As a marketing leader of multi-brand, multi-location enterprise, the following scenario may feel uncomfortably familiar.
The market drove the need for an enterprise technology platform that would allow your organisation to respond to fast-changing customer needs and expectations. You invested a ton of effort into arguing for an expensive license that would allow your global marketers to leap into the 21st Century while saving time and money along the way. But your people were not as happy as you thought they would be, and many of them continued to work off-platform. You sometimes feel as if your blood, sweat and tears is totally wasted on them. Why is embedding new technology platforms so difficult? Because people have to change their behaviours, and unfortunately humans are hard-wired to resist change.
This monthly series aims to provide some tips to help you traverse that rocky chasm to digital fitness. In this first article, we will explore a new metaphor that has helped our clients to view their organisations through a more useful lens.
The Company As Machine
The industrial revolution drove people to think of companies as machines.
Machines are controlled by operators. They require regular maintenance. When they break they get fixed. They are built to operate in a particular way and to deliver a specific product. Rigid engineered components fit together perfectly. Purpose is built into structure.
Thinking of companies as machines led to the widespread use of org charts (blueprints), departments (components) and job specs (functions).
As needs change, and new opportunities arise, machines become obsolete. A new one that can deliver better, faster, more efficiently in the new environment is built to replace the old one. Machines are perfectly suited to stable environments.
An Unstable Market Environment
We’ve moved from an industrial age to the digital age. Today’s business landscape is anything but stable. Customer needs, wants and behaviours are changing at an unprecedented rate. Adapting a “mechanical” company to an ever-shifting market requires constant and often concurrent change initiatives: reorganisation, reengineering, rebuilding, redesigning. The whole time these never-ending projects are happening, the machine has to keep on running. The faster the environment changes, the more challenging this constant retrofit becomes.
This mechanistic thinking has obscured the fact that organisations are actually made up of people.
The Company As Animal
A more useful metaphor for a successful digital, connected company is organisation-as-animal.
An animal is geared towards survival and growth. To survive environmental shifts, it has to be able to flex and adapt. It defines its own purpose.
If an animal is to learn and understand how to adapt successfully to its environment, it has to be able to analyse the results of a new behaviour, have a central memory and be able to respond to coordinated memories.
Survival depends on the rapid reflexes that kick in when confronted with threatening situations. Animals wouldn’t last very long if every decision, at every extremity, had to be routed through slow and complex decision-making processes. At times, the brain has to be able to relinquish command and control in favour of instinctive, fast response.
Learn And Act Fast
The companies that thrive in the digital age are more agile and can adapt to constantly shifting market needs. The connected technologies that have enabled massive social change and driven business disruption also offer tools for constant improvement. Data can help leaders to understand their organisation better, and to use those insights to engage and communicate with their employees, or internal customers, more effectively.
Adaptation requires constant learning. Learning is not a mechanical process; it is achieved through experimentation. New behaviours can instilled through force and bullying, but lasting behaviour change is embedded through persuasion and playful experimentation. Successful digital companies reframe failure as a necessary part of the learning process.
The most successful companies have refocused from departmental navels to the collective finishing line. Employees are empowered and autonomous, teams are interdependent and self-directed, departments communicate seamlessly. Rather than working individually on problems, every part of the organisation is incentivised to share knowledge and find solutions to complex challenges collaboratively.
Processes have to be aligned with culture to enable agility. At times leaders need to relinquish command and control to allow direct and timely responses. Local outposts have to be empowered to react to situations as and when they happen, and incentivised to share learnings across the whole organisation.
Feedback mechanisms are crucial to all of the above, so the organisation can reflect on what is going well, and what needs tweaking, to make sure the entire system is working in the best interest of the whole.
It should come as no surprise that the companies that last longest operate more like organisms than machines. One thing's for sure: in an increasingly turbulent environment, only the fittest will survive.
Animals Need Doctors, Not Mechanics
Doctors learn to listen to what is being said, understand the unspoken, and take into account the environmental context of the patient. Only when all of these things are fully understood will she diagnose the illness and prescribe appropriate therapies.
The patient is called in for regular check ups. What’s working? What could be better? Does the dosage need to be increased? Have there been environmental changes?
The same applies to organisations in a constantly shifting world. Good leaders learn to listen and respond to what is being said and what remains unspoken across the organisation. They look at which areas will be affected before, during and after the deployment of a new technology platform. They uncover scarring from previous change initiatives, and interrogate data to understand fully the complexity of the challenge.
Only when all this is understood can a good leader prescribe an effective strategy to ensure a project gets maximum traction. Then once a solution has been applied, they learn to interrogate data to continuously improve it, and keep a keen eye on any environmental shifts that might demand amendments to their approach.
Imagine transplanting an entire neural system. Such a major systemic change would have wide-reaching impact across multiple organs and systems. A successful surgeon would work with a team of complementary experts to assess where the change would have biggest impact and design a holistic solution to mitigate against rejection across all of those points.
The same goes for global companies. By reframing how we see the complexities of our organisations, we can start to understand why new enterprise technologies, which are essentially foreign bodies, are often spurned.
Something to keep front of mind as we refocus to this new metaphor: every part of our living, breathing companies must work together to serve our true mistress: the customer.
More about this in next months article…