Have you built a Winning Culture?
Winning has been on my mind a lot this week.
Possibly because of the Winter Olympics that opened in Beijing this week. My late father was an Olympian (Tokyo 1964 for field hockey) so the Games always remind me of him. It’s also because Canada is a strong medal contender, and our media is filled with great stories about our medal hopefuls. Go Team Canada.
More likely it’s because I’m enrolled in an excellent course with Roger Martin, the renowned Strategy expert and author of the quintessential Strategy tome “Playing to Win”.
Those who’ve attended a Roger talk, or read his excellent posts on Medium, will know his unambiguous perspective(s) on Strategy. Foremost is that any strategy exercise should be driven by a relentless desire to win, not merely participate, in your chosen sector, industry or geography. Might also explain why his book isn’t titled “Playing to Participate” but his point is well made.
In simple terms, if you’re not obsessively focused on creating — and executing — a winning strategy, then your business demise is inevitable. Borrowing from Michael Porter’s famous thinking, your choice (another oft-repeated term) is to be distinct/differentiated or to be the lowest cost provider. Anything less and you’re in the messy middle of the road which, as we all know, is where roadkill occurs.
Roger’s 5-step process cascade for Strategy1 is well-known and, to the casual observer, does a great job of highlighting what’s required to set out your important “Where to Play” and the complementary “How to Win”. But, as Roger is quick to point out, without the associated capabilities and management systems, that mapping and deciding exercise is only half-way done.
Copyright Roger L Martin 2020
Regular readers of this blog know my opinion on strategy being something that gets executed, not merely conceived. A product you don’t ship is just a beta. A manuscript you don’t print is just a story. And a strategy you don’t execute is just a fancy Powerpoint.
Winning Strategies need a Winning Culture
We adore putting qualifiers in front of words to create distinctions that are mostly unnecessary, artificial, or just self-serving. Brand strategy, Digital strategy, Social Media strategy. Good culture. Toxic culture. Safety culture. Sales-driven culture.
The Godfather of Culture Edgar Schein reminds us, there is no good or bad culture, culture just is. In the oft-used metaphor of the young fish, it’s the invisible water we swim in inside our organizations. That being said, I’d argue that the only justifiable qualifier that culture warrants is “winning”
So, in order for our strategy to win — not merely participate — is our culture equally poised to enable winning?
And, importantly, does our culture enable us to win over time, not just over the next 90 days.
Sub-standard pay, minimal benefits, no Learning & Development, poor onboarding processes might enable you to keep your operating costs down, but the perpetual interruptions caused by cycles of hiring-training-hiring is hardly the hallmark of sustained winning.
Deep bureaucracy, a HIPPO leadership mentality, zero accountability, accountability and autocracy are unlikely to support a strategy that requires new thinking, innovative ideas, and an accelerated speed-to-market. If the NPD pipeline outlined in your winning strategy is choked by the boa-constrictor of management fear, apathy, or second-guessing, ask yourself how much winning is likely to occur.
Obscure or irrelevant corporate values, misaligned reward and incentives, contradictory communications and messaging send mixed signals to your talent about what they need to focus on for the winning strategy to be implemented. If a winning strategy requires your people to make the right choices — aka decisions — about where to spend their limited time and limited resources, have you given them the clarity to enable them to do that consistently?
Southwest Airlines is an oft-referenced example of a winning strategy expertly executed over time. 47 consistently profitable years from 1973 to 2019 is a hard stat to argue with. Impressive considering the sector in which they participate — nay win — is one of the most beleaguered and difficult one’s out there. Equally impressive, as this New York Times article highlights, is they also appear to be bouncing back from the pandemic faster, and with more vigour, than any of the other North American airlines they compete with.
The good folks at Southwest Airlines would readily acknowledge that how they’ve crafted — and rigorously honed — their culture has been as significant a contribution to winning as their other decisions. Decisions like operating only one type of aircraft for operational efficiency, and executing their hub-and-spoke model to ensure more in-air flight time. To paraphrase something Roger Martin said in our course, Southwest understood that the only time you’re making a buck is when the aircraft is in the air filled with passengers — and their winning strategy reflects that.
Part of the Southwest Airlines Employee credo
No-one ever said strategy work was easy or linear.
As the experts remind us, it’s iterative, emergent, and increasingly complicated. And it’s unavoidable.
It requires a recognition of, and relentless focus on, making deliberate choices that enable you to win.
Choices on where you’re going to play.
Choices on how you’re going to win.
Critically, for those who see culture as a sustainable competitive advantage, choices on the capabilities and systems needed to ensure that happens.
So, the question is, are you here to participate or are you here to win?
How do you think your countrymen in Beijing would answer that?