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.

Want to change your culture? Go green…

Taking lessons from permaculture may be the best way to create a sustainable culture change

As Kermit the Frog memorably put it, “it’s not easy being green” as anyone will know who’s unwrapped and binned or attempted to recycle the plastic from their weekly grocery shop. With images of plastic-bound sea life in our heads we might be feeling a creeping sense of despair… So why apply green principles to the equally vexed question of how to change your organisation’s culture?

The short answer is that it makes a lot of sense to do so – particularly if you want the change to be beneficial and long-lasting. Here’s how…

Culture change – the perennial problem

I’ve lost count of the number of organisations I’ve sat in where there’s an expressed wish that “if we could only change the culture” then the desired change would happen or be a lot easier to make happen. This is a common misconception: that culture is a “thing” that can be changed, like a process or an IT system. It’s not: it’s a consequence of people and systemic issues such as reward mechanisms, recruitment and so on. Affecting culture requires an understanding of these various factors and their interplay but very often leaders prefer a dramatic intervention such as replacing the top team or laying off staff to achieve what are inevitably short-term benefits.

Something more sophisticated is required and rather than come up with my own patented fool-proof culture change method (lubricated with several litres of snake-oil) I’d like to propose the application of some existing principles that will make you think more deeply about the impact of the change you are effecting.

These principles come from a sustainability approach called permaculture. In summary, permaculture – the name derives from “permanent agriculture” and “permanent culture” – is an approach to living that has less of a detrimental approach to the planet. In a discussion with some friends about the topic recently I was struck by how relevant these were to organisational change.

Principals for permanence

Permaculture is based on 12 design principles. There are plenty of good summaries around which are worth looking at. Here’s my take on how they might apply in a commercial organisation

1. Observe and interact

It’s so tempting – particularly if you’re a consultant or a leader operating on a tight timescale – to come up with solutions quickly and implement them as rapidly as possible. Taking time to engage and understand an organisation is critical if you want to identify the points of resistance and, more importantly, the areas of support that will be important in making the proposed change stick.

2. Catch and store energy

In pure agricultural terms this is another way of saying “make hay while the sun shines” – an old saw but often overlooked when implementing change. What are the best times to introduce a change (clue: probably not when you’re doing annual appraisals)? Where are the areas of organisation with more energy and support for the change you want to introduce (hint: start with these first).

3. Obtain a yield 

The reason we do agriculture is that we need our efforts to yield something. Sustainable culture change in an organisation is the same: we need to understand the benefits of what we are doing, whether hard financial measures or softer attitude surveys. Having a good benefits management discipline really helps here.

4. Apply self-regulation and accept feedback

In the permaculture context, self-regulation means putting in the appropriate feedback loops so that a system can continue to function well. In an organisational context, this fits well with continuous improvement approaches such as Kaizen, or the application of systems theory. Understanding what feedback mechanisms – formal and informal – regulate an organisation’s behaviour and then altering them gradually is key to sustainable change.

5. Use and value renewable resources and services 

The Shock of the New was an acclaimed TV series on modern art but I think the title could often be applied to approach used to create a shift in an organisation’s culture, whether it’s “new” concepts (like customer-centricity – mea culpa) or new customers, people, technology or processes. Introducing something new consumes resource (it’s more expensive to acquire new customers than to keep existing ones) whereas it’s better to reduce unnecessary consumption where possible: what existing value is locked up in current customers and people and how can you unlock it?

6. Produce no waste 

Permaculture emphasises valuing and making use of all available resources. Leaving aside my concerns about how much packaging goes to waste, businesses are incredibly wasteful of the talent that’s locked up in their people and the goodwill of their customers. Take a “zero waste” mindset to your business see how it changes your perception of how to create value.

7. Design from patterns to details

This is one of the more obscure permaculture principles but it’s intended to force thinking about the big picture in environmental terms. Effective change management definitely takes this approach – at least in theory – by stepping back and observing how processes work (or not) end-to-end and asking the question “who do they serve?” (clue: if the answer is “the customer” that’s a good thing).

8. Integrate rather than segregate

My gardening knowledge is limited but I do know that if you plant marigolds amongst your tomatoes the chance of them being attacked by harmful root-rotting nematodes is reduced. Permaculture emphasises putting things in places where supportive relationships develop. How often do we do the opposite in organisations and intentionally create barriers and internal competition?

9. Use small and slow solutions 

As someone who cut their consulting teeth in the heyday of business reengineering – the father of which, Michael Hammer, was fond of saying “if it ain’t broke, break it” and where “big change, fast” was the guiding mantra – the idea of being small and slow is anathema to me. However, it’s worth considering how much attrition was caused in those swashbuckling reengineering projects and whether the changes were sustained in the long term.

10. Use and value diversity 

In agriculture, diversity increases resilience to disease and with the commendable advent of diversity programmes across many organisations, we might think we’re ticking this box. I don’t think we’re there yet: bringing different points of view and thinking styles together constructively to solve business problems is valuing diversity not just ticking a compliance box.

11. Use edges and value the marginal

Once again, my knowledge of sustainable agriculture leads me to take at face value the permaculture claim that the interface between things is where the most interesting events take place but in businesses that’s definitely true, with the interface with customers the most productive area for change and innovation. The problem is that this marginal area is often not valued by organisations, leading to cultures that don’t place the customer at the centre of what they do.

12. Creatively use and respond to change

Finally, the most powerful principle of the twelve. Change managers like me might think that we are driving change (other powerful adjectives are available) but it’s more helpful to think of how we respond to change. The author William Bridges, in his book Managing Transitions, recognises this: change is a sudden thing and it’s how we manage the transition to the new state that results that’s important. Taking a creative and constructive view of change events helps that transition.

It’s not easy…

Some of the principles may seem like the blindingly obvious, some a little obscure, but they strike me a setting a challenge for all of us engaged in organisational change: how do we carry it out in a way that increases the chances of sustained benefits? Using the principles to ask questions of and challenge our preconceptions about how change is managed will, I believe, result in change that benefits all of us.

As Kermit says, it’s not easy being green…

Acknowledgements: 1) the author would like to thank his friend Linda Murgatroyd for introducing him to the concept of permaculture 2) the author also recognises that Kermit the Frog was singing about his skin colour not the environment.

Here’s to The Next Ten Years

Personally I hate it when you click on a site and find it’s not been updated for a while. If you’re like me then I apologise, but if you are in search of material on Customer Experience, innovation and change in all its forms, please go to The Next Ten Years where you’ll find all my up-to-date posts and contributions on related topics from a growing band of contributors.

See you there!

Business lessons from the Edinburgh Fringe: 3) Just add circus skills

If you have been following this series closely you’ll be equipped to build great relationships with your customers and be able to motivate your co-workers with a few killer one-liners and some well thought-out communications. There’s just one thing that needs to be added to spice up the workplace: circus skills. Yes, this is my big take-away from the Fringe: the business world would benefit enormously from regular injections of acrobatics, tightrope-walking and attempts at the seemingly-impossible.

Continue reading

Business lessons from the Edinburgh Fringe: 2) Stand up and be funny

I’m going to tell you a story… no, I’m going to start with a confession – I don’t go to that many comedy shows so what I’m going to say is based almost entirely on the few shows I saw at the Fringe. But, as we consultants say, two data points make a trend and anything more than that is cast-iron proof. Oh, and I’m also going to attempt some humour… what’s that? People heading for the door? And I’ve only just started…

Continue reading

Branch banking? Let’s get personal!

I’ve been working in financial services on and off over a period of more than 20 years and the debate over how many branches a bank needs has been going on for at least that long. So it was good to see the Financial Services Club keeping the debate going this week. Despite money becoming increasingly virtual and the growth of online banking I think the industry has a long way to go before we see a significant change in the number and style of bank branches. Banks that invest in their people as well as new technology will maintain both a distribution network and the valuable customer relationships that go with it.

Continue reading