What Do Toast and Strategy Have in Common?

By Erica Olsen

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What Do Toast and Strategy Have in Common?

The correlation between your crunchy breakfast and organizational strategy might not be immediately clear, but the answer to your organization’s most difficult problems could be literally sitting on the plate in front of you – it’s just up to you to butter and serve.

We stumbled on this TED talk by Tom Wujec and it clearly articulates some of our core methodology during planning facilitation.

While we don’t follow his methodology exactly, here’s our three-step breakdown of how this idea works for a strategic planning facilitation:

Step 1: Decide on the Topic, Issue, or Strategic Questions to Answer

It’s absolutely critical to clearly articulate what topic or question your organization is trying to answer. By outlining the task at hand, you’re putting up barriers so your team doesn’t veer to the left and find themselves in the weeds. It’s essential to keep your team flying at the right elevation and focusing on the right topics during this process.

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In Wujec’s video, he has his team draw a diagram on how to make toast. You don’t need to take this step for strategic planning, but it would be wise of you to visually articulate the task at hand. Depending on your organization and meeting space, you can use posters, a slide deck, or handouts – just make sure you’re leaving some visual cue to keep your team focused on the question at hand.

Step 2: Brainstorm Individually

With your question or topic articulated, you can move to having your team thinking about the topic individually. We use sticky notes and note cards so that people can pin-point ideas within a topic or question. As they build their thoughts, insights, and ideas, sticky notes provide the ability to move, rearrange, add, or subtract ideas quickly to help visually synthesize their thoughts, insights, and ideas.

In the toast example, you would create the steps to making toast and then move and arrange them to be most efficient.

In our planning example, you could begin brainstorming different high-level strategic objectives. As you think through different objectives for your organization, you can quickly move, edit, or add sticky notes to flesh out your ideas.

Step 3: Synthesize the Responses as a Group

As the final step in this exercise, come together as a group to synthesize the sticky notes everyone individually created. At first, the process will yield an almost overwhelming amount of stickies and ideas. As the group begins to refine and change the order of the stickies, it will get even messier.

During this step, listen in and moderate conversations as you see fit. It’s important to keep your groups on task, thinking at the right level about the question or task you originally outlined. The group setting will naturally help moderate this, but you may have to gently nudge groups to stay thinking at the right elevation.

As more iterations are completed, the more important ideas and solutions will become clearer and clearer. In tandem, the individuals who complete the exercise start becoming aligned to the solutions or ideas they’re creating. Why? The group exercise allows everyone’s point of view to reach the table and the collaborative effort unpacks the holes in your organization’s strategy or processes.

In the strategic objectives example above, as the group iterates and unpacks different points of views, the organization’s true priorities become clear. At the same time, you might be able to create lower-level objectives, goals, or actions from your remaining sticky notes that relate to the objectives your group has set. Here, even lower-level thinking can be leveraged to support the planning process.

But, Beware of Burnt Toast

We use this exercise as a standard practice during our planning process. It can be applied to almost any planning exercise – mission statements, SWOT analysis, KPI development, goal setting, etc. But, its success hinges on keeping your team focused, flying at the right-thinking elevation, and completing these exercises within a given time period.

It’s easy to get lost in the weeds, so just be aware of this notion as you use this technique –otherwise, you’ll find yourself amidst a pile of useless sticky notes eating charcoaled, burnt toast.



Erica Olsen

Erica Olsen is the COO and a co-founder of OnStrategy. She has developed the format and the user interface for the award-winning OnStrategy on-line strategic management system. In addition, she is the author of Strategic Planning Kit for Dummies, 2nd Edition. Erica has developed and reviewed hundreds of strategic plans for public and private entities across the country and around the world. She is a lecturer at University of Nevada Reno and University of Phoenix. She holds a BA in Communications and an MBA in International Management.

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