Archives for posts with tag: strategy

SPOILER ALERT: In this blog I will bang on about Breaking Bad, which is a television show. If you haven’t seen it, go away and watch it, all of it, and then come back and read this. Off you go.

Right. Last week the best TV show ever in the history of all television came to an end, when the final episode of Breaking Bad was broadcast, to the delight of myself and fans across the world.

A week on, and I can assume that those of you who want to have watched it have now done so, and I can safely give away the ending, and also share some of the lessons that I feel Breaking Bad can offer to those of us in this crazy world of work and business and that.

Now Breaking Bad is about Walter White, a chemistry teacher who is diagnosed with terminal lung cancer. Stuck on a teacher’s pay and having to moonlight in a car wash, he decides to build up a little nest egg for his family to live off once he’s gone by cooking and selling crystal meth.

Before we go on, I must emphasise that I in no way condone the manufacture or selling of illegal drugs, but I do feel Walter’s various adventures, and those of his family and co-workers can give us valuable insight that we can take back to the workplace.

Firstly, Walt is a man with a vision, a vision that he pursues, well, really quite ruthlessly, what with all the murder and bombing. And again, can I emphasise very strongly that I do not advocate in any way murdering or bombing in the world of work. It is very rarely called for, and really not the done thing. Even when dealing with the finance department.

So Walt is a man with a vision, and that vision is summed up by his credo: “Respect the chemistry”. During the series we find out that Walt was a star student, a genius at crystalology (or whatever, I did an arts degree, I can’t be expected to know the technical terms). He even started a company called Gray Matter (sic, it’s American, you see) which is now a multi-billion dollar business, although Walt left early on under mysterious circumstances. He uses this genius to develop an incredibly pure product, which proves incredibly popular.

So lesson one: keep true to your vision. Respect the chemistry, or whatever it is that you and your organisation do that you are great at, hold to that vision. For a prime example check out Season 3 episode 10 – “Fly”- which, apart from being as about as perfect a piece of television drama as you could possibly hope to see, will give you some insight into the lengths which Walt will go to in order to respect the chemistry.

Now, when Walt starts out he obviously knows a lot about chemistry, but less so about the world of drug dealing. He is out with his brother-in-law, Hank Schrader, a Drug Enforcement Agency agent, on a bust when he sees a former pupil, Jesse Pinkman, legging it from the scene. Jesse is a small-time meth cook, but producing an inferior product, and Walt uses Jesse’s contacts to get himself into the demi-monde of the drug scene.

Walt and Jesse’s relationship has its ups and downs, and for me is an excellent case study on what can go wrong in a line manager relationship. Fairly early on in their relationship, Walt asks Jesse to get hold of some plastic containers so they can dissolve the bodies of some drug dealers they have gassed in the caravanette they were using as a meth lab. Like you do.

Jesse fails to follow the instructions, and uses the bath instead, with hilarious and extremely unpleasant consequences. What happened here was a failure on Walt’s part to understand Jesse and deal with him accordingly. He issues clear instructions, but doesn’t set out the scenario clearly. He doesn’t provide the motivation, i.e. “get the right plastic otherwise the bath will melt through the floor and we will end up mopping up dissolved drug dealer off your kitchen floor” is a more compelling reason for Jesse to get the right container than just the bald instruction.

In the same way, many managers in a work setting can issue instructions – “do this” without providing the context and reason for it – “do this because…” – and try and link this to your vision and purpose. So next time a manager in your business tells someone to do something, make sure they have provided the context – what is the dissolved drug dealer on the kitchen floor in your workplace?

Over time Walt develops a far more mentoring relationship with Jesse, and they become a far more effective team, and Jesse becomes a more effective meth cook, being able to replicate the recipe. There are ups and downs – Walt allows Jesse’s girlfriend to die, Jesse turns Walt in to his brother-in-law the DEA agent, and all the unpleasantness with the Aryan Nation gangsters, but, with all mentor/mentee relationships you have to expect ups and downs.

The lesson for me is that if you help someone develop, bring themselves on, you will be a more effective manager.

Over time Walt’s business grows, firstly by accessing the distribution network of Gus Fring, who uses a chain of chicken restaurants. Los Pollos Hermanos, as cover for his smuggling operation. Gus himself has some great lessons for leadership. He epitomises the leader as servant, coming across, initially, as humble and gentle and wanting to serve, with an admirable customer focus.

But Gus gives us another important lesson for those of us in business. He starts out a young immigrant from Chile, with his own protege, a young chemist who has developed a new method to cook meth. He goes to a Mexican drug cartel to get support, and they do it (although they do, to be fair, shoot his protege in cold blood, which is unlikely to be the outcome of a meeting with your average high street bank’s business manager, in my experience).

However, when it is time for Gus to move on from the cartel in order for him to take his business in the direction he needs, he cuts his ties and won’t allow sentimentality or false loyalty to hold him back. A bold and decisive move, and one that enables Gus to take his business forward. Admittedly his tactic of serving tequila laced with poison to the cartel’s bosses may be a tad more extreme than many in business will go, but again, it is a great example of taking the steps you need to move your business forward.

Walt, too, can make bold decisions and make a successful move into new markets. Now you would be best advised to go down the route of market research, testing, piloting and then launching, rather than the blowing up your enemy in an old people’s home and using a ruthless corporate ice-maiden to flog your drugs in the Czech republic route that Walt took, but the lesson is the same – understand what’s right for your business and take action to move it forward.

I could go on, so rich is the seam to be mined here, but I will end with three classic pieces of branding which Breaking Bad can, once again, teach us all.

First up is Walt’s ever so slightly dubious lawyer, Saul Goodman. Here is a marketing genius, with his landmark office (above a shopping mall) and his motto – “better call Saul”. Take a look here at the genius in action. And what this man doesn’t know about branding? Well, his real name is McGill but he changed it because he thought people would be more ready to trust a Jewish lawyer than an Irish one. Like I said, genius.

Secondly we have Los Pollos Hermanos – the Chicken Brothers – Gus Fring’s successful chain of fried chicken restaurants. They have a special recipe which appeals to their target demographic (research, you see) and a great brand which is re-enforced by their advertising, and a great little logo. But most of all it is the customer-centric ethic, driven from the top by Gus himself, which sets them apart. Gus works from his restaurants and works behind the counter, he really understands what life is like for the people on the front line and he knows all about the importance of delivering on your brand though your people. And how to distribute drugs.

Finally there is Walt himself, Walt knows that in the cut and thrust of the business world, a mild-mannered and unsuccessful red-haired moustachioed chemistry teacher called Walter just isn’t going to embody his vision and his product. Enter, instead, bald, goatee-bearded badass-hat-and-sunglasses-wearing Heisenberg, a man so bad that his picture appears in Mexican shrines to be prayed to by assassins. The lesson is never be afraid to reinvent, to align your brand to your vision and your product, and deliver against it relentlessly.

In the end, Walt can look back on pride on what he has achieved, and leaves the business a genuinely happy man. He has rebuilt his relationship with his protege, and ensured his vision and product remained his – he even manages to deliver on his initial purpose – to provide for his family after he has gone. Who amongst us would not wish to leave our respective businesses feeling the same way?

Although, admittedly, probably without a bullet in your abdomen.


In Cormac McCarthy’s brilliant dystopian novel The Road, a man and a boy wander through a post-apocalyptic world, alone, desperate, without any notion of their destination and best on all sides with danger.
Now I can’t imagine for one second that this is any fun at all, and yet thousands, probably millions of people across the UK and wider world do something akin to this every day when they go to work.
Their day is pointless, without purpose, and they are beset by distractions and, although very few are shot at with bows and arrows, they probably find it annoying, unnerving, and downright disengaging.
What they lack is an idea of what they are doing and why they are doing it – they want a purpose, a reason for being at work and completing the tasks they have been allotted. They need, in short, a strategic narrative.
Every business should have a strategy – a reason to exist. At its most basic, that reason will be “sell stuff to people”; however, they also have to identify the stuff they sell, and the people who will buy it. So you have to go a bit deeper, and define yourself a bit more clearly, say: “we will make grommets for 5p and sell them to people requiring grommets for 10p”.
That gives you a clearer sense of purpose, but that’s more of a business plan, really.
What you need is something a bit catchier. “We will be the first choice of grommet suppliers to the chandler and ironmongers of North West England”.
That’s more like it – there’s a bit of ambition in there, a sense of a journey, and giving clarity about what they want to be.
Now, when the dignitary visits Grommetco and sees a chap wielding a broom with a sense of purpose and engagement, and said dignitary asks the broom-wielder “what, my fine chap, are you doing here today?” the broom-wielding one will reply, in a trice, “why, sir or madam, I am helping Grommetco become the first choice of grommet suppliers to the chandlers and ironmongers of North West England.”
Because our broom-wielding hero has had the strategic vision explained to them in a meaningful and inspiring way, and therefore understands how his broom-wielding activities fit into that compelling strategic narrative.
This example, of course, is based on President Kennedy’s visit to Nasa, where the late President confronted just such a chap, happily brushing a corridor or somesuch and asked him what he was doing.
“Helping put a man on the moon, Mr President,” came the answer. There was an organisation with a clear strategic narrative, set, of course, by President Kennnedy himself when he committed to out a man on the moon by the end of the decade. And they made it.
What the strategic narrative gave our broom-wielding fellows was a sense of purpose beyond where the dust needs to go, or where he left the keys to the broom cupboard. With the best will in the world, sweeping up is going to have limited job satisfaction even for the most autotelic personality. Look it up, I’m not going to give you everything on a plate.
However, putting a man on the moon, or even becoming the number one grommet supplier to various merchants across the North West of England gives a deeper, more profound sense of purpose to the most menial of tasks.
I was working with a client recently where there was a disconnect between the day job and the big picture. Most people really enjoyed their jobs, which were largely technical and what you would call vocational – they had studied long and hard at university to qualify themselves to do this job, and were very proud to do it. They enjoyed their work and were highly engaged with it – they had role engagement, as we engagement gurus have it.
What was missing, however, was a mental link to the wider purpose of the organisation. This had been made clear, it was summarised in four points. As mission statements go, it was a pretty good one. Clear, concise, unambiguous.
But people couldn’t make the link between what they did, and those four points. OK, they would say. I’m doing this immensely clever and technical job to the best of my considerable ability, but I cannot see how this delivers A, B C or D.
Leaders had not done the narrative bit, you see. They had not told the story of how roles deliver the purpose.
In an ideal world, and in successful organisations that do this well, senior leaders set the general direction, they give the purpose and vision. They tell a story about why the organisation is there, what it does, how it does it. Around this are the values they want to promote in the organisation, the non-negotiable core emotional commitments to how things are done there.
Throughout the organisation divisions, departments, teams and ultimately individuals translate this strategic narrative into their own language, replicating that sense of purpose, that reason for being in a way that is meaningful at each iteration, yet stays true to the original vision.
It’s not easy. But it is possible. I’ve seen it done, well, and to so well. One things that can help is an overall image or metaphor, such as climbing a mountain, building a village, a long car journey or even planting a forest. For me, the mountain is the least successful, by the way; it tends to put off those who question the sanity of climbers, and begs the question “what do we do when we reach the top?”
But here are some simple guidelines, which may help

  • Keep it simple. A single strapline, with a few key sentences of explanation
  • Keep it clear and unambiguous. Do not give wiggle room, or space for too much interpretation
  • Use an image – preferably one that can be easily adapted 
  • Use stories, have a narrative, people relate to stories
  • Link your purpose to your brand
  • Have very clear organisational values in place, and stay true to them

This last point brings us to another enabler of engagement, organisational integrity, more of which in a future blog.
Any road up, do this, and people will use the narrative to link their day job to the purpose of the organisation, and they will engage with the organisation, as well as their role. Simples.