25 October 2019

Why sometimes, it just won’t stick?

The year is, well, 2019, and we all work for Streeton International Orange Juice Ltd (SI OJ). We’re all beavering away on the production line (suspend disbelief for a smidge longer) and someone says, “did you hear, we’re going to up production at SI OJ by 50% in the coming months on a bold new venture.” Great stuff. Growth, expansion and excitement we all say in unison. We all potter home and think to ourselves, I wonder how we’re going to achieve that exciting growth?

The next day we all potter back in again and begin working on shelling those oranges on the production line…or whatever it is we do here? Our line manager comes along and says, “here is how we’re going to get there people…we’re going to put the customer at the heart of all of our decisions. We’re going to be number one for efficiency, profit and we’re going to achieve that through respect and people-centric behaviours.”

Grand. Back to work now.

Photo by Erwan Hesry on Unsplash

Back to the, urm, present, I’ve seen strategies like this launched and killed in as many months. Why? Because there’s nothing worth executing in that string of meaningless rhetoric. Strategy consultants will come in and tell senior leaders, ‘you need to encourage behavioural changes in your workforce, set new metrics around the customer-centric ideology and become number one in your field’.

If the line manager of SI OJ had come in and, with some gusto, told you that ‘the orange juice market is on the slide and apples are in vogue. So as a result we’re buying new machines to handle shelling apples, increasing the staff count and retraining people to work on apples’. If he’d also said, ‘since Donald Trump’s face is so orange people have shied away from orange things and the market wants green things’ – you think, ah yes, makes sense.

According to Professor Freek Vermuelen of the London Business School, strategies fail because they do not represent a clear set of choices. He argues that to get some traction, direction, movement, you need to pare things back to three or four choices that the company has, or is going, to make.

And this all comes down to choices. What do we do, who is it for and why do we do it? Back to SI OJ, you could say ‘we make apple juice using more apples per 100ml than the competition, for the upper-end of the market because people don’t like drinking orange juice because of Trump’s perma-tan. I admit, that’s a weak one, but check out this one from Hornby when they were facing bankruptcy. The story goes, children weren’t buying their little trains, so they decided to change tack: they would; make perfect scale models (rather than toys), for adult collectors (rather than for children), that appealed to a sense of nostalgia (because it reminded adults of their childhoods). Bingo, strategic direction.

Photo by Bill Oxford on Unsplash

The trouble is that when your choices become a little lengthy, people forget them or, worse still, don’t engage with them and are left scrabbling around for a PowerPoint deck whenever they need to recall them.

So what about Smart Infrastructure? I personally think we’re on the right track and if I had to boil it down to a handful of choices, I’d say (1) we sell products and solutions that improve environments, (2) for customers with increasing legislative, moral and cost pressures on them, (3) to save them getting fined, clean up the planet and (4) make more money.

I’ve added point 4 in as for a lot of people that’s all they need. Most Brits will recoil in horror at the very mention of something quite so vulgar as money, but there are some inalienable truths about working for a highly successful business, especially one that’s trying to do some good in the process.

I used to work for a company that measured its employees once a year in its annual pulse survey. Before each survey went out I’d have a bet with myself how the results would go and lo and behold, when the external news was bad and cash was down, people were despondent and sad. When the company was booming and awash with cash, morale was through the roof. Now I appreciate there’s lots of other things going and I’ve dropped a bit of a post hoc ergo propter hoc argument in there – after therefore because of – which can be a bit disingenuous.

Photo by Sharon McCutcheon on Unsplash

Nevertheless, people like working for successful companies. If you ever need an example of the benefits of income tax versus charity, think about this one. Recently, Children in Need celebrated passing the £1bn raised mark. A magnificent feat and rightly worthy of praise. However, just think for a second that it’s taken them 38 years to hit that mark and that £1bn would support the national children’s social care budget for…one and a half months. Thirty-eight years of appeals to match just 11% of the annual spending on the nation’s children. The money raised this year – almost £51 million – is less than the average spent by a single council in a year on children’s services. So the point is, tax is a bloody good thing whether you like it or not. Sorry folks.

Businesses should never be ashamed of turning a profit, putting food on the table for families and supporting the wider supply chain. That is motivation for a huge percentage of us and something we’re right at the vanguard with in Smart Infrastructure. When legislation starts to move and consumer sentiment shifts dramatically, as the Ghostbusters so eloquently put it, who you gonna call?  

Moving the great machine

If people know what they’re doing, how they need to do it, what they need to do more of or less of, it goes a long, long way to creating cohesion and efficiency. Where the big breakthroughs come in is local-level application and, more importantly, internalisation by individuals of what matters to them. At SI OJ, if I process more apples that the other person I get a financial reward, or I get a ceremony saying thanks. If I can also picture a customer drinking my apple juice and smiling I can link what I do with a positive outcome. Even back in the day, Karl Marx said that work becomes meaningful in one of two ways. Either it helps the worker directly to reduce suffering in someone else or else it helps them in a tangible way to increase delight in others.

Deep down, we want to feel like we are reducing suffering or increasing happiness. Ultimately we could all try and answer the million dollar question of, who is benefitting from my work? Can I see the link between my labour and a positive outcome?

All that’s changed for most of us in a large corporation is that we’re far away from the sharp end of what’s going on. We could be 10 or 15 steps back from the manifestation of an action.  This is why clarity is king. Reducing the noise, cutting a path through the jungle, clearing the detritus so that people can see that when they pull lever X, outcome Y happens…and it’s a bloody good one, too.

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