Not everything is about [brand/design/sustainability], but [brand/design/sustainability] is about everything.

Apologies in advance for what is inevitably going to be a bit of a long and rambling post. A lot of stuff has been floating around in my head recently and I’ve been struggling to join the dots.

Still, when you don’t know where to begin, says Design Thinker extraordinaire, Bruce Mau, the trick is just to “begin anywhere” and see where it takes you. So that’s what I’m going to do…

One spur for this post is an email I received recently from the UK MD of a leading design and innovation company (and fervent advocates of the whole T-shaped people thing), having introduced myself with a copy of my book.

“You certainly cover quite a few different areas – from sustainability, to brand and org design,” it said, “but these are capabilities that we have already, so a couple of questions for you…” – the first of which essentially asked me to unravel my T and pin my colours to the mast of a particular discipline.

Not an unreasonable question, necessarily; just one that, given their CEO’s oft-quoted distinction between merely multi-disciplinary thinking and truly integrative thinking, felt a tad incongruous.

In all fairness, I’m sure my own particular “T” – the down-stroke of an MBA qualified consultant, crossed by a passionate interest in brand, design and sustainability – must seem incredibly messy and unfocused to a great many people. Messy, I’ll freely admit to (call it the “curse of the curious”), but unfocused it certainly isn’t.

The only reason it appears so in the first place (cue the second strand of what’s been on my mind: Geoff Barbaro’s regular refrain about the limits of labels) is the straightjacket people tend to put on terms like brand, design and sustainability.

If the words “brand” and “design” conjure up images of pie-in-the-sky creative types in designer specs and black turtlenecks, and if “sustainability” means nothing more to you than green, then it’s hardly surprising if such an apparently eclectic set of interests proves a difficult circle to square.

Look through a slightly different lens, however – one that starts with the predisposition to connect rather than compartmentalise – and hopefully a different picture begins to emerge.

It all comes down to an overwhelming pre-occupation with how organisations can create enduring (read: sustainable) competitive advantage, by uniting all their stakeholders around an authentic sense of purpose – why you exist, who you are, what you stand for and why it matters (read: brand).

And how do you achieve that sense of authenticity? By design – beautifully defined by Brian Collins, in Warren Berger’s book, Glimmer, as “hope made visible”.

Brands (at least in the corporate and employer brand space I work in) aren’t created so much as uncovered – what is credible, relevant and differentiating about an organisation emerging, more than anything else, from the beliefs and intent implicit in its strategy, culture and systems. As Kevin Keohane hinted at on his DTIM blog a while back, branding is (or at least ought to be) about business strategy and organisational design, long before it’s about corporate identity and creative execution. Creativity without substance is meaningless.

Sustainability (at least how I view it) isn’t about the “end of the pipe”. It’s not about taking business strategy as a given and then just seeking to minimise the unfortunate side effects. The real sustainability challenge is to maximise the primary effects of what you do – providing mainstream products and services that directly address social and environmental problems. Fundamentally, that’s a design challenge – applying design principles and approaches to the full spectrum of a company’s behaviour, so that, rather than being seen as conflicting priorities, the need to innovate, to create distinctive brands and to maximise efficiencies across the business are all viewed as part of the same system.

I guess what I’m trying to say boils down to this:

  • Firstly, that brand, design and sustainability are connected, despite what some people might think.
  • Secondly, that brand, design and sustainability are about everything you do, because, if they aren’t, then the results of your efforts will never be authentic.
  • And thirdly, that all this (to some minds) artsy-fartsy stuff is actually anything but. Individually, and collectively, they are critical lenses through which to view organisational transformation, given the value shift we are seeing in this post-global financial crisis era.

All of which actually does bring me, fairly neatly, to what was the third impetus for this post…

If you doubt the veracity of that last statement above, pop over to Kevin Keohane’s blog and read his summary of insights drawn from Rosabeth Moss Kanter’s latest book, Supercorpyet another to add to the growing list of titles (The Opposable Mind, The Design of Business, The Designful Company, Change By Design, Glimmer to name but five) that signify a seismic shift in perspectives on how to create lasting and meaningful competitive advantage.

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2 thoughts on “Not everything is about [brand/design/sustainability], but [brand/design/sustainability] is about everything.

  1. Adam Hibbert

    I’ve long thought that having a CR department is a bit counterproductive (although it makes a certain morbid sense in a silo organisation) for roughly the reasons you outline, Dan.

    Apart from making it a narrow specialism, rather than an organisation-wide mindset, I’ve argued that holding up a shining ethical light in one corner of the organisation tends to cast longer shadows elsewhere – it’s as if we’re just paying-off our guilt about the primary effects of the day job.

    Guilt is an ever-present feature of managerial life, for reasons compellingly explored by Roberts (1984) The Moral Character Of Management Practice, Journal of Management Studies, Vol. 21 (3) pp.287-302. I wish more of us were taking the dilemma Roberts identifies into account.

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  2. Dan Gray Post author

    Great comment, Adam.

    I’ve just been re-reading a few passages from “Glimmer” and there’s another fantastic quote from Bruce Mau that resonates rather nicely, particularly given your second paragraph.

    The idea that you set up an isolated department and say ‘this is where all our good deeds will be done’ – meanwhile doing whatever you please in the other 95% of your activities – is obviously bonkers.

    Mau’s great line to encapsulate that is that most CSR programmes end up looking like “an island of intelligence in a sea of stupidity”!

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