Monday, August 15, 2011

Customer-Centric Strategy and Leadership

Every system is perfectly designed to get the results it gets.” Paul Battalden, Institute for Healthcare Improvement, retired CEO and President

The Four Obsessions of an Extraordinary Executive by Patrick Lencioni:
1. Build and Maintain a Cohesive Leadership Team
2. Create Organizational Clarity
3. Over-Communicate Organizational Clarity
4. Reinforce Organizational Clarity

“Systems, strategy and leadership” might seem like overkill to many people leading a small company. However, in any effort, no matter the size, the process used to achieve results is critical. The process, and how clearly it helps accomplish the vision for the organization as a whole, makes the difference between failure and success.

One thing is true about process... if you focus on it, it will show you the true nature of your organization. The reality is that while your enterprise may look small on the outside, it is more than likely powered by a significant community of employees, families, customers, friends, vendors, and maybe even volunteers and donors as stakeholders.  That network can potentially touch thousands and even tens of thousands, and you could be at the helm of a very large ship, coordinating the efforts of far more people than you realize.  In this space, customer focus, transparency, collective strategy, empowerment, and community management will be crucial to your success.

Borrowing from the clinical microsystems approach of Eugene Nelson, Paul Batalden and Marjorie Godfrey in their book Quality Design – A Clinical Microsystems Approach, the critical questions for organizational management and strategy are centered around each of the microsystems involved in the overall effort. Taking on each microsystem one at a time to ask the hard questions and collect accurate data makes all the difference, and you will discover certain key aspects of successful groups which overlap significantly with Nelson, Batalden and Godfrey’s findings:
1. Responsible leadership that can delegate effectively and allow team members to have ownership.
2. Effective communications on a consistent basis that are based on conversation.
3. Clear goals for the microsystem which clearly support the organization’s overall client-driven mission.
4. Proper technological resources for efficient and effective work for all stakeholders.
5. Streamlined processes eliminating duplication of effort or competition between groups.
6. Initial and ongoing training.
7. Freedom to make mistakes and move forward.
8. Proper market research and monitoring needed for evidence-based decisions and outcome-focused evaluation.
9. Recognition of success and properly rewarding collaboration.
10. Planning ahead with stakeholder (including clients) input and adapting for next year.

One of the most challenging aspects of leadership in my experience has been motivating people to learn to
accept change. It is just so easy to relax into the status quo and sing “everything is gonna be alright.” However, as Jim Collins so eloquently states in his monograph Good to Great and the Social Sectors“No matter how much you have achieved, you will always be merely good relative to what you can become. Greatness is an inherently dynamic process, not an end point. The moment you think of yourself as great, your slide toward mediocrity will already have begun.” 

The other equally important issue at hand, which is a distinction Collins also makes, is that change requires clear vision and an understanding that the mission and welfare of the organization must be the top concern of everyone – always – and it must be crystal clear. Clarity, clarity, clarity. My previous employer, Frank Albi, founder and CEO of BIS, Inc., a small business in Cincinnati, is a master of this, and of coaching everyone his business touches to advocate the same vision, especially his clients. He taught me many things about the value of that collaboration. Collins’ point is well taken in both business and the non-profit sector. Even though Frank Albi owns the company - its his business, his building, his product and his money, he knows this is a delicate matter with regard to customers, especially in this digital age.  Today’s technology-saavy adults are no longer an audience to be lured with merely pretty pictures or catchy jingles.  They want to be involved, touch, mold and unfold their own version of your brand’s reality.  They are active participants shaping the course of innovation – and even the nature of your brand – through experiencing it as much as possible before they buy into it.  They morph quickly as they are in turn shaped by the opportunities presented to them by technology. Today your offering has to be their vision as much as yours.  Ultimately that is what is best for the organization in order for it to succeed.

In a recent conference I attended, the speaker’s advice to everyone present was to be sure to work for an organization whose mission they could devote themselves to 100%. Well, isn’t that true for leaders in any organization, business or social sector? That is how you earn your following. That is how you lead and inspire others to do the same, by starting there yourself. In his definition of the pinnacle of leadership (Level 5), Collins states, “Level 5 leaders differ from Level 4 leaders in that they are ambitious first and foremost for the cause, the movement, the mission, the work – not themselves – and they have the will to do whatever it takes (whatever it takes) to make good on that ambition.”

Are you willing to do what it takes to be truly transparent and open your strategy up to your customers?  Do you have a vision you communicate effectively, and build consensus around?  Have you succeeded in inspiring your employees and customers to be as concerned as you are for what is best for the enterprise, so they will work with you to build a strategy together for everyone's success?

If there is anything today's evolving, socially-driven world is teaching me these days, it is the same thing I remember reading from Thomas Merton decades ago in college philosophy class, "My successes are not my own.  They are built upon the success of others." 

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