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#askXFACTOR    #strongertogether     logo reset2020 white

Humanising Strategy to Survive and Thrive

People make strategy happen. Not the words in PowerPoint templates or the posters on company walls. And today, more than ever, it’s time to rethink your perspective on strategy from a business process to a fundamentally human one.

It’s up to you, as leaders, to make it easy for people to act on your strategy and contribute insights and relevant ideas. This is especially important today when constant change demands flexibility, agility and meaningful responses from your organisation – at a moment’s notice.

Teams that can internalise and take ownership of your strategy are able to adapt and act upon it more easily. And they can do so without damaging your organisation’s equity or opportunities while contributing to the achievement of strategic goals.

To make strategy happen, you must create the glue between strategy, business and culture.


When thinking about strategy – whether you’re setting, refreshing or completely reimagining your future – it’s essential to first ask the right questions for reflection.

Business is no longer only about the commercialisation of an opportunity. Corporate purpose is on the rise and rise, fuelled by consumers who are growing increasingly discontent and cynical about organisations and their brands.

Today, organisations exist in a world of transparency that demands they demonstrate they are worthy of operating. Employees are seeking fulfilling work that makes a difference, and people are increasingly buying brands based on their values, vision and purpose.

In summary, whether we’re a business leader, employee, client or consumer, we all seek the truth and connection to something more meaningful and marketable.

So, how do you, as a leader, fulfil these needs? A winning strategy starts with human questions that help you develop a clear sense of identity. From here, you and your teams will be empowered to create a robust culture with a focus on a few capabilities and unique strengths that enable you to manage costs and ultimately shape your organisation’s future.

By asking and reflecting on the human questions first, you will win buy-in from clients, customers, teams and boards from the start.


What’s our winning vision?

Who are we?

Where will we play?

Where are we going?

How will we win?

Why does it matter?

What capabilities must we have to win?

How will we get there?

What management systems do we need?

Why will people care and keep caring?

 * Playing to Win, A.G. Lafley & Roger L. Martin


For a long time, the term ‘Business DNA’ has been bandied around in an effort to capture what makes an organisation tick. However, what traditionally made it tick was inward-facing and competitor focused – the questions on the left that, interpreted without facilitation, often resulted in meaningless rhetoric. 

Today, Business DNA is what drives an organisation from the inside out. It focuses on the contribution that helps everyone win, and creates the foundation for success – the questions on the right. And yes, without brilliant facilitation, it often results in ‘purpose washing’ or ‘marketing straplines’.

The old 'play to win' adage is shifting to a ‘contribute and win’ one. Competition and commercialisation of a market opportunity are giving way to organisations that have a strong sense of self-identity. They’re organisations on a quest to put right the wrongs in any way they can because that’s the right thing to do. Ironically, it’s the driving focus of ‘contribution’ that can add to a consistent value experience and put these organisations in winning, and in some cases, transformative positions.

Does every organisation need to save the world, planet, people or fur seals? No. But, to survive and thrive, every organisation must give more than they take away. They must leverage strengths and capabilities to operate in harmony with the world and contribute to the people, planet and economy by being purposeful and profitable. 

Customer loyalty is scarce and being replaced with informed advocacy that needs earning through transparency and trust. Customer loyalty is re-enforced through actions and behaviours that prove your organisation is continually focused on a worthwhile endeavour beyond its walls. This isn’t merely a bolt-on CSR Strategy – it’s about alignment to corporate purpose throughout your entire organisation.


Business ecosystems are getting more and more complex, value propositions are moving from products and services to experiences, and business functions, stakeholders, teams and talent are becoming more diverse and disparate.

Challenger start-ups or legacy companies, technology and new business models and changing regulations – not to mention a global pandemic – are causing disruption.

All this, together with customers’ increasingly higher expectations, mean you, as a leader, must find ways to own and defend your difference with strength. Instead of focusing on ‘competing’ directly, you must ‘be’ and ‘behave’ consistently in alignment with your clear sense of identity, unique strengths, core capabilities and audiences needs, whether known or unknown.

More than ever before, you need a way to navigate an ever-changing environment and bring everyone and everything together into a single unifying construct that has meaning and identity. You need to connect ‘who you are’ to ‘who you can and need to be in the future.’ And you need to do this in a way that people can internalise and contribute towards quickly – from your board members and leadership team to front line employees. Because when you do this, you will accelerate the achievement of your organisation’s strategic goals.


Business DNA is part Strategic Direction Architecture – such as purpose, vision, mission, values and your key drivers of business value (customer experience and success). It is also in part the intangible ‘Essence’ that comes from beliefs, behaviours, principles and transformative leadership styles and more that can be uncovered through storytelling and having situational awareness of our world.

DNA is intangible. As a result, it can be the most difficult-to-pin-down part of your strategy. However, it is also the most valuable because it drives the value of all else that follows. Business DNA is the keystone to clarity, building resilience, and setting your organisation apart through unique and ownable difference rather than a nuanced competitive advantage.

A confused, convoluted or ambiguous DNA can lead your organisation wildly off course over time. This is because the busyness of the day-to-day and focus on the short-term wins in place of alignment to a clear long-term strategy becomes the most comfortable aspect to hold onto. 

It’s the classic frog in boiling water: before anyone realises you’re in trouble, it’s too late, too slow or too hard to change.


Outside of your leadership team, if asked, it’s unlikely that your employees will be able to recall your strategy in alignment with management’s articulation of it. Yet, they’re vital in making your strategy happen, regardless of their role or rank.

And even if your strategy sounds ‘brilliant’ on paper, it needs to deliver brilliant results that can only be achieved by winning buy-in throughout the whole organisation.

But, what if Business DNA wasn’t dry corporate jargon? Instead, what if it revealed the long-term identity of your organisation. What if it became the constant that people can hold onto and revisit to inspire thinking, fresh ideas and to design valuable responses to changing environments, markets and needs that keep your organisation relevant and resilient?

The best way to view Business DNA is through the lens of human DNA – a double helix with two long strands of telomeres: one representing strategy and the other culture.

Business DNA

These long and strong strands connect by the laddering in the centre. They are the intangible parts: beliefs, principles, transformative leadership and storytelling – and the tangible parts: products, services, processes, promotion and more – of your organisation’s DNA. They all ‘make sense’ to who you are and who your organisation is becoming.

When viewed like this, it’s possible to reframe the role of Business DNA into a uniquely human perspective so that it:

  • creates the glue between your strategy and culture
  • carries the essential information for your organisation: the long-term storage of ‘who you are’
  • is entirely unique to your organisation
  • provides distinctive characteristics for your organisation, culture and brand
  • contains instructions for your organisation to develop, grow and succeed in a world that is continually moving and changing, allowing the DNA to mutate in response
  • provides instructions for effective functioning for everyone in your organisation
  • gives your organisation the means to self-replicate and expand in a sustainable, consistent and harmonious way.

Business DNA gets deleted, weakened and shortened as your organisation expands and changes in response to forces both inside and out.

However, it can be strengthened, improved, renewed, and revitalised through attention, stories, reflection, evaluation and consistent attention.

At its essence, Business DNA is ‘evergreen.’ Some parts will never change, providing you with the long-term focus for connecting the truth of who you are to where your organisation can and must to go to stay healthy. Think of your Business DNA as the guiding compass for both short and long-term initiatives. Let it provide direction as well as a means to filter opportunities and decisions in the day-to-day as much as it does for your long-term strategy.

Business DNA


You, as a leader, don’t need anyone to tell you what your strategy should be. After all, you’re in your business and know it more intimately than any outsider ever can. Nor do you need added complexity or a long list of new strategic initiatives to work on. 

What is of most value is a facilitated and disciplined process of strategic sensemaking that:

  • draws out what you already know about your business and culture
  • uncovers unique strengths, purpose and opportunities
  • identifies and bridges the gap between the now and the aspirational future
  • organises discoveries, insights and information in a strategic architecture with a clear hierarchy
  • cascades the strategy into clear strategic goals and objectives for each business area
  • communicates the strategy for engagement and ownership throughout teams with a corporate narrative that encapsulates truth, inspiration and impact
  • allows your teams to understand, believe and adopt your strategy, so they act upon it efficiently
  • translates your internal strategy into unique positioning for growth and success.

Strategic Sensemaking brings the process, methodology and facilitation to strengthen strategy that wins buy-in throughout your organisation. It drives business planning and engages teams to accelerate the achievement of your strategic goals.

Know your customers, market and, most of all, yourself. Because your organisation’s clear identity is the only thing that won’t change or get disrupted easily.


Because the world is changing so fast around us, it’s commercial suicide to set a strategic direction that leans too heavily on external drivers likely to change – in some cases as soon as tomorrow.

Developing a strategic direction that’s deeply connected to your core Business DNA enables you to create your future. It empowers you to respond with flexibility, agility and meaning to a continually changing and disrupted world – and do this in a way that builds business reputation, relevancy and resilience.

This level of clarity and conviction in who you are and how you show up – from business plans, tactics, actions and words to communication and positioning – builds commercial and cultural confidence. It provides teams with something to grasp and lean onto, to rely on and leverage in the speed of change.

Most importantly, your new humanised strategy drives success from the inside out, so you survive and thrive.

Sarah Birken is a Specialist business member of The Xfactor Collective – an Australian-first community comprising highly experienced and pre-vetted specialist businesses across 300+ areas of specialisation.

Need help in your organisation? We run the sector’s first Specialist triage support service (our CONCIERGE) where we can help you find support from a range of services and solutions.


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