The Power of an Executive with a Blank Sheet of Paper

The Power of an Executive with a Blank Sheet of Paper (part 2)

Recap of Part 1:

  • Many years ago, I was working with the accounts team of a mid-size corporate client to develop a Strategic Chart of Accounts.
  • The CFO was struggling with the legacy structure he had inherited. So I persuaded him to restart with a blank sheet.
  • This principle of an executive with a blank sheet of paper applies to a diverse range of topics from architecting a new piece of software to developing a comprehensive long term strategic plan.
  • Executives hold the integrated holistic view of the business. Consequently, it is the executive team that is the custodian of the strategic view of the business, and they are the stakeholders who should define how the business is modelled.

Part 2 of 2

In this second part of the article, I will outline the approach that we use in strategic planning and tactical analysis that is based on the principles outlined in part 1, and which you can apply to your planning.  In fact, this approach is valid in a wide variety of organizational endeavors.

1. The reality – the morass of muddled legacy thinking

What I have seen repeatedly over the years is that most people, when faced with a new initiative, try to bring as much of the logic and structure of previous endeavors into the new initiative.

The reality is that this information is seldom, if ever well structured let alone well thought out, it is a brainstorm list at best and, at worst, it is a shambolic morass of muddled legacy thinking.

The answer?

A blank sheet of paper!

2. The principle – start with a blank sheet of paper

As stated above, the most effective approach is to use the existing information and logic as a brainstorm list and start with a blank sheet.

In the following sections I will summarize the different blank sheets that we use in our strategic planning process – it is much faster and more efficient than trying to make sense of the legacy.

3. Brainstorming – an unstructured, uncurated, collective brain dump

In our strategic process we identify the focus question – which defines the issue under evaluation – and then we brainstorm.  We give delegates the following guidance:

  1. List all thoughts regarding the focus question
  2. No discussion, just speak it out
  3. There are no wrong answers
  4. We will capture verbatim
  5. All thoughts, no matter how outrageous they may seem (even the jokes)
  6. Everything that might possibly have a bearing

This can take anything from a few minutes to an hour or more with a team of five to ten people.  We recently gathered 253 points in about forty minutes with a group of four people.

Typically, the flow of ideas will come in waves; it takes about three to five waves to get everything on the table. In some respects, the brainstorm is a safety valve – it allows all the unspoken issues and frustrations to be released into a safe environment. Every person has been heard and so the rest of the process proceeds more smoothly because there is no need to constantly interject because a person feels they are not being heard.

4. Critical Factor formulation – synthesize into 7 points that capture the essence

We then move on to another blank sheet of paper for each delegate to privately formulate the seven Critical Factors that most accurately summarize all the points on the brainstorm list.  This is challenging delegates to harness maximum wisdom and creativity.

The individual sets of seven factors are then captured in public and the group works together to meld all the inputs into one comprehensive set of seven factors.  Nothing is deleted so all team members are given equal voice in the process. This is an extremely powerful process as it harnesses the sum total of the wisdom in the room.

Once the composite factors have been formulated, we allocate short headlines to each factor and this is the essence of what is taken forward.

All the items on the brainstorm list can then be classified according to the seven Critical Factors so there is complete capture of all the inputs that have been provided.  This ensures that the final plan comprehensively addresses the entire domain of information gathered.

5. Weight and Score the factors

We then move to another blank sheet to develop the relative importance of the seven factors to achieving the goal. Each delegate weights privately out of 100% and then the weights are captured publicly and discussed to give what we term “The different views of the mountain” – the different perspectives in the room.

This has a significant team building impact as it facilitates that all team members understand the priorities of the others. We than take the average or another set of values and agreed the priorities for the overall plan going forward.  Again, this represents the collective wisdom in the room.

This process gives us is the Strategic Trajectory – where the organization is heading and where it wants to be heading

Where there are conflicting priorities these are revealed in a non-threatening manner that opens the door for constructive resolution.

A further blank sheet is then used to rate performance on the basis of:

  1. Historic
  2. Current
  3. Forecast
  4. Objective

On a scale of:

  0 = could not be worse anywhere in the world

10 = could not be better anywhere in the world

Scores are allocated privately and then shared publicly and discussed revealing differences in paradigm which can also be resolved.

This process gives us is the Strategic Trajectory – where the organization is heading and where it wants to be heading and a Weighted Gap graph that highlights which of the factors require the most attention.  Again, netting down to the 20% of factors that will deliver 80% of the strategic outcome.

6. Structured Gap Analysis

We then move on to a further set of blank sheets to analyze how to close each of these gaps with a series of projects where we examine:

  • What will be done? – up-to-seven projects or plan actions
  • What is the contribution of each project to closing the gap?
  • How well are we doing it already?
  • Accountability – who owns the project
  • Timeline – time frame for execution
  • Resources: people – required person days
  • Resources: cash – operating costs and capex

If the CFO had begun with the legacy chart of accounts, his financial decision support system would have been out of harmony with the strategic essence of the business.

Once more, delegates formulate the up-to-seven projects to close each gap privately and then share them and synthesize them into no more than seven projects.  They then assign headlines and then weight, score, allocate resources, etc.  Starting with a blank sheet of paper opens the door for imaginative creativity to arrive at a high impact highly effective solution that is owned by the team.

These projects are then automatically pulled forward into a master schedule where the relative weights are cascaded down, and the most important projects highlighted and sorted to the top of the stack for priority execution. 

Multiple focus questions can be analyzed in order to map the entire strategic environment giving rise to a comprehensive Strategic Action Plan. We can help you with mapping your strategic environment, starting with a High-Impact-Low-Cost strategy workshop.

This is then fed into a formal project management process.

7. The Outcome

So what was the outcome of my Chart of Accounts engagement with the client CFO?

Well, after several meetings over the space of a few weeks we had a strategically focused Chart of Accounts that exactly reflected the strategic priorities of the CFO and the Executive team. The CFO was thrilled with the result and has been a fan ever since.

If the CFO had begun with the legacy chart of accounts, his financial decision support system would have been out of harmony with the strategic essence of the business.

And it all started with a BLANK SHEET OF PAPER.


An Executive with a Blank Sheet of Paper is a powerful concept, not just in the areas discussed above but in diverse strategic and operational contexts.

We would welcome the opportunity to get on a Zoom call with you to discuss how we can assist you. Kindly contact me at

We look forward to being of service.


Dr James A Robertson

James A Robertson and Associates