Tag Archives: strategy

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.

Building a better working world

A lot has been written here and elsewhere about the concept of “thick”/shared value – the reconnection of business strategy to delivering social progress.

As I wrote on the Guardian’s Sustainable Business blog a few months back, business must now operate within a completely different set of frame conditions, encompassing the combined forces not only of climate change, population growth and diminishing natural resources, but also (among others) the ascent of Generation Y and increased public scrutiny in the wake of the financial crisis.

To achieve longevity, business needs to recognise these seismic shifts and re-imagine them, not as constraints on business as usual, but as the perfect opportunity to reconnect with disillusioned customers and employees by designing something better.

More than ever before, the business that wants to achieve long-term success must earth itself in a sure sense of why it exists, what it stands for, and why it matters (beyond making money). And that purpose should be self-evident in the very products and services it provides, how it organises itself, and how it conducts its daily business.

In short…

  • Purpose is the key to creating shared value – not some warm and woolly expression of values, but the ‘north star’ around which to build a strategy for enduring growth, based on improving people’s lives.
  • Purpose is the only sustainable way to recruit, unite and motivate all the people a business touches because – while business models may come and go – it’s that essential ‘reason for being’ that remains constant.
  • And it’s purpose (IMNSHO) that now represents the most powerful lever business leaders can pull to achieve competitive advantage – the single best way to demonstrate relevance in an ever changing world, and to build deeper, more lasting relationships with customers and employees who share your beliefs in their very bones.

On that last point, it’s worth drawing attention to the big news at EY last week – the formal accession of Mark Weinberger as Chairman and CEO, accompanied by a rejuvenated brand identity and, in particular, the clearly articulated purpose that forms the new tagline of “Building a better working world”.

Cards on the table, I’m an EY employee, so I’m hardly an impartial observer, but I’m massively excited by this.

An organisation I work for is really putting purpose front and centre – not in a superficial way, but based on deep thought about the essential function of a professional services firm in promoting long-term growth, through providing timely and transparent information that contributes to the critical functioning of the world’s capital markets, for example, and supporting and stimulating entrepreneurship as a key to local economic health.

I hope my colleagues and EY’s clients will feel the same intuitive resonance with this purpose as I do. In any event, I think it’s a bold move that deserves a lot of credit – especially in a heavily regulated industry that naturally tends to inspire a degree of risk aversion and conservatism.

As Simon Sinek hints at in one of my favourite TED talks, most organisations – indeed most people – are perfectly comfortable describing what they do; maybe (at a push) what it is about how they do it that sets them apart from all the rest. But very few nail their colours to the mast of why they do it 

Of course, that’s precisely why it’s such fertile territory for differentiation.

Sausage + Sizzle (the Icebreaker way)


Let’s start at the beginning…

The plan was simple: let’s be what the others weren’t. They were synthetic; we were natural. They were about sweaty men; we were gender inclusive… They were about hard adventure; we were about kinship with nature. They were about function only; we were about design and creativity. Exploring for us wasn’t the highest peak, but an exploration of something much bigger – nature itself.

These words from CEO, Jeremy Moon, brilliantly capture the essence of Icebreaker – the New Zealand outdoor clothing brand, whose nature-inspired, pure merino wool outdoor clothing system is another fabulous example of brand- and sustainability-driven business strategy.

My blossoming love affair with the brand only intensified last weekend as I popped into Snow+Rock to buy my four-year-old daughter a new set of thermals. For me, it was an encounter that added yet another layer (no pun intended) to their brilliance – a perfect combination of sausage and sizzle…

First the sausage…

Emotional ‘sizzle’ is for nought without product ‘sausage’, and product performance is where the Icebreaker system really scores, thanks to taking its cue from Mother Nature.

The merino wool fibre, it turns out, is a miraculous thing – not only providing outstanding insulation, but also incredible softness and breathability. And because of its natural antimicrobial properties, it doesn’t stink either, even after a sweaty run.

By all accounts there are folks who’ve been able to go for months without having to wash their Icebreaker, so brilliantly does it work (not something you can say about the synthetic competition); and, when you do eventually wash it, you can do so on a perfectly ordinary washing cycle (no need for special detergents to get the whiff out).

Feels better. Warms better. Breathes better. Smells better. That’s a clear victory for natural merino wool on product performance, and what was really great to see at the weekend was how the whole Icebreaker value proposition was reflected in the packaging of Lottie’s new gear as well…

Compact and 100% recyclable

Firstly, you’re immediately struck by just how compact it is, and the fact that the inner tray and outer sleeve are both made out of nothing but 100% recyclable cardboard. Look a bit closer, though, and you realise they’ve done something else really clever…

'The Pack with the Hole'

Notice the hole on the front of the outer sleeve (one that on other packages might have been covered by a bit of clear plastic)? That’s genius because it immediately allows you to touch the product inside. ‘Wow, that’s soft!’ you say, and all those messages about superior product performance encircling the cut-out are given an extra kinaesthetic kick.

…then the sizzle…

There’s no shortage of emotional sizzle either, with some wonderfully irreverent copywriting on the back of the box (a bit reminiscent of the kind of copy that appears on Innocent’s smoothie cartons):

The New Zealand merino sheep’s amazing all-weather coat lets him roam the rugged Southern Alps in snow, rain, sun and wind. Now you can wear the same outdoor clothing system – minus the horns, hooves and dags (that’s New Zealanders’ word for sheep poo!). Your Icebreaker doesn’t itch, feels light against your skin, looks great and locks in warmth – and it’s good for the environment. Your Icebreaker rocks!

Accompanied by mini-testimonials (including from 8-year-old, Alex, who says that, if his mum wants to wash his Icrebreaker, she basically has to steal it from his room under cover of darkness!), this helps to create sense of fun, playfulness and love for the brand that amplifies, still further, the contrast between the ‘soft’ Icebreaker and its ‘hard’ competitors.

There’s another lovely little touch, too, with the finger puppets stamped into the cardboard of the inner tray (hours of fun, no doubt, for the younger wearer.)

The piece-de-resistance here, though, is undoubtedly Icebreaker’s pun-tastic invention of the ‘Baacode’ – a unique number on the clothing label that, if you enter it on their website, actually traces the sheep stations from which the fibres that make up your garment were sourced. Complete with extensive bios of the farmers concerned, it’s a great way for Icebreaker to illustrate its commitment, not only to its suppliers, but also to full product transparency.

Tracing your garment

Where the fibres came from

Personal stories from the sheep stations

In conclusion…

Ultimately, I guess, this is all a rather long-winded and effusive way to express my admiration for a not inconsiderable amount of integrative thinking; also, though, to illustrate an important point from a previous post…

Actions taken in the name of sustainability are liable to be worthless – indeed can be positively harmful to a company’s brand and the bottom line – if the underlying principles aren’t demonstrably applied to day-to-day decision-making (i.e. sustainability ain’t about PR; it’s about culture!)… The authenticity of your commitment stems from the materiality of your actions – i.e. beyond the thin veneer of charitable giving, cause-related marketing etc., that commitment should be self-evident in the very products and services you provide.

In case you were wondering what that might look like in real life, I reckon the above offers a pretty decent example.

10 books by the spring?

Given that I haven’t blogged in over two months now (busy, busy, busy!), it’s probably ambitious in the extreme to set such a target for the 55-minute guide series that Kevin Keohane and I started up a couple of years ago.

Nevertheless, with five books already in the bag (attracting nothing but four- and five-star reviews on Amazon too, btw), another three in the latter stages of development, plus ideas for at least another two, maybe it’s not a total pipe-dream?

To these hopefully soon-to-be-completed guides – including the 55-minute-guide to corporate branding (Dave Allen), user-centred design (William Hudson) and cross-cultural communication (Indy Neogy) – it’s also probably about time to add second editions to the books that started it all off, namely The Talent Journey and Live Long and Prosper.

For my part, I just started thinking this morning about my opening gambit for an updated book and figured I might as well share it here. Have a butcher’s and let me know what you think…


Preface to 2nd Edition

So, what’s changed since the first edition of this book was published two years ago?

The short answer, somewhat paradoxically, is both everything and nothing.

Slightly depressingly, what hasn’t changed is the vast majority of companies’ understanding of what it really means to be sustainable.

The ones who get the concepts and arguments laid out in this book have got it for a long time already. These include not only more recent start-ups, like the brilliant Icebreaker in New Zealand, for whom sustainability is the very essence of their business; they also comprise long-established corporations like Interface in the US and Marks & Spencer in the UK, who have recognised the changing frame conditions within which we’re now operating and that their long-term prosperity depends on nothing less than the redesign of core business strategy and operations.

Meanwhile, in general, those who didn’t get it before recession struck still don’t get it now. Indeed, if anything, all recession has done is to entrench short-term thinking.

And yet…

Everywhere I look, momentum is growing. Sustainability is no longer the exclusive realm of hair-shirted environmentalists and pie-in-the-sky idealists.

The need for business to reconnect strategy to a sense of social progress – that creating shared value is perhaps the competitive advantage of the 21st century – is rapidly gaining currency, even in the hallowed corridors of Harvard Business School and other temples of traditional, left-brained management thinking.

When strategy guru, Michel Porter, starts proselytising about a more constructive form of capitalism, you know it’s time to pull on your track shoes. The kind of stuff that people like Paul Hawken, Ray Anderson and Jonathon Porritt have been talking and writing about for ages has finally hit the mainstream!

And for every poster-child of old-world CSR to have come an almighty cropper in recent times (not least BP, whose ‘Beyond Petroleum’ greenwash has come back to bite them royally on the bum in the wake of the disaster in the Mexican Gulf), there’s a story of another major corporation embracing new-world sustainability.

Consider the launch last year of Unilever’s Sustainable Living Plan, for example, explicitly framed by CEO, Paul Polman, “not as a project to celebrate, but a new business model to implement,” based on the fundamental understanding that materially addressing sustainability not only offers opportunities to save costs, but is also a critical engine of innovation and brand equity.

In short, then, the case for building sustainable brands – and for a book that gives sympaticos and sceptics alike a quick and easy way of getting to grips with the big idea and how to action it – has never been stronger.

Don’t worry. While slightly expanded, with additional thoughts and visuals culled from my blog and my practical experiences of consulting with clients, I promise you’ll still be able to read this book from cover to cover in under an hour.

I hope you enjoy it.

Live long and prosper!


Creative agencies: who’s got the balls to colour outside the lines?

It’s interesting to see that my chums over at SAS are running an event on sustainability tomorrow night, in conjunction with the Conversation Society (sadly I can’t make it, as I’ve got my brother-in-law coming round to measure up for a new kitchen!).

Of course, having worked closely with Kevin Keohane for several years now – both as a freelance consultant to his Brand & Talent practice and as partners-in-crime on CommScrum and the 55-minute guide series – I know very well that he (at least) gets the much more progressive take on sustainability I’m always spouting off about – i.e. sustainability understood in the context of fundamental, long-term business viability, rather than peripheral greening.

But – and it’s a very big but – I still have considerable doubts over the willingness and capability of most creative agencies to really get with the programme in terms of the implications of all of this.

Taking my definition of sustainability as, “a perspective on brand/business strategy that inextricably links long-term success with serving a higher social purpose,” what we’re ultimately talking about is sustainability-led business transformation – the re-design of core business in pursuit of shared value.

I know there are plenty of creative agencies that do an outstanding job of helping the already-converted, not only to report transparently on their own progress, but also to encourage other businesses to follow suit by offering compelling stories of the value those actions have generated (witness M&S’ Plan A update and How We Do Business Report, produced by Oliver Dudok van Heel, Ben Richards and the sustainability team over at Radley Yeldar, for example).

Likewise, as illustrated by Puma’s clever little bag posted about the other week, I know there are plenty of designers helping organisations to take promises of a much more authentic and material approach to sustainability (ones that so often end up as empty rhetoric) and give them tangible form in terms of core products and services.

And that’s great.

Really, it’s fabulous progress.

And yet…

I can’t help feeling that this is predominantly downstream execution for the minority of organisations that already get it.

What about those who don’t?

Let’s imagine that Company X, which doesn’t exactly have a stellar record on sustainability, approaches a bunch of brand/comms agencies for help.

How many would have the balls to front up and say words to the effect of…

Sure we can help you with your sustainability communications, but you know what? Communication alone isn’t going to overcome negative perceptions and deliver tangible value for your business.

Perhaps we could share some of our insights on what it takes to build a relevant and credible story on sustainability and, on the back of that, develop an initial programme of work to really understand what that means in the context of your business strategy.

…versus how many would immediately leap at the chance to flog some neatly ‘productised’ offering around building sustainability campaigns or sustainability reporting that, in completely failing to address the underlying issues of strategy and culture, will end up achieving absolutely nothing other than the short-term feelgood factor of having created some nice, glossy materials?

Not many, I’d wager.

First, define sustainability. Then let’s talk.

I’ve borrowed the title of this post from Brian Moss, an MBA/MS student at University of Michigan, who (I’m flattered to say) saw fit to quote my definition of sustainability* in a fantastic piece on his Considering Design + Sustainability blog a couple of weeks ago.

He concludes with the following lines – the importance of which is impossible to understate and deserves further unpicking:

I guess if there is a moral here it is to always remember that the definition of sustainability is context specific, and that the first part of any conversation – with stakeholders, with consumers, with each other – should be to answer the question ‘How do WE define sustainability?’

Amen to that, and – as ever, it seems – it’s the core principle of materiality that holds the key.

Why? Because materiality is the key to demonstrating an authentic commitment to sustainability and is essentially there to be examined and judged along two critical lines:

  1. Company-based materiality – i.e. beyond the thin veneer of corporate philanthropy and cause-related marketing, organisations’ sustainability strategies should (at a minimum) be focused on addressing impacts directly related to their sphere of operations. (For example, if you’re a bank, sustainability has bugger all to do with painting schools in Africa and everything to do with responsible lending and investment!) Better yet, sustainability should be a fundamental design value underpinning business strategy and culture, such that your core products and services are geared towards creating value for the business and for society in one and the same act.
  2. Market-based materiality – i.e. that goal of creating shared value should also see sustainability/business strategy geared towards helping to solve those problems and concerns that most greatly affect society in the specific markets in which you operate. Take my Saudi mobile phone client as an example. In Saudi Arabia, where chronic health conditions like CHD and hypertension are one of society’s most pressing concerns, it’s material to consider how mobile technologies might be applied to improving access to, and effectiveness of, healthcare services.

Much to the chagrin of clients who wish you’d just reach up to the shelf labelled “Best Practice” and pull down a nice, neat cookbook solution, the upshot of all of this is that no two strategies are ever likely to be identical.

The principle of materially dictates the consideration of a combination of contextual factors that will always vary from business to business and market to market. Whilst the basic principle remains constant, its embodiment in strategy and execution are necessarily different in each case.

This is the reason why Brian’s apparently innocuous question is of such vital importance, and why the commitment to real sustainability of anyone (provider or client) who suggests otherwise should be considered highly questionable!


* Sustainability is a perspective on brand and business strategy that inextricably links long-term success with serving a higher social purpose

Strategy lessons from the 19th century Prussian army? Who’d have thunk it?!

What can military history teach us about effective strategy? Quite a lot, actually, though not in the way most traditional management thinkers might imagine…

I met Stephen Bungay – management consultant, military historian and director of the Ashridge Strategic Management Centre – a couple of months back and was sufficiently intrigued by our conversations to pick up a copy of his book, The Art of Action: How Leaders Close the Gaps between Plans, Actions and Results.

Under normal circumstances, the use of military history to illuminate strategy would be a complete turn-off for me – conjuring up, as it does, the usual images of “business as war”, rigid, top-down, command-and-control management structures etc. that are totally inappropriate in an ever more complex and interconnected world.

But what if military history were being used to illustrate something entirely different, within an entirely different construct?

What if the stories it told, and their underlying principles, actually crossed over with a lot of the stuff that tends to occupy my thoughts these days – framing wars as complex adaptive systems; understanding strategy as intent rather than lengthy action plans; and an appreciation of armies, not as military machines of precision, but as organic organisations subject to the same frailties of human finitude as any other?

That might be worth a closer look, right?

It is.

Stephen’s examination of the nineteenth-century Prussian army – above all, the characteristics of Auftragstaktik and its translation, in a business context, to what he describes as “directed opportunism” – provides an illuminating backdrop and rationale for an approach to strategy that, whilst it might seem blindingly obvious (as Stephen is the first to admit), nevertheless tends to get derailed by organisational structures and cultures that, wittingly or unwittingly, perpetuate Taylor-esque models of scientific management.

The goal of strategy, says Stephen, should be to close, or at least reduce, three critical gaps – those of knowledge (what we would know in an ideal world vs. what we actually know), alignment (what we would like people to do vs. what they actually do) and effects (what we expect our actions to achieve vs. what they actually achieve). Ultimately, this boils down to:

1)  Deciding what really matters. You can’t create perfect plans, so don’t even attempt it. Don’t plan beyond what you can foresee. Formulate strategy as an intent rather than a plan. As Helmuth von Moltke wrote in 1871, “Strategy is a system of expedients… the evolution of an original guiding idea under constantly changing circumstances.”

2)  Granting people autonomy to act. Recognise the distinction between intent (what we want to achieve and why) and action (what to do about it and how). Simply, the more alignment you have around the former, the more autonomy can be granted around the latter. Much as my CommScrum chum, Geoff Barbaro, advises in his upcoming 55-minute guide to leadership communication, the trick is to create a framework that’s crystal clear about the why, then ask people to tell you what they’re going to do as a result.

3)  Giving people space and support. Don’t try to predict the effects your actions will have, because you can’t. They don’t exist in a vacuum, but are subject to the independent wills of multiple agents. Instead, encourage people to observe what is actually happening and adapt their actions accordingly to realise the overall intent.

To which I would add/clarify:

4)  Think “safe-fail” rather than “fail-safe”. One of the upshots of all of the above is that we have to lose our obsession with being right (another recent read I’d highly recommend is Kathryn Schulz’s Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error). Failure is to be expected and – when strategy is approached as Stephen suggests – can be positively embraced as a learning opportunity. Mistakes made in good faith (i.e. in pursuit of the overall intent) should never be seen as wrong.