Using Branded Environments To Instill Recommended Business Cultures From 6 Top Strategy Books
The goal of this article is to reveal the insights found when examining the intersection of three ideas:
- Most major corporations have adopted a business operating system – a framework for their business strategy, often taken from one leading business book.
- These top business strategy books include, to varying degrees, a favored culture the authors believe provides businesses a competitive advantage.
- Through our own client examples, and other industry examples, illustrate how these top-author-recommended-cultures are instilled into company employees via branded environments.
How Business Culture Is An Intrinsic Part Of Top Business Strategies
Open at random many of the leading books on business strategy, and you are just as likely find the word “culture” on the page as “strategy”:
- Good To Great: “In a sense, much of this book is about creating a culture of discipline.”
- Start With Why: “It’s not the size and might that make a company strong, it’s the culture – the strong sense of beliefs and values that everyone, from the CEO to the receptionist, all share.”
- Blue Ocean Strategy: “You must create a culture of trust and commitment that motivates people to execute the agreed strategy.”
- Traction: “Core values define your culture and who you truly are as people.”
Most top business strategy books dedicate a section to company culture. Leading authors either talk about the importance of culture as part of executing on a winning strategy (foremost Simon Sinek in Start With Why), or they go further, and describe which are the key aspects of cultures they observed that lead to high-performing companies.
On the other hand, some top business strategy authors (especially Richard P. Rumelt in Good Strategy / Bad Strategy) disdain what they perceive as the over-reliance on business culture in place of an actual strategic vision. But even within their own frameworks, these authors communicate the business culture they recommend.
And for some leaders, business culture is at the heart of a winning strategy. As management guru Peter Drucker once said, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.”
Let’s see next what writers of today’s top business strategy books have to say about the intersection of culture and strategy. And then, we will look at examples of how businesses with strategies similar to those espoused by our top authors use branded environments within their corporate facilities to reinforce their culture to their employees.
What 6 Top Business Strategy Authors Value + Recommend About Company Culture
This article examines the strategic and culture systems written about by 6 top business authors:
- Start With Why, by Simon Sinek
- Good To Great, by Jim Collins
- Traction, by Gino Wickman
- Blue Ocean Strategy, by W. Chan Kim and Renée Mauborgne
- HBR’s 10 Must Reads on Strategy, by various (especially Michael Porter)
- Good Strategy / Bad Strategy, by Richard P. Rumelt
These 6 books were chosen out of the tens of thousands of business management books because they were among the very highest-ranked books by Amazon reviewers, in both ratings (nearly 5 stars) and quantity (over several hundred reviewers.) There’s a good chance that if your own organization has adapted a strategic operating system as espoused by a business book, it’s one of these 6.
Some of these leading strategy authors explicitly discuss how company culture is an inherent part of a successful business strategy — especially Simon Sinek in Start With Why, Jim Collins in Good To Great, and Gino Wickman in Traction. Here’s how we rank these 6 strategy books when ranked by how explicitly they include organizational culture as a part of their strategic operating systems:
While the first three books are very explicit about culture and strategy, the other three books, Blue Ocean Strategy, HBR’s 10 Must Reads On Strategy, and Good Strategy / Bad Strategy, still describe what kind of company culture they believe will result in success. But, they mostly describe culture implicitly – you have to infer each author’s perspective on culture from how they praise successful example companies.
In the chart below, we have summarized each of these business strategy book’s explicit and implicit optimal business culture:
The chart provides a short summary of the business culture aspects of each of these 6 top strategy books. Now let’s look at each book in more detail, about their strategy, their culture, and an example branded environment that fits their ideas.
Start With Why, by Simon Sinek
You are just as likely to be familiar with Simon Sinek for his Ted Talk as his book, as his Ted Talk is the 4th most viewed video on ted.com. Sinek says that people are biologically driven to trust and be loyal only to organizations that inspire them. And that inspiration is won by revealing the “why” – the mission, cause, or reason for being – of your organization. Thus, his strategy: Start With Why.
As for how that strategy translates into culture, that sense of mission is not just for your buyers, it’s also for your employees: “The goal is to hire those who are passionate for your WHY, your purpose, cause or belief, and who have the attitude that fits your culture. Once that is established, only then should their skill set and experience be evaluated.” He adds, later in his book: “There is no difference between an Apple customer and an Apple employee. One believes in Apple’s WHY and chooses to work for the company, and the other believes in Apple’s WHY and chooses to buy its products…their devotion to the cause is the same.” For Sinek, the company culture you set through your mission is at the heart of your strategy – they are inseparable.
3D design concept for the Ecolab Tour Stop Quick Service Restaurant / Food Retail vignette. Image Source: Holt Experiential / Design: Holt Experiential
In the design and execution of this renovation for their Quick Service Restaurant / Food Retail vignette, Ecolab wanted to visually display the tagline “Cleaner. Safer. Healthier” along with mission-related words, such as clean, healthy, water, food, and energy. Ecolab manufactures cleansers that are widely used in food prep spaces in the quick service restaurant industry. White, laminated display pedestals and bright white LED lighting contributes to the visual theme of cleanliness. Ecolab’s Blue brand color was brought into the space as paint on several of the existing walls. To learn more about Ecolab’s mission and values, visit here: Ecolab. Image: Ecolab Tour Stop / Design: Holt Experiential
Good To Great, by Jim Collins
In Good To Great, Jim Collins researched 15 years’ worth of Fortune 500 public companies to find only 11 that had gone from average performance to great performance, with sustained growth rates far outstripping competing comparison companies. He discovered several recurring characteristics among the best companies. They had home-grown, non-charismatic “Level 5 Leaders” that instilled teamwork rather than fear. They focused on the intersection of what they were deeply passionate about, what they could be the best in the world at, and what drove their economic engine. Technology, while not a key driver, was chosen carefully to accelerate their already-started momentum. And these good-to-great companies consistently followed their evolving plans, rather than lurch around from fad to fad.
Good to Great has a lot of insights about the intersection of strategy and culture. The 6th chapter is even called “A Culture of Discipline.” Among Collins’ findings was that:
- Success comes from assembling the right team of self-disciplined people: “first get the right people on the bus (and the wrong people off the bus) before you figure out where to drive it.”
- Companies perform best with both a culture of discipline and an ethic of entrepreneurship. Collins writes, “Build a culture around the idea of freedom and responsibility.”
- Best companies have a culture of ceaseless quest for understanding the true market situation: “Confront the reality, but never lose faith.”
This “Cast and Crew” employee photo wall is a visual example showcasing the assembly of the right people to create a talented, multidisciplinary team. Image Source: Holt Experiential / Design: Holt Experiential
Image Source: Holt Experiential / Design: Holt Experiential
Traction, by Gino Wickman
Gino Wickman wrote Traction to help give small to medium-sized businesses an “Entrepreneurial Operating System” that helps simplify the complexity of managing a business. The book provides a blueprint, tools, and processes to help owners regain control, solve personnel conflict, improve profits, and rekindle revenue growth. Unlike most business strategy experts, Wickman emphasizes that he provides a real-world, actionable system built by working directly with hundreds of businesses over 25 years, not a castle in the sky theory cooked up by academics.
Traction identifies the 6 Key Components to running any organization: people, vision, data, process, traction, and issues. By focusing on those 6 areas, owners fix the 100s of other problems they face. The first two of these 6 Key Components are central to defining business culture. The first component is Vision. Wickman believes you can define your vision by answering only 8 questions. And the first two questions help define your culture: 1. What are your core values (between 3 and 7 values) And 2. What is your core focus (“your reason for being and your niche”)? Thus, company culture is at the heart of a company’s vision.
And the people within the company are judged by how well they live core values defined by that company. Not only current employees, but also potential new hires. Wickman writes, “Core values define your culture and who you truly are as people. When they are clear, you’ll find they attract like-minded people to your organization. You will also find that when they are applied in your organization, they will weed out the people who don’t fit. Once they’re defined, you must hire, fire, review, reward, and recognize people based on these core values. This is how to build a thriving culture around them.”
Displaying core values throughout your corporate interior reinforces those values within your current team. It also clearly defines what your values are to recruits and helps both them and you realize whether or not they are a good fit within your culture. In the example above, the large format vinyl wall message implies that passion breeds success and it fosters a spirit of enthusiasm and entrepreneurship. Image Source: Office Snapshots / Design: ID Studios, Inc.
Blue Ocean Strategy, by W. Chan Kim and Renée Mauborgne
Most companies compete in “red oceans” against their competitors by trying to be the best at the same things, losing profits and market share in the process. In Blue Ocean Strategy, Authors W. Chan Kim and Renée Mauborgne reveal how successful companies change the rules by redefining their offerings in a way that provides greater value at a lower cost. Blue ocean strategies allow companies to expand their range of potential customers — and profits.
In Blue Ocean Strategy, the word “culture” appears only 12 times, while the word “strategy” appears 500 times. Occasionally the authors explicitly tie culture to strategy, for example:
“Since 1999, Samsung Electronics has established an annual Value Innovation corporate conference presided over by all of its top executives. At this conference, Samsung’s hit Value Innovation projects are shared through presentations and exhibitions, and awards are given to the best cases. This is one way that Samsung Electronics establishes a common language system, instilling a corporate culture and strategic norms that drive its corporate business portfolio from red to blue oceans.”
However, in Blue Ocean Strategy, culture is discussed not in a positive light, but mostly as a barrier to quick adoption of a new, blue ocean strategy. The authors discuss the need to fairly engage with employees to get their buy-in to a new strategy: “You must create a culture of trust and commitment that motivates people to execute the agreed strategy … People’s minds and hearts must align with the new strategy so that at the level of the individual, people embrace it of their own accord and willingly go beyond compulsory execution to voluntary cooperation in carrying it out.”
Nevertheless, while Blue Ocean Strategy authors Kim and Mauborgne may not be as explicit as say, Simon Sinek, about culture as a part of strategy, it’s still fairly clear what kind of company culture their strategy requires. To seek out and create a blue ocean strategy requires a culture where employees are willing and able to challenge their industry status quo, to look with fresh eyes at the sacred cows of their business, and to be focused on providing new areas of value to customers. Without such a company culture, any attempts at a blue ocean strategy would dry up.
Image: Innovation Lab Design Rendering / Design: Holt Experiential.
Carving out a dedicated space for innovation is a great way to foster blue ocean thinking within your organization. To learn more about what an innovation lab is and how it can perform to create avenues of differentiation, you can read more here: Image: Inmar Innovation Lab / Design: Holt Experiential.
HBR’s 10 Must Reads: On Strategy, by various (with focus on Michael Porter)
This book collects 10 of the best articles about strategy published in the Harvard Business Review. We are focused on the first of two seminal articles by Michael Porter, called “What is Strategy?” It’s noteworthy that two other articles this HRB book spawned the books Good To Great and Blue Ocean Strategy discussed in this article!
In “What is strategy?” Porter states that “operational effectiveness is not a strategy.” Rather, true strategy comes from how you position your company, limiting where you choose to compete, and creating synergies among your activities. For example, Southwest Airlines positions themselves as the low-cost airline that competes against the price of driving in a car; they don’t try to compete with airlines that fly to every city, and they make operational choices that keep their costs low.
As a strategic operating system, Porter’s ideas are clear and sharp. However, there is less here than other strategic operating systems about culture. In fact, Porter never uses the word “culture” in “What is strategy,” nor in another article of his in the HBR strategy book. Still, Porter does warn about companies that wander in their purpose, making costly failed decisions trying to take their business in directions that work against their existing, successful strategy. In doing so, he implicitly favors a culture where strong leadership maintains corporate focus, resisting the inevitable calls from within the company to strike out in new, counter-productive directions. His optimal culture is not about the warm fuzzies, it’s about discipline and control.
Image: Scott Safety Project Management Office Vinyl Wall Quote / Design: Holt Experiential.
Good Strategy / Bad Strategy, by Richard P. Rumelt
Richard P. Rumelt refutes the value of bad strategies too often chosen by companies. Bad strategies are too fluffy, too vague, too much like a financial goal, and too many strategies for one company to really be a true strategy. Good strategies are rooted in overcoming an actual barrier to growth. They are specific, focused, and are the best response to the true market conditions.
Unlike most of these authors discussed, Rumelt doesn’t value culture as a strategy. He even says that a lot of today’s bad strategy comes from calling strategy what is really just mission / vision / values, rather than defining and following a true strategy. He writes about how AT&T had a culture held over from during the time telecommunications was regulated, and how that culture was a detriment to new product development in the later, unregulated era.
We infer that Rumelt’s optimum strategy is very similar to Michael Porter’s: A company with centralized control of the chosen strategy, maintained over time by rigorously choosing only alternatives that maintain their focus. Not touchy-feely, kumbaya, but strict adherence to adapting to real-world market conditions.
Image: Patheon, a part of ThermoFisher Scientific, Corporate Manifesto Wall Graphics / Design: Holt Experiential.
If your company has chosen one of these six business strategy books as your strategic operating system, we hope you’ve gained insights into how their strategic system overlaps with company culture, and how branded environments can help express, instill, and reinforce that culture.
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