Pick-n-Mix – how to use role models to drive innovation

We’ve all done it – when our company fails to reach the high standards of performance that we’d like, we find ourselves thinking “couldn’t we be more like X?”, where X is anyone from Amazon to Zappos.

In other words, the oft-cited exemplars of operational excellence, customer-centricity or employee engagement.

But we need role models such as these to motivate and inspire us, right?

Actually, wrong, or at least wrong if you don’t know why you need role models or how to use them.

I use an approach that I like to call “Pick-n-Mix”. In much the same way that, as a kid, I’d raid the candy counter in my local Woolworths to create a varied bag of sweets that would keep me quiet for the afternoon, this approach allows you to find the right mix of role models to keep you innovating and challenging the status quo.

Why have a role model? Don’t settle for just the one…

The biggest problem with many role models and case studies is that they tend to focus on what the whole organisation does. This is not surprising. Since we are usually talking about successful companies, people will want to understand every bit of what makes them successful.

The real problem is that the more we understand about another company, the less likely it is that our own company measures up.  Why? It’s obvious if you think about it. We are different organisations.

The role-model company will have probably taken many years to hone its organisation, processes and technology to achieve its high-performing status. Trying to copy and adopt all these changes, even if we could know what they are, would be an impossible task. Why would we want to want to try that anyhow? The chances are the vision, strategies, customers, structures and processes are all different. A model that works brilliantly for their specific situation is not going to be a one size fits all – and work in every other scenario. In fact, its success in fact may be only true for a very specific situation.

The Pick-n-Mix approach has two aspects:

  • Picking role models to illustrate specific areas of good practice.
  • Using role models to re-think the way things could be done.

Be more (Brew)Dog?

Let’s illustrate the first point, using the independent craft beer company BrewDog as an example. It has reported stellar growth rates over the last few years. In terms of role-modelling, their company culture is an excellent example of “supercompany” practice.

According to their website, Martin Dickie and James Watt formed the company with one mission: “to make other people as passionate about great craft beer as we are. And that is still our biggest mission today.” This passion gets communicated consistently to every part of the business. They are really explicit about building a culture with “a killer workforce where no one is carried; every person plays an integral part in the business. Everyone acts as business owners. Everyone performs at an exceptional level. We have a high-performance culture… and the people that are truly right for our business are consistently uncompromising and relentless in their efforts.”


You can’t copy this culture lock, stock and beer-barrel – even though you may totally support the underlying sentiment. What you can learn from is those aspects of it that would help if your own culture needs a bit of a boost. For example, ownership and involvement is vital for most organisations but engagement is traditionally still woefully low.

Brewdog are explicit about this right from the start of the interview process as part of its differentiating DNA. If you don’t think you’d like it, you won’t apply to work there, and they don’t want you to.

Too many organisations treat their culture like a mystical religion to be gradually revealed to the novice entrant during their onboarding. Try the BrewDog approach, but make it your own. What would business ownership mean in your organisation? Is this about taking more responsibility for your own actions or does that mean wider and deeper collaboration for the good of company, people and customers? What does uncompromising and unrelenting in efforts really mean? Is there a de-stabilisation risk if you do it as they infer?

This is what we mean by taking an idea and then making it your own.

Re-think, re-model

Having dismissed the idea of a single aspirational role-model as rather unrealistic there is one sense in which it can be useful to compare your organisation with another and that’s as a useful jolt of creativity. Thinking “what would Amazon/Zappo’s do” in a particular situation is a helpful approach as it forces you to take an external perspective on the problem in hand.

Developing this leads to further powerful questions such as “what outcomes do my customers want from my company and how might <role-model company> deliver them?”

Codifying what supercompanies do is what The Next Ten Years is all about. We are committed to seeking out actionable insights from the case studies and examples cited on this website. The Pick-n-Mix approach means that there’s no single magic ingredient from our candy stall but instead gives you an opportunity to work out a “mix” that works for you.


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