What does a cultural strategist actually do?

In an interview with Joana Stolz, Cultural Strategist at Serviceplan, talks about her job and gives insights into her “every day work”.

Joana-Marie Stolz

Joana-Marie Stolz

Cultural Strategist at Serviceplan

  • Joana, what precisely does a "cultural strategist" do in a company?

    Organisations today have to deal much more so than in the past with the demands of a post-modern and complex world and its people and grapple with the resulting changing markets, challenges and issues. A healthy organisational and creative culture creates scope for vital learning processes, creative leadership, a playful approach to new technologies and transparent knowledge sharing. As a cultural strategist, it is my job to develop the framework for enabling such a successful and innovation-driven culture. For example, I develop inspiration sessions that are great for helping to refresh the mind in a very fast-paced agency culture. Internally, this often involves teaching innovation technologies, such as design thinking or collaborative idea finding, for example. However, we not only work with internal resources. To get inspiration from the outside world, we also like to bring in external speakers from time to time, who report on trends, their own success stories or exciting future projects, such as Elon Musk’s Hyperloop just recently. The aim is to develop a platform for internal and external “visionaries”, start-ups and free thinkers, in order to break the daily work routine and come up with fresh new ideas. I also conduct innovation workshops at our national and international locations, light the innovative spark as it were and support internal agencies on their path towards becoming an “Agency of the Future”. My profession is a mix of innovation, strategy and people development. And I have to say, I find this really great.

  • How would you describe the frequently quoted buzzwords "innovation" and "creative culture"? What do they mean?

    The word innovation is somewhat over-used today. I therefore prefer to use terms such as curious, sceptical, questioning, unifying, transformational or, for example, quite simply crazy. Self-reflection is enormously important if this is to be achieved. Without the necessary awareness – of conflict as well as potential change – it is not possible to be innovative. Enabling innovation is a decision. This sense of openness is essential if people are to embrace new challenges and open their eyes to possible change.

    What’s more, innovation is often confused with technological innovation, in other words new products. For me, innovation is more a type of mindset. It is not about developing the next self-driving car or virtual reality drone, rather more so about improving the quality of creation, consultancy and strategy. Many innovative strategies today are often fear-driven and defensive. They are only forward-looking to the extent required to prevent a worst-case scenario, in other words the undoing of one’s business model. However, those consumed by thoughts of prevention are only thinking in terms of problems and not solutions. And thus regurgitate the familiar, just in seemingly new ways. By creating fresh scope for development and boldly breaking new ground and consistently thinking in a solution-driven manner, real innovation will result and in the best case scenario a vibrant and creative culture.

  • Which qualifications or training are required and which route did you take to get to this job?

    A high degree of communication affinity and pioneering spirit are certainly vital attributes. I have my studies in German, communications and media and social psychology in Germany and the U.S. to thank for this as well as apprenticeships with Hyperisland and IDEO U. In addition, I learned, not least through my work as a freelance systemic coach, how to design change and transformation processes. And I was lucky that I often had superiors who gave me the opportunity and freedom to continuously challenge old structures and processes and create new ones. To be successful and innovative in the long term, you have to be prepared to question yourself continually. For me, this is not just a hollow notion, I am really convinced of it. The role of cultural strategist was therefore in a sense the logical conclusion of matters that have occupied me for a long time.

  • Are cultural strategists "only" needed in the creative sector, in other words in agencies etc., or also in traditional industries and non-advertising environments?

    No, not at all – and that is also set to change increasingly in the coming years. Any organisation that understands that innovation is not simply created by brainstorming, rather only in an environment that offers the correct framework in the long term, will have a competitive advantage. Among other things, this demands people who can create and promote this psychological as well as physical framework. A cultural strategist or environment designer is without doubt just one role among many other important responsibilities in this context.

  • What are the greatest challenges facing you in your everyday work?

    When a company is primarily focused on short-term gains, this creates difficulties for a cultural strategist. Innovation is a long-term process. A slow but steady increase in creative quality and efficiency is not so much music to the ears of some unfortunately as attractive figures in the next quarter. When it comes to initiating innovation projects or innovation culture, cost-efficiency calculations should not come into play. ROI, innovation and culture should not be on the same sheet of paper at first in the initial projections – what is needed here principally is a great deal of courage and also the possibility to fail. Anyone wanting to still be successful in ten years must therefore invest now in the long term – and accept that something new or crazy often means leaving one’s comfort zone. The vital ingredient with change processes is support from top management. Where there’s a will, there’s a way! It’s not about changing from day to day, but ensuring that the organisation starts to act. There are no fixed rules of play and every company has to experiment for itself to discover what offers the greatest efficiency at what point. Pilot projects, minimum viable solutions, tribe building – anything goes here. A decentralised management system is definitely a major advantage in this respect, just like we have at Serviceplan. This allows a company to start and encourage this movement in different places at the same time.

  • In your experience, are innovation teams in the company a rare luxury or is there increasing evidence of such professional groups?

    Allow me to put it this way: at the moment it is certainly still unusual to refer to us as innovation specialists and to give us the opportunity to act in a manner detached from everyday business. In my experience, however, many larger organisations already have what are known as super generalists, who have made it their mission to enable a type of transfer between all experts. At the end of the day, whether they are called design thinkers, cultural strategists, innovation directors, change agents or transformation officers, is simply a question of the system and the existing structures in which they operate. Identifying them, positioning them correctly and promoting them continually is certainly a luxury, but one that pays off in the long term. My wish for every organisation today is, on one hand, to have the courage to hire people or identify them internally who think outside the box in a solution-driven manner and, on the other hand, to empower teams and a culture in which new things can be tried, can also fail, and in which, despite cost-effectiveness, it is not forgotten that being happy at work is an important indicator of success. But as Paulo Coelho puts it so beautifully: “It’s the possibility of a dream come true that makes life interesting.” A little extra breathing space is also not a bad thing.

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