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Eating the elephant: tackling the really difficult issues

Jul 17th

As business interests increasingly rubs up against social, ethical and environmental pressures, tackling the really big issues gets even harder. This issue also includes: creating value over profits; how to get the green light on your strategy; and top down culture change.

Editor’s view

Eating the elephant: tackling the really difficult issues

As business and economic interests increasingly seem to run against a tide of social, ethical and environmental pressures, tackling the really big issues that affect us all gets even harder. Issues such as sustainability, reducing waste, cutting carbon emissions or safety often get put in the ‘too hard to do’ box when you realise that it will involve herculean efforts to persuade and influence not only your employees, but also your stakeholders and partners in the supply chain that it is the right thing to do – not just for social benefit but for economic growth too .

Worthy visions such as zero waste or zero infections may express the aspiration and capture the imagination, but the reality is that these are elephant-sized tasks that only the brave (or mad) will take on as a serious and achievable goals. One such person was the group MD at Balfour Beatty, the leading infrastructure and services business. The team at Stanton Marris have been privileged to work alongside him and his fellow leaders as they set themselves the ambitious safety goal of achieving Zero Harm by 2012.

Our experience taught us there are some key lessons that brave leaders need to know before embarking on their own elephant-sized issues:

  • Think big and bold when facing the really difficult issues – believe you can do it
  • ‘Let go’ and involve wider groups of people both inside and beyond the organisation to tackle what would otherwise be impossible to do alone
  • Challenge the received wisdom or ‘constructs’ – you need to break lifelong habits to make lasting change
  • Transform the impact of major change through a fresh approach to ‘brand’ and messaging to signal that it is something different.

If you would like to learn more lessons from the Balfour Beatty story so far, please request a copy of ‘Eating the Elephant: how do tackle the really difficult issues?’ as either a print or PDF copy by .

In the news

The big idea: creating shared value

Porter and Kramer (HBR) recently put forward a compelling economic argument for creating shared value rather than just maximising profits. Could this be the start of a new way of doing business?

Just when I was thinking that there must be a better way to reconcile the competing interests of economic growth and social cohesion (bankers’ bonus payments being a potential tipping point here, surely?), I happened to hear the strategy guru, Michael Porter on BBC Radio 4’s In Business programme talking about his latest big idea, also published in the current edition of the Harvard Business Review.

As ever, he and his Harvard colleague Mark Kramer manage to capture the zeitgeist. They argue persuasively that the only sustainable route to growth is to ‘create shared value’. That means redefining the traditional notions of maximising profits, which are often at the expense of societal needs or impact on the environment or the community, so that they embrace economic and social progress in their local or operating environment at the same time. They cite several examples of hard-nosed corporations such as Wal-Mart, which has reduced its packaging and cut miles from its delivery routes and thereby reduced carbon emissions and saved $200 million in costs.

I have to say it struck a chord. I have been recently working with a company that recognised the power of having a strong, more inspiring purpose that embraces the notion of achieving sustainability and providing benefits to society at the same time as achieving profitable growth. It’s a win-win; talented employees especially those of generations x and y are more motivated to expend their discretional energy in contributing to a wider social purpose, than to the one dimensional goal of simply making more profit.

When I saw Porter and Kramer’s table comparing the worthy but limited goals of CSR (Corporate social responsibility) with the limitless potential of CSV (creating shared value), I was convinced that there is at last a compelling economic argument to think again about integrating profitability, competitiveness and social transformation.

Tip of the month

Green light for change

Find out how to make the next big change strategy stick in your organisation using this tried and tested equation from GE. It’s not new, but if it ain’t broke…

GE is always to be admired for its ability to capture complex thinking into a simple and memorable learning tip. I offer here their twenty year old tip on how to persuade hard-nosed leaders to invest their efforts in the more difficult people aspects of change, rather than simply finding solutions to the easier technical problems.

They came up with a simple yet compelling change effectiveness equation: QxA=E.

This translates as the Effectiveness (E) of any initiative is equal to the product of the Quality (Q) of the technical strategy and the Acceptance (A) by people of that strategy. In other words, paying attention to the people side of the equation is as important to success as the technical side. It is interesting to note that they used a multiplicative relationship; if there is a zero for the Acceptance factor, the total effectiveness of the initiative will be zero, regardless of the strength of the technical strategy.

Use it, and you’ll find that people will be keener to learn about how they can use the more subtle yet more effective tools of organisational culture and leadership to engage people with change and achieve faster and more sustainable success.

Your questions answered

What’s the best way to persuade our leaders to lead the way in shaping a new culture for our organisation?

Although in theory it is easier and more effective to start organisational culture change from the bottom up – with small but positive changes to work practices and behaviours – you still need leaders to lead from the front.

Too often, leaders make the mistake of exhorting everyone else to change their ways, without realising that people take their cues from them. It has to start with the most senior leader. Discuss and coach him/her to make a public (yet personal) commitment to change their own behaviour – ideally based on feedback from their own direct reports or key stakeholders. The change needs to chime with the organisation’s values or new cultural aspiration and be visible, specific and measurable.

It is mentally and emotionally tough for leaders to admit that they do need to change, but they will soon see and feel the impact of leading by example and leading the way.

This article is filed under: Change, employee motivation, leadership, organisation, organisation design, organisational culture, strategy, strategy development

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