La piramide del senso
Enterprise Development: Creating Shared Meaning through Pyramid Building

by Prasad Kaipa, Chris Newham and Russ Volckmann

The article describes a methodology, pyramid building, and its uses in enterprises for systems thinking, developing shared meaning and aligning people, processes and strategy. The challenges of finding agreement and alignment in complex, polarized, high tension environments are explored, together with illustrations of how this tool was applied in a variety of organizations. We intend this methodology to increase capacity for generating clear, integrated and creative solutions in enterprises facing the challenges of complex, uncertain, ambiguous and polarized circumstances.

Complexity at Work

Consider the following two scenarios.

An executive team in a Fortune 100 company was at a crossroads. There were many opportunities in front of them and many obstacles to overcome. Competitors were right on their heels. The right choice could take the company over the top, while a wrong decision could bring about a major disaster. The executive team's conversation about the future was like those of many other teams all over the world. Tempers were flaring and nobody was listening. At last, they came up with a solution that they could all `live with' and justify to shareholders. So the decision they made was not meaningful or exciting to themselves, let alone to the rest of the organization. Nevertheless, they allowed a sigh of relief, fully knowing that what they agreed upon is less than optimal. At some level, this group knew that the outcome could only be a continuation of the past, rather than a step into the future.

In contrast, the Emerging Markets Training group of a large automobile company was going through a start-up process with a similar circumstances. There was tension and uncertainty in the group. They could not make major decisions, but had to live with those their executives made. They had to cut costs while providing quality service, focus on short term gains while designing long term strategies, and organize globally to serve clients while being close enough to listen, learn and change based on shifts emerging from corporate headquarters.

To accomplish these multiple and seemingly contradictory objectives, the group used an approach that brought simultaneous focus to their competencies and those of their clients. They generated shared meaning in the process, and used the structure they designed to clarify and enhance their understanding of their clients, their own work and each other. They successfully took a highly complex, ambiguous and uncertain business challenge replete with polarities, and made it manageable. In the end, there was a deeper understanding, a clear process to engage with the clients and a design to do their job easier. The group members even became much more effective in working with one another. The process they went through involved building pyramids.

Pyramid building is about creating an issue related three dimensional structure that helps visualize interdependencies and tensions in complex situations. Pyramids, or in this case tetrahedrons, are geometrical objects which have four corners and four faces interconnected through six edges. Each face is connected with each other and each corner is connected through edges to every other corner. In effect, the tetrahedron allows for a visual representation of complexity in organizations. The process for building the tetrahedron fosters a systemic perspective and understanding of the implications of any scenario in a more complete and meaningful way.

Systems thinking is essential for working with complexity in organizations. Rapid change is coupled with our growing awareness of complex systems that relate leadership to business strategies, customers, technology, and employees in a ever shifting cultural, social, economic and political environment. Systems thinking in groups is required for alignment with vision, goals, challenges arising from change. In fact, wherever the authors work, we hear about the need for alignment of methodologies, people and structures and an integrated perspective from which to act. Such actions are needed, we predict, to produce sustainable growth, satisfied and committed customers, and creative and productive employees designing innovative products and services.

In over four years of using this approach in a wide variety of contexts and for a wide variety of purposes, our clients have found it to be of critical importance in confronting complexity and integrating diverse perspectives. Organizations and groups are using the process to think systemically, to explore ideas and build alignment, to surface and explore differences, to communicate and share understanding, to focus efforts, to design strategies and to evaluate results. The pyramid approach, we are finding, allows us to develop a shared, transformed view of the enterprise and, from that new perspective, create its future.

Alternative Paths

In a less chaotic, predictable market place once we came up with a good, usable product, its life time was in years and decades. We just had to make sure that we produced high quality, low cost products that fit the needs of our customers. On the other hand, the current context changes very quickly and the Internet and other factors have really made the market place very interconnected and global. The product life cycle is shrinking every day as demonstrated by Netscape's release of a new version of their Internet browser (Netscape Navigator) every quarter or so. If they fail to do this, Microsoft might take away their market share very quickly! In such a fast paced environment Netscape can predict neither what will happen in the market place nor how well their browser will be accepted.

To apply our best thinking to such situations we use analysis. Simulations help us anticipate outcomes. Simulations and scenario planning activities have been of great help to many companies. Computer-based tools are helping executives and managers alike to simulate and understand feedback loops and causal implications of their decisions and give them an opportunity to compress time and simulate a scenario to predict its results and make adjustments.

There are limitations on what simulations can do. While there are times when we could create boundary conditions and simulate a scenario that helps our understanding and allow us to prepare for the future, we can get into trouble by identifying causal relationships and repeatable patterns and trying to apply them in future unpredictable circumstances. Mattel recently had to recall their new `snack-time' doll that chewed up fingers and hair of some unsuspecting children along with plastic carrots. Simulations with selected groups did not reveal the contexts in which these disasters would occur. They had to learn it by doing it.

In program and project planning we predict the outcomes of new actions through a linear analysis. Project management provides good tools that help teams and organizations to develop and release products with limited surprises. But there has long been a tension between linear project planning and the dynamics of development. Resistance to project planning tools in software systems development stemmed in part from a recognition that many aspects of systems development are iterative, that is, nonlinear. It is difficult to translate the linearity of most project planning tools to the organic, dynamic processes of many programs and projects.

The global market place and continued customer acceptance are neither predictable nor can it be planned in advance. If an organization does not have a systemic and dynamic view of its customers and their needs, its products and the market place, it could end up in deep trouble. What can help us navigate through a future of high complexity and low predictability?

Our discovery has been that the pyramid building process allows for participants to include each others' mental models and transcend these to build something quite new. There are phases in which divergent group thought embraces complexity, uncertainty, ambiguity and polarization, and phases of convergent thought that makes the relationships between new ideas quite explicit and brings about new learning. Our clients report that the pyramid building process has created a new context for working together, for communicating with openness and authenticity. They report that building pyramids helps to link ideas and to look at the tensions between them. The process breaks down road blocks to group learning and gets creative juices flowing.

The pyramid building process reliably ignites conversations that illuminate new paths for development. In the next few paragraphs, we describe some examples in which pyramid building has been used to deal with complexity.

Pyramid Pioneers

At a Fortune 100 aerospace company, we helped a training design team work together in ways they could manage their complex task. To understand their customers better, we built a pyramid simulating the current reality of their working environment and culture and another including the highest vision that they could hold that described a desired future. The team gained conceptual clarity around where their clients are and where they could be. By exploring the gap between the two, the design team experienced high energy and shared vision. The process clarified which specific training modules were critical to be included in their management development program, one that continues to be successful in the company two years after its introduction.

In building its mission, the Indian software company Mastek used the pyramid building process. They wanted their mission to be dynamic and also their pyramid (which they called Mastek Prism) to be usable in day to day operations. In building it, they first sought and received extensive input from their 700 employees over six months. Then they clarified the personal visions of the management team and worked to identify a mission that `includes and transcends' their personal visions and the employee input. From their pyramid, they could see clearly how and why companies in the information technology industry performed the way they do and how and what they wanted to learn from companies like Microsoft, Xerox PARC, Hewlett Packard and Apple. They use the pyramid to simulate and understand characteristics of effective teams, to select members who bring different skills and competencies to the team, as a tool to engage with customers and in strategic planning processes to create sub-strategies and measures of success. Miniatures of the "Mastek Prism" were given to all their 700 employees and many of their customers. Mastek found their prism to be deeply meaningful, and informative. It helped them gain a holistic perspective by identifying new problems and opportunities before they happened. This pyramid model was a useful tool for them to think through their decisions and choices.

In another Fortune 100 manufacturing company, stimulating employee motivation was a high priority. Procedures and measures were provided for division managers to implement and evaluate empowerment in their organizations. In a division where this prescription was unsuccessful and productivity went down after the training programs, a plant manager brought other plant managers and senior executives to a workshop where we facilitated a process in which they discovered when they personally were most empowered. They built a pyramid integrating their experiences both in and outside of work. There were many `ahas' and insights into why the current training program was not working and what they could do to raise the productivity of their plants. They discovered that heart, feeling of ownership, self-esteem, mutual trust and information sharing are all essential.

Dr. Deming had begun to integrate his management philosophy towards the end of his life through the development of the system of profound knowledge. Unfortunately, his ideas were insufficiently explained to be understood even by his close followers. Dr. Al Viswanathan, a retired quality manager from Boeing and a former president of The Deming User Group in Seattle used pyramid technology to understand the deeper connections between the components of profound knowledge and disseminate his learnings to wider audiences. He creates a foundation for his audiences to explore the relationships between the components of profound knowledge in a systemic way. The participants create new meanings for themselves and apply the principles of profound knowledge in their organizations.

A new business segment was developing in a Fortune 100 tele-communications company. While the overall business was laying off people, this segment was experiencing exponential growth. The management wanted to assess the future and create a strategic vision that built on the opportunities they were seeing. After exploring their core competencies and strategic intent, they built a pyramid which revealed the interdependencies between products and services, employees, customers and profitability. The division took these as four areas of focus for the following year. Interdependent groups were established to understand and simulate the opportunities and threats that arose from their vision.

The Secretary of Energy and Petroleum Industry in a major third world country had retained a consulting group to assess innovation in the energy industry in that nation. When consultants interviewed over 500 engineers and scientists during the pilot phase and came together to prepare a presentation for their clients, the mass of information was found to be complex and unwieldy. Implications were not clear, although their intent and the model they used was quite adequate. We used a pyramid building process to create an interpretive framework to understand and explain the results of the pilot project. Executives and government representatives were given 3D pyramid models and the participants clearly understood the conditions under which innovation could thrive in their industry. The next expanded phase is in progress and the consulting firm is continuing to use and evolve the framework.

Athena has used the pyramid building process four times in the development of management training CD-ROMs, including an award winning CD-ROM for management development. They brought together people from within their organization and from outside to develop these programs. The pyramid building process was very successful in helping these ad hoc groups gain focus and examine their perspectives in a highly creative way. Also, the pyramid building process was also used for organizing a recent book, Executive EQ: Emotional Intelligence in Business by Robert Cooper and Ayman Sawaf.


Pyramids, or more accurately, tetrahedrons have been built in twenty-six organizations, including twelve corporations, and in five countries. We believe that this process is all about having good, meaningful conversations that lead to coherent and focused action in the face of complexity. When the risks are high and choices are not clear the pyramid building process supports the development of a whole systems perspective that is organic and fluid. It supports not only the development of meaning among the participants, but its evolution through dissemination and further conversations.

While the initial results have been very encouraging, we have found the process to require coaching and continued exploration to get the best out of the pyramid tool and the process. When coaching accompanied pyramid building, the alignment between people, their actions, processes and organizational structures were more aligned than ever before.

Enterprises grow and develop when a shared and holistic perspective is guiding their actions. When that perspective emerges from the complexity and interdependency of their tasks at hand, pyramid builders become aligned and integrated. The three dimensional pyramid that encapsulates this perspective becomes a living reference to all interested stakeholders and allows and invites new kind of participation for collective action and meaningful reflection.


We really appreciate the enthusiastic support, suggestions, and encourage-ment we received when we interviewed our clients for this article. We especially want to thank Al Viswanathan, Sudhakar Ram, R. Sundar, Tom Grant, Jon Peters, Blake Emery, Ron Sandanato, Jim Broshar, Eldon McBride, and Robert Cooper, in addition to J. M. Sampath and Kalpana Sampath, our Indian partners, who documented the pyramid building process in Ford.

To be precise, we are creating objects geometrically known as tetrahedrons, a pyramid with a triangular base (see FIGURE 1 below).

APPENDIX 1: The Pyramid Building Process

Effective systems thinking tools stimulate excitement and fun, because when hearts are involved in conversations along with heads, commitment and depth are achieved. We have found that pyramid builders delight in their discoveries, and conversations easily develop to support collective learning and build commitment to new action.

Figure 1: A tetrahedron has four corners, four faces and six edges.

The pyramid, with its four corners, six edges, and four faces, is really a tetrahedron. The tetrahedron is the only geometrical solid in which each corner is directly connected to every other corner, and each face is directly connected to every other face. This property permits these features of the pyramid to represent sets of systematically dependent factors or variables. The generalized structure is made applicable to the group's issue by naming the cornerstones according to those four variables considered most important. The pyramid building process is one of repeatedly including and transcending the meanings of the cornerstone variables, first by naming the edges, then the faces, and finally the pyramid, all in a self-consistent fashion. In this way, the systematic dependencies between the original cornerstone variables are revealed. The meanings of the cornerstone variables become recontextualized by the new and interdependent edge and face variables, reliably shedding new light on the issue, and often fundamentally reframing it.

The pyramid building process comprises a cycle. The cycle has the four steps of intention, exploration, transformation and diffusion.

  1. Intention. The group commits to making fundamental progress in its issue area, and expresses that issue in its naming of the pyramid.

  2. Exploration. A thorough exploration of the group's priorities is conducted to determine names for the cornerstones.

  3. Transformation. In the naming of edges and faces, systematic relationships between the issue factors are revealed and the issue becomes reframed.

  4. Diffusion. The group takes action informed by the reframing of the issue, and communicates this reframing to others in ways their actions can also change.


    APPENDIX 2: The Enterprise Pyramid

    In the following paragraphs, we describe how we built the enterprise pyramid and what we discovered using it. We should say that this pyramid was used by us for our own development and the processes we are describing in this article emerged from examining and exploring this particular pyramid.

    1. INTENTION: The Purpose of the Pyramid

    We wanted to explore our potential for collaboration four years ago. We brought different skills, capacities, cultures, and orientations to our enterprise (we call our enterprise CPR Group--Creativity, Productivity and Revitalization). We wanted to understand the possibilities for synergy among these contributions.

    2. EXPLORATION: Defining the Cornerstones

    Our practices each have a different focus: organization development, business development and knowledge development, but we share a common interest in self-development. These four dimensions set up interesting creative tensions, and we quickly chose them as the cornerstones.

    Figure 2: The Enterprise Pyramid Cornerstones

    Business Development is about growing relationships based on exchanges of value, most frequently in the form of goods and services or money, between the enterprise and its stakeholders.

    Knowledge Development creates new information about aspects of the enterprise and its environment, and embodies this information in the people, systems and culture of the enterprise, as an available resource for action.

    Organization Development liberates organizational energy so the structure, culture, and relationships of the enterprise can evolve and move the enterprise towards its vision for the future.

    Self Development increases individual capacity to be fulfilled, including making contributions to the development of the enterprise that are aligned with personal dreams.

    3. TRANSFORMATION: Naming the Edges and Faces

    We built the pyramid by redrawing the tetrahedron of Figure 3 in two dimensions, opened up and laid flat. Figure 3 shows the edge and face names that are described following the figure.

Figure 3: The Enterprise Pyramid

The six pyramid edges mediate the polarities of the cornerstones, each edge describing a critical enterprise process: learning, valuing, strategizing, visioning, creating and realizing.

Learning: Organization Development occurs by learning to applyknowledge developed in creating change. Knowledge Development comes from learning within the relationships of the developing organization.

Valuing: Business Development builds new values for stakeholders using the resources of the developing organization. Organization Development supports business development with strategies that foster value creation.

Strategizing: Business Development strategizes paths to the future according to the developing knowledge of the enterprise. Knowledge Development occurs while strategizing to develop the business.

Visioning: Self and organization have the opportunity to develop together as visioning integrates individual and collective futures.

Creating: Knowledge Development occurs when we are creating new capacities in our self development. Self Development occurs from meeting the personal challenge of creating new knowledge.

Realizing: In the enterprise, Self Development is experienced in our ability to realize things which develop the business, and Business Development becomes possible by increasingly realizing ourselves.

Each face of the pyramid is a triangular "force field" enabling the cornerstones, and each face combines with its opposite cornerstone to provide a different perspective on the enterprise. The Enterprise Pyramid faces were named intention, exploration, transformation and diffusion. (Refer to fig. 4)

Intention enables self development, business development and organization development. Visioning, valuing and realizing are processes that clarify and strengthen the intention. Intention combines with knowledge development, to provide impetus to the enterprise.

Exploration enables self development, knowledge development and organization development, and visioning, creating and learning support this exploration. Exploration combines with business development to expand the horizons of the enterprise.

Transformation enables business development, knowledge development and self development. Creating, strategizing, and realizing stimulate transformation. Transformation and organization development together, bring about change in the enterprise.

Diffusion enables business development, knowledge development and organization development, and is derived from potential created by strategizing, learning about, and valuing change. Diffusion combines with self development, to move the changed value into reality for the stakeholders.

This is an enterprise in development - impetus, expansion, change, and new reality. We have transformed the original perspective of our potential enterprise, from an array of independent interests into a developmental process defined by the interdependencies of our contributions.

Figure 4: The Enterprise Wheel

4a. DIFFUSION: Applying the Enterprise Pyramid to Ourselves

How have we applied our transformed view of our enterprise?

1. We discovered that the product of our independent interests, our interdependent interest, is a process of intention, exploration, transformation and diffusion that we call enterprise development.

2. We can apply the enterprise development process in all we do among ourselves and with our stakeholders, particularly our clients. The usual objectives or mission would feel time bound and constraining compared to the "path" of enterprise development, which is liberating.

3. The interdependency we anticipated as partners is now made more explicit, and rather than equating our primary interests one-for-one to specific roles, we see how we can contribute to our collective process.

4. When we experienced differences that blocked our path, we examined how we each personally were contributing to intention, exploration, transformation and diffusion. We even designed personal pyramids, icons of ourselves in our shared context, that can be assessment tools for our interactions.

5. We now tend to use the general pyramid process to illuminate any complex matter, including the outlining of this article.

4b. DIFFUSION: Applying the Enterprise Pyramid to Other Enterprises

We have used the enterprise pyramid as a shadow tool to assist us in understanding issues faced by our clients. In addition, we have helped some clients examine their organizational issues through using the pyramid as a coaching tool. Some clients have requested copies of the enterprise pyramid and have continued to use it to help them understand organizational issues and opportunities over time. They have also used it to help them organize activities and to plan action.

Client companies use their pyramids not only to design new aspects of their enterprise, but also to communicate their ideas. Introducing the pyramid to those who were not involved in developing it or who have not engaged in pyramid building or been coached in its interpretation can be a difficult experience. One of our clients has generated principles from the pyramid they built and presented them as a prose list. Once others have grasped these principles, he has shared the pyramid with them. They can now see the complexity of the relationships among the principles. He took this approach because he had found that it takes some time for people to become comfortable with the pyramid model.

A third way we have used the enterprise pyramid with out clients has been by sharing the pyramid development wheel (Figure 4) and assisting them in clarifying where in the development approach they need to focus their attention. The wheel represents the four faces of the enterprise pyramid. We look at the question of intention. Are the client's intention clear? Do they need to clarify their strategic intent? Then we can look at the question of exploration. What do they need to explore? What do they need to learn about market forces, their core competencies, the strengths and weaknesses of their competitors, technology, etc.? This phase involves pre-planning analysis.

Then, based on intent and information, what is the appropriate change strategy? They can choose incremental change processes or move to bring about a major shift. Their choice of change strategy guides the selection of interventions, e.g., workshops, coaching, consulting projects or a combination. Finally, diffusion raises the question of the need for communication and action to engage others in the organization, suppliers, and customers in the change. Communications and engagement activities can be designed accordingly.

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