Creating and Sustaining High Performance Public Organizations

Thanks to Tom Hickok for this fine description of how the Leadership Metaphor Explorer Cards worked in his advanced topics in management course at Virginia Tech, with a special focus on “the inextricably intertwined concepts of leadership and culture.”

—–Original Message—–
From: Hickok, Thomas, CTR, NII/DoDCIO []
Sent: Thursday, June 12, 2008 5:07 PM

Thank you for allowing me to use the metaphor cards. I have had one opportunity to use them to date, and see another opportunity coming up in a few weeks. You asked for feedback on use, and I am happy to provide it.

I am presently teaching a course at Virginia Tech designated as an Advanced Topic in Management; the subtitle is “Creating and Sustaining High Performance Public Organizations.” There are 15 students — 12 are PhD candidates and 3 are Masters candidates — in two locations, Richmond and Alexandria, and they represent a mix of local and Federal organizations.

I used the cards in the 3rd session, a joint Saturday session in Fredericksburg, in between Richmond and Alexandria. We shared a meal at a local Perkins restaurant, and went to a classroom at nearby Mary Washington College.

I started the session by letting the students know we would be having a discussion followed by an exercise. The discussion began with the class brainstorming a number of characteristics of high performing organizations. Then we teased out the discussion of one of those characteristics — accountability. We talked about what the term meant operationally; how you would implement it; what would be consequences of failure to implement; and how you would measure it. This was a robust discussion.

Next I laid out the cards on several tables. I asked the students to mill around the tables and to pick out one or two cards that spoke to them in respect to the challenge of creating a high performing organization. The organizational context could be either where they worked, some other organization, or an imaginary organization. The card(s) could speak to them in either in a negative or positive way. And I let them know they would be asked to share about the card(s) they pick.

The sharing came fluently and progressively seamlessly as the discussion went along. By fluently, I mean that none of the students had trouble sharing, and in the process both self-disclosed and provided insights into their organization. By seamlessly, I mean that students hop on each others backs, linking their card to the one just previous. The discussion period last nearly an hour and a half.

There was no given order for discussion. The way they took turns is, after someone shared, another person would say “Maria’s card reminded me of … ” and then they talked about their own card.

Examples of the discussion: Student used …

  • strict disciplinarian to talk about how rules can stifle creativity
  • co-creating musicians to talk about high performance as improvisational jazz
  • squadron of jet fighters to talk about the need for training to simulate real situations
  • union of independent states to talk about new stovepipes replacing old ones
  • ambitious pioneers to talk about some initiatives of the new President

Other cards used were critical parents, community of practice, preserved fossils, network of peers, steady navigators, and adventuresome explorers.

There were no negative comments about the cards. The beauty of the card process is that there is no need for every card to resonate — as long as some do.

I had about 15 minutes prior to close, so I invited the students to give feedback on the class, and especially the use of the Explorer cards. I had earlier let them know the terms of use — that you were letting me use a product still in pilot and were looking for feedback. The feedback was universally positive. Some comments were — “It created a dialogue”, “the cards were great”, “the use of analogies is good”, and “great ice breaker”.

To me, the success elements that need to surround the cards include: a warm up discussion, so that the brains are warm, ready to go; enough time to let people linger over the cards, to engage their intuitive side; and then the chance to share in a well-supported way.

If I had a wish at the end of the class, it was that I could have given the selected cards to the students. After my CCL workshop experience, where we were allowed to keep the cards, I referred to my cards a number of times and I actually posted the Visual Explorer picture on my wall. The cards were more than mementos. They were triggers to recall the thought process that the workshop facilitated inside of me. (I couldn’t offer the cards to my students, since I
plan to re-use them in my work setting in the next month.)

In sum, I think the LME cards work beautifully. And the exercise demonstrated to me the versatility with respect to theme — the CCL workshop used leadership; in this context I used high performance organizations; and I am confident that the cards will work with “change management” as a theme (that’s my plan for the off-site of this office that has doubled in size due to re-organization.)

One other difference in use from the CCL workshop was that in the CCL workshop, the sharing was done primarily at individual tables in small groups. The conscious design of the day for my class session was to get the Richmond and Alexandria students to experience being one community. So I rejected the possibility of small group work. The large group sharing was a less
efficient use of time (the exercise took probably two times as long as it would with small groups), but accomplished the intended purpose.

From my perspective as the instructor, the main purpose of the class was to create a sense of community in a class that is being “polycommed” to two locations. In my view the class was a success; some lesser known students got better heard in that class; and the students from the two campuses got to know each other better. My concern was not with efficient time use, and that is why I didn’t rush any part of the exercise. It was with effect, and the cards worked beautifully in that regard.

My next possible use of the cards is as an “ice breaker” at an off-site “team-building”/picnic outing. Our group where I work has almost doubled to about 32 in the last month due to a re-organization. The way I want to use the cards is to create a discussion about managing change, and the number of changes the participants in the exercise are making and/or are going (or will go on) on in the organization. Then, I will invite people to pick cards of people that speak to them, and discuss.

I really like the cards and the way they draw from the intuitive side of people’s brains.


Tom Hickok

About Charles J. Palus & David Magellan Horth & Steadman Harrison III

Charles J. Palus & David Magellan Horth are Senior Fellows at the Center for Creative Leadership. Steadman Harrison III is CEO of Global Outreach International, CEO of, and Senior Associate for the Center for Creative Leadership.
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One Response to Creating and Sustaining High Performance Public Organizations

  1. Pingback: The Systems Skills for Managers Course at Virginia Tech | Leadership Explorer™ tools by the Center for Creative Leadership

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