Just shut your eyes and jump – clarity comes later

This week has been all about “how”. Away with your beautiful diagrams and boxes mr consultant – let’s get gritty.

How do we kickstart growth? Where do we start? What’s the first step? What’s the second step? How do we keep it going? 

These are all tough but necessary questions. Asked not by rinky dinky new start ups but by big, hoary old businesses that need to reinvent themselves. Banks, healthcare providers, energy companies, food businesses, transport. The businesses that provide the stuff we need but don’t necessarily love.

The reinvention is necessary partly because their business models simply don’t work any more – mostly ripped up by new technology – and partly because what the world needs from them has changed and continues to change.

And – whisper it quietly – these businesses are just starting to ask another question. The big question. The scariest question. The purpose question.

What are we for?

For any business that provides the kind of services and products we need to live, having a clear idea of the role that business plays in people’s lives is fast becoming the most critical thing leadership has to address. But it’s scary and difficult to define purpose – especially in a way that’s useful.

But well worth addressing because a clear sense of purpose provides amazing clarity on how and where to grow

a) getting into new categories by meeting new or unmet needs for your customers – so Google went into mapping, Tata created the Nano

b) collaborating with others – like GSK and Save the Children

c) attracting talent – ask IBM whether “Smarter Planet” makes existing employees proud and makes it easier to recruit new ones

(It’s got to be true though. There’s a whole sub industry of bad branding going on providing a thin veneer of bullshit social respectability to naughty businesses. So a payday loan company is really “transforming the world of finance for a new generation”…..not in a good way though)

So back to the question – how and where do you start?

Real world is messy and not linear

Confession time. Those of us in advice world – brandland, growth, change, whatever you want to call it – sometimes oversimplify things just a teensy bit. All for the sake of clarity of course but nevertheless perhaps in a way which is not as useful as it could be.

if only....
if only….

In particular we can pretend that things are linear when they are not. So a plan to reinvent a business around a new found sense of purpose might go something like this:

1. get all the leadership together and work to define the purpose (some research, couple of awaydays, maybe a fact finding mission)

2. package that up in a way that can be ‘cascaded’ through the business (maybe a load of workshops)

3. establish 2 or 3 critical teams and charge them to come up with a roadmap to implement the new purpose (probably ‘culture’, ‘new products/services’ ‘systems and processes’)

4. some kind of PMO to keep all three streams on track

5. ongoing internal and external communications to keep momentum up

All very neat. All very sequential. Never going to happen.

Starting is more important than knowing where you are headed. 

When I first entered the consulting bit of brandland I was struck by how often the word “blueprint” was used. We’d spend loads of time with the top folks in the clients defining a beautiful new future, and codifying it into a kind of architect’s vision for how that business/organisation would grow.

And like all architects (I’m guessing) we suffered the never ending disappointment of seeing some watered down version of that vision finally emerge post implementation. 99 times out of 100 the ambition (our ambition) was never fulfilled.

Of course this was never our fault – “the client wasn’t ambitious enough”, and/or someone down the line (normally another set of agencies) “didn’t get it”. Ahem.

Starting is more important than knowing where you are headed.

We started rebuilding an old wreck this week. For months we’ve twiddled about with architects trying to work out how to make something new and fabulous out of something old and quirky. We’ve got a lot of drawings of what it could be like.

not how it looked on the drawing
not how it looked on the drawing

But it never will be. Because those drawings are blueprints – and the moment we actually started building (or more accurately unbuilding) we discovered that underneath the surface things were a bit wonkier, a bit quirkier than the architects had thought. So we now have to go on a journey with our wreck – adapting our plans, sometimes junking them completely – as we discover both new opportunities and new constraints.

In other words we can’t be clear on the outcome until we’ve got a good way down the road. Starting has been by far the most important, the most valuable thing we could have done.

And that’s the answer to the “how” question. Let’s just start. Let’s not worry too much about defining a purpose upfront – we’ll probably get it wrong and doing it behind closed doors means it might be “stillborn from the press”. There was not too much wrong with the thinking behind the Big Society but in the end the gap between the rhetoric and the reality killed it.

What really matters in change is momentum – and momentum comes from doing things not defining things.

Clarity later

What I’m advocating here is really something very simple. Do not waste tons of organisational effort upfront trying to work out “purpose” and then design a series of programmes around it. Do the opposite. Get a series of programmes up and running – culture, new revenue streams, systems/process – and don’t worry too much about how disconnected they may seem. The vital thing is to have them up and running.

Then when you’ve got the momentum, when you’ve started stripping back the house, so sooner rather than later, bring them all together by working out the big aim, the big purpose.

Science has it right – you can’t define DNA, you have to discover it.

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