How to grow a strategic culture

What do you look for in a new hire?

Immediately no doubt all the cliches come to mind.  Hardworking, team player, problem solver, etc.  Cliches are quite helpful like that: by on the tip of our tongue, they guide us effortlessly to good solid solutions.  Solutions that have been tried and tested enough to become cliches.  In most walks of life, you won’t go far wrong doing what’s cliched, and I would venture that hiring is no exception.

Sometimes, however, this can backfire.  Sometimes the cliches can lead you astray, and carry unintended consequences which hold you back in subtle, insidious ways.

And there is one such trap lurking in the way we build our teams: a focus on problem-solving.

This idea was introduced to me by a mentor of mine, Andy Bass, in his great new book.  At first, it sounds pretty counterintuitive.  Why would it be bad to stock your organisation with great problem solvers?  Why might it be harmful to encourage problem-solving, and to embed it deep in our cultures and ways of working?  Well, clearly there’s nothing wrong with problem-solving per se.  Naturally, it will often come in very handy.

The issue is where it draws the organisation’s focus: namely, to problems.

Most teams operate primarily as problem-solving machines; directly their attention to the problem du jour, fixing it, and awaiting the next problem.  This is dangerous because, as Andy says, “the hidden assumption is that yesterday’s standard is the gold standard”.  Everyone is focused, implicitly, on “getting things back to normal”.  Now perhaps in some very large and mature organisations this is appropriate.  If you’re a drone in the bowels of General Electric or Coca-Cola, your primary goal is to perpetuate the smooth running of the machine.  That’s fair enough.  But most organisations aren’t like that.  Most organisations need relatively rapid innovation and change in order to stimulate growth, and a problem-focused mindset doesn’t help that – in fact, it hurts it.

What most companies require instead is the opposite.  Not “problem creation” (obviously), but rather a focus on what’s working, instead of what isn’t.

When you direct your attention to what’s working – to understanding it, unpacking it, and finding more of it – you don’t simply perpetuate the status quo, you improve it.  This may sound like a facile point, but when you think about it how much attention in your organisation is given to what’s going well?  Five percent maybe?  Far more typical is to take the attributes of a business for granted, and to almost forget about them altogether.

This is where a lot of the value I offer in my own strategic projects comes in.  A big chunk of what I do is basically going into businesses, observing what’s going right, and doubling down on it.  This is the better part of strategy frankly.  Pretty simple you may think, only most organisations have no idea what these things are.  They can write you an eloquent thesis on what isn’t working, that’s for sure.  But when it comes to the unique points of strength the business has, their knowledge is usually restricted to vague and generic platitudes.

“Oh we have a good quality product”
“We have a nice brand”
“We offer great service”
“We have a good sales team”

Maybe so – but utterly lacking in penetrative thought.

All in all, I think it’s fair to say that a big contributor to this is the problem-solving mindset.  Un-strategic organisations direct their attention to what’s not working.  Strategic organisations direct their attention to what is, and figure out how to amplify it.  (Hence why Andy’s book is called Start With What Works).

Returning to the idea of helpful cliches I mentioned before, you will notice there is no pithy phrase to describe this behaviour.  There is no upside-focused equivalent of “problem solver”.  We could make one up – like “asset maximiser” (ugh) – but you’re never going to find it written on a CV.

Without this nomenclature, organisations will continue to be drawn into the murky world of problems, and strategic thinking will continue to be a rarified resource.

From my perspective, long may that continue.  But from yours, maybe it’s something to change.  Next time you’re hiring, don’t ask them to tell you about a crisis they averted, or an issue they fixed.  Ask them about a strength they maximised.  An attribute they noticed and amplified.

It won’t come naturally to you or them, but that’s the cultural root of a strategic organisation.

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