November 28, 2022

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Tails wagging dogs: when process eats away at culture

when process eats away at culture

Peter Drucker tells us ‘culture eats strategy for breakfast’. In our experience, that’s a near hard-and-fast organisational rule..

But when we assess the current state of any marketing organisation, which is the first stage of most of our engagements, we often discover that there’s something else eating away at culture.

It’s process.

Most marketers would accept they need process.. But we encounter far fewer marketers who like process and even fewer who do it well.

In our work, our frequent observation is that marketing teams have processes imposed on them in pursuit of efficiency, with little or no real consultation or right of reply. In short, they are told what, when and how to ‘do process’. 

With the process, execution is ten-tenths of the law

When the process is imposed in command and control style, it hardly ever sticks. Team members will nod in workshops, adding the occasional ‘yep’ while offering little commitment.

The process doesn’t just eat culture: it can eat itself

The truth is that for process, few senior team members will know more about effectiveness, challenges or opportunities to improve than the people using that process every day.

Where the process is imposed, even if some ways of working change, it’s never long before there are workarounds and alternatives that bring the team back to the status quo ante. The imposed process essentially eats itself, reasserting the historical norm.

Unless you’re dealing with matters such as health and safety or military deployment, imposing a process is rarely effective – especially in professional sectors like marketing.

Yet still, we do it.

‘One size fits all’ rarely delivers

We were recently engaged by an Australian marketer and its agencies to improve campaign development processes.

We discovered significant time was incurred writing and approving briefs for every project – large or small, urgent or long-term – using an onerous briefing format.

Draft briefs were returned with comments like ‘that’s not a strategy’ or ‘needs a call to action’.

While we applauded the intent, it was clear that applying one approach to everything was stifling the business.

More importantly, it was eating the culture. Entrepreneurialism was being swamped by perfectionism. Everything felt too hard and long-winded.

Process, or ‘the way we do things around here’, was influencing ‘the kind of people who work here’.

It was time to dismantle the processes and go back to principles.

We designed a three-tier prioritisation framework, and then facilitated the team members in consultation, allowing them to tailor the base model to their requirements. They opted for a heavy focus on Tier One activity but allowed greater empowerment and latitude to execute projects at Tiers Two and Three.

And they agreed to strip the briefing template down to bare necessities (audience, outcome, proposition, evidence, mandatories).

The changes liberated the marketing team and agencies to use instinct and experience, working optimally to agreed and understood principles.

The process became the means, rather than the end.

‘Agile’ is not always ‘faster’

Over the last few years, we’ve been engaged by marketers considering, implementing or refining Agile processes across teams and stakeholders.

Agile can be an effective way to manage iterative processes. In marketing, it can be a powerful tool to supercharge acquisition activity or improve performance marketing.

But it’s not a universal solution. There are linear processes in marketing – around the brand and strategic development – which can be hindered by an Agile approach.

But too often we encounter Agile being used as a process sledgehammer to remove cultural barriers to thinking and acting at speed.

Last year we assessed a financial services marketing team’s Agile process plan It was practical enough, but we found the desired outcome – faster response and speed to market – was unlikely to be achieved without addressing the actual cause, which was excessive executive interference in decision-making and strategy.

In other words, the answer to the problem was cultural.

Agile does not mean ‘faster’. Its implementation does not guarantee greater speed. It’s another way to work. But for many marketers, ‘faster’ is all they want to hear. They use a pre-determined Agile process to tell their teams how and when to do things, instead of trusting them to meet agreed objectives.

Tech without tailoring cannot solve process

Two years ago we were engaged by the CMO of a higher education organisation that had invested heavily in an enterprise martech system.

The promise of the martech salespeople to the Board had been that the system would transform the marketing team into an empowered, agile, data-driven machine. We were engaged because, six months in, the team was struggling to utilize more than 10% of the system’s capability.

The project was difficult. Process – in the form of an off-the-peg martech system – had been imposed as a done deal, without input from the marketing team as to how it might work or which parts were actually needed.

The assumed solution (which, incidentally, benefitted the martech vendor) was a training programme. The problem we uncovered was the unseen damage process was doing to culture.

The focus for the marketing team had shifted away from strategy toward implementation. The organisation had become about how its people did things, and no longer about what they did, why, and what else they could do.

We did what we could. We provided the insight, but it didn’t make us popular. And thinking back, the confirmation bias and loss aversion that accompanies a major capital investment like martech would have been hard to counter.

Consultation. Principles. Empowerment. Trust

These engagements underlined the reality – if you impose a process independent of culture, it usually bounces right off, or gums up the works.

If you instead agree on principles first and then empower the team to find the best process solutions, the result is far better. Rather than being diminished, the culture of the team is enriched and strengthened.

In other words, in marketing organisations never let process eat culture. Agree on principles and direction. Then trust your people to do the rest.

This way, when culture does encounter strategy, you’ll have a better chance.