As one of his mentors once said, major in the academic, not the technique.
Gary Comerford, a Transformation Strategist, followed that advice closely. Instead of the usual map consisting of business schools, his atypical journey into the world of strategy and alignment began with George Mason University’s art school.
Throughout his studies in fine arts, Gary found a passion for storytelling. Developing an understanding of the story, the audience, and how to connect the two led him into the transformation and strategy space, where he has worked with and solved alignment dilemmas for many high-profile clients.
Gary believes most organizational roadblocks can be solved by strengthening alignment, and that begins with understanding the entire story and all of its components — and then taking charge to change it.
“I actually failed art my senior year of high school,” Gary says. “Not because I didn’t understand the concepts, but because I was misguided and lost on what to do with an art degree moving forward.”
After a brief journey to find himself, Gary went to art school. His first big assignment was on the topic of transformation. The goal was to take something inanimate and make it appear as if it were a living thing. Several students took safe approaches to the prompt, such as turning an airplane into an eagle. Instead, Gary fully unleashed his creativity — by turning a cuckoo clock into Jack Nicholson’s face.
His project earned a large amount of recognition and attention at art fairs and contests, but the praise he received from one special person stood above the rest.
“I remember my mother telling me, ‘Wow, you should do that for a living.’ I think she was pointing at the picture then. But when I look back at it, it was the transformation,” Gary says.
Gary always found great interest in the realm of storytelling: how it evolved, its importance, and how people have shared stories over time, from the advent of writing to the now wild world of social media.
“I had this need to continue to tell people stories. It meant that I had to understand the story if I was going to communicate it well,” Gary says.
After Gary found that his graphic designer gig meant telling someone else’s story through their vision, he began his creative outlet. It was at that time that he met two partners at HP.
There, the three teamed up to form a transformation roadmap that would serve as an intersection of engineering and art. But the way each of them thought and viewed the world was starkly different.
“We had to find a way to communicate ideas with a bunch of different lenses. We didn’t want to just tell clients about transformation — but actually show them,” Gary says.
Leaning on visuals and simplicity was key.
Greg resonates with Simon Sinek, and, as he says, Start With Why. He ultimately learned that understanding business is understanding people.
“The heart of that statement is, when you get so specialized and so technical, you go down these wormholes where you get farther and farther away from the people that it actually touches. You really have to understand what it is they are after.” Greg says.
Gary puts this into context with an example from the healthcare world.
“When a patient comes in for an MRI, we tout the bells and whistles of the MRI machine. But, the patient is not really interested in coming in for the MRI. The patient probably just wants to dance at their daughter’s wedding,” Gary says. “Between those two points is where we have got to be able to tell that story. At times, I think we are not focused enough on how this is impacting the person at the end.”
Gary encourages his clients to take a strong interest in alignment before entering the problem-solving stage.
Gary believes that Amazon’s Press Release of the Future is a fantastic tool to tie storytelling into business alignment and strategic planning in a way that is seamless and natural. By forecasting the press releases your company will be performing three months from now or three years from now, you can gauge how well your current projects align with your visions for the future.
“I think what you see is a spectrum between the art of the possible and then the art of the achievable,” Gary says. “We are trying to make sure the conditions we start with are actually in alignment with where we are going.”
Statements such as “That could never work here” or “This is the way we have always done it” condition the creativity out of creative people. Alignment is the key to navigating that roadblock.
While consulting with the Marine Corps, Gary was astonished by their ability to work together as a team, even throughout a disagreement.
“One of the things we heard very early from them was when they got together, they fought like allies. They all have different missions in this room and outside of the walls. But there is one decision they make, and they all move towards it. They were all exceptional at doing that,” Gary says.
The key to building that culture is having leadership’s full involvement from the beginning and identifying those creative problem solvers from all levels of the organization.
Gary ascertains there will be people on every side of the equation. Those looking for the landmines of today can work with those looking downstream and ensure the direction is correct. The biggest hurdle in this scenario is managing creative tension in such a way that both the strongest and the quietest voices in the room are heard and valued.
“We call it the frozen middle. It is a mindset almost like quicksand. People are afraid to talk about ideas that are over their pay grade. We have to look at organizations differently about who the problem solvers are out there that could really help us. We have to give them the voice and create the space for them to actually help us,” Gary says.
Interested in learning more? Listen to our full conversation, where Gary gives his best tips for organizations looking to better align themselves during strategic planning, the common roadblocks that hinder alignment, and more. Listen on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or your favorite podcast player.
Listen to The Strategy Gap
A podcast about the space between savvy strategy and practical execution, including everything that can go wrong on the way.