Industry May 2013

Strategy Isn’t the Issue

Seminar shows people are the main problem in firms

I recently attended a highly interactive corporate planning and strategy event in Tokyo, together with many prominent local chief executive officers from global players.

I thought the event would be fascinating as I usually thoroughly enjoy sessions that grapple with the complexities of corporate strategy.

On offer were the meaty issues of strategy development, competing portfolio investment allocations and resource prioritisation. However, the attendees’ responses were surprising—big picture strategy wasn’t the critical issue for them.

Instead, people were the problem. How do they hire, develop, and retain the talent? Key people issues were all about employee attitudes—risk aversion, groupthink, conformism and lack of innovation—and how to overcome them.

Also mentioned was the need for more diversity in the leadership team. Not just ethnic or gender diversity, but idea diversity.

Customer relationship management (CRM) tools were seen as blunt objects when leadership lags and teams don’t provide input, do so inconsistently, or just don’t act on findings.

Sales people resist CRM. They are usually expressive types who find doing data input as exciting as watching paint dry. They feel it is a pointless diversion from their real work: talking face-to-face with clients. Sales leaders need to play a strong role here.

At the event, it was noted that mergers and acquisitions constantly spew out people-centred problems. The new organisation unifies the corporate logo, vision, mission, value statements and brand livery, but achieves no real cohesion. The blue team and the red team persist, well after the integration.

There are often silo problems to spare within firms that haven’t merged, meaning that different divisions are like baronial fiefdoms battling with each other for resources, prestige, patronage and advancement.

It gets even more exciting when you throw the recently merged firm into the mix: employees with different pay scales, IT systems, record keeping mechanisms, seniority ideas, administration and HR systems.

Nobody wants to change because they are too busy defending what they had before the barbarians arrived.

The common point for me that emerged from all the discussion was the need to achieve change in the people themselves. Why is this so difficult? Because we are change resistant! We have eliminated risk in just about every facet of our lives. The boss, however, wants me to do new or different things that are full of risk and take me out of my comfort zone? Maybe not!

So how do we get sustainable change? The obvious solutions are training methodologies and leadership. The usual training that is encountered may be interesting, but is often almost impossible to use.

What are the practical next steps? Your team goes back to their desks, does the same things, in the same way, and gets the same results. Is this good enough?

I have attended a number of public training sessions in Japan over the last two years, including the workshop of a famous management professor. I found that attendees did get interesting information but, in every case, received almost no clue about the application of the information. For me, this reinforces why people are so hungry for practical outcomes, and want things they can execute immediately.

The leadership issue is related to training because leaders’ own training determines how effective they are in maximising the potential of the people in their organisation.

The vast majority of leadership training involves heavy theory, bulk information download, sprinkled with a bit of discussion (if you are lucky!). Where are the concrete things that the leader can take back to their desk and start implementing immediately?

Behaviour change has to be the goal for the leaders and their teams. If you don’t think you can change, you won’t expect that your team or the organisation can change.

Filling heads with information won’t do it. This is the knowledge trap—intellectually “I know it” but, in practice, “I don’t do it”.

Getting people over this knowledge trap needs a robust system to be effective. At the same time, we need to work on comfort zone expansion to change attitudes.

Next we need a lot of practical drills to get the “I know it” out of our heads and get the “I do it” into our bodies, as the new default skill.

This is the formula for getting change in organisations. The methodology exists—let’s use it!