Everybody has their own belief system that will influence how they look at things and, from a strategy development perspective, this will have significant influence how they will view the current and future state of the organisation. Consequently, we believe that before working with a strategy group, it is important that our facilitator has information about the people involved so that he/she has some understanding of their background, their beliefs and how they are likely to react to the strategy creation process.
A simple, but effective, method that we use to gather information about the people in the strategy group is to have someone in the organisation who knows them well create what is called a ‘Pen Portrait’. As its name suggests, this is a written ‘portrait’ of the person that describes them honestly and in as much detail as possible. We always use them before starting to work with the people in our client’s organisation and find them to be an invaluable aid when working with people both in individual interviews and strategic workshops.
The information to be obtained about each person should include the following: name, age, position in business, responsibilities in the business, area(s) of expertise, type of person (e.g. leader, follower, blocker, negative, positive, etc.), importance to the strategy development process, likely reaction to participation in a group workshop vs one-to-one discussion, importance to the business going forward, likely response to change and any other relevant information or observations. It can also be useful to include a photograph of the person so that the facilitator knows what they look like.
The pen portraits should be written by the client, who will normally be the senior member of the strategy team. The client’s pen portrait will normally be written by another senior member of the team. If the organisation has an impartial member of the executive team, such as a non-executive director, then that person may be a good source of information about the participants.
I find that having this information about people in the strategy group to be invaluable, especially in strategic interviews, as it not only allows me to prepare better for the interview but also enables me to understand the context of the statements that the interviewee makes and to use the appropriate strategic questioning techniques to elicit the information that is important to the strategy creation process.
Here are some examples of real pen portraits (the names have been changed for obvious reasons!) and how I used them during strategic interviews:
“Joe Bloggs is 42 years old and has been with the company since he left University. He is head of his department but got there trough time in the job rather than talent. He has no formal (or informal) management training. While he is very intelligent, he can be quite immature and seems to lack confidence in interacting with people. Consequently, he can be difficult to deal with and he tends to talk about people behind their back, which causes resentment and mistrust. He has a tendency to look down on those who are not as academically qualified as him. He has a very close relationship with two people in the business and consequently, they each have influence over the other. He is likely to play the role of expert as far as internal procedures are concerned and may well be an opinion former, at least as far as his immediate subordinates are concerned. He can be cynical and has the potential to be disruptive or to act as a saboteur in the strategy process.”
Here, I started with easy questions based around this person’s area of expertise. This gave him time to get comfortable with me and the process and to start talking which was the biggest challenge. I listened carefully to his answers and made sure that I asked relevant question, even if they were not relevant to the strategy development process. This gave him confidence that I was both listening to and interested in what he was saying which eased his concerns about the process and he eventually opened up and gave me some valuable insights, ideas and information about the current and future state of the business. Given his influence over others in his team who were also involved in the process, I made sure that I interviewed him firs knowing that he would feed back his experience to the others and hopefully make them more cooperative. This worked well and the other interviews went well albeit they we not without their challenges.
“Jane Doe is 32 years old and joined the company from another firm who were based in London. She is one of the more approachable people in the business but gives the impression that she sees herself as being above everyone else. She speaks very quietly so it can be difficult to hear what she is saying. She knows the business very well and is quite switched on commercially. She has some good ideas and she is actively involved in what little marketing the company does, giving talks at various local enterprise events, etc. She could be a potential saboteur is some circumstances, particularly if she were to see herself as a potential loser. It is unlikely that she would deliberately feed misinformation to the process but she is very much a ‘9 to 5’ person and it would be very difficult to persuade her to attend an out of hours workshop.”
Here I made sure that I scheduled the interview mid morning so that this person had time to get settled into work while giving me enough time to speak with her before lunchtime. Knowing that she was quietly spoken meant that I was able to set the seating up in advance so that I was close enough to her to be able to hear what she was saying (without being too close!). Given her involvement in the marketing of the business, I started with that aspect of the strategy and used her comments to move the conversation into other areas of the business. This worked well and she made a lot of good suggestions and observations about the business.