Let’s wind back the clock just two months. Imagine that you asked a potential investor in the UK, or one of our overseas customers, how they viewed the country and they may have answered with some of the following words and phrases. Stable. Politically moderate. Sensible. Commercial. Tolerant. Open. A strong rule of law and respect for property. Mature. A good long term view. European. But with a global profile and connectivity. Multicultural. Modern.
And then the Brexit earthquake happened. Now look at those same words, and several of those British strengths no longer look so valid, do they?
Brexit has destroyed the well-developed, well understood UK narrative that had underpinned recent economic success. It's critical that a new one is consciously articulated and developed as a key part of the government’s strategy – and this situation contains clear lessons for business leaders planning change.
Now look again at those phrases. Several still work and they must form part of a new narrative that defines how we want to be understood in a global marketplace. The key is to consciously, clearly articulate what that story is, and the big narrative themes that should be the basis for how we want to be newly famous among key groups. These are the big ideas that play to our strengths, and they should be used, mantra-like, in briefings, marketing and to drive strategic investment to make sure they reflect the truth.
This new narrative should be based on the old one – the country hasn’t changed, but the perception of it has. However, it needs to also play to the new chapter in its history – as a global, outward-looking trading independent nation with existing connections all over the world. A country which is modern and among the most creative anywhere, but with a base of historic stability and advanced financial markets. The fifth largest economy. When our deal with Europe is agreed then the nature of this can form part of a story of (hopefully) continuing seamless access to the European marketplace.
We should play to the themes of creativity, globalisation (with our diverse population we have the world in one country) and the importance of stability. Right now we look like outsiders. When the oncoming Euro crisis hits we may look like a safe haven. That’s why we need to look like a low risk option, but with a highly commercial, global position.
For me, that is why Theresa May was such a good choice of Prime Minister. She exudes stability and calmness, she is decisive and, as a woman, she changes the whole image of UK PLC which may otherwise currently seem intolerant and backward-looking.
Equally, that is why the appointment of Boris Johnson was such a huge error. If we looked at the government and we saw universally calm heads, experienced hands and the values Mrs May articulated when she took office, the UK as a place with which to do business would be quickly re-established. Boris turns this on its head – with him as Foreign Secretary, who knows what we are about? Long term? Calm? Reassuring? And it makes me ask whether Theresa May is quite as astute as I had thought.
So what does this tell you about change in your own business?
The obvious one is: avoid earthquakes if at all possible! However, as BP will testify, they happen. Other times you simply need to be radical. But most of the time change can be presented as evolutionary, playing to existing strengths while creating some new ones.
It also tells you that appearance is critical. Seeming to be on top of things is almost as important as actually being so.
One of the key stages in planning or reacting to this change is to firmly, consciously and clearly define and articulate the new story you want people to understand about the business. You need to be very specific about the people with whom you most need to engage, and then go through a process to simplify what you want them to understand about the business or product.
Keep it simple: there needs to be a very few big ideas that they can grasp quickly
These are those narrative themes for which you want to be famous. These will reflect your strategy – and you will find they also have a big impact on it. Ensure the leadership team is aligned around this narrative.
Then consider a few big bets about how to bring these themes to life for these groups – doing less, better is much more effective than simply making lots of noise.
This is now the task facing the UK. Being clear and simple about the key things for which it wants to be famous, big ideas that play to our strengths. Ensuring the whole government understand this, and then the population – its internal audience. Investing in the real world capabilities that underpin these ideas. And ensuring there are a few big initiatives that bring these themes to life for our important overseas partners, so that they once again have a clear view of why Britain is a great place to do business.
Your own challenges may seem smaller. But the same process will ensure your organisation is famous for a few big things that will help you drive change and differentiate yourself from others in the same space.
By Stuart Maister, managing director at The StoryBuild Agency