Strategic clarity on the back of an envelope

A few days ago, I met a friend of mine over a coffee.  When I commented on the deep ‘worry’ lines on her forehead, she shook her head and said, “I just don’t know what to focus on.  I have this long list of priorities – and no time to give to all of them, so every day I scrape the surface.  My staff all have different opinions about what our priorities should be.  And the complicated thing is that they are all correct:  the things they bring up ARE priorities.  But I am so overwhelmed, I feel I will never get to the top of the pile.”


After some more coffee and a medicinal chocolate muffin, I had brought out the oldest tool of all – the back of a large envelope which was lurking at the bottom of my bag (did you know many great ideas started that way?  Southwest Airlines in the US were conceived on a café napkin).  I had asked my friend what her ultimate business goal was.  I then asked her to identify the key drivers that would make that goal improve.  The key was to establish a clear cause-and-effect relationship.  As my friend was a senior manager at a higher education institution, our initial drawing looked like this:



Luckily, in higher education there is a measure for everything, so it was quite easy to establish both the current position and the desired position for each of the outcomes.  What this showed was the gap – and hence the distance required to travel in order to get to the desired position.  In my friend’s case, the quality of research was very good, but both student satisfaction and student employability were poor.  This gave a clear focus for where time should be invested.  But how could these outcomes be improved?


What we did next was to break the initial drivers even further, to understand what had the most direct impact on the outcomes shown in green.  Taking one of these as an example, here’s what we drew next:



As in the previous step, the gap between the measures of the current vs desired position had shown where the effort had to be directed.  Before we saw the bottom of our coffee cups, my friend had e-mailed her staff requesting that they establish consistent visiting hours for students and respond to student e-mails the same day.


This exercise is brilliant in that it can bring clarity to what is otherwise a chaotic to-do list.  It can also help to formulate strategy for improved outcomes in business development, problem solving, etc.  Unfortunately I cannot take credit for it – this is a well-known technique used in outcome mapping (originally designed by the International Development Research Centre), and is similar to the Product Breakdown Structure (PBS) in project management.


Do this with your management team, or even with your staff (if you are brave), so they own the output and understand the causal relationships – and get someone who is a good facilitator to help you.