Nozy Parker



Given the speed at which business models are being disrupted, the word disruption has become synonymous with change, innovation and growth…a catalyst that opens the doors of exponential transformation often based on the principle of digitisation. Many Leaders within large organisations look at disruption calling for a “think like a start-up” paradigm with their teams in order to maximise innovation, which has to a large extent lost its importance. Simply put, not all innovation is disruptive, and disruption is not always innovative.

I decided to look up the definition of disruption - Disruption is defined by the Cambridge Dictionary as “an interruption in the usual way that a system, process, or event works”.

Innovation, on the other hand can be defined as a new idea or method, in fact Scott Burken defines innovation as “significant positive change”. This intrigued me as I too have always considered that innovation lies at the heart of business sustainability and longevity... it is the substance that fuels growth and by its very definition, it implies an appetite to embrace change and frankly, allow for disruption. In my experience, truly innovative companies face the world of uncertainty with clarity of purpose and a willingness to fail fast and learn quickly… Within these companies there is an inherent belief that the status quo will not suffice and that the present is a place where we act from the lessons learned in the past in order to design our own future… it is a part of their culture!

My observation with culture is that it is a simple word with great significance. Peter Drucker once said that “culture eats strategy for breakfast” or put another way...culture always beats strategy! In my experience, culture is often the very disruptor of innovation and remains one of the most misunderstood and underestimated forces within an organisation. I have had the opportunity to assist various companies from turnarounds, to change management implementation including growth and uplift strategies and have always faced the impact of culture. Culture, if not acknowledged, understood and addressed can and will inhibit innovation and remain a disruption to significant positive change.

Whilst I have had the best intentions and the most thought out strategic initiatives and plans, culture has always appeared and challenged our ability to execute. Strategy becomes the servant of culture and is rendered redundant as culture continues to maintain the status quo through its inherent presence and processes in the organisation...all reinforced by the people who lie at the heart of this simple complexity.

You may be dealing with a new project, responsible for innovation and or you are implementing some form of change programme or initiative and are facing inhibiting behaviour and a lack of traction which may be due to culture. Here are some simple insights form my failures in executing strategy;

LESSON ONE - The unsaid is far more important than the said. Pay careful attention to the behavioural aspects of culture…understand ”how we get things done around here” and not just what people talk about. In your mind, what will the impact be of your strategy and how do you think people will behave. Identify the battleships [open and direct, fight in visibility] and prepare for the submarines [closed and hide, only fight under the ocean and only are visible when feeling safe]. Anticipate noise from the battleships and sabotage from the submarines and adapt accordingly.

LESSON TWO - Understand who the custodian of culture is and how you can influence this. They are present and sometimes hide in the dark corners but not always as I once worked with a CEO who wanted the change cognitively but could not cope with it emotionally as he was the custodian of the culture. His past success had become his future failure as he reinforced culture and passively sabotaged strategy. Once they have been identified, engage for change but always bear in mind that you cannot implement a new business model with an "old" leadership team, especially if they have developed the culture. In my view, this is where the short-term pain of removal of custodians of the culture is far more forgiving than the long term pain associated with the future sabotage of strategy.

LESSON THREE - Time is not your enemy, it can be your friend. Be consistent in your strategy but agile in your structure - people simply take time and the influencers are influencers for a reason. Take the time to win hearts, culture will always be the safest place compared to the uncertainty an initiative or innovation brings. People hold onto the past as a reference for the future, even if it doesn't work. Your job is to build a framework for the future that can replace the reference of the past.

LESSON FOUR - Clarity always wins against uncertainty. I am of the view that clarity builds hope which is a prerequisite for the faith you require in the change or innovation initiative. Simply put, be clear and consistently clear about where you are wanting to go despite the uncertainty associated with the future.

LESSON FIVE - The art of decision making is making decisions. I have been in many environments where I have underestimated the reliance of people on their managers to take decisions, an assumption I have regretted. Decision making requires trust in a team and this is cultivated by example. Be aware of the culture of decision making within the organisation and be aware of thinking that collaboration can be a quick antidote for a lack of decision making, it is not!

LESSON SIX - Fail fast and learn quickly. This applies particularly if you are working within an environment that does not celebrate failure but fears it. Encourage discussions that speak about failure amongst team members and requires them to acknowledge the learning…then celebrate it and move on…I suggest that this initiative is cultivated quickly for any influence on culture...

LESSON SEVEN - Inspiration trumps strategy. The WHY is and will always be more powerful than the WHO and the WHAT…continually remind the team of why they are doing this…I have that those that inspire people within difficult environments invariably create influence for change.

Whilst there is more for discussion on how culture can disrupt strategy, my final thought is that innovation requires the ability for an organisation to be willing and able to change but organisations require readiness for change and this lies embedded within the culture of the organisation and the people who occupy it.

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