The Challenge Network

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We tailor our workshops to meet individual needs. An idealised structure runs as is shown in the figure, implying at least two meetings. Preliminary discussions define the issues, which are often a highly specific. These send us down branches that are explored below: the business environment, strategy, innovation. Early discussion also picks the right attendees. The first meeting ("issue definition") starts from eh very general, aiming to isolate around five themes that need further development. These themes are the issues surfaces that are both the most urgent and which hold the greatest potential to contribute to success and failure. Independent teams - within the organisation, sub-contracted to expert groups, carried out by the Network in conjunction with one or the other of these - report back to a second meeting. This synthesises what has been heard and finds a way to communicate its key messages to targets that it defines within the organisation. Either with or without the Network's assistance, this communication is then undertaken under the endorsement of senior management. Naturally, we liaise frequently with senior management throughout the project, so that they can steer the project and stop unfortunate trends in it.

Our workshops usually follow a path which is similar to the figure, above. This format is modified to meet specific needs, as shown by the buttons on the right.

The business environment
Strategic insight and options
Innovation and renewal

In addition, we offer training courses that range for innovation management to scenario and strategic planning. These have a minimum length of1-2 days, but give the greatest benefit when participants can take more time to practice each of the modules that are described. We have run these courses with great success in parallel with some of the workshops described below. Relevant people are both formally instructed and allowed to participate in the management of these activities. At the end of a process, the skills have been transferred, and they are able to take on the role within the organisation.

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Business environment.

Organisations often ask us for general talks about the changing world in order to open up debate. We are happy to give these (more here) but, in our experience, unless the organisation has a tradition of such debate they often diffuse their efforts, or recycle received wisdom.

In our experience, the most productive route involves some pre-discussion and interviews, in order to understand the issues that face the organisation. These are integrated into a broad presentation, both making it relevant and expressing the issues in ways which the audience will find familiar. We then move directly into mapping peoples' reaction to this, clustering concepts into broad centres of weight. Teams are then invited to debate these issues in break out sessions, and to feed back their analysis. A period of plenary critique then brings out the issues that the meeting finds serious and directly pertinent. We often end on a ranking exercise, whereby the relative importance of the issues is defined in several dimensions: impact, urgency, uncertainty and so forth. The workshop then ends with a natural agenda.

In a multi-workshop format, these agenda items are expanded by individual teams, and team reports to a second workshop give more detail and substance to earlier concerns. At the end of this second workshop, everyone will have acquired a great deal of knowledge about important areas on which they do not normally focus, from economic issues to changing society, regulatory law or competitive change.

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Strategic options.

Strategy is not something that outsiders should create for an organisation. That is the business of senior management. What we aim to achieve is a series of pertinent conversations between knowledgeable groups and senior management. To be relevant, however, we need to acquire insight as to the dynamics and concerns of the organisation, and we begin with an interview process. Senior sponsors define a list of people whose opinions they value - including their colleagues and external figures, such as non-executive directors, retired individuals and people whose opinion they value. We spend around an hour with each of these, under conditions of strict non-attributability.

The interviews use specific techniques to explore individual views. These are reduced to free standing ideas and sorted without reference to their origin. The workshop begins with a presentation of what we seen as the grand issues facing the industry as a whole, and this organisation in particular. (We have used a commercial model throughout this description. However, all of this applies equally to state and nonprofit organisations.) This leads directly into a digest of the interview statements, sorted both to match these issues and by the degree to which senior staff agree and do not agree.

We move into a session which first, asks participants to react to what they have heard. We use a structured format to prevent this becoming overwhelmed by single voices, or descending into turmoil. We then move into gap analysis: of what we have not heard, of issues that did not attract significant comment, of blind spots. The outcome of this is brought under several headings, and teams assigned to these for break out. As may be expected, these report back, there is debate and a prioritisation of the key issues.

Some organisations prefer to end at this point, and work through the issues internally. Others prefer a more structured approach, which si very similar to the format described under the heading of 'business environment'. This consists of setting up independent teams to pursue the key issues that have been identified, often less to answer the questions that they pose than to define those questions better. "We have a problem with how to deal with regulation. What models exist for handling this?" These teams report back, either to another workshop or separately to the board or similar structure. In either case, the deliverable from the meeting consists of a definition of the problem - that is, not "we have a problem with regulatory affairs", but "the problem that we have is this, and what we are going to do about it is that."

A broader kind of answer is also possible, This is not, however, going to come out of one or two meetings. This consists of the overall direction of the organisation, expressed in terms of a "space" that is spanned by the key issues ("dimensions") that have been surfaced. Very often, these dimensions refer more to the industry than to the organisation itself: "how are we, as producers of popular music, going to handle distribution in the age of the Internet?" This space is often a plane - the classical matrix, with the organisation represented as a point, or a scatter of points. The competition are other points, differentiated by for example market share or cost structure. Change represents a sort of "wind" blowing across this space - from less retail to more Internet sales, for example - and the firm needs to find a destination that plays to its strengths, is affordable, generates the required cash and profitability. Achieving this, and getting these ideas into the organisation, is what makes and organisation truly "strategic".

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Innovation and idea management.

Our workshops recognise that innovation has three enemies: ignorance of potential, muddle about goals and weakness in implementation. The substance of innovation - this gadget, that way of acting - is actually much easier to generate than the framework that allows this to bloom.

Taken an example: let's say that the public are concerned by maintaining their privacy when using the telephone. Given that, it is not hard to think of technical ways of delivering this. There may be technical issues in delivering this, but they are usually a part of the organisation's core and easily overcome. In essence, engineers are presented with a functional specification, and get on with doing their job. The real difficulty in innovation is arriving at that specification: what would our customers recognise as a part of our brand? Is this where the organisation wants to go? How does it fit with current suppliers and retailers? Does the organisation have the resources, and will shareholders recognise this initiative as useful or risky?

Innovation workshops are, therefore, more an exploration of these elements than they are a hot-bed of new technical ideas. Ideally, they iterate, so that the first workshop defines areas of uncertainty. These are filled in by teams, or by our staff. Some time later, a second workshop hears the outcome of this work, and moves a lot closer to being able to talk with technical and other specialists. That is, whilst technical generalists have worked in the earlier stages, now the insight is put to highly focused people, who give their views and suggestions. It is during this unpredictable phase that light bulbs go on over heads: "Oh! That's what that means! You can <i>do</i> that?".

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