Exploring, Analyzing and Interpreting Your Organizational Context

October 6, 2020 | FEE Content, FEE Posts


by Bob Leonard and David Ross


What do we mean by “context”? As it relates to strategic leadership of an organization, context is the internal and external settings, cultures and stakeholder perspectives that comprise the situation within which a decision is to be made.



In a recent article, we discussed the importance for leaders to understand their internal and external context. Particularly in a world that is increasingly volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous, making decisions without understanding the context is fraught with risks to the successful delivery of your vision and strategy, and to your organizational brand and reputation.


Reliable Context Discovery Requires Extensive Outreach


In a non-linear world, ignore context at your peril. To maximise reliable information gathering, there are a number of risks that need to be managed when exploring, analysing and interpreting your context. Key risks include:

  • Breadth of understanding: Involving only leadership and executive team members limits the amount of context intelligence collected. Executive leadership often share the same blind spots and are vulnerable to “group think”, so it is essential to broaden the scope of your information gathering. Include stakeholders from an array of positions inside and outside the company. These people have different perspectives and experiences and will contribute to a broader view of your context… one that more closely reflects reality. That results in better informed decisions.
  • Depth of understanding: Alternatively, be wary of using a “blanket” approach that involves all stakeholders. Due to the number of people, organizations often use surveys that by their nature can focus only on surface issues. You want meaningful information that explores the root causes of your context. That requires interactive conversations and questions that can’t be anticipated before the fact.
  • Difficulty anticipating the future(s): To address strategic opportunities and challenges, organizations need to not only understand their current context, but what lies ahead. Due to our turbulent times, there are several potential futures with differing contexts that may occur. There is an array of possible, plausible and preferable futures ahead of us. Each of these can create insights with respect to what is anticipated – not predicted – to be of strategic importance to the organization and its success.


For organizations that manage these risks, there will be insights of strategic benefit. There will be epiphanies – “ah-hah” moments that occur when the organization understands that it has been operating with legacy thinking. Legacy thinking is a 20th century mindset that deploys management principles that are no longer relevant. By clearly seeing the current and near future context it is operating in, the organization can take steps to effectively address the wicked problems it faces.


Breadth: Involving Your Influencers, Strategically


The term “stakeholder” has been absorbed into the vocabulary of most organizations but, from our experience, meaningful interaction and collaboration with a broad spectrum of stakeholders remains problematic. Let’s consider one of the pioneering definitions of stakeholders that Edward Freeman developed in 1984:


“… any group or individual who can affect or be affected by the firm’s activities.”


It is impractical for an organization of any size to involve all stakeholders in individual discussions about its context. It is more useful to focus on the relationships that matter the most. This means sitting down with your team, coming up with a list of stakeholders, and then whittling down this list to the people who have the most impact on your organization — these are your key influencers. You will accomplish more by addressing a targeted list.


When we use the term “key influencers”, we are not referring to individuals with large social media followings. Key influencers are individuals (or sometimes groups) who have a significant bearing on your organization’s brand, reputation and the implementation of strategies.


When determining who your key influencers are, look for these three attributes:


  1. The stakeholder has a significant impact on your company’s growth. This means that the long-term success of your company hinges in part on a continued relationship with this individual or group.
  2. The stakeholder cannot be easily replaced: from a top-performing department or a time-tested supplier, you can identify who this stakeholder is by assessing past performance.
  3. The relationship is mutual: you can clearly identify what you need from the stakeholder and vice versa. Your organization’s goals and desired results are aligned with those of this individual/organization.


Who do you avoid talking to? That question can be confronting / bewildering / frustrating for many, though not because it is a difficult question to answer. It is easy to identify a number of different stakeholders that an organization has an uncomfortable history with, based on a past disagreement, or because you tend to differ with them. They are exactly who you should engage with precisely because you have differing opinions. Collect and analyze their perspectives.


In addition, there are many that have significant expertise with respect to the issue you are trying to understand, but they are outside your organization / industry / sector. Reach out and collaborate with them. Find out what they know that you don’t. 


If you are open, patient and listen deeply to these people, you will gain important insights that you would not otherwise have access to.


Depth – Interview Selected Stakeholders


Prepare for interviews by developing a pre-engagement list of questions. Keep in mind the most powerful question is the one that works within the context of the situation at hand. The question must be appropriate to the person(s) being addressed, and to the conversation, and it must unlock the door to reveal the needed input / feedback / information. Be ready to go off script and pursue any lines of conversation that you have not anticipated. Those tangents can be dead ends… and they also can be nuggets of gold.


Below is an example list of questions we designed to prepare you for your meetings and lead to productive conversations. This is a list of questions you might ask concerning your organization’s internal and external context in regard to our climate crisis:


What are our biggest climate risks and how do we mitigate them?


Do you see any business opportunities inherent in our climate crisis?


How can climate action add value to our products or services?


How can climate mitigation reduce the strategic risks inherent within our business?


How can we improve the risk management, governance, control, and reporting functions for climate change?


How can we reduce our carbon footprint through energy efficiencies?


How would you feel if this climate discussion was public knowledge – would you be comfortable with that? If not, why not?


Is our company culture aligned with addressing our climate crisis? What will hold us back?


What are people thinking, but afraid to express, about the threats of climate change?


What are the aspects in your area that are most vulnerable to climate change, and how do you plan to deal with them?


What are your biggest obstacles and barriers to successfully dealing with climate? 


What does the business look like in five years, with respect to managing climate change? And how do you think we should get there?


What can we do to operationalize our climate vision and strategy?


What do we need to do today to pull the climate future toward us and create competitive advantage?


What if we did nothing at all, what would happen?


What rules or historical assumptions should we break to do what needs to be done to face climate change?


What will be the key performance indicators for our climate efforts? How will we measure them, and what hurdles do we need to surmount to be successful?


What’s your greatest frustration regarding climate and how can I help you with that?


Which markets, partners, clients, or other opportunities can add synergy to our climate efforts? 


Why should we make an investment in climate adaptation and mitigation? How does it drive revenue, profit, viability, brand equity, competitive advantage, etc. What are the potential risks vs. possible rewards and what is the downside of not making the investment?


Would an explicit climate mitigation/adaptation plan help to attract talent?


Concerning climate, are there any questions I should have asked, but didn’t?




Record each interview for transcription. Synopsize the transcriptions. Then review them for recurring themes and outlier opinions that may have significance. This is a critical moment for reflection rather than “othering” – the unwitting reflex to believe that “we know best”.  There is much to be gained from committing to a collaborative approach. Compile your context findings and use them as an input to your scenario planning and strategy development.


Key Takeaways


  • In a VUCA world, attempting to set strategy without a deep understanding of context is fraught with peril.
  • Acquiring a deep understanding of context cannot be accomplished in the Board room and/or the C-suite.
  • True understanding of context requires both breadth and depth.
  • Target your most influential stakeholders.
  • Prepare a comprehensive list of questions.
  • When interviewing stakeholders, listen deeply and be ready to deviate from your script when unexpected insights arise.


When analyzing and interpreting what lies beneath the context, there are no “silver bullet” tools. No single tool will provide all of the understanding necessary. Consequently, in the next article, we will build on this discussion, introducing a number of key tools that can provide insights into context, engage stakeholders and feed informed strategies.  





share your thoughts


Share the Site