Purposeful Business Future – By Steve Cook

April 30th 2019

In business, things can be catastrophically complex…

Every day there are hundreds, if not thousands, of articles, discussion groups, blogs and tweets about what businesses and their leaders need to focus on now. There are almost as many new and diverse viewpoints, buzzwords, priorities, job titles, ground breaking initiatives, self help forums for CEO’s, novel management structures etc. as there are businesses.

Everyone seems to differ in their view about what businesses need to focus on most – culture, technology, investment, processes, innovation, value, operations, diversity, consolidation, acquisition, capabilities and talent, strategy, tactics, tactics dressed up as strategy, customer experience, customer centricity, data, blah, blah, blah. Everyone differs again when trying to define the best new ways to address each of these.

In the clamour to try and deal with issues that have no precedent in terms of complexity, multiplicity, scale and speed, everyone is trying to invent new ways to address ‘new’ issues.

Credit to the image above: Sara Kurfeß on Unsplash

It's confusing out there.

All that’s happening is that a Gordian knot is being tied around dynamic, strategic and tactical thought and action, cohesive planning and efficient development.

In reality of course, there is a common reason for all this noise. It’s change… or transformation, or evolution or revolution… (insert Blah’s here). Everyone knows it’s imperative, everyone’s wrestling with what to do and no-one knows how to deal with the magnitude of it, the pace of it or what to focus on first.

Everyone (with woefully few stellar exceptions – John Deere, Siemens, stand up) seems to be making the same mistake – by looking at the change to a new business paradigm with old paradigm thinking. The same siloed vested interests that beset organisations in the past are besetting the diligent definition of and direction towards, their changed, optimum future.

The results of all this are plain to see – at the critical moment of real opportunity, 77% of organisational (re-)designs fail (McKinsey). The resulting crises of confidence and reversal of leadership and cultural forward motion, risks compromising every facet of future decision-making and implementation to create meaningful business development in every area described above.

If we all stop waving our arms around frantically, panicking and then reaching for the latest idiot’s guide to business leadership in the hope of finding new revelations, and take stock for a while, we may realise that the issues now have all been faced before, continuously, by businesses everywhere, for as long as there have been businesses, innovations, customers, technologies and the need for competitive advantage.

The reality is that there has always been change and the need to either lead or respond to it. There have always been the advantages and risks of adopting new tech, creating new cultures, innovating new propositions, discovering advantage over existing and new competitors, finding better ways to work/places to work/types of capability, finding new ways to communicate and sell, finding new values and, most critically, identifying the things that will drive customers to you and keep them there. Just because this is YOUR first paradigm shift doesn’t mean it’s THE first paradigm shift.

The difference now is pace, however this is something that business leaders can control with prudent, strategic evaluation, visionary thinking and well-constructed and cohesive implementation – and, critically, by stepping away from the idea that product or service innovation is the driver for successful futures. By (temporarily) losing products and services from the debate, organisations can focus in better on what they need to be and do – then define the innovations and strategies required to do it and the culture, capabilities, propositions, infrastructure, operation that will give them a fighting chance to live the dream… whatever that is.

Let’s make things astonishingly simple.

There has always been one discipline that when engaged with fully, can bring all of the various components described above together, in the right way, in the right order and with the right shared understanding and development. It’s a discipline that creates cohesion, motivation, strategic focus and tactical prudence. It’s always been a change agent and catalyst and has always had equal understanding of the internal and external requirements of people, all people, everywhere – employees and leaders, investors and partners, customers and buyers, commentators, advocates and critics.

It’s always been the glue that binds all organisations and every stakeholder together, from pre and start-ups to mature enterprises, whilst creating the continuous opportunities to evolve responsibly and sustainably. It’s been the key informer for every function within an organisation. In many success stories, it is the number one driver for ongoing, long term growth and reward.

This discipline sounds too good to be true and yet its always been there. Unfortunately, by its very nature, it is a strategic discipline that has been greatly and sometimes deliberately misunderstood. Above all other business disciplines, it’s place in an organisation has been open to considerable debate – and it has been misplaced, misused and mistreated. It has been trivialised and in some organisations, de-valued to the point of non-existence, and yet it is the discipline that can be the answer to almost all questions being asked by concerned leaders debating their future – if its engaged with properly.

It is also the publicly accepted number one consideration of citizens, customers, buyers, talent, investors, fans, voters, commentators, bloggers – in fact everyone. Because of this, it can be the most powerful asset or the most damaging problem for organisations of all scales and landscapes and it should certainly be the driving concern for every part of an organisation, because every part (not just marketing or customer services or product development) represents it internally and externally.

This discipline is, of course, brand strategy. Not Branding, ‘the colouring in dept’, the ‘logocops’, the image department or a subset of marketing or customer services or sales or a random design consultant or the propositions/product development team or the whims of the MD or the skewed view of brand offered by advertising and digital agencies and myriad consultants – “We do Brand” or rather “We do brand…” as it applies to advertising, digital, culture, talent, management - ad infinitum.

Ironically, the very people who should have brand strategy front and centre of their business and propositions development – ie business leaders – almost universally fail to discuss it seriously because they know that the world thinks of it in the marginalised ways listed above. In their own ways, they are as guilty as others because by not defining brand strategy as an overarching business strategic consideration, they then assign it to the only place they think it resides… marketing. Inevitably, from that moment on, the true value of brand strategy is lost and becomes impossible to claw back.

Even more ironically, one of the central pillars of successful brand strategy and the businesses that benefit from it, is ‘purpose’. Purpose at it’s most raw and visceral lies at the heart of every start up and emerging business, however, as businesses mature, become more complex and grow, purpose is often eroded, consigned to marketing narratives or forgotten altogether by the very people who started out with purpose as their zealous mission. It is only in the most successful organisations that purpose is maintained, expanded and nurtured because these businesses recognise its importance and its role in wider brand strategic development.

Todays reality is that business leaders who are debating all the various ways that they can define and implement rigorous, actionable business development need something that will be non-partisan, non-compartmentalised, not subject to confirmation bias, utterly objective and not owned by any one stakeholder group. Brand Strategy done well cannot be influenced by a few drivers, it has to be influenced by, and therefore influence, across a whole organisation and its markets. It’s only in this way that it can achieve the vital statistics that are necessary to justify this role.

Brand strategic influence is cyclic and very much reliant on the whole organisation. It therefore MUST engage with and influence, with equality, across the whole organisation. I would argue that Brand Strategy has to be the high watermark of visionary, purposeful strategic thinking in todays, and tomorrows organisations.

So, to reduce the complexities described above, to create clarity and to avoid the siloed ‘old paradigm’ thinking that destroys successful growth, make the transition from original purpose to true Brand Strategy your start point on the road to a rewarding future. Life is much more simple, clear, defined and complete this way.

Steve Cook Biography

In a career spanning 33 years Steve Cook has worked with leadership teams to define visionary and compelling organisational strategies across most market and industry sectors, for future thinking global enterprises, rapid growth start-ups, 3rd and public sector organisations, think tanks and institutions, government departments and societal initiatives - in the UK, EU and internationally.

In all his work, Stephen never loses sight of the most important question of all, ‘Why?’. His focus is always on the human condition and the mechanisms that make organisations stand for something vital and inspire audiences and participators to believe in them and engage with them.


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