What is a Pen Portrait?

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A Pen Portrait helps facilitators to gain an insight into the people involved in the strategy creation process.

Everyone has their own belief system which will influence how they see the world. From a strategy development perspective, this will influence how they view the current and future state of the organisation. Consequently, before working with a strategy group, it is important that our facilitator has information about who is involved. This will include their background, their beliefs and how they are likely to react to the strategy creation process.

Pen Portraits

A pen portrait is a simple, but effective, method that we use to gather information about the people in the strategy group. It is written by someone in the organisation who knows the people involved well.  As its name suggests, a pen portrait is a written document that describes each person honestly and in as much detail as possible.  We always use them before starting to work with the people in our client’s organisation.  They are invaluable aid when working with people both in individual interviews and strategic workshops.

The information to that should be obtained about each person will include the following:

  • Name and age;
  • Position in organisation;
  • Roles and responsibilities;
  • Area(s) of expertise;
  • Type of person (e.g. leader, follower, blocker, negative, positive, etc.);
  • Their importance to the strategy development process;
  • Their likely reaction to participation in a group workshop vs one-to-one discussion;
  • Importance to the business going forward;
  • Likely response to change and any other relevant information or observations.

It can also be useful to include a photograph of the person so that the facilitator knows what they look like.

The pen portraits should be written by the client, who will normally be a senior member of the strategy team.  The client’s pen portrait will normally be written by another senior member of their team.  If the organisation has an impartial member of the executive team, such as a non-executive director, then that person may be a good source of information about the participants.

We find having this information about people in the strategy group to be invaluable, especially in strategic interviews. It allows us to prepare better for the interview but also enables us to understand the context of the statements that they make. It also enables us to use the appropriate strategic questioning techniques to elicit the information that is important to the strategy creation process.

To help understand how this works, we have created some examples of Pen Portraits and their use.

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