Six Guidelines for Strategy Execution and Transformational Change

Take a look at just about any significant change initiative in customer service, CRM, marketing effectiveness, digital transformation, customer experience etc and you will find that the top barriers to successful implementation are do with lack of commitment from the Tops and ‘resistance to change’ from people within the organisation.

In the last post I shared David Maister’s assertion that our performance (individual, group, organisation) often does not improve because we are not willing to do what it takes over the time frame that it takes. Today, I share with you David’s insight into what it really takes to execute strategy, effect organisational change – which always involves personal change as well as organisational change.

This is a long post and I suggest that you read it only if you have an avid interest in strategy execution and/or transformational change. Or if you are wondering why it is that so few organisations have made the shift to being great with customers. And what it will take to make that shift.

Is the transition to customer-centric business like curing a fat smoker or helping an alcoholic recover?

It occurs to me that many organisations are addicted. What are they addicted to? I say they are addicted to a number of factors: a dominant ideology usually manifested in the business model; ‘bad profits’ – profits made at the expense of customers; a fixed way of being including policies, practices, and processes; the short-term fix etc.

In his book, Strategy And The Fat Smoker, David Maister says:

If all business improvement is like curing a fat smoker or helping an alcoholic recover, then what actually motivates people and organisations to change?

We all know the main thing that works: a major crisis! If revenues drop off sharply, it’s amazing how quickly businesses can act to deal with known inefficiencies and bad habits they could have tackled years ago.

… when the first heart attack comes, it’s amazing how many people suddenly find the self-discipline to start living right.

Does David Maister have any guidelines for us on how to effect personal-organisational change without waiting for that ‘heart attack’ to show up and force us to change? He does.

Six guidelines for strategy execution and transformational change

1. Get that it is about a permanent change in lifestyle

In my last post I mentioned that I worked for an organisation that carried out a quarterly NPS rain dance. Everyone went through the motions to get it out of the way quickly and get back to business as usual. To take it seriously, to do what was really necessary at levels-functions of the organisation showed up as being too much effort, too disruptive.

Here’s what David Maister says:

A major source of failure in implementing sensible business strategies is that we underestimate how much effort is truly required to bring about significant improvement.

Individuals and organisations frequently fail to incorporate the new activities into their daily lives. Strategic actions are viewed as special, separate events rather than regular business activities. In other words, there’s real life, and then there’s the diet.

It is about routines , not special events. 

My experience since 1999, working on helping organisations shift towards a customer-centric way of doing business, including smarter marketing-selling-service, resonates with David’s words. The customer centric orientation has to be weaved into the very fabric of the organisation through it daily practices  – routines – such that these practices become so taken for granted that they become invisible.

2. You must change the scorecards

There is a world of difference between playing a game where one has no skin in the game. And playing a game where one has something that really matters (like one’s reputation or wellbeing) is at stake in the game.  Let’s listen to David Maister:

If strategy is to be lived and achieved, it must be publicly tracked, measured and monitored.

We all forgive ourselves too easily. We all find it quite easy to live with guilt. Even a high level of guilt doesn’t always change people. However, embarrassment, even in small doses, can be far more effective.

3. Leadership: get serious or get out of the way

One of my biggest issues with the whole customer bandwagon and business advice in general is that it panders to the Tops and Middles. That is to say the hidden assumption (which serves the interest of those seeking to sell to the Tops and Middles) is that Tops and Middles are perfect – do not need to change their way of showing up in the organisation. And the only obstacles to strategy execution, organisational change, and customer-centricity, are the  Bottoms.  What does David Maister say given that he has had lots of experience working with the Tops:

Organisations often rush to figure out how the troops need to change in order to live the new standards. However, this is not the first task.

If an organisation’s leaders want their people to believe that a new strategy is being followed, they must establish credibility by proving that they are prepared to change themselves: how they act, measure, and reward. 

David Maister goes on to say that he can share countless examples of “failure to do this”.  And gives a great  example of the instructions he received from senior management prior to running training for managers in the company:

“Please don’t raise the topic of how we ourselves manage these middle managers. We’re not ready to discuss the terrible job we do at that. Keep their attention on what they could do better. We want them to change first.”

4. Principles are more effective than tactics

One of my biggest issues with the whole Customer (service, CRM, VoC, customer experience, loyalty etc) conversation is that it shows up for me as just tactics.  That is to say that under all the hype and ideology of customer-centricity and employee engagement there lies a selfish concern with interests of the enterprise: the realm of expediency not principle.  What light does David Maister shed on this?

.. successful implementation of a strategy requires both sustained commitment over time and broad participation across the whole organisation. Strategies in business, like diets and alcohol recovery, are implemented much more effectively when the ideas are presented as matters of principle, not just as matters of expediency. 

If strategic rules are justified only in terms of outcomes … the diet will always be seen as a punishment on the way to an uncertain and possibly unattainable reward…

If … diet achieves the force of moral principle (“Treating clients and employees with respect is the right thing to do”), the odds are significantly higher that successful implementation will be achieved.  

Managers who get things done are people who are viewed as having an ideology. Their people believe that they believe in something …. buy-in and excellent implementation result from a sense of not wanting to let people down.

5. People must volunteer

Looking into and beyond the whole field of change management and what do you see? I see that it exists to deal with ‘resistance to change’. How successful is the change management industry when it comes to dealing with ‘resistance to change’? I say that it’s effectiveness is questionable. What advice does David Maister have for us?

To achieve any goal, you must really want the goal.

A self-improvement program is successful and sustainable only when the individual chooses to to it for himself … The motivations must be intrinsic, because the essence of successful strategic change is not technique, but will …….. you can call it determination. 

.. the single biggest barrier to making change is the feeling that “it’s OK so far.” People don’t disagree that the future state of being a nonsmoker would be beneficial, but they resist when they are told that they have to do it.

One of the leader’s roles is to act as a coach, drawing people’s attention to imperfections in the status quo .… asking whether things could actually be better, and questioning whether the desired change is both achievable and desirable…..

6. People must get on or off the bus

If “people must volunteer” showed up as being naive and idealistic for you then this guideline is likely to speak to your concern. David has keen sense of the pragmatic:

Every individual can, and must make a personal choice. But then the organisation must decide how to respond to those individual choices. For an organisation, strategy cannot be what “most of us, most of the time” do.

As all married people who diet know, it’s hard enough to stay the course and resist temptation when you are both attempting to do the right thing. It’s well nigh impossible if those around you continue to indulge and tempt you with food, alcohol etc.

we cannot force others to do what we want. We can … protect those who have chosen to participate; doing so may require ridding the firm of those who refuse to come on board.

People have a desperate need for the mutual support …. that comes from joining in a common cause. The need to help each other through the tough times … instead of being part of a forgiving culture that keeps discouraging extra effort (“Oh, that’s OK, you can skip exercise today. You deserve a break.”).

Final words of advice on managing the process of change

It occurs to me that too many Tops and Bottoms live in the world of McDonald’s. They decide that they want to improve customer service, focus on the customer experience, build stronger relationships, generate growth through effective use of digital technologies etc – and they want it NOW!

Here’s David Maister’s sage advice based on lived, first hand, experience of making-sustaining transformational change:

Like alcoholic recovery, it is a process that requires you first to make a lifetime commitment, and then you take it one day at a time.

The key is to manage with a philosophy of “It’s OK to stumble; it’s only a sin if you don’t get back on the program.” The primary goal of the beginning stage of a change program is to get people to believe that it is doable and that all we are asking is that they try.  This means early successes.

All that wise leader …. talk about is the next step. And they enthusiastically celebrate each small accomplishment. They focus on requiring improvement, not on requiring excellence

Managing a weight loss program means you stop talking about the ultimate goal….. if someone says to me: “Let’s focus on losing one pound in a week, David. Do you think you can do that? That doesn’t sound impossible, does it?”

Good trainers know that life-changing improvements can and does fail by rushing to either of two extremes. The first extreme establishes overtly ambitious or time-consuming improvement goals, leading to frustration and abandonment of the program. The other extreme fails to establish any pressure to improve, allowing people to pretend they plan to get on the plan, but not just today.

Strategy and Customer-Centricity: Relax, It’s OK To Be Just OK!

What Is The Achilles Heel of Strategy?

My colleague and I put our whole selves into our work talking with folks in the business, listening to customer conversations, reviewing research, looking at competitors and trends, looking at various approaches, evaluating these approaches and coming up with optimal course of action for our client and our client’s customers.

To our delight the strategy was accepted-approved by management. A month or so later we got busy on implementation planning. It was during the implementation planning when hard decisions had to be made that the commitment to the digital strategy unravelled. Our clients got the value of pursuing the digital strategy and they found themselves in a particular situation which called forth and drove a different set of choice and actions.

This is the Achilles Heel of strategy, every executive finds himself in a particular situation. And every situation has its own ‘logic’ and a momentum. As such it really it takes something to alter course and make any significant headway. It takes resolve – fierce resolve, the kind of resolve that grabs you and keeps hold of you. It is not the kind of resolve that is created through the intellect. 

Why Don’t We Do What We Know We Should Do?

Have you wondered why your organisation sucks at being authentically customer-centric: practicing relationship marketing, client centred selling, pleasing customer service? Have you wondered why it is that your organisation sucks at calling forth the best from your people?

Now and then someone speaks and their speaking is wisdom. Today, I share with you the wisdom of David Maister as articulated in his great book ‘Strategy and the Fat Smoker‘:

“In business, strategic plans are also stuffed with familiar goals: build client relationships, act like team players, and provide fulfilling motivating careers. We want the benefits of these things. We know what to do, we know why we should do it, and we know how to do it. Yet most businesses and individuals don’t do what’s good for them….

The primary reason we do not work at behaviours which we know we need to improve is that the rewards … are in the future; the disruption, discomfort and discipline needed to get their are immediate…..

Our default pattern and why it doesn’t work

When it comes to improving performance at the individual, team or organisational level we tend to follow a self-defeating pattern.  I have seen this pattern played out again and again over the last 10+ years as organisations have grappled with relationship marketing, CRM, customer experience, employee engagement, digital.  Here’s what David Maister says:

We start self-improvement programs with good intentions, but if they don’t pay off immediately, or if a temptation to depart from the program arises, we abandon our efforts completely – until the next time we pretend to be on the program.

That’s our pattern. Try a little, succumb to temptation, and give up. Repeat until totally frustrated. Unfortunately, there is rarely, if ever, a benefit from dabbling or trying only a little. You can’t get half the benefits of a  better marriage by cutting out half your affairs, cure half the problems of alcoholism by cutting out half the drinks or reduce the risks of lung cancer by cutting out half the cigarettes.

You can’t achieve competitive differentiation through things you do “reasonably well most of the time.” You not only cannot dabble, but you also cannot have short-term strategies ….. The pursuit of short-term goals is inherently anti-strategic and self-defeating.

You are either seriously on the program, really living what you have chosen, or you are wasting your time. 

Why strategic analysis and listening to customers is not the answer

I worked in an organisation which expended considerably time-effort-cost in doing NPS quarterly.  We had access to the voice of the customer. And the voice tended to speak the same tune quarter after quarter. Why? Because the people in the organisation were not willing to change behaviour in any significant way.

Is it possible that setting up VoC listening programs are a ruse? A way of saying to yourself and others that you are serious about improving the customer experience so that you hide your unwillingness to change your behaviour, the behaviour of your team, your organisation?  What does David Maister say?

Improving the quality of the analysis is not where the problem lies. The necessary outcome of strategic planning is not analytical insight but resolve. 

What are the essential questions of strategy?

If we know the why-what-how of employee engagement, meaningful customer relationships, and customer loyalty then what are the strategic question?  Here’s what David Maister says:

The essential questions of strategy are these:

[1] Which of our habits are we really prepared to change, permanently and forever?

[2] Which lifestyle changes are we really prepared to make?

[3] What issues are we really ready to tackle? 

Now that’s a different tone of conversation and discussion (and the reason that real debate is so often avoided).

What am I getting at here?

To come up with products that enrich the lives of customers requires resolve, analysis is insufficient. To create-deliver truly personalised-relevent marketing requires resolve, analysis and marketing technology are insufficient. To call forth the kind of service that generates gratitude from customers and makes them feel good about doing business with your organisation requires resolve, analysis-outsourcing-technology are insufficient. To orchestrate an end to end customer experience that calls forth customer loyalty requires formidable resolve, VoC and customer journey mapping are insufficient.  Put different, dabbling won’t do; it occurs to me that most are merely dabbling.

I say, it is worth listening to David Maister once more:

There is no shame in aiming for competence if you are unwilling to pay the price for excellence. But don’t try to mislead clients, staff, colleagues or yourself with time-wasting, demoralising attempts to convince them that you are actually committed to pursuing the goal.

Relax, it’s ok to be just ok

As I get present to the world of business as it is and as it is not, I get present to the following and contradicts all the evangelising about customer focus, customer service, customer experience, customer relationships and customer-centricity:

1. Almost all businesses are unexceptional. They provide ok products (that do the job well enough). They provide OK digital real estate (websites, social media, apps, mobile). They provide OK stores. They hire OK people. They provide OK customer service – whether in stores or via the call-centres. And they generate an OK end to end customer experience, by default. As a result they do OK – they survive and make OK profits.

2. It is only against this background of OKness that the exceptional can and does show up. It is because almost all banks and insurance companies are ok that USAA glow so brig and htly. It is because most digital retailers are OK that Amazon shines brightly. It is because most high street retailers are OK that John Lewis and Waitrose (part of the John Lewis Partnership) shine brightly. It is because most organisations provide OK customer service that Zappos and Zane’s Cycles shine brightly.