POV*: Plugging the boardroom into the frontline

 

Plugging the boardroom into the frontline

It’s easy to think that cracking a bold vision for an organisation or brand will lead to success. We’ve frequently experienced the euphoria among a leadership team that follows the agreement of such things – often at the end of an awayday following months of deliberations. The problem is that a vision, as the word suggests, is only a concept for the future. The hard part is turning it into reality. This can be overlooked and is often more challenging than agreeing the vision. For the last ten years, Squad has worked with clients to turn boardroom strategy into frontline creativity. This, our fourth POV piece, seeks to distil some of our learnings.

The history of Starbucks illustrates the importance of both vision and execution. Starbucks has achieved global success, but the company’s history can be traced back to 1983 when Howard Schultz visited an espresso bar in Milan. At that time in America most people drank cheap, poor-quality coffee. In Italy, Schultz observed the high prices being charged for a top-quality product. He noticed the rapid turnover of customers. He observed the experience and ambience of the bars. But most of all, he noted that this was not a niche but a mass market. He returned home with a vision to recreate the Italian espresso bar experience in America.

In Good Strategy/Bad Strategy, Richard Rumelt explains how Schultz’s first coffee shop was a direct copy of what he’d seen in Milan. It had a stand-up bar. The shots of espresso were served in small porcelain cups. There were waiters in bow ties and opera music played in the background. It was even called Il Giornale. Once the business was trading, Schultz started to observe the behaviour of his customers. Based on these insights he made changes. Italian was taken off the menu, opera music was dropped, uniforms became more informal and seating areas were introduced. The product too evolved. Takeaway cups were introduced and non-fat milk was offered. And the name was changed to Starbucks. The vision – to bring a high-quality coffee shop experience to America – remained the same, but the execution evolved.

One of the challenges for many organisations is that they’re significantly larger than Starbucks was at that time. Therefore, the leaders are not the ones making the implementation decisions. Vision and execution are separated, often by multiple layers of management. The truth is you need alignment of the two. A vision is important so that the whole organisation is moving in the same direction. But incorporating feedback from the frontline, from the people getting first-hand customer responses, is also vital. Giving them the freedom to make the right implementation decisions, while ensuring they do so in a manner consistent with the vision, is the key to success.

Faced with such challenges, it’s easy for organisations to lose faith in the role of a vision. Sometimes this can lead to organisations neglecting its importance and focusing just on execution. Yet a vision is crucial. Jim Collins, in his study of companies, Good to Great, observed: “That extra dimension [of great companies] is a guiding philosophy or a ‘core ideology’.” The answer is not to neglect vision, but to adopt a process that connects vision with execution. The process of strategy is as important, if not more important, than the strategy itself. In our experience, there are three crucial principles for turning strategy into action.

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Guide, don’t prescribe
Mark Williams, then of Brunel University, conducted a study of Premier League and academy football coaches. He found that more time was spent on drilling than on game-related activities, and that coaches continuously barked commands. Williams explained: “Traditionally, coaches have tended to provide copious amounts of feedback in the belief that more is better.”Pep Guardiola is one of the top coaches in the world. He takes an entirely different approach. He says: “Once the referee has blown the whistle, I stand there and wave my hands, but it is always down to the players. When Raz [Raheem Sterling] gets the ball, do you think my info is in his head? No, because he only has a split second to decide what to do and a million possibilities. I am here to help, but football belongs to the players.”1

The key to understanding Guardiola’s success is recognising what he does give to his players. He came through the Barcelona academy before breaking into the first team. Through every level of Barcelona football club runs a strong philosophy with regard to how the game should be played. Their teams are encouraged to play out from the back and press hard when not in possession. Players are taught to find space, make unpredictable runs and improvise. It is this philosophy that he has instilled in his Manchester City team. Setting strategy is inherently about making choices between available options. It’s the art of sacrifice. But this does not necessitate being prescriptive about how a direction is pursued. Guardiola gives his players enough of a framework to ensure he has compatible players playing in a coherent way, but he gives them sufficient space to make the right decisions on the pitch.

One of the common pitfalls with defining the direction is mistaking goals for strategy. It is common to hear organisations talk about “increasing profit margins by X%” or “growing turnover to £Xm” as if these are strategies. These are outcomes. There are numerous ways in which an organisation could achieve these goals. The crux of effective strategy is defining the way in which the organisation will achieve the goals. If specific goals are set – after all, targets are not necessarily a bad thing – then it’s important to be conscious of them not undermining the strategy, as happened in the NHS. The government had set targets that patients must be treated within four hours of them being admitted. Their desire was to speed up treatment for patients. But the impact of this was thousands of 999 patients being left to wait in ambulances in car parks and holding bays, or in hospital corridors. Hospitals were deliberately delaying admitting patients in order to meet their targets, which ironically made the situation worse.2

Mobilise people
In our third POV piece, we referenced the example of Enron. In their reception area, the company had these values displayed: Integrity, Communication, Respect, Excellence. Enron went bankrupt due to fraud and its executives were imprisoned. As Pfeffer and Sutton say in The Knowing-Doing Gap: “The problem is that there are too many organisations where having a mission or values statement written down somewhere is confused with implementing those values. These firms act as if going through the process of developing a statement, perhaps publishing it on little cards that everyone carries or on plaques or posters on the walls, is enough to help the company perform better.”

Turning strategy into action starts with the behaviour of the leadership team. The strategic process often involves multiple stakeholders, each with different views and priorities. But strategy is about sacrifice. A collective way forward needs to be found, which often involves compromises. Yet too often people aren’t committed to these compromises. They agree to something in the boardroom, but tweak the implementation to suit themselves. Or worse, they push for a form of words that gives them wriggle room, but with the result that the strategy doesn’t provide others in the organisation with sufficient clarity. As David Maister says in Strategy and the Fat Smoker: “For an organisation, strategy cannot be what ‘most of us, most of the time’ do. If a number of top people have plainly not signed up for the journey or are clearly not true believers, no number of systems or amount of inspired speechmaking will transport the organisation there.” It is essential that all members of the leadership team commit to getting on the bus.

The strategic process is as much about building this commitment as it is about making decisions. Consultation processes can be mistaken for navel-gazing. And awaydays can be dismissed as jollies. But, done well, these parts of the process are essential tools for building consensus. People will have to make tough choices and sacrifices – if they don’t, then the strategy is likely to be insufficiently clear or focused. Moving people to a place where they are ready to make these choices is crucial, which means people must feel like they have been heard and listened to. Most will be ready to accept not getting their own way, provided that their opinion has been considered. Ultimately, if the process reaches a point where people can’t agree, then it may be necessary for some to get off the bus.

Once there’s commitment among the leadership team, this then needs to be communicated in a way that drives action throughout the rest of the organisation. It’s important here to keep the communication clear and understandable. It sounds obvious, but the nature of the strategic process means it’s easily forgotten. Excessive jargon is a common pitfall. Another problem is the use of models or frameworks that may have formed part of the strategic development process, but which are not easily understood by the wider organisation. The communication of a strategy is no different to any other form of communication where an audience needs to be mobilised. As Antoine de Saint-Exupéry once wrote: “If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.” Using language that inspires and motivates action is important. Another crucial component is consistency and repetition. Media companies talk about reach and frequency when planning advertising campaigns. There is an accepted wisdom that audiences need to be exposed to a message a certain number of times. Similarly, studies of habits have found that on average it takes two months for a new behaviour to become automatic.3 We’ve often witnessed CEOs in turnaround contexts repeating their strategy endlessly in every meeting. People may get bored by it, but at least they know what they should be doing.

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Make strategy continuous
The problem with many strategy processes is that they stop just when they should be starting. Once the desired transformation has been agreed and communicated, people view the process as complete. There’s a tendency to mentally tick the box and then return to the day job. But the strategy can still evolve and be refined as learnings emerge about the challenges faced during frontline implementation. In fact, this is crucial to success.

Kaizen is a continuous-improvement philosophy that emerged from Japanese businesses after the second world war. It was popularised most notably as part of The Toyota Way. A similar example is the marginal gains approach used with great success by Team Sky. The principle is that if you aggregate a large number of very small improvements, they add up to a winning advantage. This led Team Sky to making changes such as replacing mattresses in the riders’ hotels so they could sleep in the same position every night. They once considered shaving 10mm from a rider’s collarbone to make him more aerodynamic, although it was overruled by the team doctor.4 A similar philosophy has been adopted by tech businesses. Popularised in The Lean Startup by Eric Ries, this approach is about testing a vision continuously and then adapting and adjusting it along the way.

All of these examples illustrate the importance of refinement. The learnings that come out of the implementation process are crucial. Feedback loops must be incorporated. The team setting the direction must be plugged into the team implementing it and both must be open to modifications along the way. An important part of this is having an accurate interpretation of reality. There’s an old story we often tell about a famous toiletries brand. They commissioned a new agency to create a television advertising campaign. To test it, they ran it in one half of the country first. The results were disappointing. They sacked the agency and started work on another campaign. In the meantime, they decided to run a coupon campaign to maintain some brand presence in the market. This time they ran it nationally. In the half of the country that the advertising had run, the coupon campaign performed significantly better. What transpired was that the original advertising had created a lot of interest, but people needed a little incentive to trial the product. This is why feedback loops are so important. A doctor can only prescribe the correct treatment if they have first diagnosed the right ailment. The original strategic direction will be based on a diagnosis. But the reaction that comes back helps to build a clearer picture, which may suggest a change in the diagnosis and a shift in the direction.

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The answer
The question of how to connect boardroom strategy with frontline creativity goes to the heart of why Squad exists. The structure and culture of our business is built entirely around helping clients to connect these two worlds. It’s why we describe ourselves as a business consultancy meets creative agency. We felt it would be an appropriate complement to this POV piece to lift the lid on the unique culture within our business that allows us to connect strategy and creativity. This is why we’ve published five stories that define our philosophy as a business. Hopefully, they demonstrate what inspires and motivates us, and paint a picture of how we work in partnership with leaders to help them solve their most significant questions by plugging the boardroom into the frontline.

— RG

References and reading

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Solve the right problem

 

Solve the right problem

Moneyball is a great movie based on a true story.

Of Billy Beane and baseball team the Oakland Athletics.

Beane, general manager of Oakland A’s realised that his best players were about to be stolen by the New York Yankees.

The Yankees could pay salaries five times higher than anything he could offer.

And Oakland was losing ground to the competition.

Which frustrated him.

So Beane met with his group of scouts to discuss who they would sign to replace their stars.

“Harry’s got a good arm.”

“Yes, but he’s 36 years old now.”

“I know, but there’s still a lot left in him.”

Billy watched the conversation; it was clear that he wasn’t happy.

And he started to make a gesture with his hand.

Signifying that it was all talk, talk, talk.

The usual stuff.

And Beane knew that usual wasn’t what was required.

He knew that this wasn’t a case of business as usual.

And he told them:

“You’re not looking at the problem.”

His scouts looked shocked.

“The problem we are trying to solve is that there are rich teams, and there are poor teams, and then there is a 50-feet drop-off, and then there is us.”

Beane faced multiple constraints.

The club’s owner controlled the budget.

The team manager controlled the way the team played.

The players controlled themselves.

He continued:

“We’ve got to think differently.”

So Beane – with the help of Peter Brand, a young Yale economics graduate – looked at what problem they were actually trying to solve.

Brand, who’d only just started his career, had some radical ideas:

“People who run baseball clubs, they think in terms of buying players. Your goal shouldn’t be to buy players. Your goal should be to buy wins. And in order to buy wins, you need to buy runs.”

Brand understood the stats: how to read them.

How to find value that no one else could see in the overlooked players.

Using mathematics.

He knew that there was a championship team of 25 people that they could afford.

Because everyone else in baseball undervalued them.

For various biased reasons and perceived flaws, such as age, appearance or personality.

So the Oakland Athletics – the team that had finished the previous season with the worst record in Major League Baseball – set a new American League record.

Winning 20 consecutive games.

With one of the lowest budgets in the league.

Beane and Brand had identified their fundamental problem: their massive payroll disadvantage.

They knew that always doing the same thing is always going to get the same results.

We often quote Albert Einstein (he knew a thing or two about problem-solving).

He once said that if he had one hour to save the planet, he’d spend 55 minutes defining the problem.

And five minutes resolving it.

We often work with clients upstream – at a business, category or brand level – in order to find the right problem.

Using a range of tools, workshops and good old-fashioned digging.

We’re able to talk (and understand) the language of commerce, audience, analytics, market and competition so that we can get to the nub of the issue.

Through this understanding and a relentless curiosity, we find the right problems to apply our creativity to.

— DB

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Work in partnership not silos

 

Work in partnership not silos

John Lennon is one of the most revered songwriters in history.

But when working alone, his songs could be protesting and abrasive – simple melodies with philosophical lyrics focusing on isolation, pain and politics.

Paul McCartney is one of the most revered songwriters in history.

But when working alone, his songs could be criticised for being sugary sweet,  overtly poppy and lightweight.

Even if they were potently melodic.

He was more happy to fill the world with silly love songs.

And even the odd frog chorus.

But together, Lennon and McCartney were better.

They wrote songs that not only revolutionised music but popular culture.

From the off, John Lennon and Paul McCartney decided to publish their songs under both their names.

So all their songs bear the cooperative hallmark “Lennon/McCartney”.

But, some songs were more Lennon’s work; others more McCartney.

Yet even A Day in the Life – a song which on the face of it appears to be a Lennon solo effort bolted to a McCartney solo effort – is an intertwined, combined number.

It was a song that John had started.

Armed with a copy of the Daily Mail for inspiration, he already had the first verse.

Which wasn’t unusual.

One of them would have a little bit of an idea and, instead of sweating it alone, they’d take it to the other.

And work on it together.

Ping-pong style.

Then perhaps the other would write the next bit.

Sitting in Paul’s London music room, the pair pored over the newspaper.

And they just started playing around with ideas.

They worked together on the verse about the politician blowing his mind out in a car.

Paul provided the middle section.

A short, bouncy piano piece he’d been working on independently.

A wistful fragment of adolescent reflection.

And from Paul’s dream, we’re back with John.

And his newspaper.

The headline “The holes in our roads” inspired the wonderfully memorable:

Four thousand holes in Blackburn, Lancashire

And though the holes were rather small

They had to count them all

Now they know how many holes it takes to fill the Albert Hall

When recording the song, the piece was knitted together with a swelling cacophony provided by some of London’s finest classical musicians.

Which producer George Martin said was John’s idea.

Until he later changed his mind and said it was Paul’s.

Which is sort of the point.

When you collaborate, the edges blur.

As do roles and responsibilities.

Lennon and McCartney didn’t follow a rigid formula where words followed music or vice versa.

One wasn’t solely the lyricist; the other the melody maker.

They freewheeled.

Sitting down with a guitar or at the piano, they looked anywhere and everywhere for ideas.

Melodies, chord shapes, some words, or just a thought to get started with.

And then they worked it out from there.

Rather like writing an essay or solving a crossword puzzle.

Which is how we like to work.

We see our whole process as creative, not just the part traditionally labelled as such.

Creative and strategist working together.

One not solely the strategist; one not purely the creative.

By applying strategic and creative thinking to business problems, we create more disruptive strategies and can visualise the possibilities.

This is why we often make a rough-cut film as part of the strategic process.

A combination of words, pictures, thoughts and possibilities.

Quickly pulled together, Lennon and McCartney style.

Because every Lennon needs to find his McCartney, and vice versa.

— DB

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Move people with your vision

 

Move people with your vision

When Bill Shankly took over as manager of Liverpool Football Club, they were a second-rate side, languishing in the old Second Division.

By the time he left in 1974, they’d won three First Division titles, one Second Division title, two FA Cups and one UEFA Cup.

Unrecognisable from the deadbeat side he’d taken charge of in December 1959 – even down to their kit.

Because when Bill Shankly took over as manager of Liverpool, they didn’t play in their iconic all-red strip.

They played in white shorts and white socks, with white piping on their red jerseys.

But Bill had an idea.

Impressed by Real Madrid’s all-white kit, and using his gut instinct for colour psychology, he made a switch so powerful that it’s hard to believe it hasn’t always been that way.

One day, after training, Bill bounded into the players’ dressing room.

He threw a pair of vivid red shorts to one of his players.

“Get into those shorts and let’s see how you look,” instructed Bill.

Because he had a theory: red is for danger; red is for power.

And he didn’t just choose any player to model this new kit, he chose his captain, Ron Yeats.

The 6ft 2in fellow Scot he’d signed from Dundee United, a part-time slaughterman who was as strong as an ox and twice as wide.

The bemused centre-half duly obliged and donned the red shorts, with the addition of red socks.

As he walked down the steps towards the players’ tunnel, he could see his manager, and assistant Bob Paisley, in the middle of the pitch.

And as Yeats approached them, all in red, Bill exclaimed: “Christ, Ronnie, you look awesome, terrifying; you look seven feet tall!”

His stocky presence was made all the more imposing by the all-red uniform.

A move intended to strike fear and intimidation into the hearts of opponents.

Bill was happy.

And on the 25 November 1964, the man-mountain from the “Granite City” of Aberdeen, led out his teammates against Anderlecht in the first round of the European Cup.

All in red for the first time.

The art of theatre was not lost on Bill: he instructed Yeats to stand in the centre circle of the Anfield pitch.

“Walk around him,” urged Bill, as he invited a group of journalists to behold his rough-hewn granite obelisk.

Splendorous in scarlet.

The match was played at a cracking tempo.

Yeats the rock: a huge, defiant red-jasper sentinel in the middle of the defence.

Hunt, St John and Yeats on the score sheet: the captain’s forceful header, the skipper’s first at Anfield.

They shattered the pride of Belgium: 3–0.

And Bill knew that a red glow had been ignited at Anfield that night: one that burned fiercely for more than 20 years.

He knew the importance of getting people to sit up and take notice.

His symbolic move captured their supporters’ imagination, and that of the onlooking press too.

Projecting a very clear sense of who or what you are, and the purpose of what you are doing, is critical to success.

Connecting as much, if not more, on an emotional level as on a rational one.

Through the symbol of reevaluation: a red kit, Bill projected a powerful identity, not just a superficial image.

Bill was sending out a visual message to reinforce the changes he’d made to LFC’s training ground, training methods, footballing philosophy and ambition.

A move intended to amplify these changes.

And, in doing so, intimidate the opposition, inspire the press, captivate the fans and motivate the players.

He’d brought his vision to life so people could see it, understand it and get behind it.

And like Bill, we turn breakthrough thinking into real-world outputs that fuel action and drive change.

— DB

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