WHAT WE DO

Case study: A consumer products company

The challenge

“Drink Fresh” is a successful consumer goods company that has enjoyed great, stable success in its category for a decade or more. Famous for its culture and its leadership, Drink Fresh spent years honing its processes and finding evidence-based practices for everything from manufacturing to performance management. Now changing demographics, quickly changing patterns in consumer behavior, and the emergence of thirsty Asian markets have come together to create a perfect storm of complexity and change, threat and opportunity. Drink Fresh leaders realized that their success has become in some ways a limiting factor as their processes and leadership has been oriented to their once-stable market. Suddenly their success requires more innovation, more cross-silo collaboration, and new approaches to people and solving problems.

The Cultivating Leadership response

We had been serving Drink Fresh in a variety of small ways since they acquired a perishable consumer goods company in 2010. Berger and Johnston’s Habits of Mind had been woven into their flagship leadership program and Jennifer Garvey Berger spoke at the beginning of each program, reaching most of the top 300 leaders in the organization. With the upsurge in complexity, though, they decided on a more robust partnership including leadership events, strategic facilitation, speaking, and coaching.

We took a complexity approach to their challenge, creating a series of different experimental interventions and building as we went along: we were paying attention to the present and experimenting and learning. We had a direction: we knew that we wanted more leaders to have more knowledge and facility with complexity ideas and ways of working, and we knew we wanted the leaders to have many different ways to use these ideas.

To create a shared understanding and practice of complex adaptive leadership throughout the organisation, we have designed and delivered distinct events for different sets of leaders. While each event had as its main focus the tools and mindsets needed to effectively lead during complex times, different groups of leaders had a different emphasis.

Top team retreat: For the top team we designed and facilitated intimate program to help the executive team learn complexity principles and approaches while deepening their understanding of their collective strengths and weaknesses, reviewing their working relationships, and making new agreements about how they’d like to work together. They practiced the Habits of Mind for leading in complexity, asking new questions of one another, taking a broader variety of perspectives, and mapping and making sense of the present system of the organization and the market. After realizing what value they could bring to one another, even from their very different sets of expertise and experience, they began to spend more time together, progressing on their largest challenges. Several months later, the CEO, seeing that his senior team had stepped up to some of the strategic challenges that were formerly left to him to coordinate, became freed up to think across the entire marketplace and across the entire community, beginning programs in sustainability and workplace of the future initiatives to shrink Drink Fresh’s carbon footprint while strengthening communities across the country.

Top three tiers retreat: The meeting of the next 80 leaders had similar content, but a different focus. In this large ballroom, the top three tiers of leaders worked in 12 small, cross functional groups in a strategy and complexity workshop. As they learned complexity principles, they did not focus on their work together (which wasn’t so overlapping) but on the four organizational strategic imperatives set by the executive team. They mapped the polarities that were holding them back, shared their different perspectives from across the company, and pieced together an understanding of the system of the marketplace and consumer preferences in a new way. They harnessed their cross-company perspective to create a variety of innovations by the end of the second day together. One executive team member, working as a participant of one of the 12 working groups told the collective that just one of the innovations that his small group created would more than pay for the entire event, saving the company millions of dollars and getting products to consumers faster.

And more: As we continue to spread these ideas through the organization, we’re reaching more people: speaking at the large conference of the next 300 leaders and at other groups of leaders throughout the company, and designing a special session for the Board. We are also deepening our relationships with some of these leaders with on-going one-on-one coaching.

Supporting our Learning and Development partners: Because the complexity approach requires a variety of simultaneous (and emergent) interventions, our Cultivating Leadership team also supports Drink Fresh’s internal learning and development team to deepen their comfort with complexity approaches and ideas, as they facilitate meetings, coach leaders throughout the organisation, and support various internal events. We designed and delivered a three day complexity session with the People and Capability Leadership Team, and we are just a phone call away when our internal partners want help designing a group strategy retreat or a sales meeting with complexity content.

The result

We’ve been working in this new, deeper partnership for less than a year, but already there are changes across the organisation. The executive team is working more collaboratively and effectively. The innovations developed in the complexity and strategy meeting have infused new ideas and new collaborations throughout the organization. Throughout the organization, people are using the forces of complexity and unlocking the ideas and expertise that have been constrained by organizational practices and policies that are simply too constraining for a fast-moving world.


During a time of significant change it is important for a CEO to have people around who can be relied on for their advice and support - Jim is one of those people. His superior change management and people skills enable him to identify and navigate through the issues to reach the planned outcome.

CEO, Health Sector