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Sainsbury’s Uses Its Super(market) History

A major supermarket chain in the UK, J. Sainsbury, provides a good example of an organization utilizing their history in a successful turnaround change effort.

Sainsbury’s was an iconic leader in the retail sector in the 70’s and 80’s, only to be surpassed by their competitors ASDA and Tesco in the 90’s (Bains, 2007; Blyth, 2007). Repeated efforts to resurrect Sainsbury’s status as the company against which all other similar companies were measured failed due to strategic initiatives that were “more and more divorced from the underlying DNA of the business, and its history,” (G. Bains, personal communication, August 16, 2007). A successful turnaround was mounted when the new CEO partnered with organization consultation firm YSC and together they selected a subset of high profile employees to create a retrospective presentation of the company’s glory days. This presentation was held at an executive board meeting and consisted of a room full of memorabilia, books, old advertisements, and slogans which rekindled the pride and memory associated with the organization’s identity and values. Walking through this room full of “living history” generated energy and enthusiasm, which translated into new strategic change initiatives. These new initiatives were formulated to embody Sainsbury’s forgotten history and ultimately galvanized the organization’s comeback (Bains, 2007; Blyth, 2007; Eglin, 2007).

J. Sainsbury is not the only organization that leverages its history to achieve future success. As I discussed in part 2 of this blog series, BMW and American Airlines also have museums that honor their rich history. Unfortunately these examples are often the exemption rather than the rule. Leaders and change scholars frequently neglect linking current strategies to the organization’s past successes and values. I believe this neglect contributes to the enormously high failure rate of change initiatives today, including 75% of mergers and acquisitions (Burke & Biggart, 1997).

So leaders remember: tuning into your organization’s unique history will help guide your organization in its continued growth and development.

Bains, G. (2007). Meaning Inc. London: Profile Books Ltd.

Blyth, A. (2007, April 24). Sweet Rewards. Personnel Today, 30-31

Burke, W. W., & Biggart, N. W. (1997). Interorganizational relations. In D. Druckman, J. E. Singer, & H. Van Cott (Eds.), Enhancing organizational performance (pp. 120-149). Washington, DC: National Academy Press.

Eglin, R. (2007, March 18). Give power back to the shop floor. The Sunday Times, retrieved from http://www.timesonline.co.uk

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