Wednesday, April 17, 2013

People, too, Can Eat Strategy for Breakfast

Culture eats strategy for breakfast.  Attributed to the management guru Peter Drucker, the line became popular in the middle of the last decade when Mark Fields, President of the Ford Motor Company, posted it in his war room.  The company’s culture warranted sustained attention from his leadership team, Fields was saying, otherwise it could make their strategic planning and priorities meaningless.  Even more fundamentally, implicit in Fields’ posting was the message that leaders could address and actively shape their organizational culture for the better. 

How to foster that strong, positive and creative culture has always been the real question.  Changing beliefs, changing behaviors, and providing common goals are among the general approaches that leaders have adopted when wanting to create a culture in specific contexts.  Yet all of these must begin, quite simply, with the people in a team or organization – and it is often in leading those people, and the talent they bring, that the strongest and most creative cultures are built.

I recently had the opportunity, with the Berlin School Executive MBA program, to visit an outstanding example of talent leadership: the UFA Lab – a Content Lab based in Berlin and also in Cologne.  The Lab is part of UFA, one of Germany’s oldest and most distinguished entertainment brands, with an artistic heritage of films. UFA is part of FremantleMedia, represents a group of dynamic production companies, and is owned by the conglomerate Bertelsmann. 

The Lab retains exceptional autonomy, however, to pursue revenue-neutral projects and enter into imaginative partnerships to explore opportunities and innovation in the shifting digital media and communications marketplace.  Indeed, as the following graphic makes clear, the Lab has emerged over the last three years as a platform for the digital entertainment industry, developing interactive entertainment with some of the most creative organizations in the world, including YouTube/Google, Apple and Nintendo, as well as German start-ups like Couchfunk and movinary.

The outcomes of such collaboration have included a host of innovative new media projects, productions, and events.  Consider Rescue Dina Foxx!, a transmedia project joining broadcast television drama with online video content and gaming to produce an interactive captivating thriller for audiences to solve. Produced with German broadcaster ZDF and teamWorx in 2011, the carefully designed project generated both actual and online communities to investigate a fictional murder.  While an engrossing and interactive thriller, the project also smartly employed multiple media tools and platforms to explore with viewer-participants contemporary issues around digital identity theft. It’s Germany’s biggest-ever alternate reality game. Watch the full trailer.

While the UFA Lab has leveraged its place within Bertelsmann to forge imaginative collaborations with major global partners and to pioneer innovative media and entertainment productions, other drivers of their success are more human scale.  Speaking to Jens-Uwe Bornemann, the UFA Vice President Digital Ventures & Innovation who founded and leads the UFA Lab, and some of his senior producers, it quickly becomes evident how crucial to the Lab’s success have been the personal interactions in the space on Mehringdamm in Berlin’s Kreuzberg neighborhood, in Cologne, and through individual connections beyond, including in London and New York.  One of the clear takeaways of a visit, in fact, is that Bornemann’s flexible project-based business design and open leadership of such diverse and cross-functional talent, who often reside in different sites and sometimes organizations, have been indispensable to the UFA Lab’s consistent creative productivity.

Legendary adman Jay Chiat once famously said, “How big do we get before we get bad?”  That is still a useful maxim for many agencies and firms wanting to remain nimble and adaptable.  More recently, a current legend, R/GA’s Bob Greenberg, offered the following variation: “How diverse are we going to get before we get good?”  Such recognition of the power, even necessity, of successfully deploying diverse talent marks a critical priority for leaders of creative production, teams and wider communities today. 

Diversity, of course, is about people and their different experiences and outlooks, ideas and perspectives.  It’s also about how leaders guide those people toward shared goals.  Culture, after all, is crucially about people and the values, beliefs, and goals they share.  Effective leadership, like that of the UFA Lab, continually enables and inspires people by envisioning the opportunities that those with shared belief and collective effort can explore and achieve.  Without such leadership and its catalyzing effects, diverse talent can remain dispersed, disorganized, and chaotic.

Culture still eats strategy for breakfast.  But so can people, particularly in creative businesses, if they are not empowered to pursue shared priorities and achieve common goals.  With the increasing diversity of talent brought to bear today in teams, projects and organizations, there’s perhaps no greater challenge – and opportunity – for creative leaders than to enable and inspire their people. 

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