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How to Win the Exploration Stage

We learned from the post Barriers to Problem solving that we can get in our own way. Negative reactions to problems that influence our objectivity, bias' that taint our neutrality, and our natural tendency to view the symptoms as the problem. In this post, we will walk through our exploration stage to provide even more detail about our process.

In the exploration stage we work to analyze the situation from a performance impact perspective. We seek to overcome biases, influences, and the typical responses to negative situations that tie into our natural reaction to challenges. A typical approach begins with a gap analysis - focusing on closing gaps that demonstrate negative consequences. We tend to lean on a problem solving mentality and this can cause resistance, rather than enthusiasm, around creative ways of thinking. It can become an avoidance approach, focused on avoiding the negative results that a problem generates instead of looking through the lens of diagnosis or examination. Now it doesn't mean we don't focus on problems, especially in critical situations where rapidly deteriorating circumstances exist, solving problems is critical, but by itself, it is insufficient (Morgan, Levitt, Malek, 2007).

The steps in this stage are akin to a chief investigator at a crime scene. Collecting evidence, asking questions, analyzing the environment, looking for traces of evidence that assist us in better revealing the situation. The evidence collected gives us an impression of where to go next in the pursuit of the situation. Who to talk with? What have they done? How have they done it? What impact does it have on the business? What has worked? What hasn't? How do we know? These series of questions and discussions are pivotal in how we uncover the situation and get past the surface. We are curious and we use questions as a way to lead the discussion. I like the way E.E. Cummings puts it, "Always the beautiful answer, who asks a more beautiful question." Another way to think about it is related to author Scott Goodson who said, "An ambitious, yet actionable, question that can begin to change the way we think about something – and might serve as a catalyst to bring about change."


EXPLORATION EXTENDED

The exploration process covers a multitude of items tied to the situation and related key questions. This list isn't meant to be exhaustive; however, based on our process it does give you an idea of the areas we covered in exploration.

Background – what is the background of the situation and its implications on the organization?

Landscape – asking questions tied to culture, leadership, technology, and risk factors.

Situational Insights – what key challenges or opportunities exist and what are their impacts on the organization? We use an assortment of frameworks or tools to work through this portion of our exploration.

  • Appreciative Inquiry – identifying what is positive and connecting to it in ways that heighten energy and vision for change. This may include: discovery, dream, and design..
  • Challenge Mapping – using challenge mapping as a way to help individuals and groups to clarify and conceptualize complex, ambiguous, and strategic issues and increase understanding of fuzzy situations both from big picture and specific standpoints.
  • 5 Whys – we use this methodology based on a specific identified problem that appears surface level and requires deeper discussions.


Drivers – Explore the drivers of the initiative or situation. What are they? Why are they important? What impact does it have on the business and, more specifically, on performance in the business? We typically list these and attempt to relate it to revenue or cost.

Audience –build the archetype of the audience describing their needs, motivations, context, and overall problem scenarios related to the solution. We also examine behaviors and map them to current state.

Journey – map the journey of the audience and outline the different steps in the process. This exercise begins to identify the most meaningful points in the process and turn them into opportunities for change.

Content – At this stage we gather content and ask these fundamental questions: What is it? How is it used? What is its impact? Are there any key considerations of the content?

Business or Expected Outcomes – we explore the expected outcomes tied to the situation, examining their tie in to the organization's strategy. In this step we also begin to examine any KPI's or related metrics/measures.

Brainstorm – One of the most important parts of our exploration stage is brainstorming and free thinking about the situation and how it could look different in the future. This exercise has proven beneficial to dispel bias or problem mentality thinking. Imagine "what might be" or "what will be". Be bold and dream to allow for positive potential and strategic opportunities.

Insights – Complete the working session day by recognizing the key insights that came out of the session. What were they? What do we know differently? Why does it matter? What are we going to do about it?


CONCLUSION

The exploration stage allows us to establish an improved understanding of the situation, build belief, trust, and emphasize how important it is that the client owns the vision. As a consultant, you can't know enough about what they know. The challenge is to facilitate a working session that helps get everything out on the table. If that's done successfully, you can do an even better job of improving their performance.

The deliverables that come out of the exploration include: a brief that outlines each item mentioned above, a list of insights that we explore in the research design approach and examine in more detail in the research and discovery stage of the process. In the next post I'll share the research and discovery stage with you, which takes into account the people involved, context, content, and other factors that contribute to the overall challenge.

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