No-one Knows How

suit-673697_1280 reverseIn Toulouse on a quick, one-day assignment to work with the WW management team of a tech company. I dined out last night when I arrived at an open-air bistro by the leafy cobbles of the Place Wilson. Outstanding food, a half-bottle of a ’98 Medoc: a pleasant evening – even if I was dining alone.

I’m here because my client, a multi-billion dollar company that led the world in its field, has lost its way and is looking to set a new direction – while trying to make enough money to stay in business while it sorts things out. In short, they’ve been losing money and need to get better at making it. The problem is: they know what they need to do – they just don’t know how.

They are not alone. It’s an epidemic.

No-one knows how.

Cut costs in rational, practical ways that reduce deadwood and improve efficiency? Absolutely. Identify new markets and develop new products to meet the new demand? Damn straight. Create a customer-centric organisation that delivers ever-better products with consistent speed and quality? Ohhh yeah….

Knowing what to do? That’s the easy bit. How to do it? That’s a different question.

If I am the CEO, I can read the books and go to the business schools and pay the consultants their big fees but I’m worse off than when I began because now I know what I should do, I really do. But thinking about how we can do it is much harder – and it’s a wet Monday morning in February and the numbers are down and the Finance director is quitting and the IT guys are telling me that our great white hope of a CRM system is becoming a great white elephant and there’s a quality problem in Kuala Lumpur and I know that my North American Operations Director is bucking for my job and my inbox tells me I have 223 unread emails and I’m late for the plane to Osaka and any hope I have of thinking about how I solve my real problems is washed away by this daily torrent – and I know Tuesday will only be worse.

I don’t need people to tell me what to do – I need them to tell me how, because I don’t have time (or, often, the capacity) to work that out for myself. And almost all the consultants out there offering to help don’t get this.

Most offer ‘solutions’ – like a new computer system has ever saved a company. (Has one, ever? I’d be delighted to hear about it. In my experience, a new system is more likely to kill, not cure).

If they can’t offer me an IT solution, I can always rent their brains, because they’re so much smarter than me about my business, aren’t they? (huh?) After all, I’ve outsourced everything else, why not outsource my thinking? They’ll write the reports, make their slick presentations, then leave me to get on with it (But I still won’t know how, because they don’t know).

And if this doesn’t work, they’ll offer to do the job for me. Good grief, if I’ve outsourced my thinking, I may as well outsource my role while I’m about it. So they flood us with lots of green, smart-suited graduates with condescending smiles who run around analysing here and workshopping there and (if we let them) eventually running the show with their procedures and their metrics and their systems.

And I still won’t know how to change the business to make it better. (And you know what? Neither will they. If they really wanted to run a business, they would be managers, not consultants…)

The only sustainable way for a business to succeed is for its people think better, more efficiently and more productively about the things that matter – and to do so in ways that drive effective action.

It’s hard and it hurts and most people and most organisations will do anything to avoid to doing it. But it is the secret to cutting through the daily noise and stuff.

To think clearly about issues and, even more importantly, about how to resolve them is, I believe, one of the biggest challenges of leadership.

But if we do it and – better – if we help our colleagues to do it, it’s also among the most enjoyable, interesting and valuable things we can do in business.

And today it is Toulouse.

A bientôt.

Image credit: Ryan McGuire (https://pixabay.com/en/users/RyanMcGuire-123690/)

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