Uwe Weissflog and his work are a rare combination
of personal authenticity, academic rigor, and business success.
His story is the most open, objective and insightful report I've
ever seen on the inter-weaving of a variety of process interventions,
over the long haul, in one organization. What follows here is
an edited excerpt of Uwe's original, longer version.
Uwe and I met at the 1997 Open Space training
workshop in Chicago. On the second evening of the workshop we
stayed up until something like 3:00 am. It was strategic conversation
about strategic conversation! ...as we began to wrap words around
this notion of strategic conversation as the means for organizational
What follows is a story about asking big
questions, engaging the whole organization, and beginning to
explore this style I call "post-and-host" -- in a real,
corporate and scientific organization. As a result of their work,
Uwe and his organization, Structural Dynamics Research Corporation
(SDRC), are recent recipients of the Soaring with the Phoenix
Award, given by author Jim Belasco, for excellence in organization
transformation and rebirth.
Uwe was trained as an engineer and evolved
into SDRC's Manager of Strategic Planning and then into Director
of Organization Development. He continues to sheperd the worldwide
unfolding of this story at SDRC, currently as their "Vice
President of SPACE." He welcomes your thoughts on this story
and would be glad to bring you up to date on what they've been
learning most recently at SDRC.
Contact him by email at <email@example.com>.
Every person is a particular kind
of leader, no leader is a particular kind of person.
[ancient Chinese proverb, adapted]
This paper describes the struggle of SDRC
a leading global supplier of Mechanical Design Automation (MDA)
and Product Information Management (PIM) solutions, to authentically
express itself in the markets it serves. The case study is based
on the experience gained over a period of four years. Since 1995,
various approaches have been used to create a vision of "who
we are and where we are heading". This vision had to serve
at least two purposes, to be of value to our customers and to
enable the members of the organization to develop a clear sense
of purpose and direction. The organization assimilated ideas
it could digest and rejected those that were too radical. Gradually,
the company developed a clearer image of its identity and direction,
congruent with the dramatic changes that happened in its markets.
Processes and methodologies that proved to
be most successful were based on common sense and unorthodox
thinking. The pace of change in the company's markets required
an approach that was different from traditional strategic planning.
The idea of "the plan" was replaced with "Strategic
Conversations"; i.e. the ongoing quest to find answers to
several key questions:
- Why are we in the business we are in?
- Where are we today?
- Where do we want to be in the future?
- How do we operate today?
- How will we operate in the future?
Openness, large scale group participation,
and a systemic view of the company and its environment proved
to be valuable elements in this ongoing quest. Emerging parts
of the collective identity include, a better understanding of
our core competencies, the capability to see reality as a collection
of diverse views, and the awareness of the power of alignment.
These shifts in consciousness help us to accept who we are and
what we are changing into.
How it all started
Early 1995 was a gloomy time in the history
of the company. Within weeks, our stock price fell to below $4,
reflecting a loss of shareholder value of more then 80% in less
than 12 months. Financial overstatements caused a crisis resulting
in drastic consequences:
- A set of layoffs
- Suspension of the company 401K plan contributions
- Dismissal of the CEO and part of the executive
At the same time, the flagship product of
SDRC, a complex offering of mechanical design, analysis and manufacturing
software, experienced severe quality problems. For the first
time in its 25-year history the company experienced a real threat
to its existence.
This threat proved to be the beginning of
a new era at SDRC. Since 1995, the company has started six strategic
initiatives to find a path into its future. The author was intimately
involved in all six, either in a leadership role or as a facilitator.
Two of the six initiatives are described here.
Where we are today
The key learning of the past four years is
the insight, that by simply staying in these conversations, the
company is changing. These conversations enabled awareness of
key organizational needs, such as balance of short and long-term
demands, reconciliation of internal innovation aspirations with
external market pressures, and fusion of stability and risk-taking,
to emerge. This awareness enabled the company to gradually change.
No single conversation has introduced these changes; they came
about because of the repeated and ongoing inquiry into these
issues. Staying in conversation seems to have made the difference.
Two Stories of Strategic Conversation at
SDRC's Strategic Management Process (SMP)
was a corporate business strategy initiative based on a process
developed internally. SMP included insight from a variety of
sources among them strategic planning, business, leadership,
science and philosophy. The Customer Council for Strategic Direction
(CCSD) brought together key customer executives, industry leaders,
academe, and the company's executive management team to jointly
talk about the future.
Strategic Management Process (SMP)
In 1997 we decided to explore the world of
strategic planning more thoroughly before any initiative was
started. We considered various sources to better understand "strategy,"
- Roughly 60 books on strategy, covering a
wide span from ancient strategic thought to recent understanding
- Theme searches on the world-wide-web with
focus on consultants and their methodologies in the areas of
strategy and organizational development.
- We also looked at processes and methodologies
used in strategy development, in particular processes with an
underlying holistic approach.
- Large scale group interventions including
Open Space Technology (Owen, 1992), Systems Thinking (Senge,
1994), the Future Search Conference Model (Weissbord, 1995) and
Servant Leadership (Greenleaf, 1983).
Eventually, a set of key questions formed
the underlying basis of SMP, relating to:
- WHY are we in the business?
- WHERE are we today?
- WHERE do we want to be in the future?
- WHAT are the opportunities?
- HOW do we seize the opportunities?
- HOW do we react to gaps between actions and
The SMP process was designed for and used
by the corporate strategy team, which was composed of the CEO,
his executive team, and some key business and technology professionals.
This small group, except for the Environment Scan, carried out
all SMP process steps. The result of SMP was a set of documents
that covered the territory described in the list above.
The SMP Environment Scan, the key event to
gather information about the company's internal and external
environment was conducted as a two-day Open Space event in which
85 people participated. This event was structured around the
- The key question: "What do we know about
us and our environment today and where do we want to be in the
- Twelve questions, developed by the executive
team in a smaller Open Space prior to the Environment Scan
After sharing this framing in the opening
ceremony, the event followed the principles and laws of Open
Space. The initial twelve questions were expanded to eighteen
and the group self-organized into smaller groups to answer the
questions (listed here).
Questions with internal focus
- What are our weaknesses?
- What are our strengths?
- What competencies will we need in the future?
- What are/will be our sustainable competitive
- How will we attract/retain the employees
and talent we need?
- What is obvious? (No-brainers actions)
- How do we decide what customer to listen
to for direction and how do we listen and respond?
- How do we increase positive corporate visibility?
- How can we pro-actively leverage a combination
of our product lines?
- Which management system/structure is conducive
to our success? How do we use organization to achieve business
Questions with external focus (customers and
- What will our customer software needs be
in the future?
- What challenges will our customers face in
- What solutions will our customers need in
- What are the emerging trends that will impact
- What will the competition be in the future?
- What are potential threats to us?
- Who are our future customers?
- What are the adjacent market spaces/products
we might add?
During the Environmental Scan event, each
group documented its results in a very simple form and presented
them to the entire group at the end of each day. By the end of
the event a 120-page document was created and made available
to all participants within 24 hours. Within two days, the group
had covered a wide area of concerns, covering both internal and
external areas. The document is still a valuable resource today.
Its usefulness would even be higher, had customers, industry
analysts and others taken part in its creation.
Later, SMP created implementation plans and
spelled out ownership. It did this, in part, because all formal
process owners, i.e. Product Development, Sales, Marketing, Human
Resources, etc. participated from the beginning. Several results
of SMP, such as a better understanding of the structure of our
markets and corporate focus on certain industry segments, were
Partial success also can be claimed for linking
the financial goals developed during SMP with the actual Annual
Financial Plan. One big success was probably the marketing and
image campaign that resulted from a deeper understanding of how
much the company was really known (and unknown?) in its environment.
Other factors played a role, too. Again, action
happened because the results of SMP complemented what the formal
organization was also discovering on its own. Both sides compounded
the need for action, and therefore something happened.
Customer Council for Strategic Direction
In early 1998 the company took a real leap
of confidence. For the first time we opened the conversation
about the future of our markets and ourselves to the participation
of customers, academia and close business partners. A formal
business event combined with Open Space provided the framework.
The latter was imbedded inside the formal meetings with the intent
that both forms would not interfere with each other. Two days
of the three-day event were totally dedicated to Open Space.
Only the Open Space event will be described here.
As is the case in all Open Space events, there
was no preset agenda, except for a trigger question. The question
The Future Role of Information Technology in "Making and
Moving" Digital Product Information; Local and Global Perspectives
had been communicated in the invitation. After "opening
the space", which included the explanation of the process,
the agenda was created by the group in less than one hour. The
group then self-organized in sub-groups, with all participants
attending the sessions that they felt most passionate about.
It is worth sharing that the group consisted of eighteen very
senior industry leaders from around the world.
In the sub-group meetings, the observation
work happened in multiple forms. Informal conversation, formal
presentations of material that individual members had brought
in anticipation of topics they wanted to talk about, and creative
brainstorming were used at different times. The diversity of
the groups enabled the creation of a rich web of information.
This was further enhanced by the seniority of the CCSD members,
ensuring that the groups addressed the key areas of today' business
and technology challenges.
Each day we provided space to share results,
insights and observations of the different sub-groups. All sessions
were recorded online using a laptop. This provided the opportunity
to share the results with all attendees directly after the conference
was over. We used a local overnight printing service to provide
draft copies of the results.
The Learning Experience
Looking across all six of our strategic initiatives,
the most puzzling experience in all initiatives was the fact
that the implementation of the plans broke down during the action
stage. Although something happened as the result of each of the
major activities, the significant recommendations were never
implemented. It is also impossible to state the success of the
pieces actually implemented, because no consistent way of measuring
was considered seriously by any of the plans. However, a few
positive results can still be reported:
- Whenever the plan pointed to something that
was already considered in the respective decision-maker's mind,
it was used to reinforce momentum for this activity.
- Whenever real insight and understanding was
gained, independent of whether or not it translated into action,
the new knowledge became part of the ongoing strategic conversation.
- At times, with no direct causal relationship
to a specific strategic planning document, this knowledge would
resurface, (sometimes named differently) and result in appropriate
Another, positive effect, is the growing awareness
throughout the organization, of the inconsistencies of plans
and actions. The shared awareness of our repeated breakdown in
the action phases has helped the company to be more aware of
its weaknesses and the underlying causes. The expanding awareness
is fuelled by an increasing corporate-wide desire to understand
the environment and the company as clearly as possible. This
search for the truth has surfaced several deeply rooted challenges
and tensions that the organization continues to wrestle with,
- Creating balance between the sales organization's
tendency toward "being driven by customer demand" and
the planning organization's attempts to "strategically directing
one's own fate";
- The understanding that organizational change
can only happen based on individual change;
- The negative impact that collective memory
loss and missing alignment have on market momentum.
Being driven and directing one's own fate,
balancing sales and planning
When the commitment of the sales organization
to fulfill potential customers needs, even when the available
product lacks some of the promised capabilities, consistently
wins out over the commitment of the planning process/organization
to independently determine long-term direction based on market
understanding and creative innovation, it becomes a truly vicious
cycle, preventing the organization from building the positive
product momentum required for long-term success and survival.
At times, however, the momentum of the sales
organization can save the organization from gaps in the long-term
planning process. In early 1996, during the last meeting of the
strategic planning process, all corporate support for the recommendations
had faltered. No other strategic initiative was planned for 1996.
But despite this unsatisfactory situation, the strong influence
of an extremely large contract the sales side of the company
had won in late 1995 propelled the company through 1996 and into
the major leagues of our industry.
Fulfillment of this contract and operational
excellence were of the utmost importance during that time. Fortunately,
the expectations set by this contract were strongly aligned with
the basic recommendations of the failed strategic planning process
and strategy implementation became largely synonymous with implementing
this contract. So where's the problem? Only that we did not fully
appreciated this possibility and that, even today, we still struggle
to accept our co-dependence on our markets and customers.
Individual and Organizational Change
It is a tragic illusion to assume that we
can change others without changing ourselves. This misunderstanding
seems to be related to a shift in the fundamentals of our thinking
more than 300 years ago. The mechanistic view of the world, initiated
by Newton and enforced by the industrial revolution of the 19th
and 20th century, has created a mindset that separates planning
from doing. This mental model, aided by specialization, contributes
to an unspoken reality, where only certain people have to change,
while others are exempt. But the emergence of knowledge work,
distributed worldwide and linked in a network fashion, is challenging
Any change in such a dynamic environment,
where formal power and control are undermined by dynamic realities,
will depend on voluntary, individual change first. One encouraging
observation, across all six of our initiatives, is that this
individual change actually does happen, when it is invited and
given some space to unfold.
Momentum, Alignment, and Memory
Alignment is a prerequisite to build momentum
and reduce friction. Alignment must be system-wide. Actions need
to be aligned with plans and people need to be aligned with the
organization's vision. One very positive experience of alignment
was the annual kick-off event in 1996, where the possibility
for momentum emerged out of the consistency of the presentations,
reinforcing the theme that previous strategic planning efforts
had brought to life. Unfortunately this event was a rare exception.
All of this said, we should not forget that
true learning and change also took place. Gradually, in each
initiative the number of action steps actually implemented, increased.
Shared insight and understanding started to appear throughout
Our journey over the last four years can be
described as evolutionary, moving from the hierarchical model
of management making plans and employees executing them, to a
more participatory model, where plans and actions are done by
the people based on knowledge and not on formal status. This
is consistent with organizational trends observed in highly successful
companies in many knowledge-driven industries. In particular
the following insights that shape the ongoing strategic conversations
- The diversity of environment and organization
is best captured if the whole system participates in the observation
- Any constraints put on the observation stage
results in bias. Automatically these biases work like filters
further reducing the capability to see what really happens.
- Insight gained while the whole system is
present has the potential to become part of the organization's
culture. This makes resistance to follow-on plans and actions
The experience of the past four years is changing
the way we think about what is important to sustain our organizational
existence. Changes, impacting our corporate identify, seem to
emerge in several areas, among them:
- A shift from technology-centric to market-centric
- A broadening of our value system, from individual
contribution to team (collective) contribution.
- An understanding of interdependence, within
the organization and between the organization and its environment
In summary, we are in a state of change. We
are embracing the needs of our markets, and allowing those needs
to guide our innovative spirit. We are broadening what we value,
adding team recognition to the existing focus on individuals.
We are developing an understanding for interdependence, within
the organization as well as between the organization and its
environment. And finally, we are realizing that we can not walk
away from our own insights. By keeping the conversations about
our identity and our future alive, actual change is happening.
This is not a bad place to be.
© Copyright 1998 by Uwe Weissflog.