At the beginning of 2009, this large enterprise stared into an uncertain future. Normally at least half of its operating companies would perform well providing underpinning support to those in negative economic cycles.
But at the outset of 2009 the ‘perfect storm’ was brewing for the company in which all the operating companies were heading for worst-ever performances.
And, as the year ended, the worst predictions were borne out. There was red ink flowing off every balance sheet. Hitherto, the parent had maintained investment and kept the faith but faced with this, sentiment turned and the word was that any future investment needed to come from UK revenues. And losses must be slowed at least and turned to recovery as soon as possible.
A new incoming CEO found the business to be highly siloed and collectively holding its breath until general economic recovery began. The CEO was in no doubt that hope would not suffice and that the usual planning round would result in incremental thinking probably lacking any breakthrough potential.
Added to which he was new and would not know where the skeletons were hidden for some time. It was also clear that some parts of the business were highly resistant to change whilst others were champing at the bit.
He had a fundamental choice between a command-and-control-based instructional strategy or an approach which was more inclusive. In favour of the former was the appearance of decisiveness and speed. Against was the likelihood that it would be seen as his programme and avoided.
In favour of the more inclusive approach was that it would implicate the wider management team and liberate the ideas and energies of the whole population in ways that top-down change rarely does. Against it was the anxiety that it would be a talking shop and time would be lost before top-down would have to kick in come what may.
The decision was to go the inclusive route mindful that time was not on their side. It was a brave decision and perhaps one which an established and ‘socialised’ CEO might not have had the weather room to make.
We worked fast with the top team to get them all acquainted with each other’s local strategies in a breakthrough meeting where we used our Strategy Safari technique. It’s simple: without giving too much away it enables the senior group in small groups to discover all the silo strategies without any of them giving presentations and ‘having to perform’ in front of colleagues. It allows them to be the students and take a dispassionate look at the parts.
Then, in trios, they were asked to pull together the common elements as if they were about to deliver a ‘joined up’ pitch to more colleagues outside of the room. The unusual dynamics helped them suspend the normal patterns in the team and by the end of the meeting a common story had been articulated.
The purpose was to build the team’s confidence and enable them to do work as a team as opposed to ‘reporting in’; a mode which characterises the dynamics of many teams. Few teams actually work together – they share a table and sometimes listen to each other!
With new-found confidence the team sanctioned a bottom-up approach to engaging every member of staff in helping to address the dire situation with more radical ideas than the top-down. We designed the engagement process and trained a staff group and directors to enfranchise every member of staff in the process and kicked off by engaging the top 100 or so: symbolic as they had rarely met as a group.
The process is long-term and designed to be the collective strategy process: again we do not believe in soft engagement exercises which are adjacent to strategy; we believe in engaging the right groups and ideally everyone in contributing to and shaping strategy thereby to implicate them personally in execution.
Nine months later the business feels more one than many; people are absolutely aware that their destiny lies in the their hands (rather than some munificent parent) and are very busy working up practical efficiency initiatives balanced with innovating service, internal process and product ideas. It fits our maxim that if you want to change culture, give people real work to do rather than conceptual management speak.