Our Blog

You won't find this website to be full of information of how we work and what we do when we're engaged by a client. We'll work this through with you when we start talking to you. We believe the best way to engage with people who might want to work with us is to be sharing stimulating and thought-provoking commentary on the rapidly changing business world.

A Foot on the Gas: how covid-19 could accelerate business change

22 April 2020

Over the past few weeks we’ve been saturated with statements about the near future from politicians, scientists, medics and many more. It’s sometimes hard to work out the predictions from the scenarios and the hopes from the promises, especially when it turns out that what you thought was a promise was actually a prediction based on a scenario that somebody in authority had hoped would come true.

So let me share some observations about the potential impact of covid-19 on the business environment in the form of a scenario, a prediction and a promise.

The scenario is that covid-19 accelerates the rate at which organisations pursue automation strategies.

The prediction is that, if they do, the race to automate will expedite the death of the industrial, hierarchical organisation structure we’ve known all our lives.

The promise is that, if the first two happen, leadership and governance in all organisations will have to adapt rapidly to be effective in post-industrial organisation models.

Scenario: Covid-19 accelerates the rate at which organisations pursue automation strategies

Many organisations, confronted with the challenge of redeploying large numbers of staff to home from offices, contact centres and other places of work, have unearthed some quite salutary discoveries, including:

  • The underlying business processes that they are now having to adapt in line with the circumstances are often fundamentally ill-designed and inefficient
  • Not only could they perform these processes with fewer people with, at worst, no degradation of service, but many lend themselves to automation at even lower cost and to higher quality and performance standards
  • Productivity is often as high, or higher, amongst remote workers as it was when they were on site
  • A combination of automation, rationalisation and remote working will reduce the future requirement for often expensive real estate.

What’s more, as the pandemic inevitably becomes both a current reality and a future risk, many organisations will inevitably come to the conclusion that business continuity and growth will be derisked by reducing reliance on humans and making greater use of technology. It may sound a harsh view to take in the current circumstances – but it is neither unfair nor unrealistic.

It’s therefore a highly credible scenario to contemplate a sizeable number of organisations accelerating the rate at which they embrace opportunities to automate, deploy machine learning, harvest the benefits of artificial intelligence and exploit other technology-driven opportunities in the immediate aftermath of covid-19.

If not sooner.

Prediction: The race to automate will expedite the death of the industrial, hierarchical organisation structure we’ve known all our lives

The acceleration of the emerging trend for organisations to automate where they can is, therefore, a very real possibility. If (or rather to the extent that) they do, this will fast-forward the death of the traditional industrial organisation structure – and not before time. MIT Professor Douglas McGregor wrote as long ago as 1960, in his ground-breaking book The Human Side of Enterprise: “It is probable that one day we should begin to draw organisation charts as a series of linked groups rather than as a hierarchical structure of individual reporting relationships.” It’s extraordinary that what he described is still only an emergent phenomenon sixty years later.

The structures deployed in most organisations have their origins in the command and control philosophy espoused by Frederick Winslow Taylor in the early years of the twentieth century and adopted widely, and often unquestioningly, in many organisations ever since. Taylorism was a philosophy that had its place, but it also had its day, and that day has gone. Hierarchies, with clear reporting lines and equally clear demarcation between departments or functions, ceased to reflect reality for most organisations a long time ago. As machines increasingly, and at an ever-faster pace, take over the rules-based activities that hierarchical structure were designed for, and the human value-add becomes ever-more focused on cognitive complexity and emotional intelligence, so we must finally see a change to what an organisation needs from its structure, and McGregor’s prediction will at last become widely accurate.

As the hierarchical structure dies the cell structured organisation will become the norm. A cell, quite simply, is a grouping of people who have a reason to be working together. This may be semi-permanent in duration (for example a finance team) or it may have a life limited by its purpose (for example a team working on launching a new product or service.) Individuals will define their relationship to the organisation not by which department they are in but by the cells of which they are members. So a member of the Finance team may also be working on that product or service launch and in addition they might have volunteered to run a community outreach activity as part of the organisation’s social responsibility program. These three cells are, for now, how she or he identifies with the organisation. Over time, one or more of the cells may die, or the individual may change their portfolio and join other cells, and so the organisation evolves.

Pause for a moment and think of a few words that you’d associate with a modern, innovative organisation. Maybe Self-directing? Flexible? Adaptive? Empowered? They’re all words that sit so much more comfortably in the ever-evolving cell structure depiction of how the organisation works.

Promise: If the first two happen, leadership and governance in all organisations will have to adapt rapidly to be effective in post-industrial organisation models.

Self-directing? Flexible? Adaptive? Empowered?

As senior executives in an organisation that lives and breathes by words like these, we had better get thinking about how leadership and governance is going to work. It’s been true for years, of course, that great leaders create environments in which their colleagues can get space to take their own decisions, make their own mistakes, achieve their own successes. In entrepreneurial organisations, with good leaders, this can work really well, only coming unstuck if or when growth brings with it the imposition of discipline and constructs that pull the business towards that industrial organisational structure, and the leaders’ wings are clipped.

Networked, cell-structured organisations greatly reduce the risk of this happening, because decision-making sits so naturally in the cells, away from the centre. But they present a new and far from straightforward leadership challenge: for all that we can see people at all levels and in all areas of our networked, cell-structured organisation acting like the leaders they are, what is our job as executives at the centre of this network? We still have – probably – a CEO and a leadership team. The business may have become more open, transparent and democratic, but it isn’t a commune and it never will be. Most won’t, anyway.

To those who were already well down the enlightened leadership path, the answer is obvious. A networked, cell-structured organisation will no more run itself than a traditional, hierarchical industrial one did. Leadership at the heart of a networked business is about having the intelligence – emotional, intellectual, practical – to understand, protect and develop what works and to do so for all you’re worth. You are the protectors of the DNA, the guardians of the values. Decisions you take about how the network operates will determine how successful it is. Interventions you make when there is conflict or uncertainty that cannot be resolved set the tone, reinforce (or undermine) the values, influence the culture. The self-aware leader understands this. And perhaps the biggest challenge that leaders running any organisation face, over the next couple of years, is how to grasp the opportunities afforded by covid-19 on the back of longer-term trends to shape the destiny and direction of their organisations. The outcomes may be difficult to predict; the opportunity is not.

"It's all about the people"

16 March 2020

There is growing recognition that for all the extraordinary technological progress in every area of our lives, successful exploitation of these changes is down to people and culture. However, there’s a danger in how loosely these words can be used. It’s easy to chant the mantra “it’s all about the people” but it’s important to be clear what we mean by this.

Here are three guiding principles that apply to this statement and give it meaning. They play to the strengths, expertise and capabilities of the people in a business. By focusing on these principles, organisations will increasingly be able to identify what habits need to be changed and how to start on the path to changing them. Over time, this changing of habits will support the evolution of a more dynamic culture.

1. Every business should major on what it does best

Every viable business is very good at some things and does others as well as it needs to. The best strategies recognise what falls into which category, invest in the former and buy in or outsource the rest to suppliers who, in their turn, know what they do best. I remember hearing David Pascall, who headed BP’s global Change Management programme, say as far back as 1990: “all we (BP) need to do ourselves is to know where to drill for oil. We could outsource everything else.” That’s a very powerful statement that is well worth pondering.

Defining what a business should major on will undoubtedly challenge views of what it does, how it is organised, what talent it needs and what success looks like. It will also change significantly the relationship with suppliers with whom there will be a much greater symbiosis. And to add to the fun, the definition of what you do best will keep changing as your business ecosystem changes: customer requirements evolve, competitors and suppliers develop new competencies, new technology comes into play, new markets and business models emerge and so on. Like any strategic questions, you just have to keep on asking.

2. Use people for the roles that are uniquely human

If machines can perform a role better, or quicker, or on a bigger scale, or if they can do things that humans can’t, eventually the roles will get automated or replaced. That’s a fact, but rather than worry there should be cause to celebrate. With machines doing algorithmic tasks it allows humans to utilise their unique skills such as creativity, empathy, communication and relationship building, emotional intelligence, critical and strategic thinking, technical know-how, providing service to others and the unique physical skills that people possess. It’s important to constantly be questioning how roles are changing and where automation will go next both internally to the organisation and externally in the wider world, and to be clear on how – at any point in time – the use of people, process and technology is being optimised to ensure the ongoing success of our organisation.

3. Every human role should be performed with a leader’s mindset

I’ll talk in a future post about the shift from parent – child relationships in modern organisations to adult – adult engagement. Nowhere is this more important than in cultivating an environment in which the people in an organisation have a direct role to play in reframing and evolving its purpose and resulting ways of working. That’s why it’s important to develop a leader’s mindset across an organisation.

There are many sound business reasons to develop the leadership potential of all employees. Having strong, responsible and empowered employees can lead to improved performance and business results. Leadership, after all, is not reserved for key positions. It can be practiced at all levels of the organization, regardless of employees’ job functions.

Strategic leadership is about a way of thinking and acting. It starts with an attitude. If an organization is willing to empower employees to become leaders, an important first step is to develop a leadership mindset in its people. Key aspects of being a leader every employee can develop include: responsibility (reliability, duty, commitment, obligation); empowerment (initiative, drive, self-sufficiency); accountability (acceptance of consequences and willing answerability); learning (continuous learning and improvement).

Leadership, as we all know, is an attitude of mind rather than something that is conferred with senior status. This reality matters more in the dynamic, evolutionary organisation of today than it ever has before.

Just reflecting on these three guiding principles, perhaps the most important point to bring out is the constant, never-ending need to keep revisiting and questioning. Nothing stays the same for long and if our corporate radar screens aren’t detecting the changes in the ecosystem very early, we’re going to be missing out – because somebody else will. Business intelligence systems, board governance agendas, flexible and ever-changing processes utilising adaptable technology all matter hugely: but where it all comes together is in how well-equipped the people in the system are to work it and optimise it. Doing what they do best, in harmony rather than in competition with the technology, and thinking and acting like a leader whatever their role – that is why it’s right to say, “it’s all about the people.”  

How well does your business concentrate on the things it does best?

How well does your business understand how to cultivate those roles that are uniquely human?

Do leadership mindsets and capabilities get encouraged and nurtured within your organisation?

Liberation through technology: how automation can make organisations more human

24 February 2020

Much concern is expressed that the constant advance of technology provides an existential threat to us humans. We’ve all heard the refrain, “the machines are taking our jobs”. It’s true, of course, they are, just as they’ve done continuously over the past couple of hundred years or more, and they’ll continue to do so. As they do, we as a society, wherever we live, face some significant risks. Will innovation and entrepreneurialism generate enough economic activity in the increasingly automated world of the future to promote widespread prosperity and wellbeing, or do we face the onset of mass unemployment? Will wealth, influence and power become narrowly concentrated in the few who own the technology platforms? These are genuine concerns, and I’ll explore them in a future post. But let’s not lose sight of more positive possibilities. If we – as individuals, businesses and as a society – play it right, the outcome can be far from dystopic. Technology could bring liberation for us humans. Organisations could become more human as a result of automation.

In 1983, the US developmental psychologist Howard Gardner identified nine categories of human intelligence, two of which we can downplay in a business context: the ability to read and understand nature (naturalist) and to tackle the questions of why we live and why we die (existential). Hence reference in some works to his seven categories of human intelligence. This is not the place for a detailed analysis but over the last four decades, machines have increasingly penetrated five of Gardner’s categories (musical, logical-mathematical, spatial, linguistic and bodily-kinesthetic).

The other two represent types of intelligence that remain uniquely human: the ability to sense people’s feelings and motives (interpersonal) and the ability to understand oneself – using self-awareness to guide your own behaviour with other people (intrapersonal). These two, together, comprise emotional intelligence, and it’s towards this that human intelligence is migrating as machines increasingly become better than us at many aspects of all the rest.

To many, this migration will sound wonderful. Boring, tedious, repetitive work that we’ve never enjoyed will be gobbled up by a machine whilst we use our brains, creativity and emotional intelligence to achieve spectacular personal and / or business outcomes. However, let’s not lose sight of some of the more challenging strands of this development. Jobs will be lost, affecting people’s livelihoods whilst new work is found. And the demise of routine jobs isn’t everyone’s idea of a good time. Some people are happy enough putting in a day’s work that doesn’t really stretch them, and going home.

It will be scary. There will be a considerable learning curve to change habits to achieve this migration. It will fall to everyone at all levels of an organisation to use their brains and emotional intelligence. I believe that every individual is going to have to take greater responsibility for their personal development and career planning in the future. That includes acquiring skills and capabilities that equip us for the disruption not only of losing a job but also of having to embrace fundamentally new challenges and ways of working, especially if our comfort zone is in precisely those areas that the machines are going to make their own. This means developing those skills and capabilities that differentiate the human from the machine. We cannot start too soon on making this happen. It’s time to do it now, whatever our level of experience, seniority and academic achievement.

Like most outcomes that are worth striving for, the pathway to making organisations more human is not an easy one to navigate, nor is there any guarantee we’ll all get there. But, as I’ll discuss in future posts, as the reach of the machines continues to expand, the definition of what is uniquely human focuses more and more on roles that draw on our abilities to be creative and innovative, to lead, to empathise, to solve complex problems. As artificial intelligence and machine learning become ever-more ubiquitous, nurturing and growing these human capabilities to work in harmony with the technology will increasingly become a point of differentiation for companies. It is those who succeed in being the most human that will be the winners.

Is your organisation ready to equip its people for jobs that require greater use of brainpower and emotional intelligence?

What are you doing personally to develop your uniquely-human capabilities?

How human could your organisation be in the automation age?

Transformation programmes: why we've been asking the wrong question

11 February 2020

For years – decades, actually – it’s been easy to find data and opinion about the failure rate of transformation programmes. From ERP implementations in the 1990s to digital transformations today, the story is depressingly familiar: more than 70% (Forbes, IBM et al) of programmes fail due to lack of vision and leadership, unclear understanding of the problem being solved, an inaccurate view of customer needs, failure to secure employee buy-in, selection of wrong technology to name but a few of the myriad of reasons.

And it’s all true. But the real problem is that we’re answering the wrong question. Consider this: rather than “why do transformation programmes fail?” try asking “why do we run transformation programmes?” Transformation has become the norm, and it has been for the past twenty years, even if the pace is getting ever faster. Constant dynamic evolutionary change is what we should be designing an organisation for. It’s what we should be equipping our people to cope and thrive with. What we should be investing our capital in, measuring our success against. As Gary Hamel and Michele Zanini wrote in 2014, “What’s needed is a real-time, socially constructed approach to change, so that the leader’s job isn’t to design a change program but to build a change platform – one that allows anyone to initiate change, recruit confederates, suggest solutions and launch experiments.” In short, every aspect of a modern organisation needs to be geared up to change and evolve as the dynamics of the business and market place evolve.  The new paradigm is about the fabric of the organisation; the mindset, behaviours and ways of working of the people within that organisation.

So why is organising for continuous evolution so important? At one level, the answer is obvious: there is just so much change in every aspect of our lives – economic, social, technological, political and so on. But think about the implications of this breadth and pace of change for any given business. You may be phenomenally good at understanding the markets in which you operate, the ecosystems of which you are a part and your customers and competitors present and future. Even so, the sheer range and complexity of our modern business world leaves many companies facing simultaneous challenges on multiple fronts. Will it be a global tech company coming into your space and disrupting the market? A well-funded start up? Will it be changes in customer attitudes to environmental issues that affect how you make, sell or deliver your products? Legal and regulatory change? A technological breakthrough that brings artificial intelligence into the heart of your business? On the subject of technology, how are you going to optimise those difficult decisions about what you invest in and why? And on top of this, you know very well that responding to such factors isn’t going to be enough. Success will often depend upon the organisation’s ability to get on the front foot and to be driving the change rather than reacting to it – to be set up, indeed designed, to be a change maker, not a change taker.

What is your company’s experience of transformation programmes?

How different would it be if you were organised around a change platform? What would this look like for your organisation?

Are you a change taker or a change maker? Your organisation? You personally?