Is your strategy being distorted by discourse?

What on earth is discourse? well, it’s what we think and say. What we say shapes what we do, and how others perceive our organisation and ourselves. If you want to create a strategy that is truly competitive, it is unlikely you will get there by using buzzwords such as “we want to conquer the Chinese market”…”we have a strategy that will keep us at the top of our game”…”we want new routes to market..” All these are slogans, which probably confuse more than clarify. You have to be crystal clear – for instance, to talk about the difference between which markets you want to serve (corporate strategy) as distinct from how to want to succeed (competitive strategy) and thus achieve sustained advantage in those markets. If your board talks of resources, but does not talk about capabilities, or how capabilities link to products and services, then the strategy is likely to be too focused on counting and squeezing resources.

Listen for who talks about strategy, the vision and where the organisation is going. If there are differences in what you hear from the shop floor and the boardroom, this means lack of clarity. The board may think that issuing statements about strategic intent will result in strategy being implemented, but implementation requires all levels of management to be involved. As this surely means that all levels need to be involved in strategy formulation.

If your suppliers talk in a different way about your strategy to the way you talk about it, then update them. Get the supply chain end to end believing in and promoting your strategy. You don’t need to reveal confidences, but reveal more than you think. The real secret to your success may be in the 100s and 1000s of interlinked processes, routines, and the cultural glue that binds then all together – this is not easy for competitors to replicate.

Gone are the days when a top team decides the strategy, and then the others simply obey and implement. Often, those at the coal face will have much more insight than top management as to why products and services are doing well, or not so well. Some organisations get it right, and the language of strategy is broadly consistent across and up and down the organisation.

But what if the language and the statements about strategy are so aligned within the organisation, that no one can challenge it – in other words “groupthink”? Does your organisation have ways for people to challenge and offer new ideas about how the organisation can thrive?

You could do better than having more meetings open to all staff. Open the closed doors and trust people more. In the Financial Times today 17th March, there is a great article about how the Financial Conduct Authority is seeking to be more open about the way it works. Can you take a leaf out of its book? What steps as a manager and leader can you take locally tomorrow to get the conversation about strategy out in the open?

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3 Things We Can Learn As Leaders from the Panama Papers

The Panama Papers scandal reminds us how volatile the overall business environment is. What’s more, things that would have not attracted much attention a few years ago, now generate a deluge of news. And look how in UK alone, how it has triggered the Great Revelation of Tax Returns from politicians …in just a week! Not to mention resignations of ministers in other countries. The external environment changes and you need to get good at spotting developments, and then finding the possibilities in them.

Peter Magna Carta and other (8) (Medium)

So, what are the “panama papers” equivalents in your own business environment? How often do you scan your own external context for possible disruptions, and then plan for them, or find ways to avoid them overall, or to find some Yes We Can ideas (thank you Obama)? Who has responsibility for this scanning in your organisation, or is it shared by everyone?

Some organisations might put Panama Paper type events under the Corporate Social Responsibility umbrella, and have policies about CSR. Others might say this is just plain common sense. “We don’t need policy. Do what’s right, and you won’t get into trouble….” Easy to say, but when trading across national borders, or even across different sectors within a country, where different hidden rules, or expected behaviours occur, what’s right in one context is not right in another. An example is the practices for business expenses. What is acceptable in a large corporate might not be acceptable in a heavily cash-strapped, cut to the bone public service.

The learning here for organisations is that you need to get under the cultural skin of your partners, suppliers and buyers. Find out what really motivates them, what they care about. It won’t be long before all large (maybe not that large) company directors are forced by public demand to be more open about their own finances. Will the public want to know how directors earn or invest their cash, beyond the perhaps publicly available information on their salaries?

The Panama Papers this raises interesting questions about whether an organisation’s “off shore free” status in broad terms (honest, clean, open) may be a differentiator, and something that external stakeholders look for. Some while ago, the Coop Bank rose in popularity because of the ethos of the Coop, but then it transpired that some their practices were found wanting by the UK’s Financial Services Authority in 2013. This was not an “offshore” event (as far as I can tell), but to most of the public, any kind of “financial” issue is all lumped together – it is perceptions that drive actions. In your organisation, are there some practices which are a bit iffy, but maybe the culture suppresses news about them for a while, and then it all leaks out…eventually?

But times for the Coop have changed dramatically, and last week, it was announced “Co-op boss Richard Pennycook has agreed to take a 60% cut in his pay package“, where Allan Leighton, Co-op chairman, said: “The move by Richard to reduce his pay shows the Co-op difference in action, as we champion a better way to do business for our members and their communities.” Isn’t this a great example of being in tune with stakeholder expectations.

So, what can leaders do about all these risks and potential scandals that might engulf them? There are 3 things to start doing to get more in tune with scanning for ideas in the external environment:

  1. Create a culture of it being safe, even rewarding, to challenge the prevailing wisdom. This needs to start with leading by example. Is there an equivalent bold move you can make to publishing your own tax return? Ie Just doing it. No grand policies, just action you know will shift the thinking, and creatively shake things up. Some people may get upset, but you so long as you act with good intentions and integrity, and are politically astute, you will be respected.
  2. Recruit people who are willing to take risks, and to challenge the senior management. This means senior management must signal that they want to be challenged to think differently. This probably means your selection and interview practices need to change. Most CVs will not reveal that “I got into hot water trying to improve X, but at least I tried”. Do you want people only with solid technical skills, or also people with a bit of a radical spirit? Hang on a minute…isn’t being a creative type a solid technical skill anyway?! Take a look Values Based Recruitment in the UK’s National Health Service.
  3. Learn from other organisations. If a week goes by, and no one in any team meeting has brought in some new ideas from outside, this may be a sign that the organisation is too inward looking. Managers need to develop the ability to learn from different sectors. For example, if you are a transport manager, look for how healthcare managers solve problems and manage risks. If you are in the retail industry, what ideas about improving customer care can you spot developing in the airline industry as seen by Are there ideas from other organisations that you can adapt and build on the 10% that’s useful, even if the 90% may not be relevant?

I am looking forward to the next instalment of the Panama Papers!

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Using Shukko to Improve Innovation

Innovation is often seen as very process-driven, systems-driven, and these are often vital elements. If you don’t have a systematic way to innovate, the risk is that pockets of different practice spread up across the organisation, but they might not be shared. So, the teams and work groups that are successfully innovating, doing things differently, need to share them. It means being generous. It means walking over to other teams and saying “I can help”, and probably best done face to face or via a phone call, or skype. Resist the immediate call to email, as you may simply be adding to overload and your offer of help may not be heard!

Recently, I was talking to a major international public service organisation, and heard about their systematic approach to innovation, based on lean. Lean methods are indeed very good, but this organisation has problems with getting people on board. So, one solution is to give those who are on-board allocated time, to talk to the sceptics, those who are a bit worried in those other teams about this new “system”. Even better, why not try secondment, or working with a different team for an extended time? Don’t you just love the sound of the Japanese words in continuous improvement? – the word “shukko” refers to transferring staff temporarily to another organisation, often say a supplier, but it can be adapted to transferring internally.

Key is the element of learning; not just transferring because the other team, or department, is short of staff, but because we want to share ideas between the two teams involved. Often the person who comes back from the other team is full of ideas, and keen to share them, so you need, as a manager, to find space and time to really listen. How often have you heard managers say “we do things differently here” as a means of saying “don’t worry about those other folks, knuckle down to you work here”? If you want departments to work better together, then shukko can surely help.

As an organisation, do you measure or assess the benefits of shukko, or similar practices? Could you publish some learning stories of how a staff member went to see how things were in another teams and came back with ideas which were then creatively adapted by his/her home team?

Give it a go, whether or not you use Japanese words! You could make shukko part of your “system”.


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“Design the City!” at North London Collegiate School

Peter Wainwright has been invited to lead a workshop for the school’s geography society on 7 March and the theme will be Design the City! Peter will go through some design and innovation techniques with the students who will create outline 3D prototypes for cities of the future.


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Interview with 2012 Olympic Men’s Marathon Silver Medal Winner Abel Kirui

Listen to Peter Wainwright’s interview with Abel Kirui in 2011 before he then went on to win Silver on Sunday 12th August at the London 2012 Olympics Men’s Marathon. In October 2011 Peter interviewed Abel after he came second in the 10 mile BUPA Great South Run in Portsmouth. Peter wanted to find out how he prepared for the race and what advice he has for aspiring athletes.  All leaders and managers will be inspired by his words!

Interview with Abel Kirui 30 Oct 2011

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Designing the culture of the organisation

Organisational culture is just as important as the organisation’s strategy, indeed they can support each other. Recently, bank chiefs’ bonuses have been in the spotlight, and look to stay there for some time! What is critical is how the culture of the banks can be changed so that rewards are perceived to be more fair balancing the needs of  all stakeholders. This means looking at the organisation’s purpose and design as a Continue reading

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Peter Wainwright appointed to teach Strategy at the Open University Business School

Peter Wainwright appointed as Associate Lecturer in the Dynamics of Strategy on the MBA programme at the Open University Business School. This is a brand new course that gives managers and leaders the skills needed to contribute to strategy for their organisation as a whole. The OUBS is triple accredited, and one of only 40 such business schools globally.

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Facilitating virtual problem solving

8 senior managers, across 3 continents, are working virtually to creatively solve a range of complex problems over 3 weeks. The managers are MBA students with the Open University Business School. Peter Wainwright is facilitating the process; welcoming students, making connections between posts in the problem solving forums, facilitating discussions, providing one-to-one support and running real-time problem solving using Elluminate Live software. This is the cutting edge of virtual problem solving, and it is creating amazing levels of cooperation and openness amongst people who have never met before.

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Collaboration “executed precisely”

We have just finished working with Niteworks and UK MOD to update the Concept of Employment (CONEMP), an operating concept, for the future generation of a major collection of vehicle-based military systems (the “Future Rapid Effects System”). The Niteworks senior management reports: “The FRES CONEMP project has recently concluded with extremely positive feedback from across the MOD. It has led to a set of output documents which are intended to be released as part of an Invitation to Tender pack. This has executed the Niteworks model precisely – to work collaboratively across MOD and industry to improve materials prior to competition.”  Continue reading

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Learning from Santa Monica

This is a picture (copywrite of the Santa Monica Civic Centre car park. Quite amazing! If someone can make a car park look exciting, then this inspires us to think how seemingly ordinary parts of an organisation, or its services, (let alone buildings), can be more attractive, and maybe gain more customers. This is an example of how thinking from one discipline, architecture, can be transferred to another. Continue reading

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Creativity is the most sought after leadership quality

“Facing a world becoming dramatically more complex, it is interesting that CEOs selected creativity as the most important leadership attribute. Creative leaders invite disruptive innovation, encourage others to drop outdated approaches and take balanced risks. They are open-minded and inventive in expanding their management and communication styles, particularly to engage with a new generation of employees, partners and customers.”

…from “Capitalizing on Complexity Insights from the Global Chief Executive Officer Study” in 2010 by IBM. “This study is based on face-to-face conversations with more than 1,500 chief executive officers worldwide”….. Continue reading

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