What is a Pen Portrait?

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

Everybody has their own belief system that will influence how they look at things and, from a strategy development perspective, this will have significant influence how they will view the current and future state of the organisation. Consequently, we believe that before working with a strategy group, it is important that our facilitator has information about the people involved so that he/she has some understanding of their background, their beliefs and how they are likely to react to the strategy creation  process.

Pen Portraits

A simple, but effective, method that we use to gather information about the people in the strategy group is to have someone in the organisation who knows them well create what is called a ‘Pen Portrait’.  As its name suggests, this is a written ‘portrait’ of the person that describes them honestly and in as much detail as possible.  We always use them before starting to work with the people in our client’s organisation and find them to be an invaluable aid when working with people both in individual interviews and strategic workshops.

The information to be obtained about each person should include the following: name, age, position in business, responsibilities in the business, area(s) of expertise, type of person (e.g. leader, follower, blocker, negative, positive, etc.), importance to the strategy development process, 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 the senior member of the strategy team.  The client’s pen portrait will normally be written by another senior member of the 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.

I find that having this information about people in the strategy group to be invaluable, especially in strategic interviews, as it not only allows me to prepare better for the interview but also enables me to understand the context of the statements that the interviewee makes and 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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