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Want Engaged Employees? Start Drawing Pictures

— The Key to Engagement Lies in Democratizing Systems Thinking —

An interviewer once asked Bruce, my friend and co-author, what he now knows about business that he wished he knew when he first started working. Here is how Bruce replied:


I wish I had known about business modeling. So many organizations I worked for remained an operating mystery for months after starting my job, because nobody could explain the big picture. All they could offer was a job description and an organization chart. I and other employees by the hundreds wasted valuable time blundering about until we finally figured out how things worked.


Much has changed in the decades since Bruce started working full-time. Yet even today, when guiding employees, many organizations over-rely on organization charts and job descriptions.


There are two problems with job descriptions. First, what we call a “job” is more than a collection of independent tasks executed each day in a linear fashion. Rather, it is an interdependent role a person plays within a particular system. And all systems behave in non-linear fashion.


Second, few people can understand even a simple system without an easily understood visual diagram of that system. Such a diagram lets people see key parts of a system “happening” all at once: that is, all of its interrelated elements working in their non-linear way.


The best diagram we have found for depicting enterprise systems is the Business Model Canvas, invented by Yves Pigneur and Alexander Osterwalder and described in the 2010 bestseller Business Model Generation. With a little training, anyone can learn to use this Canvas to create the “big picture” of how a particular enterprise operates.  A well-drawn Canvas is like an architectural blueprint that ordinary people can understand. In contrast, an organization chart is merely an authority tree that shows nothing about how things work.

When I worked with Alex and Yves as editor and contributing co-author of Business Model Generation, I was taken with Alex’s call to use business models to “democratize strategy.” The idea was that understanding strategy and how it is executed is the concern of all employees, not just those in the boardroom or strategy group.

But that is a tough thing to do, for a simple reason: relatively few employees deal directly with the external customers that are the focus of a strategy. Instead, most employees serve internal customers. This is particularly true of support functions such as accounting, logistics, IT, and human resources. These employees need to see how they and their internal customers fit into the larger enterprise model. They need an interdependent systems view — but one that shows them specifically how they contribute to the overarching strategy. The way to achieve that is to democratize systems thinking by defining and sharing business models at both the enterprise and team level.

Business modeling with the Canvas can be learned quickly and used locally in small teams, larger groups, or enterprise-wide. Some leaders use it to launch every new program or project, or to orient new employees. Others apply it to strategic enterprise planning or to M&A work.


Leaders at every level face a choice: take the default approach and let people discover the organization’s business model by blundering around until they figure it out. Or, be intentional and show them how the organization really works — and how they fit in.


Tim Clark and Bruce Hazen are the authors, most recently, of Business Models for Teams: See How Your Organization Really Works and How Each Person Fits In (Portfolio/Penguin).

© 2018 Business Model You, LLC.

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