THE FSC MAG’S RESIDENT BUSINESS UNCLE, JAMIL QURESHI, IS HERE TO HELP OLD AND NEW BUSINESSES WITH THEIR PROBLEMS. IF YOU HAVE A BUSINESS PROBLEM YOU WOULD LIKE SOME HELP WITH, EMAIL JAMIL AT HELLO@FUTURESTRATEGYCLUB.COM
We are a large multinational with over 50,000 employees and offices in 45 countries. We are number 1 in most of our markets, and our profits are healthy. From outside, we look like your archetypal successful corporation with a strong brand, a product customers’ love, and extremely happy shareholders. But inside, we are dying. We are unable to create anything other than iterations of the same product we have been selling for 20 years. There are no new ideas anywhere within the organisation, and we pay for large corporate agencies stocked full of similar people to us to come in and give us the same iterations on our current product that we come up with ourselves (in slightly prettier slide decks at an extortionate cost). Our customer base is getting older and we are pretty sure we are about to be disrupted by some kids working from the Costa Coffee down the road. We feel we are powerless to do anything about what looks like a definitive slide into irrelevance. Our agency friends want to help us by setting up an ‘Innovation Lab’ which they assure us will solve all our problems. What would your advice be? I love this company and want to make sure it survives the next ten years.
Helen [surname withheld] CEO
Thank you for your letter. In the past year since starting this column letters like yours have been coming thick and fast - but never with such honesty, passion and commitment to do whatever it takes to save the company in question from the scrap heap. And to be very clear, to save yourselves you are going to need to consider many things you may feel currently are not even in the long list I’m afraid. As I have said many times before, sometimes it may just be easier and less painful to plan for the slow demise of an organisation rather than the transformational rebirth. Rebirths are by their very nature difficult, and the shedding of the previous incarnation of the organisation can be so acrimonious and painful that death is indeed sometimes an easier choice. But, if you do really do want your organisation to still be around in ten years time - here are ten things you need to do.
1. Stop hiring people like you.
Organisations tend towards mono-cultures. This brings easy stability and common purpose - but drives group think. And group think is the enemy of innovation. So stop hiring people like yourselves, from the same backgrounds, from the same universities, from the same cultural pool. Urgently begin to find your talent from places you would never have looked before. Hire talent outside of the traditional educational system. In a word, diversity (with a small d). People not like you will not think like you, and will allow you as an organisation to begin to think like your upcoming customers - the Zs and Alphas. Diversity of thought, background and culture is your survival.
2. Fire the corporate agencies
Get rid of the multitude of very large profit focused mediocre agencies you have hanging about the place. They are just a more expensive version of your own staff, using the same old tired approaches to innovation you have tried and failed with. Their only real goal is to get bums on seats, no matter what the outcome. Replace them with some amazing freelance talent that can be incorporated into your own teams so you own the process and the outcomes (and save a ton of money). And if you must get an agency in, choose a small independent that lives or dies on the quality of its outcomes for you.
3. Get horizontal
Stop talking meritocracy and do it. As scary as it seems to some of your middle-aged middle managers, you must distribute power and influence more evenly across your hierarchy. And turn those managers into leaders - from information hoarders to talent supporters. All your young talent hold the keys to your future survival - so create the environment for them to take responsibility for it.
4. Be more street
As you get bigger your management teams get further and further from the street and lose the dynamic connection to your customer’s lives. Your customers become flat slides in a deck created 4 years ago - and empathy for them dissipates. You must reconnect your decision makers with the people they serve - so make sure they spend at least 25% of their time at street level interacting and experiencing the world your products and services live in. And if you have an agency working with you in this area, make sure they do too instead of sitting in their expensive offices in Shoreditch playing table tennis.
5. Become organic
The time between market intelligence being collected and your organisation acting on it is a critical measurement of the your ability to organically manoeuvre in response to changes in your customers’ needs or market conditions. Your default command and control hierarchy does not deal well with continuous change, so change it before the change bankrupts you. Make sure data can be collected and acted on almost instantaneously by small trusted agile teams. Empower everyone to make decisions in real time.
6. Predict the future
No one can predict the future, but you must. No one can guarantee their prediction will be correct, but without a path, no journey can follow. Create a vision of where you want to be in 5 years time, and then plot the path to get there. That path will definitely need to change as the environment round you changes, but the vision is your constant North Star that means you are always heading in the correct direction, no matter how many tactical changes you need to make on your journey.
7. Embrace real failure
Real failure is failure that doesn’t directly lead to success in a measured amount of time. Allowing real failure is critical to building a culture of innovation, where new ideas can be tested and through their failure beget other ideas. Put too much control around failure, and you lose the ability to think outside of the box you are desperately trying to get out of. Put a failure budget together, and expect nothing from it. It will change everything.
8. Stand up for your community
Drop the CSR bullshit and reconnect with the communities that support you. Take the organisation back into the place from where it came, and stay there. Commit some real time, effort and budget to standing up for your stakeholders. Be part of the world you come from, and make it one of the measures of your success.
9. Lose some profits
Sacrifice some short term profits for some purpose, and reap the medium term benefits. Think 5 years instead of 3 months. Build the platform for a 50 year business instead of 5 year one. Make decisions that will benefit your successor rather than you. Kick off projects that will make your employees’ children want to come and work for you. Have the courage to play the long game and your short game will look after itself.
10. Save the world a little
Realise the mess we are in and take responsibility for your part in that. Commit to being a part of the solution by beginning to rethink everything you do and preparing for the worst case scenario. Be positive about the potential and rewards of the complete redesign of how your organisation sees its markets, its customers, its operations and the products and services it delivers. Get ahead of the game and build competitive advantage through seeing everything as circular. Save your organisation by saving the world a little.