CEOs of organisations from start-ups to global corporates rightly pay attention to the culture of their organisations. As Peter Drucker once said, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast”. Whether it’s something that’s been consciously developed or simply evolved over time, culture is essentially “how we do things around here”. But culture has a flip-side – it can cause a “cultural blind-spot” to issues within the business and potential solutions to problems. When viewed from inside the bubble of any culture, whether that’s business or geographical, these problems are often simply not seen. It typically just takes an outsider’s view to point out the solution, which is usually clear for everyone to see once it’s highlighted.
The story of the Magic Dogs
There’s a story which I think perfectly captures how a different perspective can help people solve many seemingly difficult problems in business. The story comes from Dr Amy Dickman, a British conservation biologist interested in resolving human-wildlife conflict. She is director of Ruaha Carnivore Project (RCP), a community-based lion conservation initiative in Tanzania. Dr Dickman was working with the Barabaig tribe in Tanzania. The Barabaig are pastoralists, living on the outskirts of the villages, and are traditionally avid lion hunters. After a period trying to build trust with the tribe, Dr Dickman and her project team were eventually invited to a traditional meeting in the bush.” During the meeting two of the project’s dogs were present and starting to get under everyone’s feet, so Dr Dickman told them to sit in Swahili (‘Kiti!’). The dogs sat, and the meeting ground to a halt. When asked what was wrong, one of the elders said, ‘Where did you get the magic dogs?’ ‘What do you mean? They’re not magic – I got them from that guy over there.’ Dickman pointed to one of the tribe, who responded “I would never have given them to you if I’d known they could speak Swahili!” The people couldn’t believe that a dog could understand what a human was saying, something which we pretty much accept as basic training for dogs. It was a breakthrough which led to RCP subsiding special dogs bred for guarding livestock and, since their introduction, nobody with a dog has lost any cattle to lions, and they have successfully chased lions away. The project has had impressive success and RCP has been recognised by the local government as a major contributor to community development, with lion killings have dropped by 80 per cent in the core area. For me, a key element of the story is that this wasn’t about introducing something that didn’t exist; there were always dogs living side-by-side with the tribe. But to the Barabaig people they could not see that a solution to their problem, that of lions attacking their cattle, was literally sat right in front of them.
How Cultural Blind-Spots can block growth
Many clients I’ve worked with have growth problems which, from their cultural perspective, they are struggling to solve. They have invariably tried to find a solution, and failed, but usually it’s because they were looking in the wrong place. Here’s an example of a very common growth challenge – breaking into a new market. I was working with a client that offered high-value B2B services to large companies. In their home market of Germany, which was where their headquarters was located, a key market segment for the company was the Retail Sector. However, in the UK this was a market they consistently struggled to penetrate. Multiple marketing campaigns had failed to generate any leads for the company, despite having ample references and case studies (albeit in Germany, not the UK) so I was hired by the UK Managing Director to improve the effectiveness of these campaigns. I started by conducting a research project with the target market and, after interviewing multiple stakeholders across the sector, a clear picture emerged. How the company described its services, which worked perfectly in Germany, was a complete turn-off in the UK. I got the same feedback from all stakeholders, because it was a cultural bias in the UK Retail Sector – “it’s how we do things around here.” What was needed was a re-frame of the proposition to make it more acceptable to the target market. In the end, we just changed how the service was described. In fact, we changed less than three words. The client ran a test campaign with new messaging, using the same media and channels as the previously “failed” campaigns. The results were astonishing, delivering immediate leads and opportunities for the client. It was like a key had unlocked a door. The solution was simple to implement by just changing a few words. The service was still the same service, yet it was now more acceptable to the market. But to my client, from within their own company culture, they could not see the problem. After all, they had always described their services in the same way – “it’s how we do things around here.” As with the “magic dogs”, all that was needed was a different perspective. Published originally by David Regler on LinkedIn in 2018Image Courtesy of ZEISS Microscopy : Human Blood with Red Blood Cells Taken with Fluorescence Microscopy