Bogged down? Try a blank sheet of paper

Feeling bogged down and frustrated, and worried these are symptoms of a broader malaise in your organization? The blank sheet of paper approach can be a very useful tool to tackle these challenges. After I mentioned this technique to him a few weeks back, my colleague Thom Singer blogged about it, so I thought I’d explain in more detail.

So, what is it?

It’s really very simple – just take a few moments, and a deep breath or two, and think about this question: if your company or organization or division didn’t already exist, how would you design it on a blank sheet of paper? Why does it need to exist? What elements are absolutely critical to it? How do the processes have to work?

Once you have the basics down, you can think about extras or add-ons, but make sure the non-negotiables are in place first. Think boxes and arrows, not lots of words.

Take a good look at what you have on that piece of paper.

(It may look a little alien to you as it’s  drawn – if so, just register that sense and keep going – but come back to it later. It might mean you’ve missed something important, or might just mean that you’re very far from your ideal.)

Then compare it to your actual organization. What are you doing that isn’t on the paper? How are the working relationships different?

Why is that?

And really, that’s it. Just think about the paper vs. reality. What do you see?

Some of the insights this can generate include:

  • Clarifying the critical parts of the organization – the sine qua non, the elements really worth protecting.
  • Seeing the big “immovable” objects you really need to start moving, even if it will take a long time (such as tackling organizational structure, or dependence on a large single revenue source).
  • Deciding to cut products & services that aren’t core for you if they serve as distractions.
  • Identifying who are your most critical collaborators, partners, stakeholders. Who is absolutely critical to your success? What do you need to do to make those relationships stronger?
  • Highlighting key elements of the organizational culture, which need to be either nurtured or fixed.
  • Developing an action plan based on a gap analysis between where you are and your ideal – no matter how big those gaps might be.

Here are some situations where you might want to use this technique:

  • If you have the same conversations over and over again, especially about things that are important or you feel you should be making more progress on.
  • If you’re discussing issues that feel unsolvable.
  • If as a leader you find that identifying issues quickly degenerates into pointless griping and whining (even among people who don’t usually behave that way).
  • If you feel like your thinking about your organization is stale – there’s no fresh set of eyes, and you know you aren’t objective.
  • If issues seem to be frequently turning into “personality conflicts” but in multiple parts of the organization (maybe that’s about the organization, not the people).
  • Generalized frustration without a clear outlet or solution.

In my experience, this isn’t a technique to use in a large group – for simplicity and clarity, and also to avoid political sensitivities complicating the outcome (there are other ways to leverage a larger group for questions of organizational design). Use it on your own, or with a very small group of 2-3 trusted advisors, where you can challenge and debate each other – but where you are confident your interests  are fundamentally aligned in making your organization or company better.

And don’t wait for a planned strategic planning exercise or annual budgeting to do this. If you feel the impetus, go ahead. Maybe bring in a facilitator or coach, or try it on your own. See what it tells you, and where it takes you.

Image credit: “Sharpened pencil next to sheet paper.jpg” by User Thomaseagle on en.wikipedia. Licensed under CC Attribution 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

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