Author Archives: Steph Sharma

About Steph Sharma

My integrated life comes from international travel with my husband, hiking with our two dogs and time training my horses who teach me trust, non-verbal language and patience. As owner and Managing Director of Symbio Strategies, I provide consulting to senior leaders seeking transformation & transition management - to build companies that center humans in all decision-making. In business and sustainability, my ultimate objective is to determine the value humans really bring to an organization and integrate that into a shared purpose.

What is Strategy?

It’s how decisions are made.  

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STRATEGY IS NOT

Strategy is not a thing nor is it an event. Annual strategic planning is not strategy. Having a strategic plan is not strategy. Strategy is not linear. Leaders who gather one time a year to develop a strategy is not strategy. Science alone is not strategy. Art alone is not strategy. An officer in charge of strategy is not strategy. Having profit goals is not strategy. Customer focus is not strategy. 

Why start out with what strategy is not

To support a reset. To challenge conventional understanding. Books about performance, execution, implementation and outcomes remain among the most recommended business books. 

Leaders and managers in all types of organizations have fallen into the ‘pressures of results’.  Pressure that publicly traded companies assume on ‘managers’ to perform which equals return a profit to shareholders. The flaw in this focus is that it is not only narrowly defining what success means but it also puts weight on the outputs and not the things that go into creating a growing, high performing organization. (We’ll delve more into this in a future post.)

Strategy is a lot of things but most simply ‘strategy is how decisions are made.’ 

Nothing helped me to distill that simple ‘tweet length’ definition better than the engaging, curious and challenging dialogue with master’s degree students in sustainability. With an open mindset they also reconcile that ‘business as usual’ is not working and success looks differently. That opened my own mind to consider the limitations of a business model that had relegated strategy to a function, person or event. 

No matter how much or how little planning or formalization goes into defining a decision or the decision-making process, is informed by strategy or lack of one. 

AN ILLUSTRATION

The RitzCarlton is a place where the genuine care and comfort of our guests is our highest mission. We pledge to provide the finest personal service and facilities for our guests who will always enjoy a warm, relaxed, yet refined ambience.” – Ritzcarlton.com 

In alignment with this mission, Ritz-Carlton has granted every employee with $2000 budget, daily, to use at their discretion to rectify a customer concern. Consider the time when a member guest did not receive a wake-up call at the requested time and missed his flight. The hotel agent receiving this situation was able to mail him and his wife (known as part of the customer profile) an embossed robe shipped to his home with overnight service with a note of apology. 

Ritz-Carlton’s strategy is to ensure that they deliver on their mission through empowering every single employee with decision-making power: a no-questions-asked-budget to rectify any customer issue or to provide service that delights them. This spurs creativity, agency and ownership of the brand which pays greater dividends than the cost of using the budget amounts. 

Whether a barista in a coffee shop or a manager on a manufacturing floor or a teller at a bank or the founder of a start-up, the information an individual uses to make a decision is largely and sometimes exclusively driven by strategy, good or bad. 

ART AND SCIENCE

Comprehensive definitions of the components of creating strategy include aspects that 

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are science based and components that are art based. Military leaders have provided a model of leadership that balances information, tactics and knowledge with deduction,lessons learned, insights and even intuition.

The things that comprise a strategy include the components core to an organization’s reason for being: vision, mission, values and purpose. Strategy is also informed by decision-rules, organizational structure, and most importantly the promise to the customer. (yes, this last one is informed by mission and purpose in a well-founded organization but I’ll share later why I call it out as separate.)

Some questions that inform an understanding of how decisions are made: is the organizational structure hierarchical or traditional in managers having command and sharing information? Are ideas formally asked for or is there a culture of trust with a ‘no fear of failure’ where any idea is something to consider and vet? Are all individuals tied to the mission or customer impact or just a specific customer-facing group? Is the purpose of the organization aligned to the day-to-day work of the organization? Is time dedicated to strategic thinking, as a distinct exercise different from planning or implementation? 

JULIA

As part of my own learning to teach strategy after years of consulting on strategy, I most serendipitously met Julia Sloan. She is the world’s expert in Learning to Think Strategically and just gifted me the 4th edition copy of her book.  

How we learn to think sets the foundation for how we actually do strategy. And if we are not prepared to learn and grow from that learning, we are limited in our ability to ‘do’ strategy or be strategic. Her research with leaders about the role that thinking plays in doing strategy has informed all that I do. She sets forth a simple triangle. 

Her lectures confirm that there are tensions that connect each aspect of the strategic IMG_20191117_085240.jpgprocess: thinking, planning and implementation. They change all of the time based on circumstances and factors that affect business and organizational interactions. This requires that the manager of strategy be comfortable in such tensions and navigating a changing environment. Using structure to honor the role of thinking by all players, is the ultimate objective of any leader. 

STRATEGY IS

Strategy is dedicated time for thinking. Ensuring the problem is defined correctly before diving into solving. Ensuring ideas are exhausted to best position for innovation. Ensuring trust is established to welcome the identification of the proverbial elephant in the room. 

Strategy is a system. Interdependent parts of art and science each being called upon depending on the situation at hand or the objectives aspired. 

Strategy is supported by all roles having clear expectations and contributing in alignment – aka complimentary or mutually supportive, to the purpose of the organization or it’s reason for existence. 

Strategy is bringing inputs – people, resources, knowledge, information and potential all together in the most essential, thoughtful and consistent manner possible. 

Strategy is realizing (that means subsequent to something) that the inputs you have brought together will respond, creating outputs. These in turn will yield outcomes, good or bad. 

Strategy is most often associated with business practices or large organizations. But any organization of people, for profit or not, incorporated or community organized, either formally or informally evolves from strategy that is strong or strategy that is lacking. 

So after reflecting on both the living of strategy in organizations, the teaching of strategy to business students worried about shifting business for good and my own process of learning, I remain committed to this definition. It invites us to consider the inputs, the complexity of those and that our leadership creates impact, taking time to shift that impact. 

Strategy is how decisions are made.

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Dr. Jula Sloan and I at NationSwell East Summit 11/2019

FINDING GRATITUDE IN HOPE.

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Leela ‘the Actor’ GSD & Mowgli the ‘Director’ ISD (Indian Street Dog)

TIMING

Today is Sunday. Two days until the turn of a new year. It is sunny this morning north of Seattle. Just me in a quiet house in a quiet neighborhood and two sleeping dogs. One that looks ‘wolfy’ and one that Embark said is 1.5x more wolfy than most dogs. Naturally he is the smaller one. We are peaceful. We have trust in our safety in a well insulated house, crisp with recent sheets of rain. We are as warm as we wish to be. We are fed and have water. 

As the dogs sleep, I laurel in the open calendar and free time to write. To create a report that recounts months of work into digestible chunks that are also palatable. I am enthused while also overwhelmed. A normal feeling that goes with the time of year, the day of the week and generally post any large project.

Yet I would be diverted. There it is the open page of the dog-eared must-read article, albeit from October. Waiting patiently since early last week for me to opt in during a bio break. (This, my latest tactic to try and get through my favorite magazines and it is working quite well.)

“Hope is a sometimes cranky optimism, trust, and confidence that those I love will be OK—that they will come through, whatever life holds in store. Hope is the belief that no matter how dire things look or how long rescue or healing takes, modern science in tandem with people’s goodness and caring will boggle our minds, in the best way.”Anne Lamott, Oct 2018 Nat Geo

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National Geographic open to an important diversion (en mi baño.)

With my self-assurance off the charts, unreasonable optimism and constant energy forward, I feel like I have a fair amount of hope. It is part of the ‘there isn’t anything I can’t tackle’ mantra. I’m often times bewildered, a little irritated  and even dismissive when people in my life express sky-is-falling impressions. ‘Of course the sky is going to fall someday but it isn’t falling yet.’ Or ‘What are you doing to help the sky not fall?’ Or ‘What about this Joe? His sky is falling much faster than yours is and he is still pushing upward and forward.’

HOPE LIST

This year my optimism and hope have been challenged and I have seen others’ challenged as well, even for those of us self-assured and positivity-driven. Anne’s listing of hopeful events stirred thoughts about my own observations of hopefulness. If only to intentionally recognize them. To be hopeful and as a result also grateful. Here are some that have me especially hopeful: 

  • People are living with cancer. My Dad is one of them. Years of battling Non-hodgkins Lymphoma including nearly a year of C-Diff, he remains humble, kind, caring and as ever, more concerned about others. He has no anger about the likely chemical-based culprit that caused his illness during his many ranching years. He knows that what is unknown is his reality. Yet he hopes. He loves his work of running a commercial-sized excavator. He keeps his average up in bowling and is faithful participant in two local lodges. He loves his partner of many years and he loves the dog he shares with her. His hope is keeping him positively going one day at a time. 
  • Cancer doctors are patiently and compassionately working with puzzles of options. They are hopeful in how they address the commonly occurring patterns to uniquely presented symptoms and responses. Dr. Bociek at UNMC and Dr. Bjorling at Regional West Health have hope and give Dad hope. They aren’t without realities but as seasoned oncologists are here to keep things in balance while also moving them forward. They are irritatingly patient. They like my Dad too. 
  • Social Impact endeavors and innovation in civic governance are emerging all around the communities in which I live and work. This gives me hope that awareness, call to action and optimistic change is happening. The Social Enterprise Alliance and the organizations it collaboratively elevates as new models of intersecting social with business, gives me hope. Leaders across these hybrid business models redefined business-as-usual during my time on the local board. They are humbly crafting solutions that empower those lost to a traditional system of systems – the blind, the incarcerated, the homeless and the differently-abled. And have been doing so for decades.
  • Empowering people at risk or those teetering in the gap between success and loss, define some of the most innovative solutions in our community. Sue and Roz at What’s Next Washington are building a system to support the formerly incarcerated. One that educates and advances a talent pool completely overlooked by a system constrained by archaic human resource practices. They are giving hope to those at complete dead ends to reinvent themselves – by rewiring the constructs so we can enable talent that has grit, humility, determination and gratitude. How does a young spirit retain the innocent hope they are born with if they don’t have a warm home? Washington Kids in Transition gives homeless kids hope and that gives me piles of hope. This organization is helping to keep hope alive.
  • Teaching Business Strategy at Presidio infused me with hope. It was the change-making students that challenge everything about everything that gave me hope. Their hunger to hear. Their hunger to learn. Their willingness to develop a growth mindset amidst a sometimes naive but immensely hopeful future view of the world that is vastly different than the one they are living in. The trust they have that they can change the word, the belief they have in themselves all give me hope. I remain hopeful that the three core foundational roots of Pinchot’s legacy will eventually infuse the long-term strategy of the school. Roots of:  deep diversity of thought including strategy for conscious impact, bold approaches to learning models, and intensive investment in leadership development.
  • Business leaders in non-profit and for-profit organizations who refuse to accept the status quo associated with past models and practices give me hope. As partners to them we can shift the lens on what success means to new sources of value and new measures of value. I have hope that business for good is slowly surpassing business as usual. Our partners in our consulting and their measures of impact give me hope. The potential impact we are on the hook to help our client partners realize, gives me hope.
  • Organizations that are integrating this new movement collectively and catalyzing faster connections and more meaningful change give me hope. Conscious Capitalism where my business partner Kori has invested time and leadership and Nation Swell a new space for me to engage in, are both examples of public/private intersections of innovative change.
  • The animals in my life ground me in the moment. In their appreciation and joy for life. They give me hope that at the end of the day we can chose to just appreciate those we are with. 
  • International organizations like OI Pejeta Conservancy, that create awareness, advocacy and conservation for the earth’s animals, many endangered, give me hope.  Sudan, the last northern white rhino has left a legacy of daughters and the possibility of raising more in the future. National Geographic is part of this final point of hopefulness I see today. Creating awareness about how people and animals live, thrive, suffer and evolve in all parts of the world.

TENSION OF POSITION

Having hope doesn’t reduce or ignore the crimes on human and animal existence. These are all complicated issues or wicked problems. Projects of possibility and hope create a parallel way forward amidst harsh and heart-breaking realities.

There is a place for protest, for anger, for putting a stake in the ground. It is also crucial we carve a path forward amidst the harsh realities. I’m often in the minority group that wants to innovate the next action, to challenge for all perspectives and to bring light to see the other side so we can more quickly realize shared understanding. Am rarely if ever in the group that is calling out the inaction or the bad action. Spending any time in that critical space depletes my ‘self-assured’ way-forward energy. From this forward energy, hope is released creating connections, possibilities and eventually solutions.

“Shared understanding means that the stakeholders understand each other’s positions well enough to have intelligent dialogue about their different interpretations of the problem, and to exercise collective intelligence about how to solve it. The best way to grasp shared understanding is to consider what happens when it is missing.” – Jeff Conklin, CogNexus Institute

CHANGING VIEW

My reader glasses remain at a +1.50 and have for the past decade. I am hopeful this slow pace of decline continues as I can handle incremental increases. Should things continue without life-alteration, I begin a new decade of life on earth this May. As with my readers, I hope to continue to refine and hone my view on living life, incrementally adding a half plus every so often. That the decline is in my pace – to take pause in what gives me hope. To use that path to reconcile all that there is to be grateful for.  This list gives me focus for this new year. Maybe you will make your list and continue Anne’s inspiration. 

I believe that imagination is stronger than knowledge. That myth is more potent than history. That dreams are more powerful than facts. That hope always triumphs over experience. That laughter is the only cure for grief. And I believe that love is stronger than death.  – Robert Fulghum

 

PostScript #1: While there is always so much to be done, to take time to think, to make connections, to write about those, means that we get time back. We get grounded and that informs all that work that is still there waiting. Make your ideas a priority and your tasks secondary to that. I have struggled with this awaiting the perfect time or the clear calendar. Those two will never arrive and certainly not together! 

PostScript #2: I love NatGeo more than ever. The reporting of human and animal life. The stories embedded in the reporting and the photography that brings us closer to every story. Consider sharing a subscription with a neighbor. Or maybe the library is convenient for you. This is a magazine that gives me hope. I can see why there is alignment to Anne’s perspectives she brings the world.

Scheduled Optimism

Each year, within a general period of a few days, people from all parts of the Earth establish formal and informal goals, resolutions and aspirations for the upcoming year. It is multi-cultural and multi-denominational and non-gender oriented process of renewal.

It has become generally accepted that through these aspirations we believe that we can do/be more/different that we are. We are optimistic about our role or our realization of a better future state. We commit to this optimism, (albeit with great variance and therefore variable success.) Additionally we reconcile the past year to ‘close it’ or ‘file it away’, to make space for a ‘fresh start.’ We give ourselves permission to ‘start again’ with a ‘clean slate’ or ‘new page’ in the ole’ book of life.

We do this as individuals. We sometimes do this in written form and sometimes we share it with those we love. We rarely if ever consider if not act upon the impact of collective optimism.

What if we, as a global group of resolvers, synchronized or shared our optimism more intentionally during this time? To give energy to our thinking. To create a collective of thoughts. To connect our ideas associated with this thinking time. What if we could connect more and more resolutions together, at the same time? What if we did so with more frequency?

Sharing

When we determine our aspirations for the new year, we engage in thinking. I believe thinking creates energy. Thinking is not doing.

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Wintery sunset over western Nebraska. December 2017

The power of shared thinking creates multiplication of this energy. Not in like or same thinking but in sharing of thoughts. Sharing of thoughts does not equal clicking ‘like’ or even posting a blog. Sharing indicates a meaningful exchange.

Consider sharing a piece of cake. You don’t just drop off a piece of cake at someone’s door or say that someone’s cake looks yummy. Sharing a piece of cake indicates that you each have a fork and partake of the morsels together in a likely exchange of bites until the last crumbs are crushed into one set of tines.

What might be possible if instead of just clicking ‘like’ or reshare, we sat down with two forks and one plate and shared a thought at a time? Each taking an intentional chunk of a thought and considering it’s flavor. 

Ideas

Thinking inevitably is a space for ideas to emerge, to coalesce, to evolve. Our thinking time becomes a multiplication of energy with a future return – not only do we develop aspirations or goals, but new considerations and possibilities unfold from this ‘fresh start’ space. Ideas spur creativity, which spurs innovation, which solves small and large problems. Ideas will float around the universe until they find an ‘owner’ to help them develop. If you have ever felt like “hey, I thought of that! how did he know?!” then you experienced an idea that got tired of waiting for you to ‘get aroundtuit’ or for you to have the perfect time to think more about it.

What might be possible if instead of waiting for the perfect time or the affirmation we expect, we could connect our same ideas with other individuals, at the same time (or close) as we are having them? Instead of an idea finding one owner, the idea would find a family of owners. 

Volume

There are nearly 7.6 billion people alive on the earth today. Births are doubling deaths each day and so our population is continuing to grow. We read and speak with frequency of the burden of food shortages and the many associated wicked problems of population growth. We do not read or speak of the opportunities that exist if we shared in defining wicked problems together. Imagine the collective optimism that is possible from connecting individual aspirations together like a web or system of webs. With technology we are connected in ways that are called ‘share’ but are the opposite. Through this same technology we could truly share – thinking, ideas and therefore energy across these thoughts. We could address all wicked problems with collective force.

What might be possible if instead of passive judgement of the world’s most pressing problems, we contributed our own thinking to a collective of thousands of individuals, an idea, thought or concept as the focus? Participation would require a position, a thought but also a commitment to a new definition of community. 

Frequency

Based on the calendar and years of cultural acceptance, we greet the new year with affirmation and optimism. We set goals of all types and scale. We resolve to improve ourselves. Our organizations engage in ‘annual planning’ (or some do and some do less often.) Yet the majority of us fall back into our reactive, responsive, ways. Serving immediate gratification over long-term well-being benefits of extended life expectancy. We are human animals. Our society, including the organizations we serve, fall to the same short-termism. Reacting to customers, changing the marketing flavor each month and paying the quarterly dividend. With so much hope and optimism at the new year, we could leverage our quarterly conditioning and through a liberating structure, we could repeat new year’s resolutions every quarter with an eye on reconciling our current aspirations with an extension into the three months beyond the current year. (Of course we need to think about 10, 20 and 100 years ahead of now, but baby steps are required.)

What might be possible if instead of thinking about our opportunity to change one time per year with a lifeline of about three months, we instead thought about our opportunity to change with an ongoing lifelines that we revisited every three months? And what if we engaged in this optimism as a collective? 

With yelps of anticipation, we approach the park.

The one for canines. And with a beach.

Morning duties are the first order of business. It’s ‘my’ park this morning. Too early, too cold for the ‘General Joe’! However, we hear barks in the distance. Just off the coast.

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Never mind that water-based dog. Let’s get this frisbee swimming business started!

The Sounder trundles by carrying our other human family member to his city. Wonder if he sees us playing? Wonder if he sees the sea dogs?

 

It is peaceful again. The waves, the water barks, the land barks demanding the next toss. The snowy covered mountains. The sun rising from the normal spot.

 

Crisp. Small. Wet. Life. Breath.

Synchronicity of Spring

Last Thursday the apple blossoms bloomed on 3rd Avenue. The same morning the birds were singing about 15 minutes before dawn of day. 

Giggs, Morguefile.com

This week we finally reach the 50’s during the day with some consistency. The sun-breaks are more frequent and the chill in the air is less so. 

After one of the wettest February’s on record, March has continued with a competitive and name-sake spirit. Downpours without notice. That make me reconsider the decided brilliance in adding skylights to our MBR during our remodel this past Fall. 

The push to go to validate the monthly gym membership 3-4 days a week seems to be less of a push. In fact, my opposition to even set foot in a gym after work has been challenged with two evening classes in row this week. Albeit they are only 30 minutes so the incentive is there.  (Each have kicked my ass properly.) 

The inclination to shed the extra 6-8 pounds I have only once ever lost, has resurfaced with a newfound belief in possibility. 

So the blossoms, the birds, the extra sun all bring a new energy. Optimism. Hope. Possibility. Happiness. 

Anne.

The first song played on my shuffle today.

Grew up listening to Anne Murray. Could sing every word of every song. As a teen I got to see her at Vegas dinner show with my parents. She is a brilliant and self-deprecating entertainer. I remember learning about how expecting a singer to just sing was a silly notion. She made us laugh and think.

I hope you take a listen to Anne’s rendition of this legendary song by Bill Withers.

“I write and sing about whatever I am able to understand and feel. I feel that it is healthier to look out at the world through a window than through a mirror. Otherwise, all you see is yourself and whatever is behind you.”
— B.W.

LEAN ON ME Lyrics

Sometimes in our lives
We all have pain, we all have sorrow
But if we are wise
We know that there’s always tomorrow

Lean on me when you’re not strong
And I’ll be your friend, I’ll help you carry on
For it won’t be long
‘Til I’m gonna need somebody to lean on

Please, swallow your pride
If I have things you need to borrow
For no one can fill those of your needs
That you won’t let show

You just call on me, brother, when you need a hand
We all need somebody to lean on
I just might have a problem that you’ll understand
We all need somebody to lean on

Lean on me when you’re not strong
And I’ll be your friend, I’ll help you carry on
For it won’t be long
‘Til I’m gonna need somebody to lean on

You just call on me, brother, when you need a hand
We all need somebody to lean on
I just might have a problem that you’ll understand
We all need somebody to lean on

If there is a load
You have to bear that you can’t carry
I’m right up the road, I’ll share your load
If you just call me

Call me (If you need a friend)
Call me (Call me uh-huh)
Call me (When you need a friend)
Call me (If you ever need a friend)
Call me (Call me)
Call me (Call me)
Call me (Call me)
Call me (Call me)
Call me (If you need a friend)
Call me (Call me)
Call me (Call me)
Call me (Call me)
Call me (Call me)
Call me

Food. Appreciated.

I walked through PCC Market (a 1%’er grocery store) today feeling a bit pouty about all of the things that are not on my ‘Ludwig’ low-carb plan. I was hoping to find some new, cutting edge organic products made from beans or vegetables to fulfill my craving for the carbs that I am trying to forget.

Almost as quickly as I felt remorse I felt happiness and deep sadness at the same time. I was reminded of my Mother’s deep appreciation for food. How she would watch the Food Network with complete joy. This while she was unable to eat any food at all. With hope that she might someday eat again. The virtual recollection of tastes, textures, and smells of cooking and baking. We used to shake our heads and suggest a channel change while tending to her TPN and changing abdominal dressings. She would chuckle and ask for her notebook to jot down recipe ideas or a chef’s name.

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Mom. Billie.

There is so much to share about my Mother’s life and her death. In time. For now, I am thankful that I have the access to quality food and that I have my health to choose what I eat when I desire. I am most thankful for the appreciation for cooking and baking that she instilled in me as a young girl.

My first allowance was as a pre-teen helping her prepare 3 meals a day for our hired crew on the ranch. A full breakfast every morning at 6am. A proper mid-day dinner when the cutting of meadow hay was at the ‘home place’. Proper = a meat of some sort (if beef or chicken – home raised, and grass fed/free range), potatoes of some sort (often garden produced), vegetables (fresh or canned from garden) of some sort, salad of some sort and a made from scratch dessert of some sort. And of course a proper supper. (No left overs and same item categories as dinner.)

Tonight I was more humble about what I prepared. It also seemed like the flavors were stronger than they have been in the past. Might be my carb-dependent taste buds are finding a new normal. Might also be my mind was focused on Mom and how she taught me that food centers our health and well-being. She gave me a virtual reminder today and I am appreciative.