Forget about paint-by-numbers in a connect-the-dots world

by | Oct 3, 2012 | Blog | 2 comments

Is your strategy paint-by-numbers or connect the dots?

Mark Templeton, president and CEO of Citrix, asked that question in a recent New York Times Corner Office column.

The question is stimulating.

Yet is this question still germane for our VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous) world?

Just think about paint-by-numbers kits. You know ahead of time what the finished picture will look like.

By contrast, when you’re connecting the dots, you guess what the picture will morph into. And it probably will never be complete—at least in the traditional sense of the word.

Instead, the picture will evolve to fit the situation as it continues to progress. We even add new dots as we go along, which can dramatically alter what we’re creating.

As a result, our continual state of iteration and adaptation means that we may always be in beta, creating works in progress. Gone are the days when we declare projects and products finished, wrapping them up in pretty paper with a bow on top.

Yet, we may not fully recognize and appreciate our situation until we compare it with the paint-by-numbers kits that come with an instruction manual and detailed how-to guide.

One of my clients is experiencing this dichotomy now. She’s got one foot in the late Thomas Kinkade Painter of Light style and the other in the Georges Seurat pointillism design.

In a recent conversation, she wondered what she would tell employees after they announced their new corporate strategy. “Employees will be expecting more details,” she said, “and we really don’t have anything more to tell them at this point.”

Well, if you can’t fix it, feature it, as one of my bosses used to say. What a great opportunity to explain to employees that they are helping create the company’s future rather than leaders handing it over to them.

As the next step, I suggested that they ask employees to share their top-of-mind questions about the strategy. There may not be any answers yet; however, everyone will know what their concerns and interests are.

The questions can then be conversation starters about how to develop the strategy, including setting the initial priorities and determining the immediate actions.

With this approach, employees get off the sidelines and become participants, rather than serve as passive observers.

For those who like to make things, this is a more exciting way to work. It’s also a great example of how employees can work with their leaders to practice “tight-loose-tight.”

Leaders set the direction by clearly expressing their intent and explaining what the success measures are. Yet the leaders are flexible about how to get there. (For more about “tight-loose-tight”—a well-defined goal, choices on how to achieve it, and specific measures to determine if you hit the goal—check out the blog post Make the future.)

During this discussion, the light bulb went on for my client. She had realized that her leaders and employees are finding their way in an ambiguous  setting. But until she compared and contrasted “paint-by-the-numbers” with “connect-the-dots,”  she hadn’t thought about the power of being explicit about the ambiguity. She’s now ready to invite all employees to help them draw the picture rather than color within the lines.

Meanwhile, take a look at the pictures you’re creating. Are you making changes faster than the paint can dry?


  1. Deb Nystrom

    Loose-tight-loose is how it may feel, when leaders have the key to unlock the door by being explicit about tight-loose-tight. Timing and perspective taking is a great team when advising your client.

    Thanks for the helpful language and perspective. Obviously you practice what your share in your useful blog posts, Liz!

  2. Liz Guthridge

    Thanks for the feedback, Deb. Another person emailed me today to say that the visualization of “paint-by-numbers” and “connect-the-dots” was extremely useful and will help her as she works with teams as a program manager.

    Most of us need pictures to go along with the words!

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