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When you develop your strategy maps, sometimes small details contain subtle messages about your strategy.

Mind the gap: The perils of strategy mapping

Strategy maps are a very visual tool.  So sometimes small details catch someone’s eye.  However, the picture might be saying more than a thousand words if you are not careful.

Is that small gap important?

Earlier this year I was training a group of managers in the strategy mapping process.  They were to take on and develop the higher level strategy maps we have developed with the executive team. The manager asked, “Is that small gap between those boxes, signficant?”

One of the managers I had been working with had presented the strategy using the strategy map when a question came from the audience.  “Is it significant that the box for that team in the process layer starts just after the box for the other team in that layer”.  She had spotted a small gap between where one box started and where the box above it started on the diagram.

Again last week, reviewing an early draft strategy map with a management team, a similar thing happened.  Someone questioned the significance of a minor positioning error with one of the strategy map objective boxes.  What matters is how people read these pictures and what they read into them.  What matters is that these diagrams should have a rich meaning. 

What is significant is not that there was a gap, or whether it was deliberate or not.  (In this case it was deliberate but not important).  What matters is how people read these pictures and what they read into them.  What matters is that these diagrams should have a rich meaning.  They get the subtleties of much of your strategy on a page.

The problem is different with simplistic strategy maps

When your strategy maps are simplistic box diagrams, you get people reading far less meaning into the detail.  Many examples of strategy maps that you find across the internet are these simplistic box diagrams. Quite often you will find strategy maps with barely 9 or 12 boxes, all very square and all labelled with very generic wordings.  Many examples of strategy maps that you find across the internet are simplistic box diagrams, copied from books or case studies.  They show that no real conversation has taken place.

What is the meaning of these diagrams?

  • The limited simplistic boxes usually tells me that there is not a very rich picture behind this, and probably there has not been a rich conversation about getting the deeper meaning within the strategy onto the strategy map.  Either that or this is a representational strategy map for public consumption that hides something deeper (I hope).
  • The generic wording of “strategies”  and “objectives” from the books without thinking suggests there has not been a real discussion about the strategy.  (If you see “Continuous improvement” on a strategy map, it’s a good clue they just copied the model from somewhere else).
  • When boxes placed in no particular structure, or strategic themes or simply as everything connects to everything else. again it suggests little conversation or real thought.

This meaning I take from these simplistic strategy map, is that there has been lack of conversation and thought in the design, has a more significant meaning than a minor positioning of a box. These simplistic strategy maps suggest that little conversation, thought or meaning has been embedded into them. This larger problem of ownership and lack of richness is much more significant that the relative position of two boxes.

Worse still, they might have even have been copied from one of the Kaplan and Norton books, or an example in a case study.  The problem is that many of the examples in the Kaplan and Norton books are rarely what the clients have actually used.  (I know I worked on a few of them and saw the original strategy maps).  The real story is often much richer than shown (I hope).  they are just simplified for case studies and wider consumption.

This larger problem of ownership and lack of richness is much more significant that the relative position of two boxes.

Rich strategy map pictures embed rich meaning

In contrast, when you have a deep conversation about your strategy, you can embed that deeper meaning into your strategy maps.  When you have a deep conversation about your strategy, you can embed that deeper meaning into your strategy maps. 

With a recent client we went through fourteen versions of the strategy maps (not counting the sub-versions of which there were many more).  These strategy maps started off with a fairly generic model of the strategy used in their industry (in this case it was asset management in the water industry).  This model of how they worked was quickly adapted to reflect how they saw asset management.  A later refinement made it clear that the three divisions involved in delivering their strategy all worked on each theme of the strategy (a message to break down the silos).  Finally the strategy (and strategy maps) were broken down into further detail for each major theme to be owned (led) by one Director, in collaboration with the other divisions.  A recent client went through fourteen versions of their strategy maps.

At each stage meaning was built into the maps that could be explained and read by those using them and talking about them.  More importantly, as people talked through their maps the stories developed and evolved and we could capture the changing emphasis and importance.

So, the small problem of a minor query about the positioning of a box that was slightly different to another, is just a signal that people are reading meaning from your strategy maps.  This is a good sign. People are taking them seriously.

Of course this means, be careful when drawing your strategy maps

When you embed this richer deeper meaning and the quality of your conversation into your strategy maps, you have to be more careful how you draw and position boxes, how you word the descriptions of objectives in boxes and how you represent strategic themes and perspectives.  Drawing Strategy maps becomes a bit of an art.  Not an abstract graphic art, aimed at being merely attractive, but a representational art.  A representational art where the picture does have subtle and important meaning.

Strategy Mapping experience

Strategy mapping is a facilitation skill, a skill of conversation, a bit of an art, but also a very logical process.  Strategy maps are social tools, not technical ones.

Over the past 18 years I have developed over 100 strategy maps for organisations ranging from international oil companies to small charities, from large government departments to internet start-ups.  Strategy Mapping for Learning Organizations was my attempt to share this knowledge and explain the importance of the strategy mapping approach in creating conversations around strategy and performance.  After all Strategy maps are social tools, not technical ones.

If you are serious about developing and using strategy maps to tell the story of your strategy, then pick up the phone or drop me an email.  I am always happy to help clients understand what is possible.

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