Expedition Mapping

This article introduces expedition mapping, a strategic planning and execution methodology that helps ensure success at reaching difficult organizational destinations. Expedition mapping is a new method for strategic implementation that blends together storytelling, action planning, resource analysis, and adaptive, ongoing environmental scanning – and it is delivered in a mix of face­to­face and online collaborative activities. We will discuss what it’s like to go on a strategy expedition and how maps help guide the organization toward its future. We will describe what expedition maps look like and give instructions, tips, and insight about how to build and use them. Finally, we will summarize the importance of the developmental aspects of expedition mapping and how it builds the ability of individuals, teams, and organizations to undertake successfully more ambitious expeditions than ever before.

Strategic Planning as an Expedition

Conscious strategic planning is an organized effort to maximize an organization’s potential over time as the environment shifts and changes. While traditional strategic planning techniques often begin with an environmental scan, the futures they seek often become quickly outdated as they are based on increasingly distant pasts. The strategic expedition adapts to changing conditions and remains fresh through the planning horizon. There are a number of useful tools to help us navigate and create the future.

Effective strategic planning incorporates three primary activities, planning – capacity building – execution, while a large number of tools are used in the process.

An operational definition of strategy is consistent, focused behavior over time adapting in response to emerging conditions. It begins with intentions about how to move toward the envisioned future. Along the way, the environment continues to change, sometimes in surprising ways. These emerging trends and conditions impact intentions, causing them to morph and change. What results from the interaction of our intentions, actions, and the changing environment are a number of realized strategies. When our intentions do not become reality, they are unrealized elements of strategy. When new strategic elements emerge, they may not be as intended; good or bad, they are facets of what the future may hold.

Emergent Trends, Conditions and Strategic Elements

Organizations can be characterized as one of three kinds of planning types: 1) those that plan for planning’s sake, yet do not leverage planning to create their futures; 2) those that plan with the best intentions, yet cannot overcome their opposing internal or environmental forces to make much happen; and 3) those that master the requisite skills and competencies of successful planning and create their own futures. The turbulent environments we are experiencing today is awash with forces that act to derail strategy and execution. We developed expedition mapping as a tool to help organizations easily become the third type. Let us explain.

The Expedition Map as Guide to the Future

Going on any kind of journey has several key activities, whether it be a weekend road trip, a week­long bicycling adventure, or a month­long safari – you need to decide where you are going to go, you should figure out one or more ways to get there, you must gather the necessary resources in your backpack to sustain yourself along the way, and you need to take the actions necessary to put yourself in motion. The process of moving an organization from where it is today to where you would like it to be in the future has many parallels. Our approach to mapping strategy implementation is more like an expedition than a train ride along a pre­lain track.

Any journey has two conditions – where you are and where you are going. In expedition mapping we call these current state and future states. A vision is a picture of the organization in some future state. In terms of a defined, set­term planning process, this particular future state is the end state, a description of the destination. There may be many way stations or particular future states along the way. Fully built expedition maps should take the priorities and strategic actions through a potential timeline, year by year for five years and quarter by quarter for the first two years.

Unless you are traveling alone, to go on any kind of journey each participant needs a reason to take the first step and motivation to end up at the destination. For organizations, these needs can be met for strategic expeditions by focusing on real value creation, both for employees and for customers, and being specific about creating compelling stories and targeting outcomes, descriptions and metrics about what the destination will be like.

Reaching the destination requires resources. The weekend road trip takes a car, gas, food, and a place to rest. For a long and tiring effort such as a week­long cycling adventure, we must first condition ourselves and build the capacity to sustain the hills and the elements along the way. The longer safari requires supporting partners, supply chains, transport systems, and a deep knowledge of the territory ahead of time. Organizations should treat their strategic expeditions with great care and consider and target all of the necessary organizational capacities to optimize success.

Unlike our travel examples, organizational expeditions involve large, complicated systems with many people, structures, and processes in place. This requires a high degree of coordination and activity alignment. Expedition maps require that we be specific about actions and activities, especially those that need to happen first. When completed, a strategic expedition map serves as a guide to the future for the organization. Let us get a bit more specific about the components of the map and how you can build one.

How to Build an Expedition Map

Organizational strategy is often complex and vision statements can be broad and a bit foggy. We recommend identifying a handful of specific strategies as part a larger, inspiring vision. Expedition maps are not built at the level of a broad vision, but at the level of the more specific strategies. Many organizations require 3­7 expedition maps, one for each statement of strategy. An example might be Tesla Motors. While Telsa may seek to disrupt the electric car market, there are a number of key strategies they must successfully navigate. Expedition maps would not be built around the auto market disruption, but on the more specific strategies such as building the best batteries or reducing plant emissions.

In turn, each expedition map has a small set of components. There is great flexibility in adding other components that may be required to best map out the journey for any strategy.

current state​: a description of the conditions that currently exist; this is your starting point, include necessary data and analytics about where you are today

end state​: a colorful, inspiring description of what the future may be like when the strategy is successfully realized; as the destination, this is the final future state on the map

time horizon​: the period of time over which you expect to pursue and reach the destination future states​: vivid descriptions of the way stations, points along the way plotted over time

time segments​: how the time horizon is divided into manageable parts, whether they be weeks, months, quarters, or years

accelerators​: forces, either internal or external, that serve to enhance or speed up strategy and activities

decelerators​: forces or obstacles that serve to resist or slow down your progress

actions & behaviors​: what you do in each time segment, how people act

financial resources​: human and financial capital necessary for the actions, behaviors, materials, and other costs

new capacities​: things you need to do that you cannot now, whether it be individual skills, group capabilities, new technologies, or organizational capacities

organizational practices​: new requirements or modifications to existing structures and processes or RRPP (rules, regulations, policies, and procedures)

The image below is a depiction of how all of these components are graphically represented on a single page.

Expedition map template

Our experience suggests, that for optimal insight and engagement, expedition maps are built through highly engaged, collective, participative processes. While express expedition maps can be built over a few days with leadership teams or in retreat formats, more effective and complete mapping can take weeks or even months. Regardless of the length of time required, the building of expedition maps passes through nine clear steps.

Step 1: focus strategically​ – choose to build maps with a clear focus on specific strategic actions, but be careful about getting too granular.

Step 2: set markers in time​ – establish the eventual planning horizon (the hopeful deadline for the end state and the timeline (often with quarters and years as time segments).

Step 3: tell the story ​– plot the emerging strategy over time and develop narratives for the current, future, and end states – storytelling is a useful tool in this process.

Step 4: understand the forces​ – explore, research, and annotate potential accelerators/decelerators, forces the act on your strategy from internal and external sources.

Step 5: prepare to act​ – identify the actions, behaviors, materials, people, and processes that will be required to move from one future state to the next for each time segment.

Step 6: build capacity​once the actions are known, identify the financial resources and organizational capacities necessary for success.

Step 7: seek alignment​ – tie all of the activities and resources to organizational practices and processes and created alignment across functions and up and down levels.

Step 8: take action​ executing the actions and managing the resources is the key engine for realizing strategy.

Step 9: track progress ​– the expedition maps are built to be updated, filling in actual success in the places where future states were once described and adding the measure of progress as they are realized. The map becomes a living document.

We suggest building early versions of expedition maps in a graphical or even pictorial format, often on large sheets of newsprint or whiteboard walls, and iterating them over multiple collaborative sessions to refine and complete them. Once the early versions are satisfactory, we move the maps into your favorite software package to expand the detail. You could use spreadsheet or slideshow software, but we suggest avoiding word processing software as these programs do not allow for flexible use of graphics and are not designed to handle the volumes of data and information required to complete the maps, often best associated in rows or columns.

We have found particular success in later­stage expedition map building using online, collaborative software like Google Sheets or similar products. These packages have several advantages and allow for live group editing, history versioning, asynchronous collaboration, user control and permissions, and portability.

How You Can Use Expedition Maps

The primary aim of expedition mapping is to execute strategy. There are myriad applications and uses for expedition maps. We would like to describe a few important advantages or uses that we have seen emerge from nearly all strategy expeditions using our methodology.

Use One: link to annual and quarterly action planning. Strategic planning is too often appended to existing operations. Most organizations operate at a certain capacity, people are busy, budgets are fully expended. During times of strategy setting, staff get excited about the possibilities and eventually get overwhelmed by the requirements. Expedition mapping allows the organization to more easily integrate new strategy into existing operations by linking activities to annual and quarterly action planning.

Use Two: align strategic resources and annual budgets. Finding the resources to fund new strategies is a difficult endeavor. Organizations either seek new investment resources or cut current budgets to create pools for reinvestment. By better understanding how the actions required along the expeditions tie into quarterly or annual action planning, we have a better understanding of how to align the strategic resources required and link these to annual budgets.

Use Three: target capacities for growth and development. A key activity in expedition mapping is preparing the backpack by evaluating what you need, what you have, and what you must acquire. Beyond new financial resources, this allows the organization to understand and target the capacities that need focused growth and development activities.

Use Four: staying nimble and responding to changing conditions. The first analysis of the accelerators and decelerators reveals the many forces that support and impede strategic actions. By keeping the expedition maps updated and alive, quarterly or even annually will do, a focused understanding of your organization’s most important strategic actions and the forces acting on them give great insight. You can better understand how conditions are changing and remain nimble in response to them.

Use Five: getting people on board and keeping them focused. One of the most powerful aspects of our methodology for expedition mapping is the nature of the facilitated process used to build the maps from the ground up. Large­scale, collaborative sessions pulls people in. It engages them in vision. Ongoing storytelling inspires them to action. They own the outcomes and give more to the activities in a focused way. This all starts with leadership’s engagement and true belief in the destination and the journey.

A final advantage is that expedition maps are perfect tools for tracking success and adapting to changing environmental conditions. As time goes on, future years can be expanded into quarters as new activities gain granularity and detail, budgets can be refined, and more apparent accelerators and decelerators emerge. Past quarters, years, and their associated metrics make tracking strategic progress easy; the initial current state can be relabeled as the prior state and the story at any point in time can be retold as the current state. This iterative implementation of the strategy stays alive, active, and engages those involved.

The Developmental Side of Expedition Mapping

Expedition mapping in not just a tool that any individual or team can use effectively, out of the box. Skill building should be “baked into” the development of expedition maps, and the teams should be facilitated by experienced practitioners who have acquired the perspectives, know­how, and process skills needed to successfully execute the application of expedition mapping. Such individual, team, and organizational development should be part of the expedition mapping expected outcomes.

In summary, we are excited about expedition mapping and would like to help others explore the methodology and practice. By combining storytelling, action planning, resource analysis, and adaptive scanning – and beginning and continuing the expedition as a collaborative activity – you can emerge through turbulent environments with motivated people and positive outcomes.

Robert Brodnick, Ph.D.
Brodnick Consulting Group