Delivery versus Development

My experience is that many leadership teams do not know how to plan. And this is at a time when planning has never been more important – the ongoing livable conditions on the planet hinge on our plans.

Assumptions can kill you

Many leadership teams assume either one of two things – that the future will be like the present or that the future will be what we want it to be for our strategy to succeed.

My experience is that these assumptions are so dominant that in many organisations it can feel exceedingly difficult to question them; to do so can engender a sense of being a crank or disloyal to the cause. While I know some of those feelings belong to me – I believe that they are widely felt and that they create a pressure to conform that is not only self-defeating, but that allow a huge amount of value – including economic value – to go untapped.

Make sense, challenge, and find a better way

I believe that organisations that excel at making sense of the world as it is, that connect most clearly with reality and that are capable of challenging key assumptions are the ones who will succeed in finding a better way of serving society and making money.

I also believe that the best way – and I think probably the only way – of achieving that level of sense-making is to build a culture where meaningful conversation is routine, a cultural norm. But meaningful and powerful conversations that connect with reality are not commonplace.

Running the business vs changing the business

I believe this is because organisational leaders interpret their responsibility for maintaining the viability of the business as simply ‘running the business’. However, maintaining viability also requires ‘changing the business’. Both must happen in parallel.

As business leaders, if our conversations are solely focused on running the business – our organisation is destined to fade into irrelevance. On the other hand, if our conversations are solely focused on changing the business, ignoring the operational nuts and bolts – the organisation will crash and burn. To use a computing analogy, the leadership team’s performance is a measure of their ability to adapt the operating system while it is using the computer.

This is difficult to do. There is a natural tension between delivery and development. They act in opposition to each other, appealing to different philosophies and preferences. The familiar will want to kill the new:

‘Delivery’ – Running the business‘Development’ – Changing the business
Focus on the urgent – but is it important?


Informed by facts and figures

What happened?

Looking inside the business and the past

Cost control, waste reduction, synergy identification, streamlining, optimise resources

Managing bottlenecks

Focus on the important – it may not be urgent!


Informed by intuition and vision

What will (or needs to) happen?

Looking outside the business and the future

Possibilities, probabilities, opinions, views, speculations and feelings

Releasing bottlenecks

‘Running the business’ is grounded in the here and now. It depends on data from the past. And it can be a relatively comfortable space because it deals with known facts.

In contrast, changing the business is about the world outside the organisation and about the future. And the world outside is much bigger and more complex than the organisation – to the extent that it is essentially unknowable. Because we cannot fact-check our way into this space – we rely on our capacity for intuition, openness and an expansive mindset that can navigate complexity – to sense a way forward through the unknowable.

Where philosophies collide…. alchemy

For effective strategic planning we need to enable these opposing philosophies to meet, to confront each other with their respective truths, enabling a new and more developed sense of meaning to emerge. This is best done as a dynamic dance of ongoing conversation.

Most organisations that I meet find the ‘running the business’ side of the conversation comfortable. It feels normal to them and they and get frustrated and impatient with the perceived messiness of ‘changing the business’.

In a highly unpredictable environment, I believe that it is essential for leadership teams to have the capacity to converse from both perspectives. This capacity is core to alchemical conversations. Such conversations involve looking for images, words and patterns that evoke our senses, not just our grey matter. Processes for evoking this higher level of sense-making include timelines, collages of images, drama, constellations, and physical representations using whatever is available to generate or imagine new perspectives.

Alchemical conversations

These conversations must involve all leadership team. As people engage together to converse and learn about the issues they face, they also develop a clearer concept of their collective identity. They develop the capability to see how their personal patterns, behaviours and assumptions contribute to how they connect with the issue at hand. In challenging their relationship with the issue, new options emerge and a better way forward comes into view.

Such conversations create a beautiful dynamic where the team is addressing the issue, not so much to solve it, but for the issue to solve the team, building grater self-awareness and identity. I believe this is the essence of team capacity building, enabling the emergence of a higher degree of mental complexity to match the complex questions being asked of us by a world in flux.

I remain a curious student of the potential of conversation as a tool for changing the world.

Read about leadership development versus leadership training.

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