Steward Leadership: Brand, Identity, and Agility

Posted by Matthew Thomas

matthew-thomas-2Over time, an organization's brand can become damaged. This can happen for a variety of reasons. In the mission-driven world (and especially in the Christian denomination and religious organization sphere) brand and identity are very closely intertwined.


In many of these groups, identity and brand have been used to identify a historical tradition, a longstanding relationship or association between entities, a particular theology or philosophy, and a particular set of services provided to others. The brand identifies in-group / out-group as well as history, tradition, and mode of doing business at the same time.


Add to this difficulty, then, when the damaged brand is part of a damaged brand class - not just our restaurant, and its other franchisees, but all of "fast food" altogether, for instance. This makes transformation all the more difficult. The same could be true of a church identified with a particular Christian denomination in its name and core identity, where not only that denomination, but denominationalism in general, has experienced some level of brand damage.


In these cases, identity is so intertwined with the brand that many organizations cannot break in to emerging demographics where the brand does not have any power. The fear is (and justified, to an extent, by historical experience) that a change of brand would cause a loss of identity, which would cause a shift away from core mission and purpose to something that the enterprise cannot or should not do or be. In many cases, the emerging demographics now outnumber the existing demographics, and the brand-loyal demographic is shrinking. Moreover, in many of these same cases, the capacity of the brand to deliver services is decreasing. What can be done?


The trick is in many of these cases for steward leaders to use identity differently to re-brand to reach emerging demographics without losing core essence. When identity has formed around history, tradition, (historical) relationship, core theology/philosophy, or business mode, loyalty outside of established relationships will be difficult, if not impossible. This is especially true when the existing demographic is shrinking. Instead, clearly defining the core identity from the perspective of vision, direction, and values, and defining the enterprise by what it will be and become rather than what it has been, or how it contrasts with others, will propel the enterprise forward and help it develop new branding and connect with new demographics. (Note that this may, or may not, require a name change, depending on the level of brand damage. However, just changing the name without doing the vision work probably won't do much.)


In essence, this shift is about shifting from using identity as boundary setting to using identity as a platform. When we use identity to set boundaries, we often identify ourselves in contrast to others, and spend much of our time ruling on who (or what) is in and who (or what) is out. When we use identity as a platform, we use who we are (and have clearly defined and developed deeply) to launch into new space (whether blue ocean or a competitive space). Once identity, based in vision and forward direction, becomes a platform from which to operate, the enterprise can become significantly more agile in responding to new challenges. In this case, this shift in the use of identity can help the enterprise gain both organizational flexibility and strategic responsiveness - in this case, often gaining responsiveness by gaining flexibility.


In the end, steward leadership of brand and identity doesn't require forgetting or losing history, tradition, (historical) relationship, core theology/philosophy, or business mode, but there will be a different emphasis with them, and they will be used differently. Every brand has a story - every brand IS a story. Shifting from a historical story to a visionary story, and using the story as a platform rather than as boundary-setting allows for the story to reach new people. And for any enterprise to exist long term, it must have a constant pipeline of new people connecting to the story. What story are you telling? What do you need to tell?


Wheel or Spiral? Which is your organization?

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Topics: vision statement, Identity-Vision-Core Values, Matthew Thomas, steward leadership, Mission and vision, Vision and mission, antifragility, agility

Steward leadership of change capacity to grow your agility

Posted by Matthew Thomas

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matthew-thomas-2As we wrote about last week, agile enterprises are both flexible and responsive, working from high levels of trust and responding strategically to their environments. We find that agility is essential to the basic design of any enterprise at any size in any market. Agility is the result of steward leaders building change capacity into their organization's systems, throughout the entire enterprise.


Agility is particularly essential when dealing with a market disruptor: either another company, or new set of conditions, that causes others' models of work, products, services, revenue streams, customer base, customer expectations, and so on, to change, often radically and suddenly. We have found that the capacity for agility is dependent on leaders' capacity to transform their enterprise based upon new conditions and situations. That is almost always a combination of the leader's personal capacity and the organization's capacity as they work together.


Like what you're reading? Subscribe Now! When a non-agile enterprise encounters a disruptor - including the STEEP sectors (social, technological, economic, environmental and political) - not just (or only) another competitor, the non-agile enterprise requires an adaptive change leader, one who can steward the changes necessary not only to meet the current challenge, but create the capacity for long-term agility in the enterprise as a whole. This adaptive change leader helps the enterprise steward its existing change capacity and leverage it for increased change capacity as it meets the current challenges. Careful steward leadership of this change capacity is needed since the existing challenge will consume some capacity and the transformation toward greater long-term agility will also consume some change capacity. As that occurs, leaders must continue to leverage what capacity that exists to create more capacity, not exhaust the organization.


When an agile enterprise encounters a disruptor, a greater capacity for adaptation already exists in the organization's systems. The agile enterprise still requires an adaptive leader to lead this kind of change. The difference is that the enterprise's change capacity is great enough that the change feels different. And, in many ways, the agile enterprise's change is different: change is designed into the system well enough that it is expected, even if not universally embraced. The agile enterprise has built internal trust high enough that the normal fears produced by change have somewhere to go other than just in to organizationally-disruptive behavior. The agile enterprise must, nevertheless, engage high capacity leaders from the outset of any change, so as to maintain (and perhaps grow) the overall organizational change capacity. The biggest difference is that the disruption often creates less organizational anxiety and anger than the non-agile enterprise experiences.


Agility operates in the paradox and tension of working both as fast as possible and as deliberately as possible, as Mark L. Vincent discussed in his post yesterday. This paradox and tension finds its way into any enterprise's work to build change capacity in to its operations. When disruptors arise, this paradox and tension jump into high gear.


When your enterprise encountered a disruptor, how did you respond? What capacity for agility do you see in your organization's systems? How can you steward  the change capacity you have available to both meet current challenges and increase long-term agility?


We would like to offer a free resource to you - the Tao of Action-Reflection - as a way to help you grow your agility. Check it out by clicking the button below!

Tao of action-reflection, primer on process

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Topics: Matthew Thomas, steward leadership, antifragility, agility

Steward Leadership of Agile Enterprises

Posted by Matthew Thomas

matthew-thomas-2In their recent article, "Agility is Within Reach," Kayvan Shahabi, Antonia Cusumano, and Sid Sohonie discuss how organizational agility is a combination of high strategic responsiveness and high organizational flexibility. Agility enables enterprises to respond to change in a timely and effective manner. This all has the purpose of helping maintain the advantage(s) that keep the enterprise sustainable and able to fulfill its mission and deliver goods and/or services. Steward leadership involves developing agility for long-term organizational health.


We often discuss agility with steward leaders in the course of our work with them. This often appears in how we work with them to build in change capacity to their organization: not just to deal with the immediate change or transformational work, but how we can work together to build in capacity for change long term - for changes that no one yet can see. As Shahabi, et al. note, this capacity must develop intentionally in both strategic responsiveness and organizational flexibility.


We observe that enterprises are more flexible when leaders create high levels of trust within their systems and delegate decision-making based upon that trust deep into their system. This trust and delegation grows out of high levels of clarity and alignment with overall mission, purpose and values. Systems that require frequent requests for permission, especially layered requests that must go up a chain of command, are often the least flexible.


We observe that enterprises are more strategically responsive when leaders find ways of measuring and observing opportunities and threats. This comes in, as Shahabi, et al. mention, on the supply side; strategic responsiveness also requires leaders observing and measuring customers/clients/constituents' interaction with the enterprise and strategically working toward strengthening the brand based upon the trends they observe. Systems that constantly respond to crises often move from strategic responsiveness to reactivity, and often lose some or all of their strategic responsiveness capacity.


Agility is one of the greatest needs for any system of people looking to be sustainable in the 21st century. We observe that real agility grows out of a balance of action and reflection, and within systems that can ask strategic questions of themselves and wheel forward instead of spiraling downward. We are happy to offer two resources covering those topics below.


How agile is your enterprise? Does it have high flexibility and high strategic responsiveness? One or the other? Neither? The good news is that agility can be developed: it doesn't just have to be for the leaders who can intuit how to make it happen. The question is, what will we do to develop it intentionally?

For more on this topic, see Design Group International CEO Mark L. Vincent's post on "antifragility."


Wheel or Spiral? Which is your organization?

Tao of action-reflection, primer on process

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Topics: steward leadership, antifragility, agility