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Five collective habits that can derail every high-growth company

T N Hari
15th Nov 2016
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One thing I noticed very early in my career as a project manager at construction sites was that once the final date for inaugurating a facility or a plant was announced, there would be a frenzy of activity in the weeks leading up to the inaugural. I always used to wonder why the entire project (lasting 18-36 months at times) could not be executed at that pace; if it were, then the completion would have been much faster. I realised that it is near impossible to execute a project at the pace at which it progresses in the last few weeks before completion. One of the many reasons for this is “drift”. It is human nature to slow the pace of activity over a period of time and settle down to an easy routine. The pace picks up during a crisis, or when there is intense review and scrutiny. In a high-growth organisation, where expectations are high and the opportunity is huge, you need to prevent this drift, or at least minimise it. When drift sets in, people don’t recognise that things are slipping. They do not escalate or ask for help proactively. When you step in and check, you may be shocked to see that delays, excuses, readjustment of dates, non-availability of resources, etc., have all been accepted without question or escalation. You then shake things up and the energy is back, but precious time has been lost when you had taken your eye off.

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A temporary loss of energy is alright, but drift is especially bad when it becomes part of the culture. It is important for all key people to understand that keeping up the energy, staying on one’s toes, and keeping people on their toes is critical to success. If seniors understand this, and are not letting things slip, then the next line of leadership will do the same. Even the best people begin to drift if their seniors are not demonstrating a sense of urgency and speed.

Create a sense of speed and urgency in everything you do. If this component of culture is missing, you can forget high growth.

Data without insights:

We all remember stories. We do not remember data and facts as much as we remember stories. The human brain is wired that way. Among all productivity tools, the one whose potential is least realised is the power of a narrative or the power of story-telling. Every meeting, every communication, every presentation, every update can be made infinitely more effective by leveraging the power of story-telling. Because very few people know how to use this, these crucial activities are not as effective as they should be. It can be frustrating to sit through presentations where people show tons of data without key takeaways, or if they present takeaways that are not substantiated by data, or a deck without a flow. It can be equally frustrating to be receiving an important email communication without a preamble or clear messaging.

Can this be taught? I would say it can to a large extent. To the extent that you can get someone who is naturally bad at it to an acceptable level, which can make a presentation or a communication much more effective.

  • To anyone making a presentation, you could ask a few simple questions: What is the story you have in mind? What are some key messages and takeaways? What are some insights and conclusions? Do you have data to support your conclusions? What are the actions you recommend? Do you have a convincing answer to a question “Okay, but so what?” for every slide?
  • To anyone sending out a communication to a large group, the questions could be: Have you thought of an appropriate subject line? Is there an important preamble that will help? What are the key messages? Have you structured the key messages in a manner that they stand out? Does the recipient of the communication need to do something, and if yes, has it been called out?

Change without communication:

This is unbelievable. Communication always seems to be an after-thought when a change unleashes a crisis. I recall reading an article during my MBA programme about how Ford Motors prepared for two years before introducing disc brakes (and that too on the front wheels only), because this change entailed a lot of communication and training – with dealers, service centers etc. It seemed very odd then to me, but is so obvious now. Mature companies get it, but young scale ups don’t realise that in attempting to race ahead, if communication is compromised, it always results in big setbacks.

  • When someone tells me that they are introducing a change to a specific SOP, my question always is, “May I see the communication plan?”. Sometimes, people are surprised especially if the change is small. But, very quickly, every sceptic has fallen in line, not because of being brow beaten, but by having their fingers burnt.
  • Any change, whatever the magnitude, needs a communication plan as a line item. A large change needs an extremely sophisticated communication plan (identification of different sub-groups, using a concentric circle technique, etc.). Don’t even think of making ANY change without a communication plan (however rudimentary it may be).

Lack of intensity in interactions:

To have intensity, you need to have a point of view on most things; you need to have the passion to share and have people adopt that point of view. In some organisations, the intensity is missing. Without intensity, creating alignment is a slow process. Without alignment, getting results in an accelerated time frame is a struggle.

One of the most powerful enablers of seamless high growth is the collective ability of the leadership team to have candid conversations. Some individuals demonstrate this ability while some others avoid conflict, skirt difficult issues, bring them up obliquely with the wrong people, and end up politicising them. Issues therefore never get resolved but fester underneath. In strong leadership teams, whenever differences arise between two individuals, or there is a problem (say customer dissatisfaction), the two individuals concerned (say Head of Marketing and Head of Customer Service) would discuss this issue transparently with the intention of fixing it rather than worrying unduly about where the fault lies. In weak leadership teams, the Head of Marketing and Head of Customer Service would run a whisper campaign that seeks to lead people to believe that the fault is with the other function.

Expressing oneself is important. If you like something, then say it. If you do not like something, it is equally important to say it. Do not sugar-coat and confuse with your feedback. The individual should not be walking thinking he or she is doing great, without understanding that something needs to be fixed urgently.

Not having the skills to make the best of meetings:

Conducting meetings effectively is a big subject and a lot has been written about it. Here, I would stay focused on the few big derailers of meetings. If you guard against these, the wheels of a high-growth firm would be well lubricated.

  • Very poor listening. I have seen many management team meetings suffer from this. When everyone is of high calibre, and has a track record of success, listening doesn’t come easy without practice.
  • Not keeping the questions sharp. If the questions are vague, responses will not serve a purpose and following it up with the relevant next question based on the response becomes a challenge. A question needs to serve a purpose (seeking a clarification; testing for a hypothesis; asking ‘Why’ for a deeper understanding of a phenomena; a ‘What’ for specific information, etc.)
  • Not keeping the answers sharp. Understand the question before responding. If you have any doubts, seek a clarification before responding. Vague questions followed by vague answers are frustrating. Some questions are best answered with a crisp “yes” or “no”. Often, where a “yes” or a “no” is the best response, there is a much longer response because the person responding is trying to anticipate the purpose behind a simple question, and making it unnecessarily complicated.
  • Not embracing a superior point of view or not acknowledging that one was wrong (because this is not done quickly, it creates a lot of bad taste in the mouth and slows things down).
  • Understand that listening is not about waiting for the other to finish speaking.
  • Framing leading questions (these were killer in meetings where participants cut across hierarchy).

Start every meeting by putting up a slide that says “We will avoid doing all of this.”

Finally, how does an organisation change collective habits?

The only way is if the top few influential leaders consistently demonstrate and live the desired habits.

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