Application of Pyramid Building in Organizations:

Aligning Strategy, Processes, and People in Organizations

by Prasad Kaipa, Chris Newham and Russ Volckmann

Thanks for all our friends who have given us suggestions on improving this article. A modified and some what brief version of this article with exclusive focus on alignment appears in the April Issue of the Systems Thinker.

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What is It All About?

We have developed a powerful multi-dimensional learning approach that works directly with client issues while allowing reflection, dialogue and agreement on three levels: Clarifying intentions, agreeing on desired outcomes and identifying actions that allow us to get to those outcomes. Thirty organizations including five Fortune 100 companies have used this methodology successfully in designing strategy, clarify their mission, design executive development programs in addition to designing books, management CD-ROMs and five year strategic plans with built-in assessment tools. It has four qualities that no other tool we have seen has:

  1. It results in creating a 3-D model that fits in your hand and allows you to examine the model from different perspectives and to understand it as a system.
  2. The process of creating the model is interactive, inclusive and allows for both head and heart to be deeply involved (the concepts as well as the energy with which those concepts are presented are important).

  3. Reflection and action orientation are both included during the creation as well as the implementation stages. It is possible to look at the system, its parts and their interdependencies and relationships separately and together.

  4. The process of creating the model is generative and innovative. The model, when properly developed, is simple and complex at the same time. Its simplicity is expressed through its focus on three levels. Its complexity can be discovered in the generation of individual and shared meaning from those three levels.

  5. The pyramid as a product represents explicit, tacit and unmanifested (generative) dimensions. Explicit are our intentions, tacit are our actions and unmanifested are outcomes that we hope to achieve.

    In this article, we apply our approach to a specific issue: Bringing alignment between strategy, processes and people in an organization. While giving an example of our own, we help you to understand what our approach is, how you design pyramid tool and apply it in your situation, and what its potential is.

    As with presentation of any new approach, it has applications beyond what we have envisioned. The purpose of this article is to generate interest in it and develop further applications in organizations. We welcome your feedback!



    Most organizational change efforts have produced, mixed results. Models, approaches, and concepts that make sense in the beginning have often not produced desired outcomes. Somehow, the structures put in place, the strategy that drives the change effort, and the processes that bring about change leave people drained of energy. We would like to re-energize this process in a way that will engage people's vision and passion, and align change strategies with the processes that fulfill them.


    Achieving Alignment

    Aligning an organization's strategy, processes, and people is a challenge and almost unachievable in most circumstances. When achieved, alignment greatly improves opportunities for reaching desired outcomes. This challenge can be met where there is integrity and a willingness to collectively face such questions as:

    • Can the individuals in our group agree on what we want to do?
    • Can we devise a strategy to do it?
    • What actions must we take to do it?
    • When we're done, have we achieved the outcomes we expected?

    Alignment includes learning about self and others through comparing our perspectives with those of others. It requires unlearning, as well as learning. And it is a nonstop, dynamic process within organizational life that must coordinate individual intentions, collective means, and desired results.


    The Pyramid Building Approach

    Our approach for aligning strategies, processes and people explicitly allows organizations to clarify intentions, take actions, and produce desirable outcomes. It is particularly useful for revealing the relationships among critical variables and for uncovering the implications for organizational action and change. It provides a social context to discover values, assumptions, and beliefs. Groups in thirty organizations in five countries have used this approach to develop alignment for a wide variety of purposes. Read an Interview with Tom Grant about Pyramid Building in the Ford Motor Company.

    These have ranged from an executive group of an international company developing their shared vision, to a start-up group in a Fortune 100 company creating business strategies to a professional organization building a framework for exploring their future. In this article, we describe the Pyramid Building Approach and use a pyramid we built for our own work as an example.


    What is Pyramid Building?

    Pyramid Building is a method for identifying critical variables in a complex system and mapping their relationships and resulting interactions. The process relies on brainstorming, dialogue, and decision-making to build alignment among participants. The product of this process is a 3-D pyramid with identified intentions, actions, and outcomes mapped onto the corners, edges, and faces. The pyramid represents the clarity that has been achieved about the system's variables and their relationships. The meaning associated with each of these terms evolves and changes as we experience, learn, and dialogue. Nevertheless, at any given moment we are prepared to take action based on our understanding of these terms at that time.

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

    A simple tetrahedron Tetrahedron with Labels

    Figure 1: A Tetrahedron

    A tetrahedral pyramid has four identical triangular faces, unlike an Egyptian pyramid which has four triangular faces and a rectangular base. The Egyptian pyramid is symmetrical only when rotated around a vertical axis. The tetrahedron, by contrast, can be rotated around any axis and retain its shape. Therefore, any corner can become the apex. Thus, there is no structural hierarchy in the tetrahedron.

    There are key advantages in choosing a tetrahedron over an Egyptian pyramid as the 3-D object to map our model. Each face of a tetrahedron connects with the other three faces and each corner similarly connects with the other three corners. These inclusive connections are important because they support the notion of connectedness between all elements of a system. The tetrahedron permits us to see the interconnection between various system elements and allows us to model and 'play' with the whole system in a tangible form. In the following paragraphs, we describe the process of building a tetrahedral pyramid through an example.


    Building the Enterprise Pyramid

    The CPR Group comprises three partners. When we explored the potential of partnership, we knew that we have complimentary skills and shared interests that would support our working together synergisticly, but we needed to clarify how we could align our these in a way that would include and transcend our individual work and orientations. Our major professional efforts had been organization development, researching the nature of learning, and management consulting, each augmented by a shared interest in self development. At the core of these disciplines, we identified four importance processes:

    • relationship building,

    • the learning process,

    • organizing for outcomes,

    • and changing our perspectives (world-view).

    As our conversations progressed, we saw that we have been exploring different dimensions of development and that we could identify our intentions as Organization Development, Knowledge Development, Business Development, and Self Development. These four intentions represent our individual strengths and commitments, and together, they represent key aspects of our organization. We chose those four intentions as "cornerstones" and mapped them onto a pyramid, which we now designated as our Enterprise Pyramid (see Figure 2).

    Enterprise Pyramid with just Cornerstones named

    Fig. 2: Our intentions formed the cornerstones of our Enterprise Pyramid

    This simple representation suggested some lines of inquiry. Each cornerstone is connected to the other three, so that each intention is forced into relation with the others. For example, we began to ask ourselves:

    • What is the relationship between business development and organization development?

    • How does the combination of business, organization, and knowledge development best contribute to a change process?

    • What are the implications of excluding self-development?

  6. What are the likely outcomes of emphasizing only two or three of the intentions to the exclusion of others?

    Our reflection and dialogue about the connections between pairs of intentions led to concepts that 'bridge' the two cornerstones. While the cornerstones represent our individual intentions, the edges represent the actions necessary to arrive at collective, shared outcomes. Our actions not only connect and balance our individual intentions but also 'include and transcend' the polarity between them.

    For example, we saw that strategizing is where business development and knowledge development come together. Knowledge is required to formulate a strategy for the business development. The process of identifying strategies, in turn, focuses our efforts in knowledge development. Strategizing does not have to include organization or self-development directly and in many organizations it doesn't!

    Since edges represent actions, they are often most usefully represented by action words; gerunds, which form the basis for assessment or measurement of the strength of the connection (see Figure 3). Each cornerstone or intention gets defined by three edges or actions, through which it connects to the other three cornerstones. We found (with some trial and error) that the actions we identified fulfilled our intentions very well:

    Self Development:visioning, creating, realizing
    Organization Development:visioning, valuing, learning
    Business Development:valuing, strategizing, realizing
    Knowledge Development:strategizing, learning, creating

    In this process of validating intentions and actions, we reaffirmed our commitment to find outcomes that supported our intentions.

    Enterprise Pyramid with intentions and actions

    Fig. 3. Actions that include and transcend our intentions
    (portrayed on a pyramid opened at the Business Development apex and laid flat)

    We next examined the four faces of the pyramid. They took on the meaning of the outcomes produced by the actions of the adjacent edges and the intentions of the cornerstones. Each pyramid face represents an outcome 'field' produced by the interaction of three intentions and three actions. For example, 'Exploration' is the field that results from the actions of visioning, learning and creating; and the intentions of Organization Development, Knowledge Development, and Self Development (see Figure 4). Intention, Transformation, and Diffusion are the names of the other three fields. Each represents an outcome that is born out of a set of intentions and actions.

    Fig. 4. The Enterprise Pyramid: intentions, actions and outcomes

    This tetrahedron represents the holistic development perspective that we share. Cornerstones represent our intentions, edges the actions that we could take, and the faces outcomes resulting from our interactions. Thus, using the pyramid as a model of our collective interests, we developed a shared view of the system that we comprise. We found ourselves aligned, not just around components of the system, but around a growing understanding of the dynamic relationships among them.


    The 'Other' Perspective

    Figure 4 nicely represented our intentions and the actions that can facilitate specific outcomes. This tetrahedron conveys a positive tone, because it represents our aspirations; it has an emergent quality to it. Why? Because we cannot predict what the result of transformation is going to be before it takes place. Thus, we called this 'The Emergent Perspective' But what was on the "other" side? We wanted to see how this perspective relates to our experience with the current reality of our clients' systems. We called this flip side 'The Foundation Perspective.'

    Let us examine what happens in a business enterprise going through a change process. When people are not in touch with their dreams and visions (shared or individual), the context of change can feed resistance, anxiety and survival behaviors. The organization becomes uninspiring and people lose their energy and creative capabilities. But while people take change efforts seriously and try to make them work, some also find ways to avoid or even sabotage such efforts. While it is easy to let go of such saboteurs, from their perspective, they may have a valid reason to do what they do. Assuming that there is integrity in people's resistance to change, we wanted to learn more about it. May be the proposed change is too much a break from the past and may be the organization is better served by focusing on continuous improvement instead of transformational approach. Thus, our understanding of the Enterprise would not be complete without examining 'The Foundation Perspective' as well, and our ability to produce short-term results. So we set about designing a complementary 'Foundation Perspective' (see Figure 5).

    Enterprise Pyramid: Foundation Perspective

    Fig. 5. The Foundation Perspective of Enterprises


    Why Examine the 'Other' Side?

    When an organization is running smoothly and not undergoing rapid change, leaders focus on: Results, Programs, Information, and Training. They reflect a pragmatic attitude that is intended to sustain and grow the current organization. This approach focuses on what works and avoids looking at why it does.

    These four intentions are directly related to those on the Emergent Perspective: Business Development is about producing sustainable results. Organization Development has programs but also has an overall design to it. Knowledge Development is more than just information acquisition and brings an integrative and interpretive dimension. Self Development, while providing training, supports people to take responsibility for themselves and their work!

    Results at the Foundation level are pragmatic, e.g., continuous improvement is intended to solve a problem or meet an immediate need, and is not involved in a revisioning of the organization. Thus, a way of thinking about the difference between results in the Emergent and Foundation Perspectives would be to think of an athlete's performance. When an athlete conditions and practices, her focus is on long term gains, developing her skills and stamina over time. While there may be one major goal, an Olympic Medal or a championship, there are many challenges along the way. The conditioning and practice program is geared to meeting each of these challenges with increasingly effective performance.

    During the competition, however, the time for exploration is over. She needs to respond to whatever comes up during her performance. She must consider and react to differences in weather, 'field' conditions, and must challenge her skills and talent. The focus is on immediate results. This is what the Foundation Perspective offers in organizations. The pragmatic attitude is vital, for example, if products are not selling, someone needs to take the risks of making practical, hard decisions to get the organization back on track.

    We could also see the actions that routinely take place in the organization: planning, controlling, improving, analyzing, presenting, and imitating (we generously call it benchmarking). These are all actions that support smooth functioning of an organization and support the pragmatic approach.

    The outcomes on the Foundation side of the pyramid are built on its cornerstones and actions. Negotiation is the process by which we present information, control the programs and plan for the results. Intervention takes place when we find a reason to control the programs we offer and analyze the training so that we can improve the results. Modification and Solution support imitating, planning, and presenting to get the desired results.

    This Foundation Perspective helped us to see what creates stable organizations that focus on continuous improvement. They have clear ground rules and a nurturing (albeit somewhat controlling and more mechanical) culture. Expectations and/or performance criteria are known. There is consistency for routine activities. This is the Foundation on which emergent perspectives can develop!

    Building the Foundation Perspective exposed another criterion for pyramid development. Not only must cornerstones, edges, and faces be consistent amongst themselves on one Perspective, but each must correspond with its counterpart on the opposing Perspective. In this way two processes are described, the Emergent Perspective's forward-looking Intention --> Exploration --> Transformation --> Diffusion cycle, and in the Foundation Perspective we discovered the survival focused Intervention --> Negotiation --> Modification --> Solution cycle. Both cycles are necessary in organizations to support and sustain development; they are like two sides of a coin. One cannot exist without the other. When the Emergent and Foundation Perspectives build on and support each other, an organization engages in a learning and developing process. It becomes sustainable because continuous improvement and transformation are simultaneously supported (see Figure 6).

    Enterprise Development Cycle

    Figure 6: Emergent and Foundation cycles


    Emergent and Foundation Perspectives

    It is possible to look at both perspectives as polarities. When taken to an extreme, The Emergent perspective reveals self-organizational characteristics including uncertainty, creativity, generativity, and new possibilities. Similarly, when the pressure is on, the Foundation perspective could reveal mechanistic, control-focused routines, rules and regulations that only support changes around expediency and refinement. When we look at these two perspectives as contrasting and complimentary as the two sides of the same coin, the whole Enterprise Pyramid models an environment of both chaos and immediacy. In an organization that embraces both perspectives, change is self-generated and transformational, both practical and aspiring. Exploring both perspectives and their relationships creates a developmental approach to organization building and alignment (see Figure 7). In such organizations, it is possible to look at long term strategy and be flexible and dynamic while taking short term actions.

    Foundation PerspectiveEmergent Perspective


    Self Development




    Business Development




    Organization Development




    Knowledge Development


    Emergent and Foundation Perspectives
    Fig. 7. Contrasting and complementary perspectives of development in enterprises

    An emergent approach (with intentions of business, knowledge, organization and self development) allows for clarity of vision and values, vision based strategy, creativity, and learning leading to the realization of enterprise goals. A foundation approach (with intentions of results, information, programs and training) allows for workable plans, good market analysis, meaningful presentations, good control structures and focus on continuous improvement.

    Emergent approaches which ignore requirements for short term gains, structures and systems and only pay attention to creativity, fluidity, flexibility and individual responsibility can self-destruct. One company, Virtual Reality Systems, was started with very little seed capital. In order to secure more, the owner put his patents up as security. Lenders foreclosed and took the patents. The owner lost out. More effective attention to the foundation might have saved his position.

    If there is inadequate attention to the tactical and short term, leaders can lose support from key stakeholders or simply lose track of the bottom line. When people stop creating and the market is no longer enthusiastic about its products and services, an emergent organization without suitable control mechanisms in place becomes unable to deal with new market realities and disappears. Our innovations need the support of our structures. Our structures need to support our innovations.

    On the other hand, the foundation approach based organization has difficulty adopting to rapid changes in the marketplace. For example, Diablo printer company was one of the premiere companies supplying daisy-wheel printers connected to personal computers in the 1980s. They had excellent quality products, world class manufacturing facilities and the support of Xerox behind them. Markets moved on and the laser printers and (later) ink jet printers took over the market leadership and all their quality did not save them from extinction.

    From this brief analysis we learned that each perspective has to respect and support the other. Without the support of the one, the other collapses. When both perspectives are supported in an organization, it could truly become a learning organization even though we are still to find one such company in reality. We were quite pleased that our pyramid building led not only to a organization design framework but also created shared strategy, processes and, most importantly, shared meaning with deeper alignment among the three of us.


    How Has the Pyramid Building Approach Influenced Our Own Work?

    The Emergent Perspective is very useful in identifying where resistance and potential lie for future development. We have learned to include and transcend self development as an integral part of business, knowledge and organization development activities.

    The Enterprise Pyramid helped us focus our attention on critical issues. We ask ourselves in engaging with each other and with our clients, questions about our intentions (Why are we engaged in this process?), the topics for exploration (Is it necessary to follow this path or should we approach the problem differently?), the possibilities for transformation (Does this process include all the parties and transcend their goals and objectives or is it a stop-gap process to reduce damage while we find an alternative?) and the means for diffusion (Did we include suitable communication processes and structures to let our clients learn and use what they learned with us themselves?). We have used the Enterprise Pyramid to help us clarify our relationships and roles with clients, as well as to explore client-centered activity. Building this pyramid has helped our collective enterprise development strategy by including and transcending our individual approaches in addition to clarifying our individual strengths and interdependencies. It has helped us clarify our aspirations and attend to the immediate needs of our association.


    Application of This Approach in Other Organizations

    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 a stimulus in confronting complexity and integrating diverse perspectives. In building over fifty pyramids in organizations, we could see that this approach has much broader application than we originally intended. We found the Pyramid Building Approach to be useful in developing shared meaning and alignment. It is also valuable in helping clients to

    • think systemically,
    • explore ideas and build alignment,
    • surface and explore differences,
    • communicate and share understanding,
    • focus efforts,
    • design strategies, and
    • evaluate results.



    The pyramid building approach provides a fresh way for thinking about complex systems and for dynamically aligning people, processes, and strategy for purposeful action. We found that this approach is very useful in developing agreement and alignment in not only a three-person team like ours, but also in the complex, ambiguous, polarized, and high-tension environments found in large organizations. At the root of this utility is the approaches' potency in supporting individuals and teams in clarifying their intentions, the actions necessary for carrying out these intentions, and the outcomes they wish to achieve.

    Clients have reported major benefits in using Pyramid Building. They have structured their work more effectively, developed strategies, organized action in a complex context that has become more understandable to them. Whatever their purpose for using the Pyramid Building Approach, the end result included clarity of intention, strategy for action, and alignment in teams. Learning and discovery become more lucid. Most importantly, the members of their teams, organizations, and stakeholders have become more aligned in their work together.

    Organizations need to continue to develop models and methods that enable them to understand dynamic relationships among complex sets of variables. Change efforts risk being cosmetic or inadequate unless organizations are able to account for the complex web of influences among strategies, processes, and people. The Pyramid Building Approach (both as a systems model and holistic method) supports heightened awareness, increased clarity of perspective, and alignment among organization members in the face of complexity.

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    E-Mail: Prasad Kaipa,, Chris Newham,, or Russ Volckmann

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