Developing your Creative Concept

This blog contains exercises to kick-start the development of your creative concept step by step. Follow these steps when it is the first time that you develop a creative concept or when you have very limited resources.
You may need to develop a creative concept for a campaign event, new enterprise, etc.
The creative concept is strongly linked to the proposition:
Propositionwhat do we want to get across.
– Concepthow do we get it across (Floor & Van Raaij 2011 p183).
A concept is the creative translation of the proposition (Floor & Van Raaij 2011 p185). Concepts are ideas that can be similar in format to what would be prepared for a completed ad or commercial but are not approved or tested. (…) The concepts are presented in a tangible form such as a rough layout or a storyboard for television (Schultz 1996 p90).
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It is advisable to develop the creative concept & proposition in a team of 3-5 people.
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Step 0: Before you develop a proposition and a creative concept
Before you develop the proposition and creative concept you should have a description of the target audience. Also you should know what effect the proposition and creative concept should have on this target audience. So: what should the target audience know and feel after confrontation with the creative concept, and what do you want the target audience to do? (Here we apply the domino-model for communication effects.)
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Step 1: Brainstorm about proposition


Come together but do not sit down, you will be more creative when you are in action! Stand, walk, talk, discuss, write and draw on a big piece of paper, a white board, smart board etc.
First brainstorm about the proposition and then about the creative concept. The following questions may help (inspired on Floor & Van Raaij (2011) Marketing Communication Strategy. Noordhoff Uitgevers):
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Questions to help finding the proposition:
  • What do we want to get across. (p183)
  • What is the  promise to be communicated to the target audience. (p184) =>
  • What are we promising the target audience, implicitly or explicitly?
  • What is the distinctive benefit of our brand and our product?
  • Why would consumers buy our product or brand?
  • What do consumers gain by buying our product or brand?
  • What brand position are we aiming for?
  • What values do we want to associate with our brand?
  • What should the product mean to the target audience?
After you have answered these questions you can go to the next step.
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Step 2: Conclude a concrete proposition 

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  • Mark the most relevant promises (benefits, arguments, values) that came up during your brainstorm. Make a list of these promises. Discuss which promise is most attractive to the target audience, which one is second etc.
  • It is a good idea to do some research here: ask representatives from the target audience which of the promises they think is most attractive.
  • Then formulate a sentence that expresses the promise. One or two sentences should be sufficient. In principle, one argument is selected. When there is more than one argument, there is a risk of confusion.
  • Completing the following position statement (Schultz 1996 p65) may be helpful for describing your proposition:
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To [target audience] Brand X is
the best brand of [competitive frame, product category]
that will [target buying incentive]
because [product support].
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To young professionals, Jasmin’s Kitchen is
the best brand of restaurants for good food for a reasonable price,
that will entertain them
because there a story behind every dish.
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Step 3: Judge and improve your proposition 
vinkjeTry to judge your proposition a few days after you have concluded the concrete proposition because ideas need an incubation time, after a few days your ideas will be sharper.
Decide if your proposition meets the most important criteria for a good proposition (Franzen, 1982):
Benefits for consumers.
  •  The proposition should make clear why consumers should buy the brand.
  • What do consumers gain by it?
  • What benefits do consumers reap by buying the brand?
Uniqueness of the brand.
  • It must be indicated what the characteristic feature of the brand is and in what way it differentiates itself from other brands.
  • The proposition must be in accordance with other aspects of marketing communication for the brand, including its historical and current position, packaging, distribution and sales promotion (integrated communication).
Synergy of marketing communication and product use.
  • Marketing communication and product experience should reinforce and support each other.
  • The proposition must not be contrary to the truth and must not contain any exaggerated claims.
Social acceptability.
  • The proposition must not be contrary to communication codes and generally accepted norms. Smoking and health cannot be linked; nor can alcohol and youth.
You might find that your proposition does not meet all these criteria. Then improve it until you feel that your proposition is good.
It might be a good idea to ask others if they think that your proposition meets all these criteria.
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Step 4: Select ‘media’ for your Creative Concept 
P1040796In Steps 1 and 2 you have decided what the target audience should know about your product, service, brand, event, enterprise or organization. Now you decide how this proposition should be delivered to the individual members of the target audience. Then, this step is about sending: S -> .
But we want to find efficient and effective ways to deliver the proposition, and therefore you will have to think from the perspective of the receiver. That is: we want to use as little resources as possible to change what the individual member of the target audience knows and feels about the product, service, brand, event, enterprise or organization; so that these individuals will do what we want them to do. So, this step is about sending and receiving: S -> R.
Actually, in this step you will find ‘contact points’ rather than ‘media‘. These ‘contact points’ can be described as ‘media in the broadest sense‘ and will be explained in Step 4C.
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Step 4A: Create a Persona
 PupkeA persona is an archetype of the target audience, it is an invented individual member of the target audience.
For example: Jerry Franks is 27 years old, he lives in Dortmund Germany, he is a decorator and works out at the fitness center twice a week. He lives with his girlfriend Tamara Hayek (25 years old) and their little son of 2 years old.
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Creating a persona allows you to create a concept for a concrete individual instead of for an abstract audience. This is necessary for touching individuals emotionally and that is needed if you want to change how people feel and behave.
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Step 4B: Describe a day in the life of the Persona
Imagine what the persona does during an average day (or two days) from when he wakes up until he falls asleep. Especially the media that he uses are important, plus the people that influence him.
The information from this step will be more realistic if you check it. Therefore you could do some research to find out if the target audience really uses media as you imagined.
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Step 4C: Conclude contact points
Traditionally selecting media means choosing which mass-media you suggest. But an efficient and effective solution often demands media that are more efficient in reaching and touching a specific target audience in an effective way.
You can find these media by thinking from the perspective of the receiver (outside-in thinking), and often the solution does not only comprise traditional media, but also guerrilla actions, events, etc. That is why we don’t talk about ‘media’ but about ‘touch points’.
In general mass-media belong to an inside-out approach, whereas contact points belong to an outside-in approach.
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The following questions may help to find contact points:
  • Where are they when they need our product?
  • Where are they when they are most likely to accept a selling message?
  • Where are they when our product can be of greatest benefit to them?
  • What medium will reach them at these times? (Schultz 1996 p66)
Next to finding these contact points it is a good idea to find people who influence the target audience. These influentials are smaller in number than the actual target audience. So, with relatively little resources you can have a big impact on these influentials and on the actual target audience. You can find these influentials by applying the decision-making process roles. For example: send a press-release to 10 journalists, 3 may write an article about it, thus you can reach possibly thousands of members of the target audience, plus you have the endorsement of a journalist that they trust.
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Step 5: Develop copy & art for your Creative Concept 
Copy & ArtNow you have decided the proposition and via which ‘media’ to deliver it to the target audience. But in order to attract attention and touch individuals emotionally you will have to translate the proposition into copy & art that appeal to the individual members of the target audience.
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Guidelines for copy & art (inspired on Floor & Van Raaij 2011 p189)
Copy: text. Art: visual communication.
  • The house style of the brand determines the typeface that must be used. The brand can for example be the corporate brand of the organization, or the product brand that is put on all the products.
  • Logo is the most important element of any house style.
  • Art & copy will have to be more or less the same in all ‘media’ that you want to apply.
  • In some media you can also apply sound or other channels for communication. These channels should be consistent with copy & art.
Use of models and mascots.
  • Models and mascots help to make emotional contact with the target audience and are therefore an advisable element in your art.
  • Different target audiences might demand a different approach because they belong to a different (sub)culture. It might for example be necessary to change the language, or adapt to the language to a sub-culture in order to make contact. Also, pictures that are attractive in one (sub)culture may not even be accepted in another (sub)culture.
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Step 5A: Briefing
In case you work with a creative team to develop copy & art, you should brief them. Make a document for them of about 2 pages A4. Present the content of this document to them – in a presentation meeting – and discuss it; the goal of this meeting is that the creative team understands what should be delivered and that your expectations are not too high/ low.
After the creative team has developed the creative concept they will present it to you and you will have to judge it. Do not just judge it based on what you like/ don’t like, but judge it on the extent it fits to your brand and communication objectives.
The next step help.
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Step 6: Judge copy & art
 vinkjeJudge copy & art a few days after you have created them because ideas need an incubation time, after a few days your ideas will be sharper.
Decide if copy and art meet the following criteria; the concept should:
  • appeal to the target audience
  • match target audience’s experience
  • match the identity of the brand
  • achieve the communication objectives
  • be clear & simple
  • consistent with other messages (implicitly & explicitly)
  • have a style & tone of voice that fits both the target audience and the brand
  • be distinctive
  • fit within the budget.

(inspired on Floor & Van Raaij 2011 p185, p202-203)

You might find that your copy & art does not meet all these criteria. Then improve it until you feel that copy & art are good.
It might be a good idea to ask others to find out if they think that your copy & art meets all these criteria.
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In short:Vision Send and ReceiveCreate a message that will influence the individual member of the target audience. This influence should be: change in what he knows and feels about the product etc. so that he will change his behavior as you intended.
In order to confront this individual with your message you will have to select media. Actually, you will have to find contact points by thinking from his perspective.

The Pyramid of Communication Visions

Many people associate communication with media. This easily leads to the opinion that a communication problem is any problem that can be solved with media, and related to that: media have strong effects and can solve almost any problem. In this view the solution to a problem is already given: it’s media.

This may be a successful opinion for media-agencies and advertisement-agencies but from an organizational perspective it is better to take a step back and apply a broader view. Consequently the solution is not already given and you as a communication expert will have to think further and analyze the problem situation.


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Solving a communication problem starts with analyzing it. This means, breaking up the communication problem in smaller parts to get a better understanding of it. The very first step then is to decide in which parts the communication-problem should be divided. If ‘media’ is not the only part of communication, in which parts should the communication problem be divided? Here Harold Lasswell’s question can be helpful:

          Who Says What In Which Channel To Whom With What Effect

Lasswell’s question from 1948 is still relevant because organizational communication experts are essentially consulted to answer it in their advice or plan. This may seem easy but you will have to answer some relevant questions.

Some relevant questions that the organizational communication expert has to answer:
* What is the organizational problem that we can help to solve?
* Who actually influences this problem?
* Which individuals should be influenced in what they know, feel and do?
* Which media do they use?
* Which places do they visit?
* To which people and brands are they open?
* For what message may they  be sensitive?

This is why you will have to do research in order to know and understand the target audience!

So, communication is mainly about people, not about media. More specifically organizational communication is about influencing what people know, feel and want to do – in order to reach organizational goals.


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Not media are leading but the effect on people. Indeed media can be used to reach the desired effect, but also activities and the whole organizational strategy should be adapted in order to influence people into the desired direction. In fact the whole organization can be seen as an instrument to influence what people know, feel and want to do in relation to the organization.

This view is different from the view that many managers have. Many managers hope that they and their organizations can continue to act as they do and that communication experts can help them with it; often they even hope that communication can repair mistakes that they have made.

These managers can be your client. They often feel that they have a communication problem but they are not able to make the right analysis and find the best solution. That’s why they come to you. Often, their view is part of the problem and you can only help to solve it by applying another view: focus on people instead of on media and on the organizational problem.

This shift in focus is necessary because the environment for organizations has changed. The answer to the new situation is a more feminine view. Why? Read more below.


Shift from ‘old’ masculine view to ‘contemporary’ feminine view
The playing-field for organizations is becoming more and more dynamic – internet is an important driver for this. Internet makes time and space less relevant, everyone from all over the world can contact the organization and people can contact each other. Thus individuals can form communities and pressure-groups, everyone can produce news and create an issue or a problem for the organization.

At the same time people are bombarded with information from all over the world and they have to divide their attention on several senders, such as organizations, brands and friends. As a result the share of attention in this attention-market is under constant pressure.

The solution is to win the individual’s preference by making him feel connected to the organization. In other words: the organization has to build relations with people.

Consequently organizations are forced to listen and interact with consumers, communities, bloggers, their own employees etc. But the mind-set of many managers is still based on telling others (consumers, employees, etc.) what to do, not on listening and co-creating.


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Here we see a shift in the ‘old view’ on the world as a stable environment that can be influenced, versus the ‘contemporary view’ on the world as a dynamic playing-field in which the organization continuously has to interact, react and plan ahead.


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The ‘old view’ is related to ‘old management’: setting concrete goals and organizing resources to get things done. One of these resources are people – the human resource – they are subject to reaching organizational goals. In the ‘contemporary view’, however, people are more active, they are not ‘human resources’ but ‘human beings’ with their own will, and this will has to be taken into regard.

‘Contemporary management’ then is more concerned with keeping people together, motivating employees, consumers, etc. to be in favor of the organization. As a result the organization continuously has to adapt to what these people want.

In the ‘old view’ people had to help solving organizational problems such as ‘we need more money to reach our goals, therefore consumers have to buy more of our products’. In the ‘contemporary view’ it is more important to really add value to people’s lives.

In the word ‘manager’ we see ‘man’, this may be a coincidence but managers traditionally are mainly men and the ‘old view’ fits to a masculine view on life: being the boss, influencing others, planning, hunting. Whereas the ‘contemporary view’ better fits to a feminine view on life: keeping the group together, maintaining values, gathering.

In short: Not every organizational problem can be solved with media, but many organizational problems can be solved – or prevented – with an organizational communication view because it aims at effects on people.


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Masculine versus feminine view on communication
The word ‘communication’ is derived from the Latin word ‘commune’, group. We see this also in the word ‘communism’. ‘Communism’ means sharing goods. Similarly ‘communication’ means sharing information.

The masculine way of sharing information is different from the feminine way of sharing information.

Masculine vs feminine view

The masculine view and feminine view are extremes, the manager and the organization should find a balance between them. It is up to you to advice which balance should be chosen. The Pyramid of Communication Visions could help here.

The Pyramid of Communication Visions

Pyramid of C Visions
The idea behind this pyramid is that sharing is the ideal for contemporary communication but sharing is only possible if people send information to each other. So sending is a condition for sharing. The consecutive visions in the pyramid build on each other. Some often used models are incorporated in the visions.

How to use the pyramid
Use these visions and models to analyze which vision the organization is currently applying, and/ or the manager believes in. Then try to find a solution by applying a vision on a higher level in the pyramid.
As the visions build on each other, you may also find improvements in communication by improving a lower level in the pyramid.
Remember that the ideal is to operate as high in the pyramid as possible but given the circumstances it may be better to find a balance lower in the pyramid.

Below, the visions will be explained.

Vision Receiving

The very first vision in the pyramid is the receiving oriented vision, this is the ground where the pyramid is built on. It is about the process of receiving information.

People receive information all the time, even if no one has sent this information. For example, if you would be in the jungle far away from people, you still would receive a lot of information from your environment; such as ‘danger’, ‘food’, ‘shelter’, etc. In this receiving oriented vision everything is communication because people never cease to make sense of things; even when they are sleeping and dreaming.

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Brains always go on working. People are creative beings. Before someone can express his thoughts he first has to create these thoughts. Therefore it is important for a communication expert to have some knowledge of consumer behavior and of psychology.

Management listen to empl environment

This receiver oriented vision promotes an outside-in view and a bottom-up approach. According to this vision management should listen to the outside world and to its employees.

Uses and gratifications approach
The ‘uses and gratifications’ approach fits in this vision. Central idea is that we should not just look at what senders and media want from the audience but what the audience does with the media. This vision implies that an audience is not a passive and homogeneous mass but it is a collection of individuals who actively use media for their own goals – not the goals of the organization.

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This is the most extreme vision on communication as sending. Indeed sending is the basis for communication because if you don’t send information no one can receive this information and then information will not be shared. Therefore this vision on communication is the basis of the pyramid.

In this vision, communication is the same as ‘sending‘. Communication then is merely ‘making public‘.  It is not relevant if someone will receive the information or not. Just the intention to send, or the intention to communicate is already considered as communication. For example spam which is received in a spam-box and never read is communication according to this vision. Or a small advertisement in a big newspaper: Millions of people read it, only 40 people react, so millions of people don’t read it, or at least don’t react, de advertisement is wasted to almost 100% of the readers. (It would have been more efficient if you already knew the address of the 40 people who react. Also, there would be less waste if the newspaper aims at fewer people, only those people who resemble the 40 who reacted.

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Connect the previous two visions and the pyramid starts to get shape. In this vision sent information has to be received in order to be considered as communication. Some people even go a step further by saying that the received information should be exactly the information as intended by the sender. This means that the sender decides when sending was successful. So in this vision the sender is the dominant party.

In the beginning of this blog I already introduced Laswell’s verbal model for communication:
Who Says What In Which Channel To Whom With What Effect.
This was one of the first communication models and the same elements can be found in Shannon & Weaver’s model.

Shannon & Weaver

Sh Weaver


The engineer Shannon in 1949 developed a mathematical model for the American Bell Telephone Laboratories to describe the problems of transporting signals from sources to destinations, later Weaver perfected this model for human communication.

Transport-belt model; Linear model

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The ‘transport-belt’ model fits in the S –> R vision. According to the transport-belt model, information is transported from the sender to the receiver. A medium is considered a transport-belt which brings the information from the sender to the receiver. The sender has information which he encodes, the receiver decodes this information. For example, you have a thought, you encode this into English, your audience hears this and decodes it and consequently has the same thought.

Much can go wrong during transportation. For example some members of the audience don’t speak English, other members are using their smartphones and are not really listening, others can’t hear you well, some others miss the background to understand what you mean, and there may also be some individuals who just don’t agree with you. In this vision anything that keeps the receiver from encoding the right information is called ‘noise‘.

It is a linear model. Information goes in one line from sender to receiver. Anything that prevents the intended information from reaching the receiver is a negative influence: noise. When the information was not received as intended, the only solution is: send the same information again over the same line, and again, and again, perhaps a little louder, until the receiver has received the ‘right’ information.

A handicap of this model is that someone who does not agree, will not agree after he has heard the same information three times; he can only be convinced by giving better arguments; and perhaps it is just impossible to convince him. In the linear approach there is only one way: my way or no way.

Hypodermic needle model; stimulus – response model

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The ‘hypodermic-needle’ model also fits in the S –> R vision. It suggests that media inject ideas into people and will have its effect on them. The hypodermic-needle model is a stimulus – response model: a stimulus (media) leads to a response (effect on people).

Therefore S –> R can represent ‘Sender transports information to Receiver’; also it can represent ‘Stimulus leads to Response’.

Many people still believe in this Stimulus – Response model, they think for example that advertisements directly lead to more sales, violent games lead to more violence in the streets, etc.
This model has its limitations as media and messages may have some effect, but in most cases the effect is the result of many factors, not only this medium or this message.

Two step flow

Two-step-flow model
A receiver is a person and a person can also send information. This idea is used in the two-step-flow-model: information flows from a sender to a more or less passive audience. This model described reality quite accurately when there were still few media. For example one person had a radio and received the news, he shared this with his neighbors. In this case the owner of the radio is the opinion-leader. The two-step-flow model suggests that information flows from the sender to the opinion-leader and from the opinion-leader to opinion-followers.

Domino model of communication effects
According to the S –> R vision, the sender decides if the process of sending was successful. He could consider it a success when the receiver has decoded the information as he intended. But what is the use of the ‘correct’ information in the brain of the receiver? The real effect that a sender often intended is the receiver’s behavior: behave like a gentleman, buy products of brand X, etc.Domino Grunig Hunt 1984

Another linear model that therefore is useful to mention here is the domino model of communication effects. It suggests that a message may reach many people, but only a limited amount of them will pay attention to the message and understand it. Of those people who understand the message, only a part agrees with it or will feel positive about it, and very few of these last group will actually change his behavior.

Vision S R Feedback
Also in this vision the sender decides if the process of sending was successful. But the receiver can send feedback. The sender is dominant because the feedback is only used to assess if the information was received as intended.

This is how research still is often used: in order to measure to what extend the target audience has received and understood the message as intended. Feedback is used to make the process of influencing more effective.

Multi step flow

After the two-step-flow model it seems logical to introduce more steps. And indeed this was done, but the multi-step-flow-model has an important element that makes it different from the two-step-flow-model: opinion-leaders inform each other, followers inform each other, followers inform opinion-leaders and all of them can inform mass-media. Therefore the opinion-leaders are also called influentials.
Consequently in the multi-step-flow model the difference between a sender and a receiver is less relevant, the sender is less dominant than in all models from the lower levels in the pyramid.

This brings us to the next level in the pyramid…

Vision A is B

If the difference between sender and receiver is not really relevant, then we should not label them as such. Here, high in the pyramid, organizations and managers consider everyone as equals, everyone should be able to participate in the communication process. Feedback is welcome and is used to improve the entire organization, not to manipulate the target audience more effectively.
Then communication can be seen as a dance. Similar to dance, communication ‘involves patterns, movement, and creativity. Participants as well as observers can enjoy it.’ (Clampitt 2005 p14).

Dance is C

The comparison of communication with dance makes sense, but we shouldn’t forget that organizational communication often has some aspects of the masculine view on communication, because it is often used to ‘win’. Therefore communication could also be compared to judo: both participants are equal, they sense each other, they co-orient, judo is rule-governed, participants develop a repertoire of skills, participants follow patterns, BUT: both participants try to win by exploiting each others weaknesses.

Vision ABX
Interaction becomes a more relevant aspect as we reach a higher level in the pyramid. The possible result of interaction is that participants in the communication process develop a common understanding. For example girls who are close friends develop a common dress style and groups of people develop a common (sub)culture.
Newcomb’s co-orientation model (1953) illustrates this process.

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His theory is about the interpersonal relationship of people with their environment and with each other. According to Newcomb people have a natural need to balance with their environment. Individuals have a certain attitude towards aspects in their environment. Newcomb denotes this attitude as ‘orientation’, and he states that people strive for a mental, cognitive balance. (This idea of cognitive balance is similar to the theory of cognitive dissonance, but for Newcomb cognitive balance is only a part of the whole system in which people strive for balance with each other and their environment.)
In Newcomb’s model person A orients himself on person B  (A –> B)and at the same time at a subject (A –> X); also person B orients himself on person A (B –> A) and at the same time at this subject (B –> X).

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For example: Angy feels that it is important to maintain a relationship with Betty (A –> B), she thinks about buying a dress (A –> X), she is concerned about what Betty will think about this dress (A –> B & B –> X). Betty also wants to maintain a relationship with Angy (B –> A), but she does not like the dress (B –> X). Now Angy has to find a balance. She could decide to buy the dress and don’t care about Betty’s opinion, but if this would happen regularly it would jeopardize their relationship. So she decides to chose for her relationship and leave the dress in the shop.

Similarly an organization has to decide which relationship is more relevant .For example the relationship with stakeholders and how they think about the profitability of the company, or the relationship with the users of its product and how they think about the value for money. This choice will be strongly influenced by its corporate values: is money important or is quality important.

Pyramid of C Visions

Using the pyramid

  • Analyze which vision the organization is currently applying, and/ or which vision the manager believes in.
  • Find a solution by applying a vision on a higher level in the pyramid.
  • As the visions build on each other, you may also find improvements by improving a lower level in the pyramid.
  • Remember that the ideal is to operate as high in the pyramid as possible but given the circumstances it may be better to find a balance lower in the pyramid.

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