Organisation, brand and the Gordian Knot

Sometimes the deep work and everyday actions and decisions needed to build a brand can feel like a modern day equivalent of the Gordian Knot.

The origins of the term come from the time of Alexander the Great in 333 B.C. and one of the earliest uses in modern language was by Shakespeare in the play Henry V. Today it’s a term commonly used to describe a decisive solution to a seemingly impossible problem.

Building a brand amidst the rapidly shifting sands of today’s organisational environments and marketplaces can seem impossible. You’re never done. There is no we are there. I’m sure many would very much like to draw their sword like Alexander, and slice through the knot and pave the way for their future greatness.

I was alerted to a new way of thinking about the Gordian Knot in organisations via a recent article and book by Joseph Badaracco. The book Managing in the Gray talks about difficult gray areas in organisations – your Gordian Knots.

Why is brand a gray area? Badacco describes the gray as “dense tangles of important, complicated, and uncertain considerations”.

That’s a great description of what it feels and looks like to build a brand today. We’ve long moved past the point where you could slap a logo on it and call it done.

How and where you make products, what your services are, who and how you hire and fire, customers with ever shifting expectations, disruptive technology, and expansive global and hyper-local marketplaces. All these things now play into thinking about the brand. A Gordian Knot indeed.

Badaracco has some help for people struggling to find their way through the gray. His five questions bring a human layer to managerial analysis and information finding. And it’s by looking at these questions as a person, not a set of data, that you can find your proverbial sword.

Like all good questions, these are deceptively simple. Yet applied to the kind of deep work needed to get underneath what an organisation cares about and how to make that real to others, they can be extremely powerful. Giving voice to the thinking needed to make the best decisions, the five questions from the book are:

  • What are the net, net consequences?
  • What are my core obligations?
  • What will work in the world as it is?
  • Who are we?
  • What can I live with?

Working through them, in short they ask that you consider the potential full impact of the decision you’re about to make. Think through the things you should do and not to do in the situation, irrespective of impact.

And while idealism is great, you need to temper that with pragmatism to get things done. You are also part of a larger community, think about what that means. And lastly given the answers to the previous four questions, deeply consider this as a human being, a person.

I can think of all manner of bad decisions that have led organisations and their brands off the cliff. What if VW had used these questions? I doubt they would be negotiating with authorities for their survival.

These are big questions that every leader could benefit from. However they’re not just for leaders. Strong, resilient brands are the result of everyone in the organisation thinking and acting as people first. And one of the best ways to unleash our “peopledom” is to ask and talk about big questions together.

Books that truly help do this deep work are hard to find. I think Managing the Gray will join the ranks of the few I regularly reference and recommend.

For more you can read the Harvard Business Review article here and an excerpt of the book.

See you next week.

Michel is an Independent Brand Thinker and Adviser dedicated to helping organisations make promises they can keep and keep the promises they make – with a strong, resilient organisation as the result. You can find Michel at or you can follow her on Twitter @michelhogan


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