28 - Coloring Reality

Coloring Reality: What the Purposeful Enterprise Looks Like

A paper written not long ago by IBM’s Jon Iwata entitled “Building Belief: A New Model for Activating Corporate Character and Authentic Advocacy” suggests that activating a corporate brand requires an organization to live out its stated character in four key areas. A brand can be recognized as an authentic expression of stated intent based on what the organization looks like, sounds like, thinks like and performs like. When these four areas are aligned and moving in the same direction, a declared purpose can be truly activated.

In this series, I will use these four areas as a framework to illustrate the purposeful enterprise more clearly and to encourage deeper reflection about your current context. We’ll return to the genre of fiction for this brief journey, because it affords the opportunity to blend together a variety of elements and to collage a host of real stories for illustrative purposes.


Ellie Westel paused in the midst of editing, stared at the eight words on the slide before her, and found herself confronted with a dilemma. Punctuation rarely has much implication when it comes to purpose, but in this case, one punctuation mark made a world of difference and could even cost her an important and profitable client relationship.

The phrase that had stopped her in her tracks was: “Delivering digital delight through cutting-edge expertise and creativity!” Based on what she knew of the client, she was quite convinced that she should remove the peppy, client-mandated exclamation mark at the end of the sentence and replace it with a question mark. The first variant was certainly what the client hoped for, and yet, in her experience, the second was what better resembled the truth. Doing so, obviously, would equate to a firm slap right to the face of this key client in the midst of a major image overhaul.

Ellie’s entire design agency had been turned upside down the day this very client announced they had spun off a new business unit to tackle the rapid digital transformation that threatened to overrun the entire industry they had dominated for so long, and also mandated that this new unit would deviate from the company’s traditional look. “I want everything that was yellow to be changed to green,” the senior client representative had said. It was a powerful statement given the parent company history.

They were recognized around the world by this distinctive hue and, in fact, they had even patented the specific shade of yellow so they could control its use. The color was found not only on signage and branding materials, but throughout the company’s offices the world over – on walls, upholstery, and even a few carpets. It had even featured prominently in the oak paneled boardroom at the corporate headquarters, framing the portraits of three generations of senior executives.

It was quite evident to Ellie at her first meeting with this newly created division, that—despite the new color and redesign of the office environment to reflect the core values of the new digital brand—the three senior leaders, each of whom had been hand picked to lead the new division, were steeped in the cultural heritage of “yellow” and needed some major transformation to help generate the kind of vision and purpose that would bring success in this new segment.

Ellie’s colleague summed it up perfectly as they returned to their offices after visiting the new division headquarters shortly after the redesign. “Well, they have certainly achieved not yellow,” the colleague said, “but what will be distinctive about this place beyond the new color scheme?” Ellie had often heard these clients speak about a new culture that would move faster and, to quote their favorite word, be more, “agile”. But approval for the new design had taken weeks, and the parent company’s procurement function had changed the furniture purchase order twice in favor of better pricing.

As she mused over the final presentation deck for the client, one thing was certain: they really would have a brand that looked very different from the parent company. The color change was a good start, and they had recently sent over a new brief to redesign internal communications material. But the stark reality continued to gnaw at Ellie, the people and vision she had encountered that were forming the backbone of this new business sure sounded and thought a lot more like a slight adaptation of the traditional business than any agile, innovative driver of change. She feared that the new division’s performance would follow suit.

Ellie knew how significant the directive to change the brand color was for this new digital division, but she was certain that it would not deliver. She thought, “it’s a logical start, but a new appearance alone won’t produce enough transformation and performance to bring success.”

Ellie drew some courage from a phrase she walked past each morning as she exited the elevator. “Burying the truth will eventually kill success,” the elevator wall exclaimed in the trademarked font and colors of her agency. Ellie had to hope that her boss and her team really believed those words, given what was at stake. She could recall her CEO using those words in his last “state of the agency” memo, and that gave some comfort, but she still had to hope that her team recognized the discomfort that lay ahead for them all if they kept the question mark and dug into what it signified with their client.

She locked in the final edit to the slide deck. She knew that if the slide was allowed to stand, it would provoke the kind of conversation this important client needed most—both now and for the future. If the question mark was removed, knowing that she had done what she knew was best would at least ease the personal difficulty she would face with the team over their differences of opinion.

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