Your strategy is in your DNA

I have had two radically different experiences of being involved in “strategy workshops”, those away-days or off-sites when an executive team tries to find a new direction.

At one such event we gathered 20+ staff (couldn’t leave anyone out, they’d be so miffed) from around the world for a 2 day, professionally facilitated event. By the end of the first day it looked like we had got nowhere, so the facilitator turned to the CEO and said “so what are you trying to achieve”. The CEO turns to the flip chart and writes down a headline financial target. That was it. Literally. At the end of the 2 days, we had a financial target that had more to do with the CEO’s aspirations for personal wealth than the company’s strategy. Oh, and everyone had a list of actions which they conveniently forgot over the ensuing weeks.

The second experience was very different. Freeman Christie is a communications agency which was keen to position itself for the future. They had spent time segmenting their business, refining their services, focussing on the numbers and targeting key markets – but something was missing.  The two founders wanted to refine their proposition, and focus more on the brand and differentiation, the things that made them who they were. So, we decided to take a day out and look at things afresh. We met in a local bistro where over coffee and croissants we looked at what made their organisation different, and how to build on that. A week later we rolled out a new strategy to their staff. How?

One of the revelations of the MBA for me was the acknowledgement that an organisation’s ‘culture’ has a huge amount to do with its day-to-day operation, its brand and its strategy. It was presented as the ‘Cultural Web’, one of the, oh-too-many, frameworks I had to study. Gerry (“that’s an interesting question”) Johnson and Kevan Scholes defined it as an organisation’s “taken-for-grantedness”. The ‘Cultural Web’ is a tool for auditing an organisation’s culture by looking at stories, symbols, power structures, organizational structures, control systems, routines and rituals. Like so many MBA frameworks it is useful checklist, but not much more. It gives you a list of the symptoms of culture, but little else.

However, my experience of grappling with an organisations ‘culture’ is one of tackling immovable attitudes, deeply held beliefs and a historical legacy which is unchallengeable. Taking it on is like running at full tilt against a brick wall. This is not ‘culture’, this is far more basic, unalterable, visceral. Corporate culture sounds like it is something sponsored by the Arts Council, something soft and pliable, refined, polite, well-bred and nurtured. That is not my experience of what defines an organisation, the way it thinks and acts, the way staff speak, the way its customers describe it. No, this is far more raw. This is unadorned nature: the gnawing, ripping, corporate caveman within. This is not optional. This is not nice. This is corporate DNA.

Just look at the two definitions from Oxford English Dictonary:

DNA: the fundamental and distinctive characteristics or qualities of someone or something, especially when regarded as unchangeable

Culture: the ideas, customs, and social behaviour of a particular people or society

Unconvinced? Just think about what happens if you instruct your staff to act outside the space defined by your corporate DNA. That cognitive dissonance,  the state of having inconsistent thoughts, beliefs, or attitudes, produces high emotions. Staff become sick, they argue, burst into tears and do anything to try to defeat your instructions. Does that sound like culture or DNA?

So, let’s accept that our corporate DNA is defined by those ‘fundamental and distinctive characteristics’ and start respecting it in our strategic thinking.

Back to the bistro…

We started by reviewing why they were in business. A fundamental question that we often fail to ask: Why the heck are we doing this? Money, fame? Yes, sometimes, but surprisingly rarely. A desire to change the world? Err, yes, surprisingly often. (Note to the economists reading this – need to tear it all up and start again.) As they chatted, about why they’d teamed up 10 years before, and what motivated them to come to work every day, I made notes. For Mark a key motivation was giving satisfaction to clients and helping them delight their customers. For James he wanted a challenge, to change the world. Both of them had a deep irreverence of the status quo, loved to push boundaries and kick over idols. Not fluffy and artistic, but common sense and no bollocks. Perfectionist doesn’t come close: “we’re never good enough”.

Next we moved on to why their staff wanted to work for them. We were fortunate to have just completed 360 degree reviews, so we had some concrete feedback to look at from the staff. They really enjoy working with Mark and James and loved coming into work. The staff saw them as ‘inspirational’. The partners felt similarly about the staff. They knew the current team could take them anywhere. We added all of that to the mix too.

Then we started to talk about their customers. Who were the good ones to work with, for whom they produced their best and most innovative work? Who ‘got it’ and who didn’t care? It turns out that this had everything to do with the client’s personality and the company’s position in the market, and nothing to do with market sectors or industries. This was a relief; with customers as diverse as Yamaha, The Electoral Commission and Mitchells & Butlers, it had been hard to segment their markets. They could name their great customers, and why they “got it”.

I believe that these three things express the corporate DNA in a very real way: the leaders’ motivation, the employees’ view of the organisation and why the customers do business with it.

The discussion finally turned back to strategy and suddenly it all seemed obvious. What we needed to do was to express this DNA. After all this was why our customers stuck with us. We had to shout it from the rooftops and act like the revolutionary world-changers we wanted to be.

Rather than trying to summarise all my notes into a ‘paradigm’ (cultural web) I just generated a Wordle word cloud. This summarised immediately (and later for the staff) both big and little issues, their relative sizes and the words which are important in expressing their DNA. Words like ‘value’, ‘bespoke’ and ‘love’ jump out of the page at you.

A week later the founders presented their thinking to the staff. The reaction was mesmerising. Some of them were in tears (in a good way!), some got very excited and energised. The presentation (stand up, few notes, whiteboard, no PowerPoint), was from the heart. They emphasised the unique qualities of their organisation, that it was organic, impromptu, reactive, emotive and timeless. They offer a bespoke service, no ‘cookie cutter’ solutions. This resonated strongly with what the staff knew to be the DNA of the organisation. After all, this was why they were here in the first place; because they believed this stuff.

Another week later and concrete plans are in place to ‘express the DNA’. No fluff, but concrete ways of getting their unique message out into the world, and a growing confidence that if that was done with the creativity and passion that every piece of client work received, they would be noticed.

What differentiated my two experiences were the very different DNA of the two organisations. It made me realise that whatever anyone said, whatever the CEOs vision, if the organisation did not have the capability to adopt a strategy, it was never going to do so.

Some achieve greatness, some are just lucky, but mostly they’re born with it (sorry Shakespeare).

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