What’s THE Critical Matter That Gets In The Way of Business Transformation Efforts?

Accurate Real-Time Communication & Information Are Critical in a Time-Sensitive Game That Involves Many Actors

My local airport is London Heathrow. On average, 30 airplanes are landing and another 30 are taking off every hour.  Put differently, one airplane is landing or taking off every minute. Now consider that mishaps – crashes where people are injured/die and/or property is damaged/destroyed – are rare.  So rare that mishaps make the national news, usually the front page.

Who/what is responsible for that which occurs: 30 airplanes landing and another 30 taking off every hour using two runways?  Read this Wikipedia article especially the section: “Operations”; and the sub-sections “Facilities” and “Flight movements”.  So what’s  your answer to the question that I posed just a moment earlier?

Yes, the folks responsible have put in place a ‘tried and tested’ collection of facilities, practices, and rules that work. Is that all there is to it?  I say there is more. I say there has to be more – as the world we find ourselves embedded and constituting is dynamic: the drama/pattern we call life/world is forever changing, not static like stone.  What is the more?  I say it is communication/information.

Before we continue, let stop to consider what it is that we are talking about here – lets look at the etymology (origins) of these words:

Communication (n.)

late 14c., from Old French comunicacion (14c., Modern French communication), from Latin communicationem (nominative communicatio), noun of action from past participle stem of communicare “to share, divide out; communicate, impart, inform; join, unite, participate in,” literally “to make common,” related to communis “common, public, general”

Information (n.)

late 14c., informacion, “act of informing, communication of news,” from Old French informacion, enformacion “advice, instruction,” from Latin informationem (nominative informatio) “outline, concept, idea,” noun of action from past participle stem of informare “to train, instruct, educate; shape, give form to”

I say that one of the busiest airports in the world, with an aeroplane taking off / landing every minute, works (as in crashes are rare) because in addition to the system of rules and practices (static) there is the dynamic process of communicating/informing occurring between the players in the system; the primary players are air traffic control (air traffic controllers, practices, systems) and the aeroplanes (pilots, practices, systems).

Notice, the effectiveness of this communicating/informing is a function of honest (accurate) communicating/informing occurring between the parties on an continuous basis – the trigger being the arrival/departure of the aeroplanes from/towards Heathrow. Consider, that in this game (where lives are at stake, and people face public consequences for negligence or dishonesty) the human players communicate/inform that which matters honestly – as in accurately.  The players are not telling outright lies, not leaving out that which is essential because it is convenient for one player (in this drama) even though it imposes a cost on the other player.

What happens when miscommunication/informing occurs?  Crashes, and near misses. Here is an instructive example from TravelMole (bolding is mine):

Two passenger aircraft were reportedly just 600 feet from colliding because an air traffic “holding stack” became so congested… the controller, who could not distinguish the two plane’s call signs on his screen, “mistook another aircraft at 12,000 feet for the BA aircraft, which was at 13,000 feet”. “He then ordered the United aircraft to descend to 13,000 feet, into what he wrongly believed was empty airspace. Within 40 seconds the vertical distance between the two planes had reduced to only 600 feet, breaching the minimum safety gap of 1,000 feet.”

The misunderstanding occurred because there was too many planes in the holding stack waiting to land. That is to say too much information to digest. Information that was overlapping. Thus confusing to the human mind.  Notice, there was no deliberate intention by the pilots or the aeroplane systems to misinform.  Which is one reason it was only a near miss as opposed to a calamity that would have cost 500 lives.  Who/what saved the day: an intelligence that used the accurate information to guide intelligent action. Again, according to TravelMole:

The aircraft would have reportedly come much closer if it had not been for the BA jet’s collision avoidance system, which ordered the pilot to dive.

My Experience of Transformation Programmes in Large Organisations

Almost all of my work on the Customer side of business occurs within/from the context of enterprise wide transformation programmes that usually span multiple business units, many countries, many teams/players, many business processes, many information technology systems….. I say that these transformation programmes are operating within/from complex as opposed to complicated domains (Cynefin). The difference there is an inherent and significant uncertainty/unpredictability in large business organisations as opposed to complicatedness in the dealings that go with the safe take off / landings at Heathrow Airport.

So what is absolutely critical to the success of these business transformation programmes? Effective – as in timely, accurate, complete – communicating/informing occurring between the many actors/players and the business equivalent of Air Traffic Control – those who are charged with leading and managing the transformation programme.

Recently, I was brought in as a consultant to lead a significant work-stream within a larger programme which itself sits within a larger global transformation initiative.  One of my responsibilities is to communicate/inform those who are impacted by that which I know and they do not know.  I did just that sending out an email and copying in a key member of Air Traffic Control. This did not go down well, I was reprimanded. Why? Because I had honestly communicated information that a person did not wish to be communicated. His concern? The information, whilst accurate, may make the work-stream look bad in the eyes of those that matter: the ‘Air Traffic Controllers’.  I was told that in the future ALL outbound communications had to be direct to him. And he will choose who is informed of what, when, and how.

There are so many work-streams that have to come together for transformation initiatives of this kind/scale to work out well: generate the desired outcomes by the desired time, within the desired budget.  So many players involved who have to co-operate and collaborate. So it is no surprise to find that there is a complicated, experienced as burdensome, governance framework/structure in operation to manage the many interlocking dependencies.  Yet, the efficacy of this governance framework/structure/ organisation rests on effective communicating/informing occurring between the players and other players,  and  between the players and ‘Air Traffic Control’, and between ‘Air Traffic Control’ and the players.

Now it really hit me. Wow! How many other actors/players playing a leadership role in this transformation initiative are not communicating the information that needs to be communicating?  How many are delaying bad news?  How many are spinning the truth with falsehoods including false optimism? How many are aware of bad news and choosing to hide it from those in positions of power in ‘Air Traffic Control’?

Given this – that which is so – how effective is the burdensome/expensive governance framework?  Not that effective? This led to this thought arising: “Is it possible that the governance framework (people, practices, forums) is expanding because those in  ‘Air Traffic Control’ perceive that the process/journey of guiding the transformation programme is friction-full and unwelcome surprises pop up? And they think more people, more structure, more formal communication will fix the problem?”  Upon getting present to this thought, the absurdity of it all hit me: one part of my laughed uproariously, the other part cried.

Digesting this it occurs to me that traditional thinking and practices around large scale change transformational change are the obstacle not the solution. Why? I say effective leadership is missing: the fundamental platform upon which effective communicating/informing/teaming occurs is weak or absent.  

What is this fundamental platform?  Psychological safety: do I/you/we/us feel safe speaking truth to power?

As this conversation has been going on for a while and we may be at a point that you are no longer willing to listen to my speaking, I leave you with these resources if you wish to dive deeper into that which I am pointing at:

5 Traits of Effective Teams at Google

I thank you for your listening, and I wish you the very best until our next conversation.

Direct Line: a great example of customer centric thinking!

If you are living in the UK you will know that we are having one of the coldest spells of the year and the country’s transportation system has come to a stop.  In one part of the UK the temperature is as low as -21C.  That may not be that cold for my Canadian friends, it is very cold for us Brits!

Now what happens when it gets this cold?  The plumbing inside the home is put under considerable stress:  valves get stuck as they are frozen, pipes burst, water tanks cause problem etc. All of that creates problems for a home owner like me.  And it can cause considerable problems for the insurer.

If you look at the situation from the insurers perspective, this cold weather is just a disaster waiting to happen:  pipes burst, homes are damaged, the policy holders ring in their thousands, the media is on the lookout for interesting stories that fit in with the theme of incompetence and human suffering that will make good copy.  So all the ingredients are there for 1) a drain on profits to meet policy holder claims; and 2) a customer relations disaster.

Clearly the people at Direct Line (the company I have my home insurance) have done their homework.  They know how to win by contributing to their customers – people like me who know little and care little about plumbing.  Here is the email that I received from them yesterday: Direct Line Email.

By sending me this email they have done something smart.  They have rendered a service to me by providing valuable information: when I received the email I thought “I did not know that and yes that is a very useful suggestion, let’s do that right now to avoid any trouble as I do not want to take any chances in this weather!”  By providing this service they have built affinity with me: I feel gratitude towards Direct Line and pat myself on the back for having chosen such a considerate insurer.

Whilst doing that they have taken steps to reduce the amount of money they will have to pay to reimburse their customers for losses.  And simultaneously they have reduced the workload that will be placed on their call centres.  Very smart indeed: they have created a win-win.

As a customer strategist I admire Direct Line:  their actions are a great example of the best kind of customer centric thinking!

One word of advice to the wonderful people at Direct Line:  ladies and gents it would have been better (for you and your customers) if you had sent out this email two days earlier when the cold snap first hit!  And you could have repeated every day after – again as a service to those people who had forgotten to take action.  By doing that you would have been even more effective – you would have had less people ringing in to report burst pipes.

Using transparency to improve the customer experience

Wikileaks has been in the news and the whole thing about Wikileaks is that it makes transparent stuff that has been kept hidden from us.  In the UK we had the equivalent of the latest Wikileaks disclosure when MPs expenses were published.  And this has got me thinking on the following question: how can organisations use transparency to help their customers and themselves?

If I look at frustrating contact centre experience yesterday (how not to communicate) I find myself thinking that there is real power in the contact centre and the website working together to provide information that is valuable for customers.

For example, the website could display a real-time feed of customer demand and backlog that is hitting the contact centre.  Furthermore the website could make available all the historic demand falling on the contact centre – day by day, hour by hour.  And the website could provide charting / analysis tools to similar to the ones that financial websites provide if you want to take a look at the share price movements that day, that week, that month, that year etc.

If I had had that information I would have been in a better position to work out when to make contact with the call centre – typically when there is the lowest demand on the call centre and the most available capacity to take calls.

It is a fact that most of us tend to keep the promises that we make in public because we wish to maintain, even enhance, our reputation.  Companies can use transparency in the same way.  What if companies published the following on a daily basis:

  • the volume of contacts coming into the contact centre;
  • an analysis of these contacts by category – customers ringing in seeking information, seeking to transact, ringing up because they have a problem and need help to get it resolved, making a complaint, offering ideas on how the company can improve, complimenting the company;
  • how the company is doing in terms of SLA – from a customer and internal perspectives;
  • an analysis of the complaints by cause e.g. product issues, delivery issues, pricing issues, billing issues, service issues etc;
  • what actions the company has taken or is taking to deal with these issues and the impact these actions have made on customers and their experience –  hard statistics not fluffy talk with no commitments; and
  • customer satisfaction scores – versus last month, last year, against SLAs etc.

By being transparent the company would better engage with customers as it takes courage and commitment to make this kind of information available.  And the entire company from the Chairman down would have their reputations and integrity at stake:  that tends to be one of the most powerful motivators to fix the things that are broken.

Clearly, if customers can see that the company is taking things on that matter to customers and making progress – climbing up the hill – they are likely to support the company, even pitch in and help it to improve.

Any company, any executive,  that is truly committed to competing on the basis of creating superior value for their customers the kind of transparency that I have outlined above should occur as a wonderful opportunity to take the lead, to differentiate itself, to build customer engagement and to attract new customers by word of mouth thus cutting down on acquisition costs.  I wonder which company will go first and embrace this kind of transparency?

How not to communicate: “your call is in a queue and will be answered as soon as possible”

I had the misfortune of having a problem that really needed to be fixed yesterday – the earlier the better.  So I found myself on the phone and after selecting the right IVR options I was told “Your call is in a queue and will be answered as soon as possible” and this recording kept being replayed every 10 – 20 seconds.  The first time I hung up after six minutes – partly because I just could not stand to listen to the recording.  The next time I rang I was listening to this recording for four minutes.  What do I find so irritating about this recording?

Being British I queue – I have been doing it for many years and it is second nature to me.  In the real world when I queue I make that choice.  My choice is based on observation and calculation:  I observe the length of the queue; I observe how quickly / slowly the queue is moving; and I calculate how long it is likely to take me to get served.  Based on that calculation I make a decision: to queue or not.

I found the recording irritating because it did not provide me with any useful information.  Information that I needed to make a decision – hold whilst making a cup of tea or hang up?


  • It did not tell me where I was in the queue e.g. “Your are 10th in line to be served”;
  • It did not tell me how long I would have to wait to get served e.g. “We estimate that we will answer your call in 5 minutes”;
  • It did not suggest when it would be better time for me to call – a time when there is less demand on the call centre;
  • It did provide context and/or seek to elicit my sympathy e.g. “Because of the bad weather, some of our staff have not been able to make it to work today.  That unfortunately means that it will take longer for us to answer your call. Please be patient as we are doing our best;
  • It did not provide me with a sense of progress e.g. ” You were 10th in the queue, you are now 2nd in the queue”.

Why is it so hard for people who are in the business of serving customers to act on insights that have been around for over 50 years?  Insights that show the human need for control – to be in control of his/her life.  Insights that show that one of the best ways to inflict considerable pain on a human is to put him/her in an environment over which he/she has no control.  Martin Seligman (psychologist) even coined a term for it “learned helplessness”.

It is hard because the people who authorised the recording are not thinking of customers as human beings.  They are used to operating a factory: a factory that processes calls.  To the managers of these factories what matters is to deal with the calls in way that minimises costs.  In a factory there is conveyor belt and your call is on the conveyor belt.  And they want to let you know that they will process your call as soon as possible.  The focus is on them and their internal operation not you the human being and your needs.  That does not make these managers bad human beings – they are simply trapped in a factory mindset where you process objects.

Here is what I would have preferred to hear “Dear customer, thank you for calling us today.  We would love to serve you straight away as none of us likes to wait especially when we have a pressing problem that needs to be fixed.  Right now we cannot do that because only 60% of our people have been able to make it to the office today due to the bad weather.  Please bear with us and we will get around to you as soon as we can.  Your are 20th in the queue and we expect to serve you in about ten minutes.  Please bear with us.  Or if that is not possible then call us back later in the day.”

A final thought:  this incident shows the importance of paying attention to the basics before embarking on the ‘strategic’ stuff.   For a customer there is nothing more ‘strategic’ – important / critical – than the way you treat her when she reaches out to you for help.

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