Tag Archives: culture

Does culture really eat strategy for breakfast?

As a self-styled purpose-led strategist, you’d probably expect me to agree with the maxim that culture eats strategy for breakfast and, by and large, you’d be right.

Any organisation is, at heart, a social construct – a coming together of people to achieve in concert something that they couldn’t achieve on their own. It follows that, while business models and strategies may come and go, what can and should unite them all is a clear sense of why the organisation exists in the first place (purpose) and a shared understanding of the values and norms of behaviour (culture) that actively guide how its people should pursue it. (Well that’s my story anyway, and I’m sticking to it.)

Whichever you believe ought to have primacy – whether culture shapes strategy or the other way around – what is emphatically true is that one is useless without the other. Just as strategy without culture is fundamentally rudderless, culture without strategy is toothless.

For compelling evidence of the latter, look no further than the abject failure of England’s rugby team at the Rugby World Cup, the underlying reasons for which were summarised with characteristic brio by Dan Jones in the Evening Standard the other day:

Under [Stuart] Lancaster England have developed pride, ‘culture’ (whatever that really means) and manners. Good for them. They have not, however, developed a breakdown specialist, a functional centre partnership, on-field leadership, a consistent playing style or any big-game chops. For this, heads must roll.

A more succinct dissection of England’s failure I’ve yet to see and it’s hard to argue with Jones’ assessment, given that every area in which England struggled against Australia – most notably the back row’s ability to deal with the breakdown prowess of the brilliant David Pocock – was entirely obvious and predictable to every rugby aficionado on the planet (save, it seems, for Bomber and the rest of his coaching staff).

The thing is, though – and this is the critical point – this England team’s fate wasn’t sealed by defeat to Australia last Saturday. It wasn’t even sealed the week before when they snatched defeat from the jaws of victory against Wales. The ignominy of being the first host nation to fail to advance from the pool stages has been in the post for at least a couple of years – the result of muddled strategy and selections that no amount of esprit de corps could hope to compensate for.


The Ryder Cup: It’s about people, Phil, not process

Wow. That American press conference after the Ryder Cup was some car crash, wasn’t it?!

While the first words off every European’s lips were to praise Paul McGinley to the hilt for his exemplary captaincy, Phil Mickelson chose instead to use his to plunge a knife right between Tom Watson’s shoulder blades – a decision that throws the essential and enduring difference between the two teams into sharpest possible relief.

Whereas past US dominance in the tournament was always based on having the world’s best individual players, Europe’s more recent dominance (that’s now 8 victories in the last 10 Ryder Cups) is undoubtedly the result of having the best team dynamic.

Whereas US players (most notably Tiger Woods and Mickelson himself) have typically performed well below par in Ryder Cups, the self same setting seems to encourage the Europeans to play beyond themselves. In stark contrast to Woods in past tournaments, Rory McIlroy looked every inch the world’s best golfer in spanking Ricky Fowler 5&4 and, where Ian Poulter left off in Medinah, Justin Rose picked up at Gleneagles, seemingly reserving the best golf of their lives for this event.

Why is that?

Not for the first time, stories of McGinley’s captaincy remind me of approaches ripped from the playbook of one of the world’s great motivators and man managers – legendary British Lions coach, Sir Ian McGeechan, whose example every Lions coach since has borrowed from heavily.

For example, for Fergie’s team talk with the European team, read wheeling out Lions legend, Willie John McBride, to deliver a stirring speech and hand players their test jerseys. For all the motivational words and imagery in the European team room, read the names of past Lions legends on a plaque above every peg in the dressing room – reminding you of the amazing players who’ve worn that jersey before you, and whose legacy you’re now part of continuing.

Most of all, I’m reminded of McGeechan’s words about Jason Leonard – a man who, despite a world record 114 international caps as a forward, never started a test match for the British Lions. McGeechan spoke of the unwavering support Leonard gave to Paul Wallace – the man who took to the field in his jersey in that epic 1997 series against South Africa. That, said McGeechan, epitomises what it means to be a Lion and is what makes Leonard one of the all-time greats.

So what, you may ask?

This sort of stuff means everything to exceptional team performance, especially in a sporting setting. It taps into deep emotions. It says that what we’re here to do is bigger than you, me and this particular moment in history. It breeds that all-for-one, never-say-die commitment to the cause. It means that when teammates exchange a glance, what that glance says is ‘I’ll be damned if I’m going to let you down’.

In that context, every bit as surprising and significant as the setting of Mickelson’s implicit attack on Watson was the substantive point of his criticism – that the US’ recent failures can be attributed to abandoning the ‘pod’ system put in place by their last successful Ryder Cup captain, Paul Azinger, whereby the team of 12 were split into three groups of 4 who bonded over practice and from whom each player pairing was drawn.

An eminently effective formula this may have proven but, for me, Mickelson’s emphasis on having been “invested in [that] process” – his specific focus on reviving that particular system, rather than the recreating (by whatever means) the feeling of ‘togetherness’ it generated – is to entirely miss the point. (In fact, if you want to fully appreciate the difference between strategy and tactics, that’s a perfect example right there.)

Last time I checked, a process had never holed a clutch putt for a vital half point on the 18th green. It wasn’t a process that stiffed a wedge to within 2 or 3 feet to secure the concession that won this year’s trophy. It was a person. And until the US team figures that out – investing in the broader outcome of team togetherness, rather than arguing the toss over specific methodologies for achieving it – they may continue to find themselves on the wrong end of a drubbing.

CXOs: Have you discovered the 55-minute guide series yet?

It’s official. Short is the new long (unlike this post perhaps!).

A few years ago, Kevin Keohane and I had the heretical notion that the answer to getting c-suite types to open their minds to the business value of brand and business communications was to merrily swim in the opposite direction to most of our brethren.

Where they tried to persuade people with pseudo-academic tomes full of detailed case studies and examples, we decided to take the path less travelled – short, unapologetically opinionated and no-holds barred synopses of critical insights and what to do about them.

So the 55-Minute Guide series was born, and a long-overdue scan of the books’ pages on Amazon would seem to suggest we were bang on.

If there’s a golden rule of branding, it’s to be authentic – to ensure that the gap between what you promise and what you deliver is as small as humanly possible.

So, even more than the recognition our authors have rightly received for the quality of their insights, what’s really great to see from customer reviews is that we’ve also clearly lived up to the challenging promise of delivering them in a way that people can consume the lot in under an hour – not through dumbing down, mind you, but through ruthlessly weeding out tangential and superfluous elements and focusing on what really matters.

Both are no doubt to thank for 34 amazing customer reviews across the series on Amazon US and UK sites, more than three-quarters of which are 5-star (the rest all 4-star). Here are just a few…

On Indy Neogy’s 55-Minute Guide to better cross-cultural communications:

“True to its title, it’s a brisk one-hour read. Neogy’s new book is a treasure of clarity, brevity, and useful tools to bridge the cultural communication divide. This should be required reading for any Chief Marketing Officer.”

On Mike Klein’s 55-Minute Guide to social communication:

“Mike neatly and cleverly combines some astute systems thinking, with provocative behavioural theory in this very digestible book… The highest accolade I can pay him is that he practices what he preaches. It will take you less than 55 mins to read [and] I bet you’ll keep coming back to it.”

On Geoff Barbaro’s 55-Minute guide to leadership communication:

“The Leader’s Beacon goes a long way to filling an ever widening gap of knowledge. It is easy to read, easy to understand and makes sense. The best bit is that you don’t need to wade through pages of heavy theory… I’ve been able to share it with clients during leadership coaching sessions without any concern about egos. Their response to it was also fantastic.”

On Ro Gorell’s 55-Minute guide to talent management:

“This is a book that can be read in one sitting, and it’s got a good deal of practical information that you can implement right away… If you’re a manager tasked with coming up with a policy to retain valuable specialists in your organisation, you could do a lot worse than spend a Saturday evening reading this from cover to cover.”

On Kevin Keohane’s 55-Minute guide to employee communication:

“The cover of this book is deceptively simple, and it is obviously a short read. But don’t be fooled – this book is chock-full of information. Not a single page is wasted. Anyone in human resources, management, communications, marketing… heck, anyone from any department of a business with more than one employee could benefit from the information in this concise little volume.”

And lastly on my own 55-minute guide to building sustainable brands:

“Distil down all the critical points you might hear from a well-informed sustainable business consultant, using everyday language grounded in practical business fundamentals rather than emotive arguments, and deliver it in a form that even a slow reader can squeeze into an hour (with time left over to make a cup of tea), and you’ll end up with something like this.”

All in all, not a bad body of work. And if you haven’t yet picked up your copies, well then maybe it’s time you should (see the links on the right-hand side of this page). They could well be the most insightful 55-minutes you ever spend.

Navigating the cross-cultural minefield

[Drum roll, please!]

Yes, the time has finally arrived to announce publication of a sixth 55-minute guide, courtesy of one of my favourite chums and fellow Commscrummager, Indy Neogy.

It may have been rather longer in the making than we’d have hoped, thanks to the heavy workloads of all involved, but like the Guinness ads used to say, good things come to those who wait. I have a sneaking suspicion that When Culture Matters could end up becoming our most successful guide to date.

Anyway, enough pre-amble. Here’s the back cover blurb to whet your appetite and, if you like the cut of its jib, then make a beeline to Amazon and order your copy now!

The HSBC ads make it sound so easy – just don’t show the soles of your feet in Thailand and you’re half way there. If only communicating effectively across cultures were that simple. As the irresistible force of globalisation meets the immovable object of local cultures, a whole host of pitfalls is lying in wait to trip up the unsuspecting business. Thankfully, Indy Neogy is on hand to guide you through this potential minefield, providing a wealth of practical advice on everything from global brand architecture and international marketing to internal communication with groups and individuals. All this in a book you can read from cover to cover in under an hour – which has got to be good, regardless of your culture’s orientation towards time!

“Perfect… I highly recommend this guide.”
Daniella Cross – Research In Motion

“Highly relevant and accessible.”
Dan Stevenson – Microsoft Corporation

“Should be read by all members of an organisation.”
Skaiste Sruogaite – Proctor & Gamble

“Provides clarity, actionable guidance and inspiration.”
Sarah Bogue – Ernst & Young

Sustainability → Strategy ← Storytelling

Completing my self-assessment tax return this week provided an unwelcome reminder of what an unremittingly shitty year 2009-10 was. Thankfully, though, it’s also served to accentuate a vast change in fortunes during this last financial year, which has even introduced me to the somewhat novel concept of having to turn work away (a nice problem to have!).

On top of the joys of hitting our straps with CommScrum and the 55-Minute Guides (4 new books imminent, btw), it’s particularly interesting to reflect on a year that will have been bookended by two really great projects that, though seemingly at opposite ends of my capability spectrum, are actually united by that core strategic consulting capability I’m always banging on about (most recently in CommScrum’s predictions for 2011).

It started in April 2010 with my Saudi sustainability project – my own best example of the value and importance of being T-shaped; one of those jobs where you find yourself effortlessly entering the rarified world of “leadership and strategy”, and that the “brand” badge that got you hired actually has virtually bugger all to do with the value you’re adding for the client.

And the year will end where I am right now – a 3-month assignment advising a Big Four firm on the use of storytelling to align people behind a compelling vision and strategy for a relatively newly-formed global organisation that brings together all its key support functions (IT, finance, procurement etc.).

The former case was pretty much a pure-bred piece of strategic consulting, helping the senior leadership team to realise that their stated aim in tackling sustainability (to become “the most trusted brand in Saudi Arabia”) would require nothing less than the complete transformation of their understanding – from ragbag of ad-hoc sponsorships and charitable donations to refocusing core strategy on delivering shared value for the business and for society. Without deep knowledge of the evolution of sustainability strategy, the ability to apply that knowledge (in particular the core principles of authenticity and materiality) to their particular operations and markets, and the MBA-backed credibility to advise on the strategy’s implications on organisational culture and design, no amount of “brand” specialism would have saved me from disaster.

By contrast, all outward appearances in the latter case are of an infinitely more tactical project. Yet, whilst my skills as a writer are obviously much more to the fore, that broader strategic acumen is still essential when comes to recognising the critical importance of context – understanding and answering the all-important “so what?” question that can act as a force multiplier for the effectiveness of a story, particularly when the critical audience is a bunch of partners wondering where the pot of gold is at the end of this particular “synergistic” rainbow.

Just implemented a new global HR system that enables more standardised and reliable data to be gathered on key people transactions across the business (hiring decisions, promotions etc.)? Fantastic, but so what?! How has that access to better information actually improved the speed and quality of business decisions?

Just done an amazing job of turning around a complex systems integration project in support of an acquisition, so that the new merged organisation has the common infrastructure to hit the ground running on Day One. Brilliant, but so what?! What were the stakes involved? What would the cost have been to the business if that hadn’t happened?

In my experience, asking these kinds of questions is often anathema to your average died-in-the-wool professional communicator. As my 55MG partner-in-crime, Kevin Keohane, puts it so beautifully, they’d rather sit quietly in a safe corner of the office debating with colleagues whether “anal-retentive” has a hyphen than dare to risk stepping up to the plate as a consulting partner to their clients and challenging them to answer the stupid questions.

Fortunately, that doesn’t seem to be the case with the IC team in this instance. Several of them have already enthusiastically embraced the fundamental change in mindset required to deliver a more Steve Denning-esque approach to storytelling – one whose focus is far less on the communication of information (timely, objective, factually correct) and far more on the communication of meaning (timeless, deeply personal and emotionally resonant). If you want stories to succeed as culture-carriers for the organisation, that’s the territory you need to be in.

In praise of “stupid questions”

I love what designer, Bruce Mau, calls “stupid questions”. Big questions. HUGE questions. Sometimes seemingly naive questions that, though simple to ask, are often bloody hard to answer. Precisely because of that, they can have profound implications for how people and organisations frame and address critical challenges, like sustainability.

One such example I wrote about a while back was the question posed by Marty Neumeier in his book, The Designful Company:

As a thought experiment, imagine a future in which all companies were compelled to take back every product they made. How would that change their behaviour?

It’s a brilliant question because it instantly frames sustainability as a question of core business and culture, rather than old-fashioned corporate philanthropy. And it provides a great window through which to reflect on the innovations of a company like Interface – the design of re-usable materials and the introduction of reverse logistics, for example, that maintain resources in a “closed loop” cycle of manufacturing.

The one limitation of the question, of course, is that it only really relates to the world of products. Thankfully, though, Umair Haque, in his latest post over at HBR, has framed a similarly provocative question that’s equally applicable to service industries too.

What would happen if every CEO had a new clause inserted into his or her gilded contract: you make it, you use it — exclusively?

As Umair says, you’d be willing to bet that if fast food execs could only eat fast food, or if bankers could only invest in their own securities, that would have to lead to some radically different behaviours!

Deputy PM calls for “horizon shift”

Thanks to Matt Gitsham over at Ashridge for drawing my attention to Nick Clegg’s speech yesterday. As with all political speeches, I guess some healthy cynicism is required (the proof of the pudding, as they say, is in the eating). Nevertheless, as a marker of intent (a link to Mike Klein’s latest post over at CommScrum), it’s interesting stuff.

As Mike rightly says, intent is the organisational “why?”. Intent drives strategy. And Clegg, with his call for a “horizon shift” in the mindset of politicians, business and society at large, has set out one half of a very clear sense of purpose for this coalition government – governing for the long-term.

With the pain still to come, there’s no doubt some political expediency in all of this, but that doesn’t make what he has to say any less credible. IMNSHO, the picture he paints of short-term interests trumping long-term value creation is entirely accurate:

Our political culture – and in many ways our society more generally – has become too focused on immediate needs and demands, rather than considering our obligations to the future…

In firms and in the financial markets, the temptation to drive for short-term profits can sometimes undermine long-term prosperity. The hunt for annual or quarterly economic returns gives vitality of markets – but the focus on immediate returns can also result in instability and, perversely, lower returns over a longer time-frame…

The best companies – the ones built to last – look well beyond quarter-on-quarter profits. In terms of bringing about the horizon shift we need, corporate myopia matters at least as much as political myopia.

No argument with Nick there; nor with his assertion that social justice includes justice between generations. Particularly interesting to note is his choice of standards here, referring to liberal philosopher John Rawls’ insistence that people should consider the implications of their actions over at least two generations; also to the Native American standard of judging the impact of their decisions over seven generations (an example I’ve heard Ray Anderson use in the past).

Full marks for the rhetoric so far, but…

As I alluded to at the beginning – and as Mike again rightly points out in his CommScrum post – nothing destroys credibility quicker than a measurable gap between stated purpose and actual performance. It’s action that counts.

And whilst Nick may rattle off examples of what he sees as these principles in action (getting the public finances straight etc.), I’m aware of at least one other that appears to run entirely contrary to these ideals – the cessation of funding for the Design Council’s Designing Demand programme.

This is a great programme helping small businesses to avail themselves of design (and Design Thinking) expertise to drive innovation. Initial workshops, services and up to five days’ support from a team of expert Design Associates (of which my father is one) are funded by the programme, thereby removing a critical barrier to entry and providing the space and time for these businesses to fully understand and appreciate how design can create value for their businesses.

Harking back to several of my recent posts – and indeed my book – that put design for sustainability at the heart of future prosperity, that seems sadly short-sighted.