The T-puzzle and Strategy Execution

Obstacles are what you see when you take your eyes off the goal.  -Vince Lombardi

I live in the UK and one of the many traditions at Christmas dinner is the Christmas “cracker”.  Essentially this is a short tube filled with prizes and trinkets, wrapped in colourful paper and looking much like an elongated piece of wrapped candy with the ends sticking out.  Maybe a picture will help.

Anyway, everyone sits around the table and takes one end of the other person’s cracker and we all pull, to which the crackers explode with a bang and out come the surprises.  No matter how many times I have participated in this holiday ritual I always cheer and clap along with everyone else as the kids, and adults, scramble to see what was inside.  The usual contents are small party favors, paper crowns, whistles and other plastic goodies.  Great fun.

This year one of the crackers revealed the famous T-puzzle, much to the chagrin of the kids who hadn’t seen it before.  The kids all worked on it, as a group and taking turns but couldn’t come up with the solution.

This morning as I sat with my cup of coffee and while everyone else was in bed sleeping off the exhaustive joy of the Christmas festivities, I picked up the T-puzzle pieces and began playing with it.  Being in the midst of a strategy road-mapping and deployment assignment for the past three months with a large US company, I couldn’t help but see a useful analogy in this classic puzzle.

Once the work of laying out a strategy map is nearing completion the inevitable happens as the participants stand back and see for the first time the magnitude of the assembled objectives, initiatives, metrics, project plans, and relevant accountabilities that must be delivered.  The individual pieces are overwhelming.  It is not unusual in a large organisation to have 20-30 strategic initiatives to deliver on, in addition to their daily operational tasks.  The overwhelming amount of work dawns on everyone and a mild depression settles over the team as if gravity just got three times stronger and everything is heavier to lift and we seem to be wading through syrup.

So I come back to the T-puzzle.  By focusing on the individual shapes it is difficult to see a solution  to make the “T” shape.  That’s because the pieces of the puzzle are “non-standard” shapes, with various cuts at odd angles.  Most strategic initiatives are non-standard as well.  If it was easy, we would have done them already and solved the various business problems we currently face.

The secret to the effective delivery on a strategy execution roadmap, I have found, is to work on the pieces while keeping the collective “eye” of the organisation clearly focused on the end result (see previous post on strategy execution).  In this case it is our declared strategic intent, the overall goal we have all committed to deliver.  The nice thing about a strategy execution roadmap is that the entire “big” picture is clearly laid out, all the connections and dependencies are evident and the path from operational goals to strategic initiatives to overall strategic intent are clear to all.  The delivery just takes focus, discipline and teamwork.

The solution to the T-puzzle is similar.  By focusing on the end result, the goal, the shape of a capital T, and not so much on the individual pieces, one begins to try new combinations of potential solutions that aren’t evident when focusing on the pieces alone.

With a little time and effort the solution comes to us and the puzzle is complete.  Focusing on the solution makes the obstacles manageable.  The same tends to be the case for effective strategy execution.

Tight Lines  . . .

John R Childress

E |      T | +44 207 584 3774      M | +44 7833 493 999

About johnrchildress

John Childress is a pioneer in the field of strategy execution, culture change, executive leadership and organization effectiveness, author of several books and numerous articles on leadership, an effective public speaker and workshop facilitator for Boards and senior executive teams. In 1978 John co-founded The Senn-Delaney Leadership Consulting Group, the first international consulting firm to focus exclusively on culture change, leadership development and senior team alignment. Between 1978 and 2000 he served as its President and CEO and guided the international expansion of the company. His work with senior leadership teams has included companies in crisis (GPU Nuclear – owner of the Three Mile Island Nuclear Plants following the accident), deregulated industries (natural gas pipelines, telecommunications and the breakup of The Bell Telephone Companies), mergers and acquisitions and classic business turnaround scenarios with global organizations from the Fortune 500 and FTSE 250 ranks. He has designed and conducted consulting engagements in the US, UK, Europe, Middle East, Africa, China and Asia. Currently John is an independent advisor to CEO’s, Boards, management teams and organisations on strategy execution, corporate culture, leadership team effectiveness, business performance and executive development. John was born in the Cascade Mountains of Oregon and eventually moved to Carmel Highlands, California during most of his business career. John is a Phi Beta Kappa scholar with a BA degree (Magna cum Laude) from the University of California, a Masters Degree from Harvard University and was a PhD candidate at the University of Hawaii before deciding on a career as a business entrepreneur in the mid-70s. In 1968-69 he attended the American University of Beirut and it was there that his interest in cultures, leadership and group dynamics began to take shape. John Childress resides in London and the south of France with his family and is an avid flyfisherman, with recent trips to Alaska, the Amazon River, Tierra del Fuego, and Kamchatka in the far east of Russia. He is a trustee for Young Virtuosi, a foundation to support talented young musicians. You can reach John at or
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