Embracing imagination to bring strategy and culture together

In this post, we explore how Benedict Anderson's idea of "imagined communities" suggests ways to align culture and strategy.

Embracing imagination to bring strategy and culture together

If Peter Drucker never actually said that culture eats strategy for breakfast, perhaps it's safe to ask whether strategy and culture can re-evaluate their relationship? This post considers Benedict Anderson's idea of "imagined communities" as a way to align culture and strategy.

Anderson called the nation state an imagined community, an idea shared by people who'd never met. Anderson's insight was that social systems are formed and sustained through distinct mediums and rituals. Nationalism became possible through newspapers, and sustained by the performance of national rituals - voting, national holidays, flags and memorials. Echoing McLuhan's "the medium is the message", Anderson showed how the characteristics of mass print media helped shape a social system we take for granted today.

Organisational cultures are also shaped by their own unique mediums and rituals. This idea has been half-grasped in the age of agile, but too narrow a focus on tasks, workflow and efficiency risks wasting opportunities to deepen meaning. As helpful as task-focused conversations are for getting things done, we could be imagining what should be done.

Rituals could support detailed discussions or creative exploration. They could  support deep thinking that allows new ideas to emerge and evolve. They could build momentum for ambitious change. Think for a moment about the difference made by a community's choice of rituals. "Moving fast and breaking things" produces an entirely different culture to "a thousand no's for every yes". Now, more than ever, we need to develop rituals that encourage the deep work of re-imagining our world.

Our interactions with the products and services produced by these cultures re-tell the stories of their creation, performing rituals of what's truly meaningful to their creators. Every time we use a product or service, we repeat the story, strengthening the themes we associate with it. Cultures produce products and services that in turn reinforce those cultures. When we say "culture eats strategy for breakfast", we're admitting to not fully committing to a strategy by performing new rituals seriously enough and long enough to re-imagine culture.

Ideas often develop in an inhospitable terrain of pitches, budgets and status updates. These mediums encourage competition and defensiveness, rather than thoughtfulness, craft and focus. Though these rituals of "accomplishment" most likely can't be entirely avoided, we also need to pay more attention to the rituals that nurture, develop and spread ideas.

Examples of activities that offer fertile ground for deep imagining could include:

  • Pre-mortems that imagine (and thus prepare for) failures
  • Birthing rites for the creation of new ideas
  • Initiation ceremonies that celebrate ideas moving from child-hood (drawing board) to adult-hood (roadmap)
  • Scenario-planning that systematically imagines alternate timelines
  • Farewells that say goodbye to cherished products or services being discontinued

The stories that emerge from these rituals could be channelled into the artefacts we use to manage future versions of our organisations, products and services:

  • Scenarios, foresight and strategic narratives;
  • Diagrams of systems or entire ecosystems;
  • Journeys, service maps, flows and product story maps;
  • Conceptual models and frameworks;
  • Design futures, prototypes and story-telling.

These artefacts can be more than just ideas of the future. We can take them seriously as opportunities to embed strategy in culture. We can revere them as monuments. We can raise them as flags. We can orient our organisational rituals around them.

These quasi-mystical musings about creativity in organisations are somewhat tongue-in-cheek. We already do many of these activities and use many of these mediums. Too often though, they're something done in a rush, and used just to feed another backlog before being discarded.

We need our organisations to be more fluent at imagining alternate futures. We need those futures to be tangible, adaptable, believable and just. Our old imaginations are breaking down and the challenges can feel insurmountable. We need to be actively engaged with creating different versions of the future.

When our attention is focused on the minutiae of tasks and actions, the rituals of what we know (culture) win out over the rituals of becoming (strategy). This post is a manifesto of sorts, a love letter to the futuring arts. What would happen if strategic mediums were embedded more deeply in our organisational cultures and we all embraced re-imagining our organisations together?

How do you play the long game?

We've found 4 common modes of strategic change, each with their strengths and weaknesses.

Our simple tool helps you discover your default mode, and how to pick the mode you need right now.

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