A conversation about strategy as a way of thinking, “analysis paralysis”, and the power of asking good questions
Published August 3, 2017
Ceri is the kind of person every organization needs at least one of: the kind of person that asks hard questions, while being completely nice and helpful about it.
Her brilliant strategic thinking skills, combined with a healthy dose of emotional intelligence, make her an ideal problem-solver and communicator. It’s something our team has benefited from too many times to count — and so have our clients. She sat down with us to talk about her experience as a strategist, her mediation training classes and the importance of empathy and active listening.
What’s your role at Domain7?
There are two parts to my role: as a strategist, I help clients align a project with their business goals. That usually involves me leading workshops to understand key business objectives and make sure we’re all aligned. You can create the most amazing website, but if it’s not aligned with your business goals, it’s completely useless. I also work with our UX team, helping to set a strategic direction for projects.
The other half of my job focuses on client relationships. When we run into a particularly complex stakeholder scenario, that needs a little bit of extra care, I jump in.
To me, strategy isn’t a degree or a program. It’s a way of thinking. It’s a way of seeing the world and asking questions.
What was that path to your current job like?
Unorthodox. My undergraduate degree is in biochemistry, and after graduating I took a job in academic administration, before coming to Vancouver for grad school.
I realized that I wanted to be in business and took on a project management position at Dossier Creative, a brand and innovation agency. Project management is a great way to get an overview of a business, and I quickly moved into strategy from there. So, maybe not the most straightforward path — from biochemistry to theology and on to strategy. To me, strategy isn’t a degree or a program. It’s a way of thinking. It’s a way of seeing the world and asking questions.
Can you talk about that a little bit more? Strategy as a way of thinking?
It’s the capacity to take lots of disparate information and identify patterns — see where things actually coalesce. When we have to deal with lots of inputs, we can easily get lost. We can’t see the wood for the trees. That’s where a strategist can help — making something that is complex simple.
I think there is also an element of vision-casting in that task of distilling and synthesizing. It’s not just a distillation of what is — it’s looking forward. Where are the gaps? Where is the opportunity? Where do we see the future going?
How you have a conversation is as important as what you talk about.
What are some of the things you’ve learned throughout your career? And how have they influenced your process?
Communication is key. Being able to slow down, listen and ask good questions is really important. It helps with understanding what is actually happening. I think that’s partly why I tend to spend quite a bit of time preparing for conversations. It’s not good enough to walk into a client meeting and just say what we have to say. We have to acknowledge that different clients need a different approach, based on previous experience, expectations or preferences around how they like to engage, and we need to meet them there.
How you have a conversation is as important as what you talk about.
What kind of qualities make for a good strategist?
Some of what I’ve seen in good strategists: a love for learning and immersing yourself in constantly changing contexts. Also, humility, a willingness to embrace ambiguity, and a desire to serve. You have to be willing to set yourself aside for the sake of somebody else. To be truly collaborative, the first step is to acknowledge that the people you’re working with are good at what they’re doing. They have insights and knowledge that I don’t have. My role is to help bring that out. I want them to succeed.
I think that’s the mindset many of the brightest people out there have adopted: they don’t use their knowledge to make themselves look superior. They use their knowledge to serve others. They ask good questions that get people thinking. When you do that, you’re elevating the other person. I think that’s the attitude at the heart of what Domain7 does. We aren’t a Mad Men-type agency, meaning we don’t do big reveals. There are no “ta-da” moments. Our approach is built on collaboration. We bring together our clients’ knowledge and Domain7’s expertise. That’s a pretty powerful combination. It leads to impactful work and really builds capacity within organizations, long after we’ve finished working together.
Strategy isn’t purely an analytical process. Data and analytics will only ever tell you what has been and what is. It won’t tell you what the future might look like.
What gives you meaning in your work?
Our world today is incredibly complex. We probably all experienced “analysis paralysis”. When there’s too many things to choose from, it can make us feel stuck or like we are victims of external forces, rather than truly active agents with the capacity to make better and worse choices. I love helping people understand the lay of the land — see the patterns and common threads in their situation — and then empower them to make choices.
So for example, I was chatting with a friend just this weekend. She’s considering a career change, and is feeling pushed and pulled into too many directions, because there are so many options to choose from. Rather than telling her what I think, I asked a series of questions that helped her own understanding. She ended up making some really brave decisions, and she got there through her own process and journey. She’ll have much more confidence in the decision that way than if someone had simply told her ‘the answer’.
How important is empathy in your work?
Hugely important. If you can tap into people’s emotional convictions — their passions, the things that excite them — then the client is much more likely to embrace that future plan.
Strategy isn’t purely an analytical process. Data and analytics will only ever tell you what has been and what is. It won’t tell you what the future might look like. To do that, you need creativity and an openness to new ideas, and empathy can really release that. I personally think that’s where things get exciting.
Is there anything in your work that you find really challenging?
Communication — which is funny, because I just said that communication is key. I think human communication is both one of life’s great joys and one of life’s great challenges.
How often has that happened to you, that you’re in a meeting, everybody is seemingly aligned and has apparently heard the same thing. Then you come back next time and it’s like those initial conversations never happened! You might think that’s because of people’s inability to communicate well, but that’s too easy an explanation. I think it all points back to the nature of communication. There’s a lot of inherent ambiguity in language, and often times what you’ve taken away from a conversation isn’t what another person has taken away from it. And that can be very challenging. That’s the joy of communication — it pushes you back into a relationship, to ask ‘did I understand you right, is this what you meant?’.
Have you had any formal training in how to communicate well?
Yes. I’ve been doing some mediation training with the Justice Institute of British Columbia, and it’s been a real eye opener. It’s funny. I’ve always thought that being comfortable with hard conversations was one of my strengths, but going through this training really blew me away. I walked in the door for the first session, thinking, “I’m pretty good at this.” But after the first couple of exercises I was wondering how I ever had a successful conversation in my life, because I realized how much I’d been doing “wrong”. It was very humbling, and it made me realize that there are some really powerful tools out there — and how much I had to learn.
People very rarely need a solution. What they need is empathy and to be heard.
What are some of the things you’ve learned in mediation training?
I realized that I had to relearn some of my ways of speaking and thinking. We often model our own responses after how we’ve seen other people react or what we think we hear in a conversation, but that’s actually not always helpful to people.
I remember in one of the role-play exercises I thought I was being my softest, most gentlest, most lovely self. And yet every second sentence the instructor told me, “No, you’re sounding judgmental.” That wasn’t my intent at all, but I realised the language I was using wasn’t communicating my intent. It’s been really helpful to learn new tools to help me communicate my true intent.
How do you communicate differently today because of your training?
One thing I try to do is to keep focussed on the other person. For example, when someone is sharing something painful, we often say something like, “I completely know what you’re talking about. This happened to me, too.” We think we’re communicating empathy with another’s experience, but we’re actually making it about us. A better response would be to keep the focus on the other person and say something like, “I can see that was a very impactful experience for you.”
Another lesson I’ve learned is not to jump too quickly to solutions. It can be helpful in conversation to focus on exploring an idea or pain point and to keep asking questions and pressing in, reframing what you’re hearing. The most important thing you’re doing in conversation is listening and being present. It creates a place from which people can think freely and without anxiety. People very rarely need a solution. What they need is empathy and to be heard.
We need to ask ourselves certain questions in the midst of our work: How can we build technologies that enhance connection rather than diminish it? How can we build technology that we use, instead of technology using us?
As somebody who works in the digital technology space: Do you think we generally prioritize technological development over thinking about the ethics and values that drive technology?
I do. And it think that’s true beyond the digital space. My first degree was in biochemistry. I spent four years learning about things like DNA replication and gene therapy. The focus was always on, “What can we do with this technology?” Throughout my entire degree, I had only a handful of lectures on ethics. That was the extent to which my program gave any consideration to it. I think that paints a picture of what’s happening in our society at large: the people who develop new technologies, new ways of doing things, oftentimes don’t feel responsible. And they might also be unequipped to answer important questions like, “Is this good for people? Is this helpful?” It’s probably true that the more good something can do, the more harm it can do, as well. Take the atom, for example. Studying and understanding the atom has been incredibly useful and helpful — and it’s also made the atomic bomb possible.
I don’t think the answer is to vilify technology, or completely turn our backs on it. We need to ask ourselves certain questions in the midst of our work: How can we build technologies that enhance connection rather than diminish it? How can we build technology that we use, instead of technology using us? There are a lot of pitfalls in how we develop and deploy technological innovation. We need to be aware of that, and we need to ask ourselves hard questions to act with wisdom and discretion.
What is one thing most people don’t know about you?
I’m a Welsh speaker. I grew up in Wales and did my education in Welsh until the age of 16. It’s a fun little curious fact that I like to throw in there every now and then — and it’s something I’m quite proud of.
What are three things that have influenced or inspired you?
I only recently discovered this podcast, but I listen to it religiously! Krista Tippett is a journalist seeking to open up conversations around questions of ultimate meaning. I love her curiosity and desire to learn from people with backgrounds that are sometimes very different from her own. In every episode, there’s so much to learn from artists, scientists, religious teachers, and social activists, sharing their deep knowledge that leads them to an appreciation of a sense of mystery and beauty in the world.
This is my geeky pick for you! I came across this book at grad school, and it has really shaped my thinking. Buber was a twentieth century Jewish philosopher, and he concluded that real meaning in life is found in relationships. He talks about “I-It”-relationships as a way to objectify people. By making them “its” they simply serve a function or purpose for us. Better, he says, is “I-Thou”-relationships in which we truly value the other as other. It’s the relationship itself, in all the mess of it, that’s valuable! I really try to bring this perspective into my work. The work we do with clients is important, but never at the expense of the relationship. The work we do together serves our relationship, not the other way round.
It’s a novel written in the early 2000s from the perspective of a 15-year-old boy with Aspergers. It’s incredibly funny, but also poignant and revealing. The chapters are numbered after prime numbers — rather than consecutive 1,2,3 — because that’s what makes sense to him. In one of my favourite parts, the boy explains that whether he’s having a good or bad day depends on the number of red or yellow cars he sees consecutively. His father thinks that’s irrational, but the boy points out that his father wakes up in the morning being happy or grumpy for no reason at all! A fascinating window into a different way of seeing the world, while illuminating something I believe very deeply, which is that all behaviour makes sense from a certain vantage point. It’s important to give people the benefit of the doubt and make an effort to understand them, rather than reading our own assumptions into their behaviour.