Linking strategy culture and stories is worth doing

Why linking strategy, culture and stories matters

Reading Time: 5 minutes

It’s tempting to ignore linking strategy, culture and stories. After all they seem like different things, and address different aspects of bringing a brand to life.

At first glance, strategy focuses on where the business needs to get to. Culture talks to how you bring out the best in people. Stories are how audiences receive what the brand wants them to value – and act on. All three may well have different sign-offs within the organisation.

Separation makes the brand grow weaker

But the problem with not linking your strategy, culture and stories is that a lot gets lost when they are passed around as separate parcels.

The strategy can be an exercise in rationale, frameworks and learnings that literally looks good on paper. However it may lack life beyond that because it is too hard to do anything interesting with.

Culture underpins so much of what is possible. But it too can get bogged down in controlling what should happen in order for everyone to “fit” in and work together. It can become oppressive and intolerant. Agreeing with the “culture” can become a mark of acceptance. Diversity becomes more about variations on a theme than making the most of true divergence of opinion through debate and conversation.

It’s tempting for every brand manager to believe that theirs is a brand that is loved or at least worthy of love. But some brands are in categories that are utilitarian. No amount of wishing otherwise will change that for a consumer. As a result, so many brand stories are fairytales. They portray a view of the brand that is light years from reality.

When all three are misaligned, the problems compound.

The strategy lives in its own bubble. The culture becomes transfixed on getting people to work within a defined framework. And the stories reflect the marketing department’s view of the brand.

Connecting the intentions

We work in and across all three of these disciplines and for us linking strategy, culture and stories makes sense because they have powerful synergies.

The strategy provides the forward direction and the momentum. It lays out the trajectory for the business, the terrain it must traverse and the competition and market forces it must counter. But just as importantly, it points to the type of culture that the business will need going forward.

Strategy connects people to an envisaged future.

It enables everyone to examine every aspect of what is delivered against that goal. It keeps dozens, hundreds, sometimes thousands of people on track.

The culture brings the strategy alive and thus carries the brand forward. Without committed people, a strategy is dead in the water. Any strategy is worthless if it cannot be interpreted and executed.

The power of culture is that it brings the powerful sense of identity and shared beliefs that people need to compete effectively and collectively.

Without a strategy though there is nothing for all that collective energy, skill and knowledge to aim for.

Stories are the fastest ways to build that sense of sharing. They provide a way of explaining things that aligns with the way we best process information. Stories turn data, rationale and plans into narratives that are easily shared. Without inspiration and conversation at a human level, cultures quickly default to rules, hierarchies and politics. Stories connect the organisation not just to itself but also to places, markets, communities and people.

The power of stars

In an article connecting conversations in the cultural strategy space, the authors talk about cultures as fiercely held narratives. This is a lovely idea. It directly links what people believe with how they organise themselves and how they think, behave and interact. Stories and narratives, the authors say, are central to change activation because they change how people perceive themselves and their role in the world.

They also draw an important distinction between stories, which they describe as discreet, contained and structured beginning to end, and narratives, which are made up of collections or systems of stories and that “are articulated and refined over time to represent a core idea or belief … Narratives infuse individual stories with deeper meaning by connecting many stories together to form the basis for how groups of people think about themselves and others”.

Imagine stories as stars, narratives as constellations (collections of stars) and culture as galaxies.

In the words of Jeff Chang, Liz Manne and Erin Potts, “Stories can be connected together into narratives, like stars can be connected together into constellations, make a deeper kind of sense and meaning … Likewise, culture is home for story and narrative. And like all of the elements of the galaxy, story and narrative are in a constant state of motion and interaction — each influencing and being influenced by the others. As a result, culture is not static either.”

These ideas are another expression of the long and short story forms that we often talk about. But the connection of them to culture, as the natural home, gatherer and sower of stories, is a delightful insight.

We would take this skyward analogy further.

Strategy adds form to how each galaxy expands, giving it purpose, direction and what we call ‘forecastable history’.

The critical role of leaders

Two elements we haven’t talked about yet play particularly important roles in how well you link your strategy, culture and stories. The first of course is leadership.

The role of great decision makers in our view is to inspire the kind of culture that the organisation needs to make the strategy work.

It is their responsibility to forge an environment where the interactions between people and the responses they have to change align with what will work.

There’s some nice thoughts on how to do this in this piece:

  • Align performance management with strategy and culture
  • Make teams accountable to both with performance check-ins
  • Implement behavioural and cultural SMART goals

We use an adaption of the model developed by Kim Cameron and Robert Quinn to determine the sort of culture that leaders should be striving to build, and the shift they will need to make in the current culture for that to happen. We often do this via a strategy session where leaders come together to discuss what such a shift will mean for how they lead and the conversations they will need to have to bring about those changes. But we also workshop this using our Brand Definition Funnel to align the brand defining elements that every marketer must work with.

What do customers need?

So far, we’ve talked about all the internal alignments. The most important alignment, of course, is outward facing. The links between strategy, culture and stories all need to contribute to what works most effectively for customers. What are they looking for? Who do they want to believe in? What experience will they have? How does the brand fit into their story for themselves?

There’s a well-used phrase in New Zealand, applied originally to the America’s Cup campaign, that the purpose for every team member is to make the boat go faster. We’ve adapted that to explain what binds strategy, culture and stories together, in our view.

The ultimate goal of each, and all three together, is to help the customer go faster.

Faster here isn’t about consuming more – it’s about enabling people to live more nimbly and more easily. It’s about forging brands that are more valued because of that.

A truly co-ordinated pathway

Done well, strategy points to the future of the relationship, culture champions the humanity, experience and parameters of the relationship (in that it defines in a positive way what can and cannot happen) and stories generate excitement, understanding and news.

Your customers are able to deal with a company that has momentum. They interact with people who behave in ways that are consistent with what the brand projects (culture). The brand delivers products and services to market based on a storyline that continues to unfold (narrative). And there are branded breadcrumbs, in the form of snippets and feeds, that keep people updated (stories).

If your leadership team needs to better connect the dots between your strategy, culture, story, customers and how they as a team lead out your brands, book a strategic session and let’s bring them together to focus on the opportunities. Or, if you’re still getting your head around the weaknesses and strengths of the strategy, culture and stories you have, let us run a Discovery workshop to uncover what’s working, what’s not and where you might be missing powerful linking opportunities.

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