over it.

    >> Countless runners took it in stride.

    What hurdle is in your path today? Make a plan, take action and get help.

    Share your thoughts in the comments.
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