Organisational change – On core momentum… (4 of 5)08 June 2022
My grandfather’s hand-drawn map of the English coastline
Part four of a series of thought pieces by Ben Story, COO of SDCL
“If everything seems under control, you’re just not going fast enough.”
As expounded by Mario Andretti, the Formula One racing driver, continued success requires exceptional ambition and courage. For an organisation to thrive, it has to constantly strive for core momentum.(1)
Many organisations seem to have a stuttering pattern to change, characterised by extraordinary individual events, such as an acquisition or reorganisation, and unremarkable ongoing operational improvement. Individual events can propel an organisation’s success and CEOs of large organisations are surrounded by a plethora of advisers and consultants promoting change. There are also lots of frameworks that can support continuous operational improvement, such as the Toyota Production System, Lean Six Sigma, Business Process Re-engineering, PDCA and Agile Methodology. Some may be more relevant to particular activities, such as Lean Six Sigma to industrial processes and Agile Methodology to software development. (Their chronology reflects the dominance of Big Tech over traditional manufacturing.) In my experience, these frameworks often tend towards managerialism and incremental change.
Core momentum sits between extraordinary individual events and operational improvement (and can negate the need for both). It requires continuous strategic change so that an organisation is constantly exploring, learning and growing by way of a series of change projects. Over the years, I have deployed a simple, three step approach for each change project: set a “New Benchmark”; devise an “Outline Plan”; and advance with “Expeditionary Drive”. Importantly, each change project refers to an organisation’s purpose framework.
A New Benchmark is an envisaged future state for an activity which is highly compelling, desirable and motivational. A New Benchmark can relate to a customer proposition, an operational process, or an administrative undertaking. People should get excited and energised when determining a New Benchmark: it is like having a shared ambition in a committed relationship. In cartography, a benchmark is a key reference point for elevation, and benchmarks are used around the world, often represented by elaborate and ornate symbols. “The height of a benchmark is calculated relative to the heights of nearby benchmarks in a network extending from a fundamental benchmark.”(2) I think this neatly captures the idea of working within a purpose framework.
A New Benchmark should be pithy, ambitious and enduring. It is best to start with a blank sheet of paper and a long-term perspective. You need to think beyond the current environment to the emerging environment (what I call “first derivative thinking”), plus the environment beyond this (“second derivative thinking”).(3) The good news is that the clues are all around us, but usually in different fields. As William Gibson wrote, “The future is already here – it just isn’t evenly distributed.” I follow trends in super apps, gamification, the metaverse and blockchain in consumer markets to gain an understanding of future possibilities for financial services, industry and transportation.
A New Benchmark will resemble a rapidly-discarded New Year’s resolution unless it is backed up by a plan. An Outline Plan is the guide for establishing the New Benchmark. Devising an Outline Plan requires significant organisational experience and commitment. It may involve an organisation’s strategy, business model, organisational structure, technology, resources and financing. It also requires an informal creative process that isn’t fostered in many organisations – synthesis. As described by Professor Howard Gardner, the creator of Multiple Intelligences Theory, the synthesising mind “takes information from disparate sources…and puts it together in ways that make sense to the synthesiser and also other persons”.(4)
Devising an Outline Plan is a difficult thing to pull off in a busy and distracted organisation. The trick is to provide sufficient scope and direction for people in the organisation to embark upon the New Benchmark with confidence. My grandfather, John Anthony Story, was a cartographer. The photograph which accompanies this piece is a map that he drew by hand. The technique was to determine the outline of the area and any key features and then divide it into a series of labelled grids, called cells. Once these were completed, the meticulous work of filling in the cells began. Similarly, an Outline Plan should define the scope, and, within this, the individual building blocks, for the strategic change. Next comes the industrious work of completing these blocks and, in so doing, bringing about change.
Expeditionary Drive is the organisational life force that realises the strategic change. Cartographers were often explorers, and the UK’s Ordinance Survey describes its popular Explorer Maps as “The essential map range for those who like to discover new wonders and find hidden treasures”. Most organisations will find that they have a pool of talented people who are highly motivated by the prospect of reaching the New Benchmark. The Outline Plan should ensure that their efforts are focused and concentrated on individual building blocks that have a high probability of success.
Expeditionary Drive needs to be thoughtfully harnessed and applied. When Napoleon crossed the Neman to invade Russia in June 1812, he had between 450,000 and 600,000 troops. It was emphatically the largest European military force ever assembled and Napoleon rapidly captured Moscow. When he re-crossed the Neman less than six months later, he had barely a thousand men fit for action. As many as 380,000 people died in the brief campaign. As a Board Member for Transport for London and Chair of its Programmes & Investment Committee, I have seen the difference that an effective Project Management Office and a “single controlling mind” can make to a gargantuan endeavour like London’s new Elizabeth Line. Core momentum requires good leadership.
(1) In my earlier piece “On change…” I defined “core momentum” as a continuous strategic change capability which ensures that an organisation is constantly exploring, learning and growing.
(2) See Benchmark (surveying) on Wikipedia.
(3) See Enduring Ideas: The three horizons of growth by McKinsey & Company for a similar framework for organisational growth.
(4) See A Synthesising Mind: A Memoir from the Creator of Multiple Intelligence Theory by Professor Howard Gardner.