From Vinegar to Fine Wine

I love analogies because they require us to express and see our thoughts in a different way. I use the “Vinegar to Fine Wine” tool with groups that are clarifying their mission. The tool was shared with me by a colleague, Bruce Klatt, years ago and I do not know its source.

A clear mission statement describes the purpose, role or “raison d’être” of a group or organization. If well written, the mission clarifies what a group or organization does and, conversely, does not do.

The “Vinegar to Fine Wine” tool can be used after the mission statement is developed to draw out what the group will NOT do (vinegar), will do as a tertiary activity for political or social responsibility reasons (water) or will do on an opportunistic basis (milk).

The results of this dialogue could be visualized as a bullseye with the group’s mission (fine wine) as a large circle at the centre surrounded by a smaller ring of activities which the group would do on an opportunistic basis (milk) surrounded by a third ring of  activities the group might do on an occasional basis for political or social reasons (water).

Much like how projects can lose focus and “creep” beyond their terms of reference, groups can experience “mission creep”. The “Vinegar to Fine Wine” tool can be very helpful in getting a group back on track.


Five Participative Processes to Develop Your Vision

Here are my beliefs with respect to visioning:

  • It is more important to have a vision than a vision statement.
  • A vision is best developed through a series of reflective and generative steps (“a process”) and not by simply discussing, “What should our vision be?”
  • Ultimately it is the leader’s or leadership team’s responsibility to develop the vision.
  • A vision is nothing unless it is shared and lived by everyone in the organization (and potentially suppliers and community members too).
  • The best way to ensure a vision is shared is to engage others in the development.

Given these beliefs, the next question becomes “How do you involve stakeholders in developing a vision?”  The following ideas are drawn from my experience facilitating visioning processes for large and small groups.

To set the stage, I share the definition and purpose of a vision, and provide examples:

  • A richly imagined desired future state
  • Your hopes for what your organization will do, have and be in the future
  • A state that is significantly better than today, but more than a solution to today’s issues
  • A stretch but possible
  • Not prescriptive. There should be many ways to achieve the vision.
  • Visual – you can see and imagine it.
  • Emotionally appealing

Participants add to the discussion sharing their own examples of powerful visions.

Then participants work in small groups to develop a vision. Five processes I have found to be engaging and effective are:

  1. From Me to We

Participants write their individual vision, pair up, share and find common ground. The pairs pair up, share and find common ground. Groups of 4 pair up, share and find common ground. Continue pairing until you have 3 – 5 groups. Each group records the key vision ideas they share on a flipchart. Flipcharts are posted like a gallery. The facilitator helps the large group find the common elements across groups.

  1. A Day in the Life

Using guided imagery, the large group “time travels” to a date in the future. The facilitator asks them to imagine what is different. Participants write ideas on post it notes. In small groups, participants cluster ideas and then write a short story or paragraph, “A Day in the Life of (Organization X) in Year (Y)”. Each group shares its story. The facilitator helps the large group find the common elements across the stories.

  1. Timeline (Past, Present, Future) (inspired by the Future Search process)

The facilitator explains the timeline process where participants build a shared understanding of key events that have shaped the organization from the past, where the organization is today, and the future desired state. The facilitator posts a long timeline on the wall divided by years from the founding of the organization through the present day and extending as far as the group wishes to envision. In small groups, participants write ideas on post it notes and then place the ideas at the appropriate places on the timeline. The facilitator helps the large group identify the key elements in the past, present and future.

  1. SOAR 

SOAR is an appreciative or strengths-based approach to visioning and planning where participants identify current STRENGTHS, external OPPORTUNITIES, ASPIRATIONS (which is visioning), and then RESULTS. Small groups work together on each of these steps. The facilitator helps the large group find the common elements in each step.

  1. Collage

In small groups, participants use magazines and art materials to collectively build pictures and headlines that illustrate the desired future state. Each small group talks about their collage, and everyone listens for key words or phrases used by the presenter or evoked by the images. The facilitator helps the large group identify key phrases that are common across the groups.

All of these processes build from individual ideas, which are then clustered into vision elements, which are the foundation for writing a vision statement.

A visioning session may end when the vision elements have been identified, or with small groups drafting vision statements that honor the vision elements. The leadership team may take away the vision elements and/or draft vision statements and reach consensus on the final vision statement. Some organizations further summarize the vision statement to a motto or tagline, which can be used for marketing and branding purposes.

Participative visioning processes enable participants to see their “fingerprints” in the evolution of the vision statement. Participants are therefore more likely to understand, accept and support the vision. Participative visioning also provides a depth of data and robustness to the vision statement itself. There is no need for any leader to bear the pressure of developing a vision on his or her own.






Quotes for Strategic Planning

I can’t fully explain why I love quotes so much, but I find them invaluable as I facilitate strategic planning sessions. Quotes are succinct and summarize key points in the planning process in ways that add insight, and sometimes humor. I try to remember good quotes so I can spontaneously use them at the right occasion. Here are a few of my favorites:

 Strategic Planning

 “Plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.” Dwight Eisenhower

“In the face of uncertainties, planning defines the particular place you want to be and how you intend to get there.” Peter Drucker

“To achieve great things, two things are needed: a plan, and not quite enough time.” Leonard Bernstein


Where there is no vision, the people perish.” Proverbs 29:18

“Vision is the art of seeing things invisible.” Jonathan Swift

“When I was growing up I always wanted to be someone. Now I realize I should have been more specific.” Lily Tomlin

Strategic Priorities

“If you have more than 3 priorities then you don’t have any.” Jim Collins


Strategy is not about competing for the present, but competing for the future. It’s about understanding that non-linear change means anticipating & appealing to customer discontinuity.” Vijay Gvindarajan

“The essence of strategy is choosing what not to do.” Michael Porter

“A great strategy is born of constraint.” Terry O’Reilly


“A goal should scare you a little, and excite you A LOT.” Joe Vitale

“A goal is a dream with a deadline.” Ken Blanchard

 Action Plans

“When it is obvious that the goals cannot be reached, don’t adjust the goals, adjust the action steps.” Confucius


 “However beautiful the strategy, you should occasionally look at the results.”  Winston Churchill

It turns out there is a name for people like me who love quotes – a quodophile!  Happy quote collecting.

Thinking about Systems Change

Early in my career, I taught and believed change was a linear process. Implicit was the idea that we could plan, organize and control change as well. My views changed as I was exposed to systems and systemic change.

One of my first exposures was reading Margaret Wheatley’s Leadership and the New Science. For the first time, I saw organizations and communities as living organisms best understood through scientific lenses such as biology, chaos theory and quantum physics. I didn’t (and still don’t) grasp all the concepts, but I understood you cannot “change manage” a system.

I attended a talk by Peter Senge who, to explain systems, said, “When you flush, it goes somewhere.” Now this I could understand, and it made me think about the ripple effects over distance and time that change can create, as well as unintended consequences.

I had the honor of attending a training program in Orlando led by Dr. Deming. Understanding Systems was one of the four pillars of his System of Profound Knowledge. Rather than organizational charts, we used systems maps to understand organizations. I learned a system:
• Consists of inter-related and interacting parts
• Exists in an environment with which it also interacts
• Has a purpose or “aim”
• Is ever changing and needs to managed effectively
• If parts of a system compete or strive for optimal performance on their own, the performance of the whole system suffers and this is called sub-optimization.

Deming’s famous Red Bead Exercise reinforced powerful learnings such as:
• If you pit a good person against a bad system, the system will win every time.
• If you change out the people without changing the system, you will not change the results.

At a practical level, when I work with an organization, I start with a systems lens and the premise that the organization is perfectly operating as a system to get the results it is getting. In other words, the structures, policies, processes and relationships inside and outside the organization are interacting to produce the current organizational outcomes. To improve outcomes, you need to approach change through a systems lens.

How do you do that? These Seven Lessons for Leaders in System Change are helpful:
1. To promote systems change, foster community and cultivate networks.
2. Work at multiple levels of scale.
3. Make space for chaos and self-organization.
4. Seize breakthrough opportunities when they arise.
5. Facilitate – but give up the illusion you can direct – change.
6. Assume that change is going to take time.
7. Be prepared to be surprised.

Systems change is not for the feint of heart.

Do you mean what I mean?

We vacationed in San Jose Del Cabo this winter. One day as we sat by the pool, an older gentleman started talking with my husband. I noticed a lady sitting and watching nearby. I went over and asked, “Is that your husband talking with my husband ?” “No”, she said, “I am his traveling companion”.

Well, that had me stumped. What exactly is a traveling companion, I wondered? We talked about other things but that interaction has haunted me, and made me think about the power of language.

Let me explain. Had she replied “Yes, that is my husband”, I would have immediately “checked off a box” in my mind, saying to myself, “Yes, husband and wife, just like Gary and me”. Instead, her precise and provocative language caused me to think and invited many questions (which I did not ask at the time).

Language has the potential to open up dialogue and at the same time, language can dull the mind. In our busy lives, language can be a form of shorthand, where we hear one word and like a magnet, the word draws all sorts of assumptions and meanings in our mind, which we do not take the time to test. How often have you been in meetings discussing “engagement”, “accountability”, “leadership”, etc. without checking whether everyone shares the same meaning?

Dave Snowden, an expert in social systems complexity, describes how he and his colleagues worked on a body of theory and practice for over two decades and named it “Cynefin” deliberately to ensure this work would not be easily dismissed as a “decision support matrix” or another “theory of change”. But do we have to go so far as to make up new words to prompt dialogue and clarification? I don’t think so.

Language in the workplace can be a minefield of misunderstandings. We can take simple steps to ensure we are aligned:
• Do not assume that you associate the same meaning to words that others do.
• Ask, “Tell me more…” to seek to understand others. And then share your perspective.
• Develop glossaries.

A spirit of inquiry will serve you well.

Psychological Safety

Many companies begin each meeting with a Safety Share to highlight safety risks in the environment. As a facilitator, I am equally concerned about ensuring the psychological safety of participants. Psychologically safe participants feel accepted and respected, and are willing to take risks.

I have learned not to underestimate the anxiety created in high-risk meetings. Will I be ridiculed or ostracized for my opinions? Will I come across as competent? Will people turn a blind eye to bullying and harassment that has become commonplace under the guise of humor? Will there be retribution later? For these and other reasons, I am committed to creating a psychologically safe environment.

Psychological safety starts with my contact with participants in advance of a facilitated session. In my one-on-one interviews, I ensure people know what they share with me is in confidence. Interviews help me prepare for the group dynamics and I coach each person to raise issues to the degree they feel comfortable.

To create a safe and productive environment at the start of sessions, I propose groundrules or rules of engagement such as:

  • Every person participates. No one person dominates.
  • Focus on the issue, not the person.
  • Respect each other’s views.
  • One person speaks at a time.
  • It’s okay to disagree but not to be disagreeable.
  • Peel the onion – go beyond superficial comments.
  • What’s said in this room, stays in this room (like Vegas).

I set the expectation that we all share responsibility for the quality of the dialogue and results of the session.

I use processes to “discuss the undiscussables” in a safe and respectful way. Depending on the dynamics, I might:

  • Post a summary of the themes I heard in the interviews.
  • Use “eyes closed” voting and then display the results to get the reality in the room visible to all.
  • Use a talking stick to ensure each person has an opportunity to be heard in their own way and at their own pace.
  • Call a pause after an emotional moment to enable people to reflect, recover and recommit.
  • Intervene to balance the power dynamics.

I am mindful of the wellbeing of the group and each individual. I have found the guidelines for the guardian’s role in the Circle Way by PeerSpirit very helpful.

Psychological safety is about driving out fear and enabling all parties to have the discussions they need to have in a productive manner. Work safely, my friends.

Facilitation as Improv

I am so thankful that my parents were never concerned about what I would do with a drama degree. Theatre, specifically improvisation, has turned out to be the perfect foundation for my career as a facilitator.

Each time I facilitate, I have an audience (participants), a place to perform (meeting facility) and a loose script (agenda). But then, the magic happens as I attune myself to the energy in the room, and work off unplanned inputs and events. Success depends on me being fully present and in the moment.

The rules of improv easily apply to facilitation. For example, consider how facilitators could apply these Commandments for Improv:

  1. We are all supporting actors.
  2. Always check your impulses.
  3. Never enter a scene unless you are NEEDED.
  4. Your prime responsibility is to support.
  5. Work at the top of your brains at all times.
  6. Never underestimate or condescend to your audience.
  7. Trust… trust your fellow actors to support you; trust them to come through if you lay something heavy on them; trust yourself.
  8. Avoid judging except in terms of whether a situation needs help, what can best follow, or how you can support it imaginatively.

Canada is blessed with great improv institutions such as Second City in Toronto  and Loose Moose in my hometown of Calgary. The benefits of learning improv include:

  • Increased confidence
  • Improved public speaking skills
  • More comfort in social settings
  • Refined brainstorming abilities
  • Improved listening and observation skills
  • Enhanced creative-thinking abilities
  • Improved decision-making skills

So improv artists, a second career in facilitation awaits you. And facilitators, improv can help deepen your craft. As they say in the Green Room, go break a leg.

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