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.

Best Practices For Implementing Your Strategic Plan

Is your strategic plan sitting on a shelf, forgotten and disconnected from your business? Much like the day after the birth of a baby, many Boards invest time in a strategic planning retreat, only to have no plan for the day after. The following are best practices I have seen to keep the plan alive, relevant and instrumental to an organization’s success.

To ensure the plan is “ever green”:
• Administration provides regular written updates to the Board of progress against the plan.
• The Board reviews and, if necessary, revises the plan on an annual basis or sooner if there is a major disruption in the sector/industry.
• The Board plans with a “blank sheet approach” every 3 – 5 years.
• The plan is cascaded into the CEO’s or Executive Director’s annual objectives.

To ensure the Board stays focused at the strategic level:
• The Board approves the plan (strategic priorities and long term goals), and instructs Administration to finalize action plans, timelines and metrics as well as incorporate the plan into the budget and work planning processes.
• Board member(s) take on the role of “Champion” for specific strategic priorities. Champions do not do the work of Administration. Champions ensure progress is made against the goals of the strategic priority, act as a sounding board for Administration, and raise the strategic priority as a test or filter for Board decisions.
• Agendas are formatted using the strategic priorities. Board members question agenda items that do not directly relate to strategic priorities.
• Board meetings are “themed” throughout the year to focus on a specific strategic priority.
• A visual with the vision, mission, values, strategic priorities and long-term goals is posted at every Board meeting.
• The plan is incorporated in presentations, materials and “elevator speeches” to educate and involve external stakeholders.

Happy Implementation!

Trust the Process

I see the world through a process lens, and know that not everyone does. By “process”, I mean proven, reliable methods that can help you achieve a desired outcome.  The judicial system, for instance, is built on “due process” as is cooking and almost every other aspect of our lives.

I design and facilitate processes to create strategic and business plans. Some of my colleagues call themselves “process artists” which I think is quite apt.

A well-designed process is a beautiful thing. It creates a journey of discovery and learning. Each step engages participants and creates something new, often unanticipated, that feeds into the next step of the process, making the outcomes richer.

What does “trust the process” mean?

  • “Be open to outcome; not attached to outcome.” These worlds come from Angeles Arrien, author of the Four Fold Way.  Keep an open mind and don’t drive to a preconceived outcome.
  • Persevere through the “groan zone” best described by Sam Kaner in his Facilitator’s Guide to Participatory Decision Making. Most people will experience doubt or frustration at some stage in the process because they can’t see how the current step will get them to the desired outcome.  Recognize this as a natural transition time.
  • Accept that some processes can’t be rushed.  As the adage goes, “It takes nine months to create a baby, no matter how many good men you put on the job”.

This might be a lot to ask people who have been subjected to painful, bureaucratic processes, forced to go through unnecessary hoops, or follow a process for process’ sake.

“Trusting the process” assumes that the process has been well designed by a creative and competent facilitator who is truly focused on achieving your objectives.

Assessing the Current State

In his best seller, Good to Great, Jim Collins says that one of the key differentiators of great companies is their ability to “confront the brutal facts, yet never lose faith”. For effective strategic planning, a brutally honest current state assessment provides important baseline information.

Use of facts and data
Ideally, the current state assessment is built on facts and data, rather than perceptions. Balanced scorecard results, customer and employee satisfaction surveys, financial results, market share data, and organizational audits are invaluable at this stage in the planning process. Data and trends over time provide more meaningful information than snapshot statistics. Data on how the organization has performed compared to competitors or best in class will ensure the assessment is not colored by “internal group think”.

The most common method for assessing the current state is the SWOT analysis where the following aspects of the organization and its external environment are assessed:
• Strengths (Internal) – current capabilities or assets within the organization that provide a significant advantage over competitors in the marketplace
• Weaknesses (Internal) – deficiencies or absences in organizational capabilities that result in less than desired performance or impede progress towards strategic goals. Some groups prefer to call these Challenges (SCOT).
• Opportunities (External) – events, or circumstances in the external environment that an organization could capitalize on to advance its own strategic agenda
• Threats (External) – events or actions in the external environment and outside of the organization’s control that could negatively impact the organization’s performance, viability or growth

Common Pitfalls and Preventions
• Using the “opportunities” discussion to “sneak in” proposed improvements and initiatives that should come later in the planning process. To avoid this pitfall, ensure the discussion focuses on what is happening “externally” to which your organization can choose to “hitch its wagon”.
• SWOT assessment is conducted in too narrow a context i.e. all comments relate to only the marketing or customer perspective. To avoid this pitfall, start with a holistic view of the organization so that participants consider all aspects of organizational performance including employee perspective, process capability, customer relationships, financial performance, etc.

For groups wishing to take an appreciative or strengths-based approach, Dr. Jackie Stavros in conjunction with some of the other founders of Appreciative Inquiry, developed the SOAR framework which couples current state assessment of Strengths and Opportunities, with future oriented Aspirations and Results.

Many groups stop with the lists of strengths, etc. but the most valuable part of the process is the synthesis and assessment. This is where organizations need to reach a conclusion about the state or condition of the organization much like a doctor provides a diagnosis after your annual physical examination, or an investor determines the state of a business before investing.

A helpful tool at this step is for each participant to complete the sentence, “All in all, in my opinion, our organization is (diagnosis)”. Make sure the diagnosis is a judgment, not simply a description of the current state.

Why Plan?

“Plans are nothing; planning is everything.”

Dwight D. Eisenhower

I agree with Dwight. I am always surprised when people question the value of planning. Some ask what’s the point in times of so much uncertainty.  Others who work in government have become cynical about the political forces that trump planned priorities.  A few believe they have a monopoly and therefore have no need to plan.  Others have invested time in planning, only to have plans sit on the shelf providing no value.

In my experience, I have seen the following benefits of planning:

  • Helps an organization be proactive, rather than reactive
  • Helps build cross-organizational support and commitment around how to use limited resources (people, money and time)
  • Helps align activities of everyone in the organization so that energy is not wasted or at cross purposes
  • Helps everyone understand and balance short and long term demands of the business
  • Helps build and share knowledge among employees
  • Helps reduce uncertainty and confusion

The process of planning can build a sense of hope, pride, excitement and control.  It is a rare opportunity for people to raise their heads above the day-to-day challenges and see the forest for the trees.  Planning refuels the head and heart, reconnecting people to their purpose, clients and each other.

So, invest in planning and reap the benefits.

Developing Your Strategic Thinking Skills

Many leaders today find themselves caught in the tactical here and now at the expense of time spent strategically thinking about the future and creating plans to ensure the organization thrives in the future environment.

Strategic thinking is the ability to visualize what might or could be, as well as take a day-to-day, strategic approach to issues and challenges. Strategic thinking skills include:

  • Anticipating future consequences and trends accurately
  • Having broad knowledge and perspective
  • Articulating credible pictures and visions of possibilities
  • Recognizing strategic opportunities
  • Creating competitive and breakthrough strategies and plans

Gary Hamel and C.K. Prahalad in their book, Competing for the Future, offer this “test” of strategic thinking skills. Check the box that best describes your point on view on each continuum.

How does our point of view about the future stack up against that of our competitors?

Conventional and Reactive Distinctive and Far-Sighted


Within the industry, do competitors view our company as more of a rule-maker or rule-taker?

Mostly a rule taker

Mostly a rule maker

What are we better at – improving operational efficiency or creating fundamentally new businesses?

Operational efficiency

Creating new businesses

To what extent has our transformation agenda been set up by competitors’ actions versus being set by our own unique vision of the future?

Largely driven by competitors

Largely driven by our vision

To what extent am I, as a senior manager, a maintenance engineer working on the present or an architect designing the future?

Mostly an engineer

Mostly an architect

Among employees, what is the balance between anxiety and hope?

Mostly anxiety

Mostly hope

If most of your checked boxes are in the middle or to the left, you may be stuck in analytical thinking about the past and/or present, and not devoting sufficient time to creating the future. If most of your checked boxes are on the right, chances are good that your strategic thinking skills are well developed and your company’s “headlights” are shining further out than those of your competitors.

What’s the difference between analytical and strategic thinking?

Analytical thinking

Strategic thinking

  • Breaks things into parts
  • Answers “how”
  • Assumes a mechanical view of the world
  • Is based in an appreciation for “control”
  • Connects parts to a whole
  • Answers “why”
  • Assumes a dynamic systems view of the world
  • Is based in an appreciation for “creation”


The Successful Manager’s Handbook offers these suggestions to further develop your strategic thinking skills:

  1. Stay abreast of the latest trends in your industry.
  2. Assess your competitors’ strengths and weaknesses.
  3. Get up to date on new developments and activities in other parts of your own organization.
  4. Brainstorm with your staff new ideas that could help your organization achieve competitive success.
  5. Spend time visualizing how your organization could increase its profit or market share.
  6. Periodically assess your group’s contribution to achieving corporate goals.
  7. Make it a habit to spend time with others you consider strategic thinkers.



Being of Service

“The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others”.

Mahatma Gandhi 

When I reflect on my work, I realize I have always chosen work that is in service of others.  From my first volunteer experience as a candy striper to my student years working as a waitress to my professional career in management consulting, my calling has always been to meet the needs of others. Far from being altruistic, this work has been my means of finding fulfillment and self-actualization.

Many of my clients are also on this journey: corporations are focusing on customer service; government clients are transforming to be citizen-centric: and, enlightened leaders are evolving to servant leadership.  All are exploring better ways to understand the needs of those they serve, and to find ways to create shared value.

Any strength overdone, however, can become a weakness or liability.  Being of service does not mean saying “yes” to all requests. A clear and compelling vision, mission and set of values provide the framework within which individuals and organizations can be of service to others in a healthy, sustainable way.

Conjunctive Objectives

I am laying claim to this term and betting that you will find it as helpful as I do for strategic planning.

A conjunction is a word that links independent clauses or ideas to form a single sentence. Thanks to Mrs. Egan, my elementary school teacher, for her excellent instruction in grammar.  In the case of setting objectives, the conjunction that is most powerful is “while”.

Consider these objectives:

  • Increase or maintain employee engagement scores at current levels while achieving a 10% reduction in expenses.
  • Grow sales of the new product line by 15% while increasing sales of existing product line by 5%.
  • Increase customer loyalty while maintaining profitability margins.

Conjunctive objectives are akin to Kaplan’s concept of the balanced scorecard.  Success in achieving one objective should not come at the expense of another key element of the strategy.  Conjunctive objectives also reduce employee perception of “competing objectives” because it is clear that both must be achieved.

Technically, “while” is a subordinating conjunction, but I will leave that to the Mrs. Egans of the world to explain.

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