Does your organisation “do boring?”

The exciting mission and purpose need to be balanced against the dull stuff – and good planning is essential

Are you excited by your working life? Does every problem seem like a solution waiting to happen? Do you spend most of the day in a state of feverish anticipation about the next curveball that the world is going to sling at you?

If the answer is “no, not often” then you have much in common with 99.9% of people in organisations around the world: however much your organisation has a great cause, a compelling purpose, whizzy products and funky offices with great coffee on tap and a pinball machine in the basement, you have to spend a large chunk of your day doing stuff that’s – when all’s said and done – pretty boring.

In a large business the stuff that we might find a bit dull can be allocated to people who don’t find it so: that’s why we have Finance, HR, Procurement and so on. If you’re lucky, those departments will be full of people who can eat a purchase ledger for breakfast without batting an eyelid and will be happy to do so day in, day out.

But a lot of us don’t work in large businesses. I’m increasingly working with smaller organisations in the arts and non-profit sectors and I find that two conflicting factors are at play:

1) The core of what these organisations do is very exciting

Running an arts centre, delivering services to people in need, finding a cure for cancer or helping young people develop – whatever non-profit organisations do they are almost always inspired by a greater sense of purpose than most for-profit organisations. People join them because of that purpose and permeates the whole organisation meaning people turn up to work every day fired up to deliver it. But the counterpoint to this is that…

2) The “boring stuff” can get left behind

There’s a whole bunch of things that are necessary to run even the most purpose-driven non-profit, for example

  • Accounts have to be kept in order to ensure financial viability
  • Policies and procedures have to be in place to do all kinds of things including financial viability, enabling diversity, protecting vulnerable children and adults
  • People have to be hired, developed, rewarded and let go with fairness and due process
  • and so on and so on…

The list, whilst not endless, is typically longer and more apparently complex than the list of things that inform an organisation’s purpose, so it carries the additional burden of appearing to outweigh the stuff that the organisation exists to do.

Larger non-profits get around this by having separate departments that do this – just like larger commercial organisations. Smaller non-profits often don’t have the scale to be able to this and, as they will have grown from tiny start-up organisations comprising a handful of founders, they will have been used to minimising the routine background tasks but doing it themselves.

Once the organisation grows, this isn’t sustainable: there just aren’t enough hours in the day to keep on top of the admin tasks and founders can have difficulty delivering the admin correctly as well as the mission.

The kids weren’t alright

If left unchecked this kind of thing can have serious consequences. The demise of the children’s support charity Kids’ Company in 1995 had a number of contributing factors but the major issue seems to have been an imbalance between the drive to fulfil its mission of supporting vulnerable children and ensuring the proper processes and safeguards were in place to support the growth the charity was going through. In this case, these did not appear to have the

The boring board

Trustees have a critical role to play in ensuring that the boring stuff gets attended to – they’re there to ensure the viability of the organisation so, whilst it’s vital that trustees share the mission and values of the organisation it helps if they can bring specialist expertise such as a background in finance, HR or other business support areas, as well as other useful attributes like an address book full of potential donors (well, I guess we can dream…).

Whilst the founders have the vision for the exciting stuff that the organisation will do, the “boring board” ensures that this drive doesn’t happen without compromising the stability and reputation of the organisation.

Planning for success, commercially

Having a sound business plan is where all this comes together and, as you may have realised, the disciplines that are successfully applied in commercial organisations – finance, HR, risk and so on – are just as important in non-profit organisations. (In fact, the term non-profit is slightly misleading: all organisations need to have a positive balance sheet, whether they have paying customers or non-paying “service users” – often they will have a mix of the two.)

The business plan sets out how the organisation will grow and develop over a timeframe typically between 12 and 36 months and aligns its development goals with the financial and organisational changes that support them.

The tools you need to develop this plan whether for or not for profit are the same and I have condensed my quarter-century of experience in this area into a simple one-page guide that helps you deliver a sound plan that will put your organisation on a sound footing – keeping its vision and purpose alive whilst putting in the structures and processes that will keep it growing.

Growth – that’s what makes the boring stuff really quite exciting.

Image by Steve Buissinne from Pixabay

The vision thing: who needs it?

Purpose is key, but you need vision to inform it

Many years ago, I was on one of the least fulfilling consulting projects I have ever carried out. It had all the hallmarks of success – prestige international client, great colleagues, working in London and New York – but the only problem was that the director who’d hired us didn’t seem to know what problem we were there to solve. It wasn’t all bad, as the client team were an interesting bunch: highly motivated, very hard-working… and as cynical as they come. One remark has stuck with me through the decades: referring to a member of the client organisation who was seen as making a potentially useful contribution to the project one of the team referred to him as “a bit of a visionary”. However, the way she said this – the particular tone of her voice – suggested that his contribution would be far from useful.

So, what’s the problem with visions and visionaries – and are they any use when we are increasingly concerned with an organisation’s purpose?

When I talk about vision, mission and purpose in strategy courses and workshops, I do a quick quiz as an icebreaker, using a slide with the following three people on it:

I ask people to name them and tell me which one is the odd one out. People usually guess the two chaps on the left and right – Steve Jobs and Elon Musk – but have a bit more difficulty with the central character, possibly as she wasn’t responsible for a prestige tech brand. It’s Hildegard of Bingen, the 12th Century German Benedictine abbess, writer, composer, philosopher, Christian mystic, visionary, and polymath. She’s the odd one out, not just because she is female, but because she was the only one amongst the three to have actual visions.

Now I’m not saying that this makes Hildegard more or less of a visionary than the other two – even if some people have attributed her visions to temporal lobe epilepsy or migraine – but I bring her in to the conversation to make the point that there is a bit of a problem with visions and visionaries. The fact that I have cited three high achievers who have made significant advances in their chosen fields means that “being a visionary” – my former client colleague notwithstanding – or having a vision is seen as something “out there” and exceptional; something not for normal people.

I contend that this is nonsense.

Why?

Having and articulating a vision is something we should all do, whether it’s for our companies, our neighbourhoods, our families or ourselves. And developing it is fairly straightforward: you simply complete the following sentence:

“A world where…”

“World” in this context doesn’t necessarily mean the whole world, it could be the world of your company, division, family or just you.

To give you a concrete example close to me, I work with a music education charity, World Heart Beat, whose vision includes

“a world where music, as a universal form of communication, bridges cultural, political, economic and linguistic barriers”.

What I like about this vision is that, whilst it could be some distant future world, it’s quite possible to realise it on a local scale, i.e. in the parts of London that the charity operates in – and indeed it translates this vision into the way its courses, concerts and other events are put together.

So, a vision can be both far away and present at the same time: in fact, if it’s a dream – as Martin Luther King so powerfully articulated – or a state that may seem distant when compared to the present, it’s actually more useful than one which too strongly implies a destination.

A lot of vision statements I have seen make the mistake of extending what the person or the company currently does into a more ambitious version of themselves. So a vision statement like:

“providing high quality solutions for the supply chain market”

isn’t a vision statement. Instead, envisioning

“a world where supply chains are friction-free, enabling clients to optimise their manufacturing and distribution schedules to deliver more cost-effective solutions to their customers”

would, I think, be a bit more ambitious and, moreover, emphasise the benefit of such a world.

Not just for trekkies

Vision statements that include a destination are basically mission statements, perhaps most famously (if you spent too much time in your youth watching science fiction on TV) in the mission of the Starship Enterprise. A mission has some sort of objective and, like a vision, needs to be powerful to motivate the team(s) involved in delivering it. The vision may be delivered by implementing the mission but actually the most powerful visions are those that don’t define a specific destination.

What’s the purpose of purpose?

The emphasis on purpose to provide a focus for the organisation might be seen as removing the need for mission and vision statements. I’d argue that the opposite is true: a definition of the organisation’s purpose – the why as Simon Sinek refers to it – is best arrived at when you have a vision to accompany it (and a mission to deliver it).

To craft a purpose statement is simple but requires deep thought and discussion to get there. A sentence with the structure:

To [contribution] so that [outcome]

is all you need but agreeing the contribution (the timeless value-adding work you do) and the outcome (the benefit for your customers) is a non-trivial conversation.

In my strategy and planning workshops I spend time on all three, spending most time on the one that’s insufficiently well-defined, as it teases out the motivators and the direction to create alignment before we get into the things that need to change and their relative priority. Vision is often the most powerful element of that conversation, as people share their real feelings about the business, what it contributes (beyond a healthy balance sheet) and how they see themselves in it.

The vision thing is still necessary and, in what appears to be an increasingly fractious world, I’d argue that we need powerful, ambitious visions more than ever.

You can find out how vision fits in to the KnittingFog approach to strategy and business plan development by downloading my one-page guide.

Making purpose part of customer experience

One retailer’s principled stand shows an intrinsic understanding of customer outcomes

Aren’t orang-utans cute? Would you like one in your home? Well, now you can if you shop at Iceland, who, on the back of their recent thwarted TV campaign are offering cuddly monkeys for a mere £5 with the profits going to an animal rescue charity

Frozen out

UK food retailer Iceland is cashing in on what must be the most successful TV advertising campaign to have not actually screened on TV. UK readers will almost certainly be aware that Iceland wanted to screen an advert featuring a cute animated orang-utan to emphasise its commitment to removing palm oil from all its own-brand products. (The cute critters’ habitats are under threat from deforestation in the interests of satisfying our appetite for everything from shower gel to instant noodles – the lipid gets into 50% of supermarket products apparently.) Clearcast, the UK’s advertising clearance watchdog, deemed the advert could not be screened as it contravened the code on political advertising. Possibly the animation being originally made by environmental campaigners Greenpeace tipped the balance against Iceland. Possibly it was just an overload of cute.

Anyway, the outcry generated by the non-screening of the advert – and the resultant viral sharing of the YouTube version has not done the retailer too much harm in the run-up to Christmas. And an online petition to reverse the decision has attracted a million signatures. Clearly they have tapped into something.

So, is this a cynical cash-in or does it point to something more important?

It’s clear that this is a perfect confluence of a company acting with integrity and, moreover, a clear purpose and, mischievously or not, creating a media storm around their actions.

A look at Iceland’s website puts their concerns front and centre, making them distinct from other retailers whose efforts in environmentally-sensitive efforts have been sporadic at best (just count the number of foods in your shopping bag wrapped in single-use plastic for example). It’s a bold, innovative move, but apes don’t do much shopping so what has this to do with customers and customer experience?

Everything. But perhaps not the way you might think.

Virtue signalling

I’m not going to use this article to argue the pros and cons of environmentalism or global warming, although it does seem a bit irresponsible to be gobbling up rainforest at the rate of 146 football pitches a day – in Indonesia alone – just so we can shower in comfort or enjoy a pot noodle (this may be a contradiction in terms). What interests me though is something that Colin Shaw in a recent LinkedIn article made me realise: status is a vital part of understanding customer outcomes.

What I call the “status outcome” is more easily associated with luxury goods – Colin’s example is a Mont Blanc pen – where the branding is usually a luxury one and buying such a brand says something about the purchaser.

But it made me realise that the status outcome is a strong motivator for a lot of customer behaviour even if you profess to be largely uninterested in the luxury goods market. In the case of environmental issues such as the ones championed by Iceland, if I decide to shop there or buy one of their cuddly toys I am signalling to the other members of my “tribe” (these behaviours are all built into our genes) that I care about issues such as saving the planet and this statement may confer on me a certain status.

This behaviour is dismissively referred to by some as “virtue signalling” – as if those making the accusation have never done something similar or would prefer vice-or-iniquity-signalling as somehow more worthy – but I think that, from a customer experience point of view, understanding virtue signalling/status outcomes is a vital component: if the experience of my product or brand reinforces the customer’s status and aligns with my corporate purpose then this is a virtuous circle that companies would do well to identify and maximise.

Y=y

Iceland would no doubt think the above is so much blather – their wonderfully candid website has a cruel but entirely fair pop at management consultants – but I stand by my analysis. It’s also part of a trend towards purpose-driven marketing: something that captures customers’ hearts as well as their wallets and extends way beyond the product.

I have a simple equation that I use to describe this:

Y=y

What I mean by this is that if there is a degree of equivalence between Y, which is your company’s “why” – its purpose beyond generating a profit – and y, which is your customer’s “why” – something they care passionately about, then – bingo! – you have attracted a community of customers who share something bigger than a love of frozen food or whatever.

Purpose can also be a great motivator for staff, which in turn drives better customer experience, so I’m surprised more companies don’t devote more time and effort to identifying their purpose. If you’re in that category you know what to do…

Go ape.

Customer success: the cornerstone of “21st Century Capitalism”

It would work just as well for socialism too

It’s party conference season in the UK at the moment, a few weeks where I get a morally-dubious pleasure in watching the main political parties in the UK conduct an exercise of inadvertent self-sabotage in a seaside or city location. It’s rather like those episodes of The Apprentice where one or both teams begin to implode: you know you shouldn’t find it entertaining but you can’t take your eyes off it all the same.

In the search for a vaguely new-sounding idea that doesn’t have anything to do with Brexit, I was interested to hear the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Philip Hammond, outline something called “21st Century Capitalism”. It’s the cheapest trick in marketing to put “Modern” (© New Labour, 1997) or something similar in front of a well-used word to make it sound fresh but, indulging Mr Hammond for a moment, what could it mean?

Luckily, his colleague the Chief Secretary to the Treasury (if any non-UK readers have got this far, don’t you just love our job titles?) Lynne Truss was on hand to explain to the BBC’s lunchtime news. It’s got something to do with social media and all the e-stuff that that includes, apparently. That’s the kind of loose definition that I can live with and I think she might be on to something: new media, and the rapid pace of change that goes with it, gives capitalists – I’m using the term to mean anyone running or working for a private or public sector business in a market-based economy – opportunities like never before.

The problem, as people seem to be hinting at lately, is that pre-21st Century Capitalism hasn’t exactly delivered health, wealth and happiness in line with many people’s expectations. So, how can we make it work? I’m no economist but that doesn’t prevent me from offering this hypothesis:

Customer success will be the tool to making capitalism work

By customer success I mean the next generation customer experience or customer experience 2.0 approaches that put the customer at the centre of what an organisation does, how it thinks and how it behaves.

Why is this different?

You could argue that successful organisations have always put the customer first. We do have the examples of Zappos, Southwest Airlines and many others to illustrate that and, if you’re pedantic you could argue that some of these organisations were successful in the 20th Century too. I totally agree, but the fact remains that most organisations don’t completely orient themselves around the customer and people are disillusioned with the current economic model.

Of course, putting those two statements in the same sentence doesn’t prove that lack of customer focus is the reason that capitalism isn’t working as well as it could be but consider what the alternative might be like.

No quick fix

Customer-centric organisations have the following characteristics:

  • They have propositions that focus on customer outcomes and utilise technology to deliver these creatively (see my recent story about Deliveroo using customer behaviour data to set up dark restaurants)
  • They recognise that happy employees are essential to deliver happy customers
  • They have a strong sense of purpose.

This sounds like the kind of organisation that would be one that people would find rewarding to work for – and not just financially. And whilst creating many thriving customer-centric enterprises wouldn’t solve some of the structural problems that the UK faces such as infrastructure, health and house prices overnight, it could be a major contributor to success.

By the left

At the other end of the political spectrum I find it hard to argue against enabling the kind of customer-focused organisation I have described as part of a more redistributive approach to the economy. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that – to avoid the trap of the traditional, faceless bureaucracies that characterised nationalised industries back in the 1970s – a customer success approach should be just as essential to 21st Century Socialism as it is to 21st Century Capitalism.

Build a community and you won’t need customers

Instead, you’ll have committed fans who’ll go the extra mile for you

Here’s a heart-warming story from my recent holiday – and I promise it’s the last for now – that has a lesson for organisations who are serious about genuine and deep customer relationships.

Thursday afternoon in Tuscany – another beautiful day is unfolding and, in the main square of Anghiari, the town we’re staying in, seats and staging have been erected for the evening’s concert by Southbank Sinfonia and a specially-recruited chorus of local singers and visitors, mostly from the UK.

The festival’s been going for nearly a week and, in glorious weather, around the old town and nearby locations we’ve enjoyed some sublime music. Can anything spoil our perfect musical holiday?

As if to prove a point, the sky darkens, it gets colder, and then without too much warning, pours down with rain. We retreat inside the pizzeria we’ve been lunching at, and shelter from torrential rain and, at one point, what appears to be a mini-cyclone that leaves a trail of upturned chairs and busted parasols in its wake. As the storm subsides, we make a break for the hotel, returning to the square for the concert a couple of hours later. The concert was great, but we missed the best part.

The show must go on…

While we were lazing at the hotel a group of local people and visitors banded together with the orchestra to reassemble the seating and dry it off. When we returned it was like the storm had never happened.

It was a great example of how, when you’re united by a common purpose, the barriers between service providers (the town, the orchestra) and customers (the visitors) disappear. A group of people went the proverbial extra mile to make the concert happen, and a little bit of the world was a happier place as a result.

Onwards and upwards

You could argue that that’s a special set of circumstances: the Southbank Sinfonia is a training orchestra that takes the cream of the crop from music colleges around the world and gives them the experience of being a great ensemble player and, as a result, it has a lot of enthusiastic supporters – it’s a charity – that are all drawn to the festival each year because that’s what they feel passionate about. So, a bit of extra effort to make the show go on is hardly surprising.

But that’s missing the point.

Within any group of customers there will be people who want to feel part of something bigger than simply consuming the product or service provided. Here’s another example from my recent commute.

Book swapping in action

When I head down to one of my clients, I travel via Wimbledon station. On the platform where I catch my train there’s a waiting room with a rather tatty bookshelf in the corner. Over a few days, I noticed that the bookshelf’s contents seemed to vary considerably. Curious, I took a closer look and discovered that it was a book-swapping arrangement. It’s been going since 2009, which is quite something, and shows that

  • someone cared enough to start it
  • people care enough to bring along books to keep it going.

Train of thought

Now I’m not about to suggest that Surrey-bound commuters on Wimbledon station are united by a common love for, er, Southwestern Rail (not the worst of the rail companies in the UK, but that’s not saying much), making them go the extra mile to make waiting for a train a bit more interesting and spreading the love to their fellow humans via second-hand books. But the point is that your customers do care about things and if you want to stand a chance of turning your customers from grudging recipients of your products into raving fans who’ll help you deliver a better service then you need to start finding out a lot more about what they really care about.

Harnessing the power of purpose

Vision. Focus. Mission. Drive.

All words we often use to describe the qualities we associate with high performing companies or the people who lead them.

But if I had to pick the one quality that propels an organisation into genuinely high performance, it would be purpose. It encapsulates all the above terms and taps into a deeper motivation to “do the right thing”, whatever that might be.

But what is an organisation’s purpose? Recent conversations and news items – such as the statement by asset manager BlackRock’s Larry Fink that they would only invest in companies that contribute to society and deliver financial performance or risk losing their support, suggests that there is an awareness amongst the most numerically-obsessed that performance means much more than profit, ROCE, or other financial measures.

But it’s not easy.

Louche

Bar Italia in London’s Soho is more associated – in my mind at least – with the kind of louche nightlife portrayed in Pulp’s eponymous song – “…I’m fading fast/And it’s nearly dawn…” – than inspiring conversations about purpose, but I recently found myself having such a conversation at the more civilised hour of 11am with Gemma Cropper, MD of social impact consultancy Skating Panda.

I’ve observed and worked with organisations that have a clear purpose and those that have lost it somewhere along the way. In talking to Gemma, it was clear that social purpose is increasingly an area that organisations are interested in as they seek to improve the engagement of both their customers and employees. Often it can be driven by customers: for example, clothing manufacturer Nike had to completely change their supply chain after accusations of sweatshop conditions in some of their suppliers.

Employees will often drive the change and are after something more than a bit of “corporate social responsibility” which, however valid, can look like window dressing for an otherwise unattractive brand.

And with the developments in AI and robotics becoming a threat to jobs in all organisations in the coming years, employees will want to see a clear sense of social purpose in all major change programmes.

It can take years to bed an organisation’s purpose in – those looking for a quick fix will be likely to be disappointed – and if the CEO is only focused on the share price, the chances of success are minimal.

Tacked on

It’s a point echoed by organisational change consultant Belden Menkus in a recent paper where he points out the danger, when trying to re-discover an organisational purpose to differentiate itself from competitors, of it being reduced to a strapline or a shallow communications exercise.

In these cases, a wider social purpose can seem tacked on to an organisation or, even worse, a compliance box to be ticked.

Don’t confuse focus with purpose

What can organisations do to create or recreate a meaning that’s wider than a healthy balance sheet?

The first step is to make sure you’re not confusing purpose with focus. Having a focus on efficiency, sales growth, time-to-market or any other key performance indicator is essential in any high-performing company. Whatever is important to your performance needs to be a focus area for some or all of the people, some or all of the time.

But it’s not the same as purpose. Purpose is what gets you out of bed in the morning and makes you feel good about what you did at the end of the day. And although you may feel awesome about a day in which you shaved 3% off production costs or landed a million-pound sales deal, a life in which that’s all you can see may end up being less rich than it could be.

Understand outcomes

Often an organisation’s social purpose is a direct consequence of its operating model. As a pioneer of low-cost flights, SouthWest Airlines enabled people to connect more easily across a wide geography – the social benefit is easy to see as well as being attractive for customers.

So, an organisation’s purpose primarily needs to grow from an understanding of the outcomes it creates for its customers. And this involves thinking outside the immediate products and services it offers.

I’m privileged to work with a local music education charity – more on that another time – that offers great music lessons in the locality. In that regard, it’s no different from other purveyors of music education but what sets it apart is its purpose to offer a high-quality, rounded and multi-faceted music education to children and young people who otherwise would not have that opportunity. That purpose has propelled it from tiny beginnings to exciting developments that will increase its reach and impact.

The challenge for the charity will be to keep that constancy of purpose as it grows in the coming years.

Just start

Although there is the strong possibility that you may discover that your organisation does exist solely to make a shed-load of money for its directors and shareholders you shouldn’t – as Belden Menkus points out – wait for a directive from above. Start in your team to find out what it is that people feel passionate about in relation to the outcomes of the work you do.

And when you’ve found it, tell others. They might just share the same passion.