The subtle simplicity of great customer experience

Leaders need to let people bring their “best selves” to work

If anyone’s noticed the gap in my writing on the KnittingFog.blog website they’ve been kind enough not to mention it to me – or a more likely explanation is that its low traffic (if it were a country village it would be a loner’s delight) means that no-one has noticed anyway.

I’ll put it down to the pandemic effect – not that I or anyone close to me has caught COVID-19 – but just that in the way in which priorities have shifted means that some priorities drop and then have difficulty getting back to their former status. Moreover, writing about my own customer experiences has been as limited as my shopping trips to the local stores: sources of god, bad or indifferent CX have been in short supply.

So, I’m turning once again to the NHS who I’ve managed to have a fair bit of attention from over the past few months and where one recent interaction illustrated how simple and how subtle providing a great experience can be.

I’m receiving treatment for mild osteoporosis following a reassessment after my last fracture. It involves annual trips to the local Rheumatology department for an “infusion”. This does not consist of, as the name suggests, a pleasant afternoon sipping chamomile tea but rather 20 minutes hooked up to a drip where a drug designed to enhance calcium build-up is administered. As I discovered, it was a not particularly stressful experience, but the events leading up to it certainly were.

Public transport to St George’s Hospital in South-West London involves a lengthy and infrequent bus service so I took my car and allowed what I thought was plenty of time to park. Maybe it was due to visiting the hospital on the day that COVID-19 vaccines were starting to be administered but the car park was chock-full with a good few cars circulating looking for spaces. I decided to take my chance on the local streets which normally have some spaces available. Not today though and I ended up a few blocks away, still with a good chance of making my 11am appointment if I walked at a brisk pace.

I fired up my parking app to pay for the parking. My credit card needed updating: could I remember my password? No, I couldn’t and to avoid a lengthy password change I set off looking for a meter at which point the fates decided to have a good laugh at my expense. “Pay at blue meter” said one sign with a helpful arrow. I set off in the direction of the arrow to encounter another similar sign pointing the opposite way. I wasted a good few minutes walking between these two signs doubting both my eyesight and my sanity until a local resident directed me around the corner to a working meter.

It was now approaching the time of the appointment so I tried calling the hospital to let them know I was on my way. At this point my phone died, so I sprinted down the backstreets of Tooting as best I could and then walked through the labyrinthine corridors of the hospital, face mask puffing in and out as I panted, eventually arriving at the outpatient clinic where I waited for the woman in front of me to finish a lengthy transaction with the receptionist.

Eventually I got to the desk and gave my name. “I’m sorry I’m late” I said “parking was a nightmare”.

“That’s not a problem” she said, “We don’t turn people away”.

And that was it – a few simple words and my stress, caused by an accretion of trivial annoyances, simply vanished.

The rest of the experience was – if not quite an elegant salon de thé – pretty relaxed. The staff even apologised for it being “a bit mad today”. Seriously? If that was busy, I’m looking forward to going when it’s normal: it would be extremely chilled.

Anyway, thanks to Janet on reception and Pierluigi in the infusion suite for making it as relaxed as it could be.

But what do we learn about great CX from this? The key thing is that a good or bad experience can be formed in just a few words. If Janet had been offhand or asked me to be on time in future, it would have felt very different. Instead, she was empathic and chose her words accordingly. Lead nurse Pierluigi was also personable and chatty whilst explaining the possible side effects (not major as it turned out).

There are plenty of good and bad stories about the NHS at any point in time but this one, routine and trivial as it is, illustrates the key point: leaders – in any organisation – need to enable their front line people to bring their “best selves” to work and make sure conditions are there to interact in a kind and pleasant way with customers.

It’s that simple.

Image by congerdesign from Pixabay

2020: the summer when everything worked (yes, really)

How will we look back on 2020 in years to come? I’m quite sure that we won’t be calling it the time when everything went more or less right. The failure of countries to get on top of coronavirus, with the prospect of a second spike in infections means that right now it’s tempting to view everything through the lens of failure.

I’m not going to line up behind MP Jacob Rees-Mogg’s remarks about people’s “constant carping” – I’m all for a good old carp if it represents criticism and concern over something that’s plainly not working (in this case the UK’s test and trace system) – but I am going to take the opportunity to celebrate a few things that did work for me this summer. In no particular order:

  • My experience of my local hospital following a lockdown Zoom injury.
  • Zoom calls where I didn’t break any limbs that helped me feel connected to the wider world.
  • Going to a comedy gig at Battersea Arts Centre where Covid restrictions made it feel like you were being looked after.
  • At least two pubs – one local and one in Devon where we were staying on a brief holiday – where social distancing was in force and table service staff were determined to make sure we had an enjoyable evening.
  • Great service at The Ivy Café for a family celebration.
  • My street in SW London developed a sense of community with an active WhatsApp group and much helpful neighbourliness happening (more on that shortly).

The one thing that didn’t work however was my fridge and that gives rise to a customer experience story that was as remarkably unremarkable.

After 10 years undistinguished service (it kept things cool or frozen – that’s what fridges do: they’re not the most exciting household appliances) I came down one morning to discover my fridge-freezer at a distinctly un-fridgelike temperature. Thinking I’d left the door open I ignored it until it became obvious it wasn’t keeping its cool like a fridge should.

I didn’t relish the prospect of buying a new fridge and adding to the world’s mountain of waste if it could be repaired. Inquiries to our street WhatsApp group produced a couple of recommendations for local repairers. One duly turned up the day after and within an hour had apparently freed a frozen fan leaving me with instructions on how to do it should the problem recur. This however was short-lived as the fridge cooled over the next 24 hours and then stopped cooling. I repeated the cure but to no avail – a replacement part was sought and then fitted. Same problem, at which point the collective might of the street rallied round, providing me with a whole freezer in a neighbour’s house which was empty awaiting refurbishment and a cool box whilst I defrosted the whole thing and started again. Still no joy, at which point the fridge was officially pronounced dead. Repairers J R Griffiths offered to help find a replacement at a discount to allow for my wasted expenditure but couldn’t beat John Lewis’s price on the model I’d found.

That model turned out to be out of stock, but a search found a supplier at an even lower price: I ordered it at lunchtime on a Wednesday for next day delivery (no extra cost) with a promise that my slot would be confirmed between 7 and 9pm that evening. An email duly arrived informing me that the fridge would arrive between 3 and 5pm the following afternoon, told me the names of my deliverers and that they would call me around 30 minutes beforehand to say that they were on their way.

At 4.50pm the call came through and I manoeuvred the old appliance to the pavement ready for collection. I also took their “we’ll be with you in 25-30 minutes” with a pinch of salt as traffic in my neck of the woods can be grindingly slow at that time of day, not helped by several road closures in the neighbourhood so was unsurprised when they were a good 15 minutes behind their estimated time.

Farewell to the old fridge

The new fridge was wheeled into place, the old one taken way and I’ve been enjoying chilled drinks and milk that doesn’t curdle as soon it goes in my tea ever since.

As stories go then, it’s remarkably unremarkable – and that’s my point: we are much more engaged with a story where something awful happens to someone (as long as it’s not us) or someone survives a stressful or traumatic situation, or snatches victory from the jaws of defeat. Most classic stories are built on such a narrative arc. My story has no such drama – though I’m open to discussing film options with any avant-garde directors who might want to take it on – but behind its dull normality someone had:

  • Trained the frontline staff to be courteous and efficient in spite of working a long day and running behind their schedule.
  • Worked out a customer journey from order through to delivery that fulfils its promises.
  • Prepared and deliver clear customer communications.
  • Realised that combining efficiency and customer journey effectiveness can enable you to offer low prices.

Marks Electrical emerge as my customer experience favourites of the summer because they managed to deliver the above unremarkable things very well and judging from the comments of other customers on their website, do so on a regular basis.

In these stressful times it’s good to realise that out there people are getting on with their jobs and doing just fine. We should feel free to carp when something doesn’t come up to scratch but let’s also celebrate the mundane work that delivers a great customer experience.

Main image by sandid from Pixabay

What the NHS can teach us about customer relationship management

When you think of the UK’s National Health Service (NHS) then excellent customer relationship management is probably not the thing that springs to mind. Talk to any UK citizen and for all the genuine positive feeling about the NHS – witness the recent “Clap for Carers” and happy 72nd birthday celebration – there will be a good sprinkling of people with awful tales of long wait times, misdiagnoses and all manner of poor interpersonal reactions.

I’m maybe lucky in that most of my interactions – and as we’ll see, there have been quite a few – have been positive, but I’d like to highlight one series that has much to teach the commercial sector about customer relationships.

Give me a break

Recently I broke my wrist. Other than it being during a Zoom call there was nothing very remarkable about it (hint: if you’re sitting on a kitchen chair don’t lean back on one leg and expect the forces of gravity to move with you). Having to visit A&E during the pandemic lent the episode a bit of spice but the lack of non-COVID patients meant quicker-than-usual service and four weeks in a plaster cast which I could remove myself.

But that’s not where the story starts.

Wind back to 2015… I’m walking along a road on the way to meet my wife at the cinema, fiddling with a recalcitrant mobile phone. The next moment I’m sprawled on the pavement having missed my footing and twisted my ankle. Two hours later and the twisted ankle was the size of a small pumpkin and unable to take any weight: four hours later I’m limping out of A&E with my leg in plaster…

But there’s more…

Further back in time: a chilly day in early January 2006 at Hampton Court Ice Rink. I am standing balanced – I think – on my skates when I topple backwards and instinctively put my hand out to break my fall, breaking my right wrist in the process. A trip to a different A&E and then, a few days later, surgery to pin my wrist in position.

I feel it’s only fair to point out that in none of these episodes was any alcohol consumed before or during but, regrettably, we have to go further back to the event in 1998 that kicked it all off. I don’t think we should dwell on the details but let’s just say that an empty stomach, a few drinks and tube travel don’t mix. Result: four broken ribs.

Dumb luck

To complete the picture, we need to add an unfortunate encounter in 2019 with a hanging strap and a bus that pulled away suddenly resulting in a broken ring finger. At which point you may conclude that I am particularly accident-prone, clumsy or just unlucky.

The NHS thought differently, however.

Out of the blue in the summer of 2015, after my ankle had recovered, I received a summons to the Rheumatology department at my local hospital where most of my fractures had been treated. When I asked why I was having a bone density scan the radiologist said that I had had a higher than normal number of fractures for a man of my age so they needed to check for osteoporosis.

Sure enough, the results came back with mild osteoporosis which, following a few years taking the requisite medicine has become even milder, technically now osteopenia. So, a happy-ish ending, pending the results of my latest scan which had been brought forward following the latest escapade.

Someone to watch over me

The point of this sorry tale is not my very mild and – in the grand scheme of things – mildly inconvenient medical condition but the way in which, as a routine, this aspect of my health was being monitored and remedial action taken, triggered by my third break causing a look at my medical history.

On one level, this is unexceptional and, I assume, a routine check in the world of orthopaedics. However, it signals a key difference in my relationship as a customer of the NHS and my relationship as a customer of, say, BT or any other large organisation. With the NHS it’s a lifelong relationship – perhaps obviously although, theoretically, there are other providers available – and in this example it shows that there’s a commitment to my bone health built into that relationship.

With a commercial organisation, customer relationship management is, I think, seen as answering the question “how can I get the customer to buy more of my stuff?” not “what does the customer need right now?”

To take BT as an example, I have been a customer of theirs for most of my adult life (even working for them for nine years, or two fractures-worth) but they have never taken much interest in how I can get the best of their products and services. In the current “fractured” working environment, more seamless Wi-Fi and better broadband would be a good start… I can go on their website and guess at what the best solution for my needs might be, but a bit of expert opinion (cf. medical input) wouldn’t go amiss.

The CRM challenge

If you’re in the business of customer relationships – whether “managing” them, developing them or whatever – ask yourself the following questions:

  • What is the value of the relationship to the customer?
  • What is the value of the relationship to my organisation?
  • How do I measure that value?
  • How long am I committed to my customer for?

The answer will vary from organisation to organisation but the NHS’ approach shows that you almost certainly have the answers already embedded in your operating model. Whether those are the right answers is the key question – and one that I would be happy to help you answer.

Image by StockSnap from Pixabay

Nothing goes together like a bird feeder, chocolate and the Bossa Nova (?!)

One of the less stressful aspects of COVID-19 lockdown constraints has been the increased amount of birdsong and, I think, more birds in our tiny back garden. Encouraged by recent nesting robins and blackbirds we decided to tempt some more visitors in and bought a squirrel-proof bird feeder, ordered online from garden/DIY supplier Homgar (“unique products, all in one place”).

Delivery times were impacted by COVID-19 and our expectations of a long wait – set by the supplier – were duly met, but when the feeder arrived there was a faintly bizarre addition to the box: another box containing a set of recipe cards and a CD of Bossa Nova music. Taken in isolation this might be one of those “thoughtful” Christmas gifts from a distant relative (logic: you like cooking and music so this is ideal for you!) but in the context of the delayed delivery it was both unusual and rather touching.

The accompanying message – see photo – explains it all (sort of). Effectively they are saying:

We fell below our normal standards of service and, even though it was due to circumstances beyond our control, we’d like to thank you for your patience.

Photo: author

What’s great about this from a customer experience point of view is that the company had already set our expectations of a long delivery time and, whilst I was looking forward to the prospect of more avian visitors, it wasn’t high on my list of priorities. However the recognition that it might have been was key and even though the chocolate/bossa package might have been a job lot bought at random (like a distant relative with hundreds of Christmas gifts to buy) it was a token and signified a lot more than if they had just put a message in the package.

So often in customer experience I find companies are content to deliver just adequate levels. In this case Homgar didn’t “go the extra mile” – a cliché that’s unhelpful to say the least: an extra inch may be plenty – but they did provide something unexpected that lodges a positive emotional connection with their brand which means I’m more than likely to consider them next time I’m thinking about some garden equipment

Mostly though I’ll be glancing out of my kitchen window to see robins and tits feeding up on sunflower seeds whilst I move on from baking sourdough bread in lockdown to some more calorific treats, accompanied by the latin-jazz sounds of Antonio Carlos Jobim and others. All thanks to one little bit of extra customer experience.

Main image by Oldiefan from Pixabay

The future of live performance (and customer engagement)?

It was the rock critic Jon Landau who almost blighted Bruce Springsteen’s career in 1974 by declaring him the future of rock and roll so I hesitate to say that I might have seen the post-pandemic future of live performance after attending an app-enhanced online gig by Dutch jazz trio Tin Men & the Telephone last week.

I’m also in danger of sounding a bit like your ageing relative who’s just caught up with new technology – “hey kids, have you discovered Instagram?” – as the app in question has been around for at least a couple of years and the band has been around for quite a bit longer.

For those unfamiliar with the band – and their low number of Spotify followers suggests they won’t be selling out stadiums for a while – they are a Dutch trio playing modern jazz but using found sounds, news clips and so on as the basis for some of their pieces. (If you want to hear someone jamming ironically to clips of Nigel Farage, this band is for you.) This is nothing new as bands across all kinds of genres have been doing this for a number of years. What is new – at least in my experience – is the use of an app to enable audiences to participate in the performance by, for example, suggesting names or phrases that can be translated into musical note sequences or indeed using the app to compose simple motifs that can be the band can then interact with.

However, it’s the enforced separation of lockdown that means this technology can really come into its own and shows how creative thinking might take concert-going in a new direction as we emerge into the “next normal”.

What just happened

Just another day on the intergalaactic gig…

In a concert that was part of Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama’s annual jazz weekend recently the audience was invited to imagine we were leaving Earth on a spaceship for another – less environmentally challenged – planet. With Tin Men providing the in-flight entertainment, the app made the audience part of the show as well with competitions for the name of the new planet and suggestions on environmental improvements solicited – and used to create note-rows to improvise against. This is a personal reaction, but I found the tech more memorable than the music. Nonetheless, there are some takeaways and lessons for those who are looking for the longer-term success of their organisations – whether commercial, artistic or whatever – post-pandemic.

The following questions are particularly pertinent:

Where is your customer?

We attended a gig “in Cardiff”, in the sense that it was organised by RWCMD, but we could have been anywhere in the world with a decent internet connection – in this case my living room. This will be much more common post-Covid and organisations previously dependent on people physically turning up to a location will need to provide means of remote participation. Just as we’re now surprised if a retail organisation doesn’t have an online ordering capability, our expectations of online will widen to concert and theatre experience providers.

How are they included?

If your audience/customer base is widening how do you include everybody? This doesn’t mean just by having an app that may enhance their level of communication, but it means thinking about the nature of that engagement. For example, the Tin Men’s environmental/intergalactic trip was one story on which people could hang their concert experience – what is the story you want to tell, and how does it chime with the one your customers want.

What capabilities do I need in my team?

In the business world we’ve long been used to having IT people – formerly a mysterious separate breed – increasingly integrated into teams and business units so that product or service development is tightly bound to the digital channels used to deliver them. In my experience the performance world has still to make major strides in this direction. Businesses are starting to recognise that the development of gaming might have much to offer their thinking about customer engagement, but in the music and theatre world there are as far as I am aware very few hybrid approaches that potentially engage audiences differently and/or engage new audiences. Theatre companies, orchestras and other music groups should all be finding ways to collaborate with technology innovators and developers to ensure their core product can be accessed by as wide an audience as possible.

I am sure that in the increasingly fragile world of live jazz, Tin Men and the Telephone’s app-driven antics will distinguish them from the many piano-bass-drums outfits performing today and keep their music alive for a good while longer. Other organisations should take note.

Image by Ri Butov from Pixabay

The simple formula you need to shape your post-pandemic planning

In a previous article I talked about the importance of knowing what business you are really in to get a firm hold on what’s going to be critical as your business emerges from the current crisis.

The business you are really in is another way of discovering your deeper purpose or as Simon Sinek puts it, your “why”. But it’s only one side of the equation: as well as understanding this purpose you need to have customers who share that purpose in some way. To use Sinek’s example, Apple would not be successful if their why didn’t resonate in some way for their millions of customers.

“Everything we do, we believe in challenging the status quo. We believe in thinking differently. The way we challenge the status quo is by making our products beautifully designed, simple to use, and user-friendly. And we happen to make great computers. Wanna buy one?”

Simon Sinek

However, organisations often don’t pay enough attention to their customers’ “why” (you could argue that since Sinek made that point Apple has lost its own why) and end up wondering why they don’t attract or retain enough business.

To uncover the customer why – let’s call it Y for simplicity – you need to look beyond the what and how of your products or services to uncover your customers’ deeper motivations in using them. This isn’t always obvious but luckily, it’s not that complicated, and I want to illustrate it with a recent example that’s quite close to home.

Can’t stop the music…

My son Dave is a graduate of Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama in Cardiff and has since graduating two years ago embarked on the precarious but noble career of freelance jazz musician. Resisting the siren call of London he remained in South Wales to work within its small but lively jazz scene.

He and some fellow graduates organised themselves into a collective – Bamzu – that, prior to lockdown, had begun to attract good crowds to regular gigs and jam sessions. Often the attendees were regulars from the college’s weekly Amser Jazz Time sessions who had seen the musicians develop through the years of their course.

When lockdown hit, Bamzu, like other venues and groups, moved their operations online, organising fortnightly ticketed concerts via Zoom live from performers’ homes. I’ve been to two so far and have been very impressed by the quality of musicianship and the sense of connectedness with the musicians (this isn’t just proud Dad bias as my son has yet to play on a session).

Simple gestures

But you can get online performances from almost anyone so what makes this special and what’s the Y? I’d say that what’s important isn’t just the what (jazz) or the how (Zoom) but the sense of community in these events. Having been to a few live events in Cardiff in the past few years I know some of the regulars by sight so seeing them on the call (we’re mostly all on video) is as close to turning up to a gig as I’m likely to get for the moment. Participants are off mute before the music starts so it’s a bit noisy and chaotic too.

This club-like atmosphere may be initially off-putting to outsiders, but two simple gestures add to the sense of community. When the music stops, the mute goes off so that the audience can applaud, whoop or whatever – not a common feature in most online shows – and at the end of the whole session, the host plays a danceable track and pans around the audience allowing a wave or some adventurous/embarrassing on-screen move-busting. It was during this part at the end of the last gig that the penny dropped: our Y was the sense of community and connection as much as the music.

The way of why?

For all those with a lifelong dread of maths, introducing a formula, even a simple one, may mean I lost you at the heading. But don’t worry, it’s a simple one. We have established that customers’ purpose in being your customer is Y so you simply need to make sure your own purpose – let’s label it y – equates to that, i.e.

Y = y.

Jazz has a reputation as a recondite art form (appealing to people who use words like recondite) so the Bamzu collective could have contented themselves with livestreaming performances with minimal communication, relying on their excellence as musicians to do the work. But, intentionally or not, they have recognised that the business they are in is more about community and involvement and – it’s early days so who knows – this may bring them an audience beyond their original geography.

I did it my y

Every day what gets me out of bed isn’t just the alarm clock or the thought of 30 minutes’ lockdown home gym work but because I believe that organisations of all shapes and sizes can do what they do for their customers differently and better than today by realising their inherent capabilities and thinking creatively about their business and its possibilities.

It’s taken me a while to articulate my y and I don’t claim the preceding sentence is the finished article but it’s a bit more specific, and hopefully more distinct, than simply management consulting, which is what I do. By definition then, my clients – ideally – have a Y that complements my y, in other words they want to think differently about their business and turn those thoughts into action.

The Y = y formula is a journey that organisations undertake, and that journey is fundamental to thinking positively and creating a viable and successful post-pandemic future. I have some fun ways of getting to Y (that’s part of my how) that I’ll share in future articles.

The one question you must answer when post-pandemic planning

Like most other people I know my diet has changed since the lock-down began. There’s a definite emphasis on “comfort food” – perhaps more carb-heavy than normal, an increased choice of desserts and a definite nod towards the foods enjoyed in childhood (rice pudding hasn’t featured yet but it’s on the to-cook list).

The collective psychology of this is interesting: in a time of stress we gravitate towards certainty and things that make us feel better, even if they don’t necessarily make healthier in the long term.

I’m tolerating my consumption of comfort food for as long as I can counterbalance it with an attempt at regular exercise (no Joe Wicks for me but a combination of 5k runs and a living room gym just about works) but I’m more concerned about the lure of what I call mental comfort food when planning a future beyond the current pandemic.

Mental comfort food

On a personal and organisational level, we’ve all seen and experienced rapid adaptation to accommodate the impact of physical distancing and social isolation. Remote working, videoconferencing and “Zoom drinks” have all become commonplace and look set to play a major part of our work and social lives even after the pandemic has abated.

It takes longer to adapt our thought processes though and there’s a tendency to fall back old paradigms to address new challenges: mental comfort food.

Unfortunately, this won’t do because, irrespective of which industry you work in, the assumptions on which you based your current business model have irreversibly changed.

It’s time for a re-think and, for me, the most important question you can ask is not things like “how many customers will we be able to serve given the requirements for physical distancing?” or even “how can we move our business online?” – important though those are you need to be asking something more fundamental:

“What business are we really in?”

At first sight this may be a daft question since whether you’re a theatre director, a hairdresser or a banker, I’m assuming you’re aware of the industry sector you work in and therefore what type of business you run.

However, when you scratch the surface, that definition isn’t very helpful in deciding what kind of customers you want to attract and retain: it’s much more useful to ask why those customers choose to do business with you rather than a competitor.

Comfort

Continuing the comfort theme, let’s take a look at one of the new breed of online mattress sellers. A while back I was in the market for a new mattress and became interested in Simba. I chose this company because I was the near victim of an attempted scam involving delivery of a couple of mattresses I hadn’t ordered: they helped me sort it out and I suffered no loss. Curious, I investigated their range and discovered that their proposition didn’t just include comfy mattresses but ancillary products such as bed linen (fairly obvious I guess) and pillow sprays to help you sleep (slightly less obvious). More unexpectedly they offered – last year at any rate – an opportunity to sleep over in one of a number of rooms equipped and furnished with their products – a real lifestyle pitch that has now been killed off by coronavirus.

Simba’s real business is not mattress-selling – although that activity forms a large part of what they do – but could be in the business of creating a restful night-time environment or, given that they started in thread making for mattresses then diversified they could be in the business of adapting and shape-shifting according to the needs of the market.

Adapt or die?

I mentioned previously that my wife runs ante-natal classes for the NCT and has rapidly adapted to teaching via Zoom. The NCT is an interesting case – most people join classes to find out more about birth and subsequent childcare but there’s a social element that is also important: classes become a support group and very often enable relationships to be built that last a lifetime. Pre-pandemic, classes met together in a venue and groups would often move on afterwards to a pub or other venue to socialise. Classes via Zoom and a WhatsApp group can’t exactly mimic this, but as people get used to socialising and receiving information via remote means, it becomes much more acceptable.

The important thing is that NCT are in the business of creating social support structures as much as educating about childcare. Creative use of the technology allows this to be sustained during the pandemic and may – who knows? – form part of the future way of working.

Beyond the doom and gloom

But let’s say you’re a local arts centre with a small auditorium and a programme of theatre or other performances that you’ve had to put on hold while you furlough staff and find ways of keeping the centre going when you have no one coming to the theatre. At first sight, long term imposition of social distancing measures might threaten the basis of your business, but there are signs that creative thinking can pay off. For example, in April a site-specific immersive production of Shakespeare’s The Tempest successfully moved to an online, immersive production via Zoom. (The review I read was so enthusiastic that, by the time I decided to book, all the seats had been sold for the remaining performances.)

Creation Theatre’s business is theatre productions – obviously! – but as far as I can see it’s mainly in the business of creating site-specific magic and, when the physical site can no longer be accessed, the magic can transfer to a conferencing platform with a few adjustments.

In a local arts centre it’s unlikely you would be able to transfer all your productions in the same way but it might be that, although performance is what you do, a significant part of the business you are in may be more to do with creating a community than with particular performances and therefore, temporarily until performances resume, your focus may have to be on building and maintaining that sense of community, achieving some of your purpose without doing what might have been the core of your business. Virtual operation might enable your community to be extended beyond its local geographical boundaries.

Coronavirus and the constraints it places on organisations force a review of what’s possible – and to make the most of this, organisations need to understand what they are really about and then match the possibilities to the way forward. This thinking is fundamental to my KnittingFog strategy and planning workshops – and if you’re in the arts or non-profit sector then these are currently being made available free of charge. If you’re interested, please get in touch.

Coronavirus and change: sensitivity required

The “elastic band” reaction to change is becoming apparent

It seemed like a good idea at the time: take the first three months of 2020 “out” on a project whose full-time, full-on nature didn’t allow much time for writing or video work, come back and resume my regular posting of ideas on change and related topics.

This all went swimmingly… until coronavirus happened. First impression was that all would be OK. I simply stopped travelling to the client’s site and completed the last two weeks of the project remotely, with technology – and the client’s own nimble action in organising remote participation – helping immensely.

When I resurfaced at the beginning of April, I plunged back into my other activities: working with a small number of non-profit organisations, setting up future opportunities and setting myself some lockdown learning objectives. (As one of my colleagues put it – quoting Barack Obama’s Chief of Staff, Rahm Emmanuel – “you can’t let a serious crisis go to waste.”)

But amidst all this activity – not to mention my new daily exercise hour to make up for the lack of commuting and the closure of my local gym – I began to find that things were slowing down, and my productivity was taking a hit.

What was going on? 

Elastic

I was experiencing something that I have noticed affecting people on a personal and organisational level. I call it elastic band syndrome and it’s common to many situations where significant change happens in a short space of time.

There’s a commonplace complaint in almost all organisations that I have worked with that “people resist change”. They do, but when circumstances are right people will be very good at adapting to change. It’s been happening everywhere since mid- to end-March and I’ve personally seen this in some different areas:

  • My most recent client turned their front and back office operations over to remote working in a very short period of time.
  • The NCT moved its ante-natal classes onto Zoom in the space of around a week, turning its ante-natal teachers into online videoconferencing experts. (My wife runs classes and is now the resident expert on facilitating online meetings.)
  • Socially, all kinds of groups have moved online and the phenomena of remote drinks, dinner parties and coffee mornings are now commonplace.

And, since visiting them is not currently possible, my in-laws (aged 87 and 94) are becoming adept at video calls with us… it’s all good but…

Stretch goals

…whilst changing working practices, making difficult decisions about furloughing staff or adapting to being furloughed can be – and has been – done in a very short space in time, it’s literally a stretch to do so and the effect is like stretching an elastic band – the resistance of the band to being stretched will force a return to its original state. Maintaining the stretch over a long period of time will eventually become exhausting.

Kindness

Symptoms of this can be visible on a personal level: I’ve had periods over the past few weeks where I find myself suddenly feeling quite low (not my normal state) or becoming very irritable. Whilst some of this can be attributed to late mid-life crisis or general grumpiness, I think it’s much more noticeable whilst there is a background of stress and uncertainty.

My first reaction to a period of locked-down home-based working: to fill my time with learning objectives, sales and marketing goals and so forth was perhaps understandable but of course added to my own stress level rather than providing motivation to power through the crisis.

I know I am not the first to say this but the lesson to take from this is simple: BE KIND – to yourself, colleagues and family.

Noise

So, simple lesson learned but there’s a bigger point for those involved in change management: we’re usually pretty good at assessing people’s readiness for change via surveys, focus groups and so for the but how often do we take into account the “background noise”, the context for the change.

In the case of coronavirus, the background noise is comparable to a neighbour playing loud music all day long (something mercifully absent in my immediate neighbourhood so I’m enjoying the traffic-free stillness while it lasts) when you’re trying to work. In that kind of environment your productivity will drop, and your focus will be on dealing with the noise, not the task in hand. Asking people to change their behaviour in a time of great stress is possible but likely to be a short-term response, not a permanent shift.

The lesson for change managers as we plan for the “next normal” (as McKinsey refer to it in some of their recent articles) is two-fold:

  1. Considerable imagination, innovation and experimentation will be required to ensure organisations survive into the post-pandemic era and this will require people to adopt and adapt to new working practices, but…
  2. The residue of stress from the pandemic will affect their ability – and energy – to change.

Plotting a course through the next few months and years will require sensitivity and insight to make sure the changes people are required to make have a lasting beneficial effect – on themselves and the organisations and customers they serve.

Dealing with dead cats

The “dead cat” strategy – dropping an outrageous or provocative topic into the conversation to divert attention away from a difficult subject you don’t want to talk about -was much in evidence in the recent UK General Election.

However, dead cats – controversial, difficult, or hard-to-solve problems – litter most organisations, diverting attention away from the necessary but difficult conversations required to deliver aagainst their real purpose.

In this video I illustrate the problem (with some dodgy animation) and propose a simple three-step approach to dealing with your dead cats and enabling a focus on your organisation’s purpose.

Business planning, composition and jazz

It’s possible to get hung up on detail and precision when writing a business plan, a bit like writing a piece of classical music. In fact, business planning is more like writing music for jazz musicians: less detail and space to improvise.