Culture and Self Assessment
At the the start of the second World War, France aimed not to repeat the mistakes of the first war by constructing the impenetrable Maginot Line. This defense fortified the barrier between France and Germany while presupposing that the Germans would never be able to navigate around the defense due to the thick Belgium forest to the West. However, the Germans took their invading forces around to the West through the Netherlands with such great speed that they trapped over 300,000 Allied troops separating them from other Allied forces. While most of the Allied forces were able to evacuate, they lost most of their equipment and allowed German forces to waltz into Paris ten days later.
Moving forward four years, the Allies had landed on Normandy, taken back France, and were pushing forward into Germany. The Germans had one last hope to stop the advance and turn the tide of the war by splintering the Allied forces and stopping their advance. In turn, the Germans launched a final offensive in Belgium to turn the tide of the war. The Allies didn’t believe that the Germans had enough capability left to attack and were surprised when the Germans attacked with nearly a half-million troops though the Ardennes Forest a few days before Christmas. Known as the Battle of the Bulge the intent to separate the British, French, and American armies the Germans miscalculated the Allied ability to stay as a cohesive fighting unit resulting in the decimation of the German army.
The Battle of the Bulge was a repeat of the first German invasion of France, designed for chaos and speed. The Bulge underestimated the quickness of response that the Allies were able to apply. The Allies had a better understanding of their resources and capabilities at this point in the war where the German applied chaos and speed of attack lost its effectiveness. The Allied self-knowledge led to a devastating counter defense.
Having a strong understanding of self and organizational capabilities is essential in realizing where you are in relation to your competition. Imagine if you were coaching a football team and had no idea if you were ahead or behind in the game. Your approach to the game would be distorted and increase your chances of fatal errors.
Self-assessment also keeps the system in check. The process looks for entropy and the long-term impacts of degradation. As the second law of thermodynamics notes, entropy always increases in an isolated system.
This process shows what resources to leverage. What makes you special and how you can leverage that asset. Do you have talent, intellectual property, capital? Of these resources, which one can become a competitive advantage.
Assessment and introspection ideally show you what obstacles to overcome. Strategy is overcoming an obstacle. If the challenge is not defined, you cannot assess quality, nor can you determine if it is bad or good. Later, when you are attempting to inspire your team to follow your new strategy if you cannot offer a theory on why things didn’t work in the past, it’s hard to generate good strategy or gain followers.
My favorite question to ask interviewers during job searches was, “how would you define your culture?” I loved to ask it because it is an impossible question to answer. It resembles the question of how a relationship partner asks the question, “How do I know you love me?” The great part of the question is that it leads to a nuanced and personalized view of what the culture is for that individual.
We use the word culture to mark the elements of social behavior and meaning. I struggled for years on how define and diagnose a culture. This ended with me developing a four-prism model to grasp a culture. The four areas focused on understanding the workplace environment, processes used, teaming, and leadership.
The next area to explore looks at how the organizational operates. Are you run, as a cohesive machine with strong centralized direction or as individual fiefdoms? You can do either and be successful, it’s when you try to merge the two is when it gets messy. When an organization is chain linked and each link is managed separately the system gets stuck in a low effectiveness state.
Lastly, you must define what winning looks like. Is your success determined by market share, revenue, or even grants awarded? What are the indicators of how you are doing or KPIs (Key Performance Indicators)? These are the stats, and not necessarily the score total and hold limited value. Using the baseball analogy, you may have a team where everyone is batting over .300 but you may not have adequate pitching and lose all your games.
Understanding yourself is a methodical process. One where you can apply numerous tools to unlock that understanding. Probably the most famous organizational assessment in preparation of strategy development was developed by Albert Humphry in the late 1960’s. Known as the SWOT. This assessment first addresses internal insights of identifying the organizations strengths and weaknesses. Next the focus shifts to external circumstances to understand what opportunities and threats exist in your industry and market.
Another useful strategic assessment is the STEEP model. Named after its evaluation areas the model attempts to gain insight into the Societal, Technical, Economic, Environmental, Political environments. It achieves this by looking through past, future, and external windowpanes in these key areas understanding interrelationships, trends, and forecasts.
Going back to using my business as an example I look internally for greater insight. Culturally, I am a one-person firm, the culture is my personality. Internally the challenges I faced center on a lack of marketing and business development expertise. However, I offer a unique change management approach with a high level of change management pedigree, education, and experience.
Marketplaces evolve constantly, now we are living in a trend of digital transformation. Examples are everywhere but for simplicity look at how loyalty punch cards have converted to smart phone applications. When strategically looking at your workforce understand how they are positioned for a digital transformation. Companies employing more digital natives have an advantage over older companies because they typically have better data and know the customer better.
Every economy represents a cycle of high and low points. It never stays in one spot for too long. Strategically, your company should be positioned for the next cycle either taking advantage of a boom or bust. If a downturn is upon you, deleverage before the turn. Focus on decision making, Lean operations before layoffs, and invest in technology that will help you gain efficiencies.
Keep an eternal focus of the corporation. Focus means the coordination of policies and secondly it denotes power to the right target. How focused are you in your actions and are you trying to solve world hunger? If your organization has trouble with completing goals, you probably lack focus and need to limit yourself to one initiative at a time.
World War II started subtly with the annexation of Austria in 1938. Then shortly after the German-Soviet Nonaggression Pact of 1939 the war commenced. The war formally began with the Nazi invasion of Poland from the West and the Soviet invasion from the East. While Poland had guarantees from the French and British to provide military support the speed of battles negated any help that could have been provided.
The Nazi’s displayed their new offensive strategy the Blitzkrieg. They would shock their enemy defenses with air strikes, followed by tank assaults, and then let their infantry follow to clean up the remnants. At the start of World War II Poland found itself as a technologically disadvantaged nation. At certain points during the German offensive the Poles attempted to match their Calvary horses against German tanks. Not surprisingly Poland was entirely occupied by the 6th of October, less than six-weeks after the initial invasion.
Much of this defensive failure is due to a lack of understanding their self and opponent capabilities. Poland knew there were tensions of citizens wanting to reunite the former Prussia and join Germany. Poland realized that its war fighting capability was far behind their aggressors. They also knew that their pacts with Britain and France wouldn’t help if directly attacked, yet they chose hope over realism. In retrospect Hitler laid out his strategy publicly in his speeches and book Mein Kampf showing contemptuous disregard and over confidence by unveiling his intentions by invading Poland. The fact that the Polish government did not foresee these events occurring is almost more shocking than the events themselves.
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