Building anything great starts with a great design

The image below is courtesy of twitter (from David Williams of AXA - @AXADavidW). It is from a wall in their head office - a quote from Walt Disney (as you can probably just make out).



My response at the time on twitter was that it is exactly the same when it comes to realising strategic ambition but on reflection I actually wish I'd said something more profound about creating great companies - which not only would’ve been more profound, but it would also have been closer to the truth.

If we think about Disney’s statement as a metaphor for business we’d all nod our heads and agree that it is indeed critical that even with a great design, it’s the people that makes a difference… but I don’t think we do design great places and worse that than very few leaders pursue an ambition of creating a great place with any real intent.

The reasons for this are manifold and whilst the specifics will vary from company to company, we know that things like CEO tenure, ownership, governance (to name but a few) have a big impact on the way leadership thinks and behaves but it is absolutely within the gift of leaders to design a great company and it is most certainly their job to pursue whatever that ambition is with real intent.

If I asked you to describe a great company, I suspect that you would come up with many of the same things I would. A company doing something really meaningful, providing some product or service that is bettering the lives of customers or society in general. Its people understand the value the company provides, they understand what their role in it is and they go the extra mile for the company and its customers. They'd be innovative and flexible. As a result of these things it's likely that the company has deep and lasting relationships with its customers and enjoy loyalty that most firms only dream about. The consequence of these attributes is sustained advantage over competitors. If only it were all that easy.

A major part of the problem in my mind is that because we can all describe these kinds of attributes we tend to treat this activity with a degree of superficiality - that because we all use the same sorts of words, we can include them in our vision for the company and think that it constitutes alignment around the design but in fact it’s just a set of vague aspirations that without fully understanding the implications of, we can’t possibly commit to.

David Maistor, in his book Strategy & The Fat Smoker, gives a neat explanation of the implications…

"There is no business benefit in claiming to pursue a goal that everyone can tell you don’t have the guts to pursue. It not only makes you look foolish to clients, staff and colleagues, but it also deeply demoralizes people and breeds cynicism. Declaring your commitment to strategies that you don’t follow will lower your organization’s energy and its profits."


This isn’t new, but in a workplace where authenticity is essential and information is abundant, ill conceived, grandiose visions of the future that no-one is really committed to are detrimental and worse still actually contribute to the high failure rates associated with strategy implementation. Equally as bad of course are the uninspiring, incremental strategies that so many pursue instead.

So when was the last time you sat down and really thought about what a really great version of your company would look like? When did you last ask your staff or were asked (depending upon where you sit in the company)? My guess is, that it won't have been for some time (if at all) - most people are so busy being caught up with the day-to-day tactics of incremental progress that we rarely stop to take proper stock of what we're doing until something significant happens... like it all goes wrong. Then of course it's firefighting anyway.

So, here are three things that every company should ask itself:

  1. Are we really aligned? - Does the leadership team share the same understanding of the implications of what it's trying to achieve and is everyone equally committed?
  2. Are we creating the conditions in which our employees can do their best work? Do we know how we would like things to get done in this business and understand how we can help that?
  3. Are we really serious about achieving our ambition? How will we react when things don’t go to plan? Do we have enough resilience in our strategy so that we can stay on track towards being the best version of ourselves (despite market changes) or will we sweep it under the carpet and forget about it?
Ultimately what sustains great performance in businesses is great culture but we can’t make cultures, we can only design and create the conditions in which the a great culture can develop and thrive. This is leadership’s role and the start point is a deep understanding of what the company is trying to achieve and what it collectively stands for. We all want to work for great businesses and aspiring to be a great business is almost certainly better than wishing to remain pretty good, but only if you mean it!

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