Climbing an Ideation Ladder to Positive Disruption

You may recall that last month I introduced the first of five tools I suggested have some value in trying to positively disturb/disrupt a human system. Last month, I lifted up the tool of “flipping” a conversation. More on that here.  

This month I’m offering you a look at a second tool—an ideation ladder. The image below might help visualize the key points in this discussion.


Simply stated, the ideation ladder is a tool for visualizing impact in a way that connects, energizes, and deepens ownership among those using the tool. And in so doing, it helps the user positively disrupt a system that inherently seeks stasis.

Application and Examples

At first glance, the ladder resembles the typical hierarchy of planning language. A big vision is propelled by a set of strategies, which in turn are fueled by a host of short term tactics. You’ve seen a hundred strategic plans with that same structure.

So, what’s different here and why might this tool contribute to positive disruption?

  • FOSTERING ALIGNMENT FOR LEVERAGE: Action is abundant; sadly, reflection and discernment is in much shorter supply. This tool is designed to bring awareness to the context surrounding all the action. Many team and whole organizational cultures have been so deeply steeped in reward for productivity that blind spots develop about why this flurry of activity is happening in the first place. The tool helps you connect the tactics to strategies…. “We employ these tactics in order to pursue these strategies in order to achieve this vision.” The reverse flow also works…. “Because we are compelled to achieve this vision we pursue these strategies which require us to employ these tactics.”
  • GAINING PERSPECTIVE: As the graphic above suggests, the tool helps you gain perspective. Think about it as simple elevation[1].
    • Vision -> Our big why (a 3,000’ elevation view)
    • Strategies -> How we’ll get there (a 300’ elevation view)
    • Tactics -> What steps we’ll take toward strategy fulfillment (a 3’ elevation view)

Disrupting the habitual action of any system requires a longer term perspective that gives new meaning to daily activity. The more people who share that perspective, the more sustained the shift. This is important because a disruption is only a minor irritant—a one off—if the system immediately snaps back to business as usual. What we seek in change is a disruption that awakens, shifts, and is broadly held—aka, a real transformation.

Stakeholder interest, leverage, and change capacity
increases as purpose clarity improves.
Use the “big Why” to elevate strategy

  • DISRUPTING PATTERNS: Part of the service I often try to provide in my consulting/advising role is to disrupt limiting and default patterns of behavior. Here are the two most widely experienced patterns from my practice over the years.
    • Pattern 1 – Captive on the tactics treadmill. As you’ve heard me say many times before, there’s no shortage of action steps. They seem to multiply overnight, regardless of the context. It’s impossible to feel much of a sense of accomplishment with such a renewable tide of tactics. You start to feel trapped.
      • Breaking this pattern requires asking of each tactic, “We are pursuing this step in service of what strategy?” Doing so allows you to gain some perspective and to see connection to a bigger outcome. It may also uncover being wedded to tactics that seem to serve no apparent strategic purpose, as they may be done from habit and, therefore, are candidates to abandon.

Each of these patterns can produce burnout, churn, and comparatively lesser impact than system participants desire.

The longer the time horizon, the harder to focus and
hold attention. People default to tactics
when purpose for change is unclear.

  • QUESTIONS ARE RUNGS ON THE IDEATION LADDER: As we’ve discussed before, questions are the most important tool for any positive disruption. Their power is central at each level of this ideation ladder. Use questions to help people shift perspectives and build upon one another’s best thinking. Let’s look at a few examples:
    • Vision -> Our big why (a 3,000’ elevation view)
      • If money and politics were no issue, what could we accomplish?
      • If/when we’ve achieved of our stated priorities, what would the implications be for our grandkids, for the state, for indigenous peoples, for society?
    • Strategies -> How we’ll get there (a 300’ elevation view)
      • How can we articulate the clarity and alignment of these few sustained priority paths we intend to walk?
      • How are these strategies central to vision fulfillment and why now?
    • Tactics -> What steps we’ll take toward strategy fulfillment (a 3’ elevation view)
      • What will we do to pursue our strategies to reach our vision? If what we do in the short term creates evidence of necessary mindset shifts, what’s most important to double down on; to stop doing altogether; to newly adopt?
      • Can the outside observer see the direct connection between how focusing on these tactics in a coordinated way directly pursues core strategies and propels toward vision?
      • What are the investment opportunities that might best embrace or demonstrate this coordinated effort?
  • PICTURES, WORDS, AND DATA: As you know, we’re all wired for learning and communicating differently. We need multiple tools to convey anything of importance. That said, you can think about employing this ideation ladder with specific expressions that fit each level.
    • Vision -> Our big why (a 3,000’ elevation view)
      • A picture is worth 1,000 words. Some say if you can’t convey it in a picture you can’t see the path to get there. It doesn’t have to be artistic or detailed. Rough concepts are fine. You may think of conveying this on the back of a napkin with a simple “from – to” drawing, showing the problem of gulf in between the two states.
    • Strategies -> How we’ll get there (a 300’ elevation view)
      • Words are often best to convey strategy…but more words are not always better. Can you state your “how” succinctly? The more you amplify it, the harder it is to convey it, to remember it, and to have it enjoy shared acceptance.
    • Tactics -> What steps we’ll take toward strategy fulfillment (a 3’ elevation view)
      • Here’s where you’ll likely find more expectation for and use of data, charts, statistics, spreadsheets that help to convey and reinforce the myriad tactics.
  • IDEATION THROUGH PARTICIPATION: You can’t (effectively) do ideation in a vacuum. Those whose investment is critical must be involved in the process. It’s an iterative process of building, evolving, distilling. Think about this as the difference between using the tool “on” your system vs. using the tool “with” your system. Ideas without ownership go nowhere.

Let’s make this a dialogue. When you’ve made your most successful and positive disruption of a human system, what tools did you employ? What prompted that choice?

We all have something to teach and to learn. Thanks for hanging with me in this lifelong exchange.

[1] Jim Hodge and Scott Arthur, partners in Appreciative Philanthropy, first introduced me to this concept of elevation. They provide this example through an academic medical campus philanthropy lens: 3’ view (tactics/the “what”) – e.g., Funding chairs, professorships, and lectureships; 300’ view (strategy/the “how”) – e.g., Conduct stem cell research; 3,000’ view (vision/the “why”) – e.g., Cure age-related macular degeneration.