Storytelling of the Week LVI

A simple twist but a powerful/simple insight. Inspired by many stunts that happened lately…Anyway, a dramatisation that seems to pick the right emotions. Pedigree reinvents the storytelling in pet food.

Useful Difficulties

Jack White, the former frontman of the White Stripes and an influential figure among fellow musicians, likes to make things difficult for himself. He uses cheap guitars that won’t stay in shape or in tune. When performing, he positions his instruments in a way that is deliberately inconvenient, so that switching from guitar to organ mid-song involves a mad dash across the stage. Why? Because he’s on the run from what he describes as a disease that preys on every artist: “ease of use”. When making music gets too easy, says White, it becomes harder to make it sing.

Jack White

It’s an odd thought. Why would anyone make their work more difficult than it already is? Yet we know that difficulty can pay unexpected dividends. In 1966, soon after the Beatles had finished work on “Rubber Soul”, Paul McCartney looked into the possibility of going to America to record their next album. The equipment in American studios was more advanced than anything in Britain, which had led the Beatles’ great rivals, the Rolling Stones, to make their latest album, “Aftermath”, in Los Angeles. McCartney found that EMI’s contractual clauses made it prohibitively expensive to follow suit, and the Beatles had to make do with the primitive technology of Abbey Road. Lucky for us. Over the next two years they made their most groundbreaking work, turning the recording studio into a magical instrument of its own. Precisely because they were working with old-fashioned machines, George Martin and his team of engineers were forced to apply every ounce of their ingenuity to solve the problems posed to them by Lennon and McCartney. Songs like “Tomorrow Never Knows”, “Strawberry Fields Forever”, and “A Day in the Life” featured revolutionary aural effects that dazzled and mystified Martin’s American counterparts.

Sometimes it’s only when a difficulty is removed that we realise what it was doing for us. For more than two decades, starting in the 1960s, the poet Ted Hughes sat on the judging panel of an annual poetry competition for British schoolchildren. During the 1980s he noticed an increasing number of long poems among the submissions, with some running to 70 or 80 pages. These poems were verbally inventive and fluent, but also “strangely boring”. After making inquiries Hughes discovered that they were being composed on computers, then just finding their way into British homes. You might have thought any tool which enables a writer to get words on to the page would be an advantage. But there may be a cost to such facility. In an interview with the Paris Review Hughes speculated that when a person puts pen to paper, “you meet the terrible resistance of what happened your first year at it, when you couldn’t write at all”. As the brain attempts to force the unsteady hand to do its bidding, the tension between the two results in a more compressed, psychologically denser expression. Remove that resistance and you are more likely to produce a 70-page ramble. There is even some support for Hughes’s hypothesis from modern neuroscience: a study carried out by Professor Virginia Berninger at the University of Washington found that handwriting activated more of the brain than keyboard writing, including areas responsible for thinking and memory.

Our brains respond better to difficulty than we imagine. In schools, teachers and pupils alike often assume that if a concept has been easy to learn, then the lesson has been successful. But numerous studies have now found that when classroom material is made harder to absorb, pupils retain more of it over the long term, and understand it on a deeper level. Robert Bjork, of the University of California, coined the phrase “desirable difficulties” to describe the counter-intuitive notion that learning should be made harder by, for instance, spacing sessions further apart so that students have to make more effort to recall what they learnt last time. Psychologists at Princeton found that students remembered reading material better when it was printed in an ugly font. Scientists from the University of Amsterdam carried out a series of experiments to investigate how obstacles affect our thought processes. In one experiment, people were set anagram puzzles to solve, while, as an obstacle to concentration, a series of random numbers were read out. Compared with those in a control group who performed the same task without this distraction, these subjects displayed greater cognitive agility: they were more likely to take leaps of association and make unusual connections. The researchers also found that when people are forced to cope with unexpected obstacles they react by increasing their “perceptual scope” – taking a mental step back to see the bigger picture. When you find your journey to work blocked by a construction site, you have to map the city in your mind.

Change and Innovation

Have you ever wondered whether every change inside your organisation is an innovation or not? There is some sort of uncertainty around the two concepts and quite often change and innovation are used improperly. Every innovation entails change, but not every change involves innovation: not every time your company is managing change is dealing with innovation. Surprised? Here is the explanation.

Innovation

Change management is an approach to transitioning individuals, teams and organisations from a current state to a desired one. This discipline is mainly focused on easing the change process as much as possible, in order to make it fast and smooth. The starting point is generally known, as well as the destination. It’s all about managing the transition.

On the other hand, innovation management is about managing processes in both product/service and organisational innovation. It is the discipline of moving from a known status quo to an unknown destination and its main focus is to make the organisation responsive to every opportunity in order to develop new ideas, processes or products.

Whereas change deals with things known to the organisation and is about applying existing knowledge, innovation deals with the unknown and is about exploring new ways to make your company profitable. So, as we said at the beginning, every innovations requires the company to change in order to transit from the previous situation to the new one, but not every change involve something innovative, as the destinations may be perfectly known.

Culture, Strategy, Culture, Strategy…

“Culture eats strategy for breakfast.” These words, mostly wrongly attributed to Peter Drucker, are frequently quoted by people who see culture at the heart of all great companies. Those same folks like to cite the likes of Southwest Airlines, Nordstrom, and Zappos, whose leaders point to their companies’ cultures as the secret of their success. The argument goes something like this: “Strategy is on paper whereas culture determines how things get done. Anyone can come up with a fancy strategy, but it’s much harder to build a winning culture. Moreover, a brilliant strategy without a great culture is ‘all hat and no cattle,’ while a company with a winning culture can succeed even if its strategy is mediocre. Plus, it’s much easier to change strategy than culture.” The argument’s inevitable conclusion is that strategy is mere ham and eggs for culture.

breakfast

But this misses a big opportunity to enhance the power of both culture and strategy. As I see it, the two most fundamental strategy questions are: for the company, what businesses should you be in? and for each of those businesses, what value proposition should you go to market with?

A company’s specific cultural strengths must be central to answering that first question. For example, high-margin, premium-product companies that serve wealthy customers do not belong in businesses where penny-pinching is a source of great pride and celebrated behaviour. Likewise, companies whose identity and worth are based on discovery and innovation do not belong in low-margin, price-competitive businesses. For example, pharmaceutical companies that traditionally compete by discovering novel, patentable drugs and therapies will struggle to add value to businesses competing in generics. The cultural requirements are just too different. Whatever synergies they might enjoy (for instance, from common customers and complementary capital needs) are more than offset by the cultural chasm between these two businesses: the value commercial bankers put on containing risk and knowing the customer, versus the value investment bankers have for taking risk and selling innovative financial products.

Maintaining cultural coherence across a company’s portfolio should be an essential factor when determining a corporate strategy. No culture, however strong, can overcome poor choices when it comes to corporate strategy. For example, GE has one of the most productive cultures in the world. The impact of culture on a company’s success is only as good as its strategy is sound.

No culture, however strong, can overcome poor choices when it comes to corporate strategy. Culture also looms large in answering the second question above. In most businesses, customers consider more than concrete features and benefits when choosing between alternative providers; they also consider “the intangibles.” In fact, these often become the tiebreaker when tangible differences are difficult to discern. For example, most wealthy individuals choose financial advisors more for their personal chemistry or connections than their particular range of mutual funds. Virgin Airlines tries to attract passengers who like its offbeat, non-establishment attitude in how it operates. Culture experts are right to point out Southwest, Nordstrom, and Zappos because these companies have instilled norms of behaviour that are essential features of their winning value propositions: from offering consistently low-price, high-quality service in Southwest’s case, to consistently delivering surprising staff service at Nordstrom and leading customer satisfaction at Zappos. What these companies really demonstrate is how culture is an essential variable—much like your product offering, pricing policy, and distribution channels—that should be considered when choosing strategies for your individual businesses. This is especially so when the behaviour of your people, and particularly your frontline staff, can give you an edge with your customers.

Strategy must be rooted in the cultural strengths you have and the cultural needs of your businesses. If culture is hard to change, which it is, then strategy is too. Both take years to build; both take years to change. This is one of the many reasons that established companies struggle with big disruptions in their markets. For example, all the major credit card companies are seeking to transition from traditional payments to digital commerce. This shift in strategy will be difficult to pull off. It not only requires a cultural change, but also a change in companies’ target customer, value propositions, and essential capabilities—the three most fundamental choices a business strategy comprises!

Consigning strategy to just a morning meal for culture does injustice to both. Confining culture to the narrow role of “enabling” strategy prevents it from strengthening strategy by being part of it. It also weakens the power of strategy to turn your company’s cultural strengths into a source of enduring advantage. Don’t let culture eat strategy for breakfast. Have them feed each other.