Articulate, Frame, Execute




I recently had the opportunity to present at Lincoln StartUp Week in Lincoln, NE on the two primary failure modes of innovation efforts in corporations: Culture and Strategy.

The presentation featured a simple methodology for "overcoming the gravity of the status quo:"
  1. Articulate the Vision
  2. Frame your Approach
  3. Execute
Many corporate innovation efforts fall flat due to inadequate attention paid to one, or two, or all three of these areas. This may be somewhat less of an issue in the case of innovation strategy, but seems to be a prominent issue with respect to culture.

Edwards Deming famously wrote: "Every system is perfectly designed to get the results it gets." The implications on innovation in a corporation is, quite simply, if you want to change the result, you must change the system. Failure to change the system may allow for temporary gains as the system is stressed to produce new results, but with an overwhelming inertia to persist with habits, business processes, decision structures, competency models, etc. that reinforce the old way of working. The gravity of the status quo is strong and will tend to pull the system back into equilibrium to produce old results.

Culture

To change the culture system, you must seek to design the culture. This is a process not too dissimilar from traditional Design Thinking, using empathy to diagnose how the current culture works as well as to understand how a newly designed culture might operate. Only through constant measurement and genuine inquiry can the organization gain the insight required to move the culture from one place to the next.

Once the target culture is designed, the real work begins with an articulation of the vision of the new culture system. The articulation must be consumable, attainable, iterative, comprehensible, measurable, and reinforced, which is no small task. An articulation which meets these criteria is necessary, but certainly not sufficient, to change the culture. Organizations should be wary if there is no active or passive resistance offered to the new vision, for if there is no resistance, you are still in the status quo. Leaders must anticipate a fight to change old habits and to install new structures which support the vision.

A good framework for approaching culture change is to first measure the status quo, then begin to prepare the organization for change, then begin to make change, then finally achieve sustainability. During this process there will be a shift in inertia from the change agents who are initially promoting the change via one-way dialog, to an acceleration phase in which there is a two-way exchange of ideas. This morphs, ultimately, into a period of sustainability involving co-creation of communications. The initial change agents will ideally become insignificant in the end; that is, if they've done the work to design sustainable elements in to the culture.

Once the framework is in place, the time comes for execution of the change program. The organization should seek to execute through creative problem solving, in which effort and energy is spent on bringing the new vision into existence. The alternative to creative problem solving is reactive problem solving, in which effort and energy is spent driving problems and pressures out of existence. A big issue with reactive problem solving is that the end result is a void - the absence of a problem or pressure - which then exists in the system which produced the problem. Creative problem solving overcomes this issue by building new structures not only to overcome problems but to prevent their recurrence.

Allow me to offer an illustrative example of how a fundamental element of corporate culture might be changed. Let's consider a traditional 20th century, bureaucratic organization that boasts a set of performance management competencies. These competencies are likely discussed and debated, at length, once a year, with an occasional refresh as organizational priorities change. If this organization is like many others, the competency model does more to satisfy a requirement to be consistent in talent  evaluations than it does to reinforce some cultural ideal. Further, the process of refreshing competencies to keep up with changing business priorities is decidedly a reactive one. Pressure is felt by the head of HR to align with the strategy, and the new competency model is hastily assembled. Lather. Rinse. Repeat.

Imagine instead an organization which has articulated a vision to become more nimble in the face of change. This organization will benefit tremendously from the exercise of designing a new set of structures which reinforce the vision. In answering foundational, creative questions such as "who do we want to become?" or "what behaviors does the strategy require us to reinforce?" the organization may realize that the exercise of updating a relic of the old culture, in this case a performance management competency model, is not a valuable one. Instead, the organization may decide that the best way to bring this new vision into existence is to enlist & reward employees to hold the organization accountable to a new set of values. The new approach may, or may not, contain a new performance management competency model; and it most certainly will not involve a bureaucratic refresh of an archaic model.

Strategy

Countless business books have been written on setting and executing a transformational corporate strategy. Many organizations, however, passively allow their status quo to persist even when trumpeting the case for change. Changing the strategic course for an organization which has inertia in a different direction is not easy, but the challenges can be overcome by using the same articulate, frame, execute methodology used for culture change.

A sufficient and inspiring strategic articulation is one in which all employees understand where the company is headed, and by when. The best analogy I've encountered for this is that the vision for the organization needs to be as the Eiffel Tower is to a tourist in Paris. All tourists in Paris know where the Eiffel Tower is and how to get there, simply by looking up. So too, should all company stakeholders know where the company is headed, and what is required of them to get there.

Once articulated, the company must employ a framework for identifying the strategy required to move the company from its current state to the vision state. A simple framework that can be used across the organization is to simply ask "What is likely to change between now and then?" and "What will cause us to fail?" By answering these foundational questions, each individual can determine what insights will emerge & what new competencies will be required to achieve the vision. For instance, the CTO of a financial services company might wrestle with the questions "What is going to change in banking?" and "What is required of the technology organization to avoid failure?" as the organization moves from here to there. Plotting these insights and competencies out on a timeline will allow the organization to understand what initiatives must be accomplished, and by when, in order to execute on the strategy.

It's important to stress that employing this framework is not a one-time exercise. Strategic execution requires periodic iteration to course-correct as new insights are learned or new capabilities are required. A periodic cycle in which 1. the shared vision is articulated, 2. the plan is designed for getting there, 3. several initiatives are executed, and then 4. the vision is reviewed and updated, will ensure teams and individuals are working on the right things to achieve the vision. When all stakeholders are aware of, and bought in to the cycle, they will all have a close-in understanding of what's expected of each individual, and a medium-term view of what strategic changes to expect, all while constantly reinforcing the long-term goal.

It has been said that "culture eats strategy for breakfast," (traditionally attributed to Peter Drucker). To the extend that culture drives the actions of the organization, this is then analogous to saying "Vision without action is just a dream."

I would argue that is equally important, however, for organizations to have an Eiffel Tower vision to guide their culture. For, in the absence of that: "Action without vision is a nightmare."


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