At Illustrious, we’ve claimed to be the Leader in Team Alignment since 2022.
We know what it’s like to turn the pain of transformation into the adventure of a lifetime. We’ve seen first-hand the amazing results that our clients get by working with us. And we always find it difficult to explain them to people who are curious about what we do – or curious about whether engaging us would be a good fit.
So, during our recent 2024 Power Visioning Retreat – where we took a look back at what we accomplished in 2023 and imagined what we will accomplish in 2024 – we asked ourselves the question, “How are we specifically contributing to Team Alignment?”
After exchanging some quick blank expressions, we got to work brainstorming the process we see our clients go through all the time – as they move from confusion to clarity, or from a milk crate full of tangled cables into a compelling and well-organized stage show.
THE ILLUSTRIOUS FORMULA FOR TEAM ALIGNMENT:
What usually happens first with the teams we work with is they are somehow exposed to the visual tools and frameworks we use at Illustrious – whether that’s graphic recording, The Grove’s Strategic Visioning or Team Performance models, or the various visual frameworks found in Gamestorming or Liberating Structures.
Either way, there is a ‘Woah!” moment that leads to curiosity. This curiosity can look like excitement or skepticism. And while we’d prefer everyone be excited right away, it’s OK for the team to be skeptical in the beginning. One particularly resistant client said, “Hold on! We’re deciding our strategy based on cartoons?!”
Few people have experienced the science of visual thinking proven out in a business environment. Few people have been through a process that starts out as stickies on the wall, moves into tension and groaning and pushback, and ends up as humans witnessing each other and hearing each other without judgment. But each small win helps make the process easier for even the most resistant in the room.
Next, the visuals tend to create a focused attention. People lean in, either to learn more about the tools (usually posters on the wall or canvases in apps like MURAL), or to pick them apart and tear holes in them. It matters little to us, as long as they’re leaning in and engaged.
At this point, either in the spirit of herd mentality (agreement) or pushback (disagreement), we see two camps emerge – “I’m interested in learning more” or “I’m interested in proving this wrong.” Again, the group’s interest and engagement is what matters.
Once most fears are addressed, defensiveness is taken down a notch, and people are assured that no one wants to do their job for them, the group usually starts to lean in the same direction.
This is when the fun starts to happen. I liken this stage to a pile of metal shavings being activated by a magnet. Slowly, and one by one, the shavings will start to wiggle and vibrate. Then, they turn in the same direction, sometimes piling on top of or crawling over each other in order to answer the pull of the magnet. And, suddenly, in a rush, they are like one body – or a murmuration of birds – having one shape, one energy, one purpose.
That stirring of energy and positive provocation is what it looks like when a group is oriented together and facing a problem or objective arm-in-arm.
Finally, once the team is curious, interested, and facing the same direction, the primary aim of any visual tool or communication is to inspire commitment. The team moves away from dependence and resistance, gets clearer on their roles and responsibilities, has a better grasp on the resources they need or lack, and discovers new ways to plan and make decisions.
This confidence fills the team’s sails and creates a renewed feeling of camaraderie and teamwork. Culture improves, communication improves, productivity increases. Because the team is saying “Yes” to each other – and to the mission.
If you have questions about how this looks in action or would like to see this kind of alignment happen on your team, let's schedule some time to chat.
A Conversation with Joran Slane Oppelt and Sumaya K. Owens
THE MUSIC METAPHOR
Sumaya: You mentioned some of the work you do is more difficult to explain or that it's maybe more theoretical. I know one of the types of content that you regularly share about is music and using music as a metaphor in the work that you do. I was wondering if you could share some examples of this with us.
Joran: Music metaphors are a big part of what I do because I am a musician. I recorded and toured and performed and produced other people's bands and did all kinds of things in my music career, or my “past life” as a musician. So it's a language I speak, even when talking about the four Jungian flows or archetypes for facilitators. I really am rooted in how things travel in waves, or how things land with an audience, or how we listen to each other when there is interplay or improvisation. All of these learned behaviors or traits are things that I’ve carried forward into my coaching, facilitation and consulting work.
When we speak in musical metaphors it feels so loud. For me, the comparisons are front and center because of the time I've spent on the stage. Now it's my turn to coax my clients out on stage in front of the crowd (their audience, their team) and teach them how to work the microphone (their messaging, their vision) and how to stay cool under the lights (their strategic goals, their competition).
So, one of the metaphors I can talk about today is the life cycle of a business. That model was originated by Ichak Adizes in the late 80s. It talks in detail about the stages of a business from Startup (or Birth) to Toddler and Teenager, then you get into the Zone of Maturity, then aging and eventually Institutionalization and Death.
You can point to this life cycle and say, “My business is at such and such a stage.”
If you're a startup, you're at the Birth stage. You aren't standing on your own yet, you don’t have the resources you need. But the moment you take a risk and involve other people in the business, you really are moving to the toddler stage.
The Teenager stage is typically when the organization or business has a little cash flow, and they're making some not-so-wise decisions. They've got the Lamborghini and are crashing it into a tree. The Teenager stage is where the business makes some mistakes with staffing or resources or spending or strategy, you name it. But that's what the Teenager stage is for. As those of us who are parents know, that's when you're supposed to make those mistakes.
If you get through that stage, you move into the Zone of Maturity, which is a stage of stabilization and optimization. You have the right resources and a scalable leadership structure in place. That's the top of the curve.
Then, it goes back down the other side of the curve into Aging as the structures begin to break down, and the resources, platforms, and systems become outdated.
The Institutionalization stage has you asking questions like, “What even is this business anymore? Are we providing value or providing a service to anybody? Are we connecting with our audience or are we isolating ourselves and spinning our wheels?”
Then, Death, because sometimes businesses end or dissolve.
So that's the Adizes model, which I discovered when Tony Robbins co-opted it for his Business Mastery program in the 90s.
What I did was relabeled it to be the journey of a rock band.
So, you start out as a Singer/Songwriter sitting in your bedroom, writing songs and coming up with elaborate ideas. You might know what the business (music delivery) model looks like or what the stage show will be. You may have the whole lighting schematic in your brain, but you don't have the team to execute it yet. You’re still in startup mode.
Then, you move into the Garage Band stage. Anybody who's a musician knows that as soon as you convince somebody to be your bass player, drummer, or keyboardist, they are placing an immense amount of trust in you. They're following your vision. They like the songs you write. Maybe they're moved by them. They believe in what you're trying to do. The Garage Band phase really is the Toddler phase. You've got a group of people now that are taking risks together in a business. You're prototyping what it looks like with your first team.
A lot of small businesses stay at this stage. They may occasionally get a bump in cash flow (from being a Club Band and working a lot) and wonder, “What are we going to do with all the money we made this quarter?”
They may say, “Let's reinvest in better gear or get a bigger van.”
Most small businesses kind of stay at that Garage or Club Band level and that's fine. If you're constantly growing and scaling and reinvesting, that means you’re adding on staff and resources. In the life of a rock band, that means the drummer now has a drum tech – someone who's setting up and tuning the drum kit for you. You've got a guitar tech who's tuning your guitars and handing them to you between songs. You can afford to tour and you have a crew that's working for you, believes in your vision, and is collecting a paycheck at the same time. Moving from Club Band to Touring Band is an important step for a business.
After that, it’s Legacy (the top of the curve) and down the other side to Crossroads, Irrelevance, Bargain Bin, and Breakup.
USING THE MODEL
Sumaya: Let's talk about how you use this model when working with clients. You recently shared a blog post about determining which musical instrument you are as an executive. That was really interesting to me – how the different members of the band communicate, engage, and cooperate with each other.
This is a model I believe can be complementary to that idea (in terms of the musical framework), but instead of thinking about the team, you're thinking about the business overall and which stage of the business you are currently at. Now that we have a basic concept of what it is, can you tell us about how you use this with clients?
Joran: Yes. In one case, all it took was for us to show this Lifecycle model to a client and ask the questions, “Where are you on this lifecycle? Where are your clients on the lifecycle? Where is your competition on the lifecycle?”
We were initially brought in to help them facilitate the shuttering of the organization. They wanted to “park the helicopter.” Most people had served in the organization (a non-profit) for many years. And people had stopped volunteering for the important roles. They were burned out. This model and this set of questions was enough for them to kickstart a conversation about radically rethinking their value proposition.
They were at the Crossroads stage. Another organization had offered to buy them – their infrastructure, membership list, branding, and IP. But, when we showed them this model, they realized their clients were way over on the left side of the curve and they were way over on the right side of the curve. Their competition was further to the left and saying things that the clients wanted to hear. They realized they needed to not only rethink their positioning and refine their message but double down on a new offering. Instead of accepting the competitor’s offer, they actually recommitted to a big event that year, hosting a big conference that repositioned them in the marketplace and launched a new suite of digital offerings.
The Lifecycle can be a catalyzing model used to start a conversation with executives or leadership teams. If there’s ever confusion about where you are in the lifecycle or whether you think you're at the Crossroads or the Bargain Bin, pull up the model and check in. The conversations are always unexpected and productive.
More recently, I used the model with the Executive Team at a fintech startup. They were eight years old and had just gotten their leadership team in place. The CEO was committing to stepping down and letting the executive team lead as they were beginning to experience both growing pains and the effects of Founder’s Syndrome.
What we discovered when we put a poster of this model on the wall and had a conversation about it was that a lot of their direct reports across the organization still thought of the company as a startup. Even though they were eight years old, had just gone through an IPO, were moving away from the hub-and-spoke model of leadership, and were growing in all the right areas, there were still team members that thought of themselves as a punk band.
There were entire departments that had a DIY mentality and a “fuck the mainstream” ethos. These were people who had a stake in the company behaving like a startup and not maturing. They didn't want to grow up. They didn’t want more stable leadership structures because that reeked of “selling out” and a corporate mentality.
Startup culture can feel like the Wild West. The speed of ideas is fast, decisions are made on the fly, experimentation and innovation comprises a large percent of the business activity. They have to pivot and stay nimble. And at some startups, culturally, anything goes. I’ve seen the same companies with foosball tables and cereal bars at the startup stage become the ones that work way too hard (read: burnout and churn) and play way too hard (read: vomiting at the company retreat) when the cash starts to come in.
But, it’s possible to have both a great culture and stable business structures. It’s possible to both have an actual org chart with people who are accountable to each other and be able to pivot quickly.
The executives I was working with had just realized their team was further up the life cycle than most of the organization. At that point in the session, the priority became figuring out how they told that story. How might they make the entire business feel safe?
How can we remain Green Day in our hearts, but act a little more like the Rolling Stones. Can we stay inspired to go out and sing “I Can’t Get No (Satisfaction)” every night, even though we don't want to? They needed to act more like a legacy or touring band but preserve that DIY/punk ethos in their values and in the way they communicated with each other. They were, after all, up against some big competitors and some monster old school financial institutions.
The new storytelling initiative included things like re-introducing the “rockstar” executive team they had assembled, painting done around the vision they were casting and the future they were building, and getting everyone excited about building it together.
Sumaya: I appreciate you incorporating the element of ethos into how you approach scaling a business. Because of my experience of working in corporate and from what I hear from my clients and colleagues, they have similar experiences where the larger a company scales, sometimes it feels like there's this loss of company culture or values. Communication breaks down and people have more difficult relationships. The more you scale, the effects of Founder’s Syndrome can become more apparent. How do you maintain ethos as you scale?
Joran: We've mentioned Founder’s Syndrome a couple times now. I think the further you get to the top of the lifecycle, the more risk there is for things like ego or stuckness - especially if you’ve seen some success. The status quo and a “this is the way we've always done things” mentality can damage the way the business is operating.
“If it worked for us as a startup, then it must work for us now,” is not true at all. As Marshall Goldsmith said, “What got you here won’t get you there.”
You've got to be reinventing and rethinking at every stage of the cycle. And at each stage, a new management style, goal-setting tool, cultural agreement, or way of working will be required.
For those founders with an inflated ego, it’s sometimes because they have been pushed out in front as spokespeople or faces for the brand. The more comfortable they get with public speaking and doing interviews on podcasts, the more it becomes part of their identity. If they are in the public eye and an active mouthpiece for the company, then as you shift into more distributed leadership models and away from more legacy structures, someone will need to tell them, “We don't need you to be brand ambassador anymore. We've got a chief communications/evangelism officer now that's going to handle that.”
That can be hard for founders to hear.
Similarly, when you find success with a musical group, inevitably they need to recreate and sustain that success. They may need to maintain a position on the charts in order to keep the hits rolling and keep everyone paid. That's typically when you involve amazing songwriting or production teams to create anthemic songs that will be popular and activate people's hearts. We’ve all experienced a time when our favorite artist went through a time when their sound changed or the writing changed. Sometimes it’s because the artist was growing and innovating. But sometimes it's because there were other voices (or players) involved. For those artists, instrumentalists, or lead singers, that type of change and collaboration can be hard. The ego will ask, “If it’s my songs that people love, then why should I have to take a back seat and collaborate?”
The best founders will check their egos – not allowing, but encouraging other people to step up as leaders and collaborators.
It all comes down to listening. The universal essence of the music metaphor is that in order to create (music or anything) with others, we must be listening. Any virtuosic musician is really listening to what's happening around them and responding. It's also true in any product innovation cycle – you're listening to the customer voice and responding with a prototype, attempting to test or validate an idea in the business.
And so it is with leadership. How much are you listening to what's happening around you – in the business and the marketplace? How much are you allowing for interplay between stakeholders and team members? How much are you open to empathy or inviting someone else's lived experience and letting that inform your decisions.
I always say it's the 80/20 rule (The Pareto Principle) that states 20% of your effort will lead to 80% of your results. You should be listening more than you're speaking. You should be seeking to understand more than you're executing.
In music, it’s important to have a clear line of sight to your fellow players in order to read their body language, but also to have a clear and balanced monitor mix so that you can hear them. That’s what allows you to create a cohesive and expressive musical experience for a crowd. But are you also listening to that audience? Are you taking their requests? Are you noticing when they are listless or dancing? Are you responding to market trends or writing the same songs over and over again?
Listening can also help facilitate the conversation about who's playing which instrument in the band. Consider what is appropriate as you move to the next stage. Do you really still need two drummers or could you get by with one? Is everyone cross-trained? Could the keyboardist play the bass notes with their left hand in case of an emergency? If we’re touring more and playing a show every night, is it sustainable to have one person out front singing? Might we find a way to have other vocalists in the band share that burden?
All of these conversations through the musical metaphor or lens can help inform the direction and strategy of the business and its leaders.
THE HEADLINER AND THE CROSSROADS
Sumaya: Can you give us a brief highlight of the Headliner, which I believe you've touched on a little bit. But what sticks out to me is how you describe it as, “Settle down and get serious.”
Joran: Sure. And it doesn't need to be serious all the time.
It doesn’t mean stop having fun. I think at the Headliner stage, you've got a team in place and business decisions are made strategically at that point. They're not made based on how much (or how little) risk you're taking (i.e. How many records we press is based on how much cash we have on hand). They're not made out of response to a crisis (i.e. We’re re-routing our tour because we have a flat tire on the van). They're now based on strategic decisions that are going to affect the success of the broader organization.
Again, with the music analogy, when you've got a manager and booking agent on your team, you can make better decisions that take social and financial systems into account. When you have publishing set up for the songs you've written, you can take advantage of other revenue streams, like TV commercials. When you've got a crew to help you out on the road, you can set up, tear down, and get to the next venue faster, meaning you can book more dates. When you've got these elements in place and they are working in concert with one another to leverage a broader ecosystem, that’s Headliner moving into Legacy. It’s the high performance stage of the Team Performance model.
That stage of the life cycle can be elusive. You can be functioning at that stage for a while but then slip back into Touring. Or you can over leverage and over perform at Legacy and find yourself at Crossroads. It’s not a situation where once you achieve the Legacy stage, you're done. Every stage is dynamic and temporary.
Sumaya: Can you tell us a little bit more about the Crossroads?
Joran: The Crossroads is that fabled moment where Robert Johnson sells his soul to the Devil so that he can play the guitar. The crossroads is the “do or die” moment of organizational decision (usually in crisis) where you've got a few options on the table and urgency is at an all-time high.
Some of those options might be continuing to grow with the current offering, continuing to pump more cash into the business, or laying people off, streamlining the crew, and getting a handle on profitability.
The crossroads could look like anything. But at the heart of the crossroads moment is a decision to re-commit, renew, and double down or resign, step away, and let the endeavor die and compost into something else.
In music, we might ask:
The Crossroads can open the door to real structural and operational challenges at the highest level.
For example, if your singer is going solo (i.e. if your CEO is going to now spin off and start another company) it will mean establishing new leadership, potentially new ways of teaming, and possibly dealing with an exodus of staff following them to their new venture.
Or maybe a longtime collaborator and songwriter splintered off and started another group that sounds just like yours. (i.e. a team member left, took a bunch of your IP with them, started another business, and created unanticipated competition).
All of these are Crossroads moments. When we're on the left side of the curve, we're largely making decisions in crisis. On the right side of the curve (where Crossroads lives), we're able to respond to crisis. And how we respond to crisis is important.
DYNAMIC AND TEMPORARY
Backsliding or moving back to a previous stage on the curve of the lifecycle is normal. I worked with a client recently who needed to lay off over a hundred people. It was not a good situation. They received tons of scathing reviews on Glassdoor. There was a negative perception in the market for a month or two.
But, we talked about it together in the context of this model. They were a touring, headlining band. They were on the road with lots of roadies and guitar/drum techs. They had a big crew and were doing really great work in the world. But they weren’t on tour anymore. They weren’t growing. So in between tours, you've got to let that crew go to do other work with other bands. It doesn't mean your value as an organization is diminished. It doesn't mean your message won’t be heard. It doesn't mean your work is any less important. It simply means you’re between tours (expansive growth stages) and means you can't sustain that size crew or employ that many people in the long-term.
Is it sometimes sad? Yes. These people feel like family. We wish we could keep them on all the time. But that’s not how business works. And bands (and businesses) do this all the time. When we are in growth mode and in need of help, we are creating jobs and building community. When we need to streamline and get profitable, we need to make difficult decisions and have difficult conversations.
When you’re not on tour (or in growth mode) you may have to tune your own guitar and roll out your own drum rug for a while. It doesn't mean you won't get out there again. Use that time to woodshed, write more songs, strategize, and come up with the next plan.
These stages are dynamic and sliding backward may feel like you’re falling forward toward the Death or Breakup stage, but it’s not the case. Not even close.
Sumaya: Change is inevitable in everything we do. It’s easier if we anticipate that it can be helpful and supportive in getting us to the next stage of the business or next chapter of life. I really appreciate the way you have framed this metaphor in a way that people can relate to and understand an otherwise dry way of thinking about business. It's hard to talk about. Sometimes thinking about business strictly in terms of sales or marketing can shut people down. As creative people, sometimes we need to relate to something in a more dynamic or visual way.
Joran: You bring up a good point because I wonder, “Have I created these metaphors and models to make it more interesting for me – to keep myself more interested and engaged?”
I think that's partially true. It also turns out that what I've come up with has also been interesting, informative, and instructive for other people. I think maybe that's advice for any creative person. Make it interesting for you. By doing that, you may have created something that people want to be a part of.
SOME QUESTIONS USING THIS MODEL:
WANT TO CONNECT WITH JORAN?
If you’re saying, “I always thought I would be an awesome leader, but now this feels different,” let’s chat about how our coaching cohort can support your professional growth.
Learn more about the next cohort of Amplified Executive Coaching:
Illustrious is a leader in the change management and team alignment space. Since its founding in 2020, Illustrious has helped companies orient, pivot, scale, and simplify. Here are the four core values that drive their team of talented, visual consultants.
As artists, we believe there is a direct line between innovation or creativity and our ability to be in the present moment and improvise. This invisible line can be tense or slack. When it is tuned up it can be played like a guitar or piano. We are at our best when helping our clients create harmony from dissonance and we love helping them shine.
As facilitators and coaches, we treat active listening as a valued skill in order to discover needs and opportunities. We genuinely like people and want to learn more about them. We cherish stories and love hearing them. People are at their best when they feel heard, valued, trusted, and understood.
Belief in Human Potential
As humans, we have a relentless belief in the greatness of other humans. We don’t see them in their current state of blame, confusion, uncertainty, fear, or insecurity. We see the white, hot light at their center. We see them on their path to future growth as they commit to being the ideal version of themselves. Humans are at their best when someone sees them deeply and believes in them.
Commitment to Quality Outcomes
As thought partners in your business, we are focused on professional mastery. That means we are committed to learning, transparent processes, dress and technical rehearsals, and enthusiastic attention to detail. The sooner we get it right, the sooner you can identify the bright line through your organization’s thinking. A business is at its best when its leaders and teams are aligned on the vision, culture, story, and strategy.
ABOUT THE Author
Joran Slane Oppelt is an international speaker, author and consultant with certifications in coaching, storytelling, design thinking and virtual facilitation.